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Birth of a Dancing Star

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Chapter 1: Reconciliation

 

The first time Molly saw Harry after the Battle of Hogwarts was at Fred's funeral. The mourners were leaving, and when she turned to wipe away the tears streaming down her cheeks, she spotted a pair of green eyes gazing at her from across the room, guilt and fear writ large in a pale face. Before she could so much as take a single step toward him, he turned on the spot and Disapparated.

 

The second time Molly saw Harry she was crossing Diagon Alley, George's shrunken school trunk in her pocket. A tingling feeling at the back of her neck made her pause, her hand on the door to Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, and she turned to find the same terrified expression she'd seen three weeks earlier staring at her from in front of Gringotts. He vanished with a soft pop before she could call out to him, and her heart ached.

 

The third time Molly saw Harry was in the last place she expected. Apparating to the Burrow with arms filled with groceries, she found him sitting on the front step, shoulders drawn in, wand held loosely in the hands clasped between his knees. He looked up at her as though anticipating a reprimand. "Come inside, Harry," she said gently.

Taking the groceries from her without meeting her eyes, Harry nodded and followed her inside. "A cup of tea is just the ticket," she said as he set the bags down on the trestle table. "Wait for me out there," she continued with a nod of her head towards the living room. "Won't be but a moment, then we'll have a nice long chat."

"Alright," Harry replied quietly, tucking his wand into his pocket and wrapping his gangly arms around himself as if warding off the cold. He looked around as if expecting to see Weasleys popping out of every corner, but, for the moment, he and Molly were alone.

As Molly watched her lost lamb wander around the living room, seemingly soaking in the atmosphere, her warm brown eyes filled with maternal concern. After putting the kettle on, she quietly sent her Patronus to the Ministry. "The fledgling has returned to the nest. He needs you, dear."

Harry nearly jumped out of his skin when the Floo roared to life behind him a few minutes later. He turned swiftly, keeping his empty hands visible through force of habit, and took a shaky step back when Arthur Weasley stepped through.

Without a word, Arthur crossed over to Harry and gathered him up in strong arms, unsurprised when he felt the boy's shoulders begin to shake with the force of his tears. They stood that way for a long time, and Arthur continued to hold Harry close until the trembling went away.

"Better now?" Arthur asked gently as he stepped back to peer into Harry's tear-streaked face.

Harry nodded and removed his glasses to rub his red, swollen eyes. "I'm sorry," he said hoarsely, fixing his gaze on the tips of his boots.

Molly gave him a sympathetic smile. "I should think so—" Harry's head snapped up "—avoiding us like that, but Ron assures us you still think of us as family." She took his hand and guided him to a comfy chair near the fire, pressing a mug of tea into his hands and then sitting on the couch next to Arthur.

Harry sipped nervously at his tea, fidgeting for a moment before meeting their eyes. "I expect you're wondering why I've come," he began.

"Not really, dear," replied Molly.

"You've come," added Arthur, "to apologise, to, ah, discuss your sexuality, and to break up with Ginny. Somewhere in there, I expect you're a bit concerned about how Ronnie will take the news."

Half-rising with a strangled moan, Harry stood somewhere between collapse and flight as his teacup clattered to the floor and rolled a few inches away. He reached back, gripping the armrest before falling back into the chair and burying his face in the crook of his arm. This time when he lifted his head, he didn't bother to wipe away the tears.

"Harry, child, whatever is the matter?" exclaimed Molly, rushing over to pull him close to her bosom, hugging him in a way that only a mother could.

"You're not upset?" Harry whispered.

She held him at arm's length and looked him in the eye. "Only that you feel the need to apologise for anything." Patting his cheek, she thumbed away a tear before coming to her feet and Evanescoing the spilt tea. "I'll be right back with a fresh cup. Arthur?"

"Of course, dear." Arthur watched as Molly walked into the kitchen, and then turned back to Harry with an uncertain smile. "You'd think a man with seven sons would be better at this sort of thing." He took a deep breath. "About ten years ago, Charlie sat down in that very chair one night after dinner, said he was queer and burst into tears. I must admit, I was far more upset to see him cry over a thing like that than I was at the news. He thought that we would be disappointed in him for dashing our dreams, but once I convinced him that his mother and I had no plans for him other than his happiness, he seemed to realize that what he was really mourning was the loss of his own expectations.

"I believe, Harry, that that's what you're going through. You had an idea once about the rest of your life, did you not? You and Ron were going to be Aurors together, you were going to marry Ginevra and have more redheaded children who were going to grow up loved and wanted, and now you've discovered that that's not likely to happen. Am I close?"

A fresh cup of tea appeared in front of Harry. "Thank you, Mrs. Weasley," he said, gripping the saucer tightly. "How did you know that was one of the reasons I came?"

"Lots of little things," Molly replied as she returned to her seat. "The way your eyes followed Bill your first summer here, and then again when he visited for the Triwizard Tournament. I also heard about the way things went with that lovely Cho Chang, and, well, call it mother's intuition. Then, of course, Ron was positive you were obsessed with that wretched Malfoy boy, and Hermione was certain you were more attracted to your Half-blood Prince than you ever were to Ginny. Like I said, lots of little things."

Harry gulped his tea, his hands relaying his inner tension. "I had no idea I'd been so…" He fished for a decent word. "Obvious, I guess. And Ron's never said anything. All last year, all those nights when we wondered what was happening here and at Hogwarts, and he never even asked."

Arthur and Molly exchanged a look. "I doubt Ron knows, Harry," Arthur said carefully. "Though he does wonder why you've not been around to see Ginny. I expect it's because you're still blaming yourself for Fred." His voice barely wobbled on the name, though Molly's eyes glistened.

"I don't know how you can stand having me here," Harry said miserably. "It's all—"

"Your fault?" said Molly, dabbing at her eyes. "It isn't. None of it was. Yes, it was your life at the centre of it all, but Harry, don't you see? You'd never have sat on the sidelines if Voldemort had been trying to rid our world of you and Hermione and the other Half-bloods and Muggle-borns. You'd have fought regardless. And our Fred would have been there right beside you. His d-death wasn't meaningless." She offered up a brave smile. "Now I've only got to worry about his brother blowing himself up in that shop of theirs…his."

"As Fred's mum and dad, we're telling you we don't hold you responsible for what happened. It was war, son," Arthur said, his heart aching for the desolate young man sitting so forlorn before him. "Now, why don't you get yourself freshened up? Ron and Ginny will be back from Diagon Alley soon and I know they'll want to see you."

 

~*~

"Harry!"

Harry gave a small wave and a sickly smile as Ron stepped through the Floo, then found himself pulled into a one armed hug, complete with a slap on the back. "Good to see you, mate."

"Hi, Harry," echoed Ginny, who arrived with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.

"Ginny," Harry replied awkwardly, his eyes skittering away as hers made contact. When he looked back, her eyes darted away.

"I reckon—"

"We need—"

They both stood staring at each other whilst Ron looked on in confusion.

"Right," Harry said. "Let's go outside. Ron, can you give us a minute?"

"Yeah, I'll just go see if Mum needs any help." It was a weak excuse; Ron had never volunteered to assist with dinner before.

Harry followed Ginny out into the garden, sitting to face her when she plopped down under an apple tree. He pulled up a blade of grass and began twirling it absently between his fingers, glancing up at her through his fringe. When he could stand the strained silence no longer, he blurted out, "I'm gay," at the precise moment she said "I'm back with—what?"

"What?" Harry blinked. "You're back with…Michael?" he ventured. Of all the blokes Ginny had dated whilst he was at Hogwarts, it was Michael Corner she went back to time and time again.

Ginny flashed the fiercely bright smile that Harry remembered so well, but this time it wasn't for him. "Yeah. Last year, whilst you and Ron and Hermione were on the run, Michael and I grew really…close. It was terrible there, what with Snape and the Carrows in charge." Ginny paused for a moment, a thought flitting across her face. "I don't know how he did it, actually."

Frowning, Harry asked, "How who did what?"

"How Snape managed to keep the Carrows from guessing he was on our side all along," Ginny answered with a knowing glint in her eye. "Luna knew, though no one believed her. Not really. Mostly 'cause she's Luna." She paused again before asking in her usual blunt manner, "You're sure you're gay?"

Harry nodded, averting his eyes once more.

"For Merlin's sake, Harry, it's nothing to be ashamed of," Ginny said with an indelicate snort. "Though Ron's likely to go mental. Give him some time and he'll get used to it."

Harry winced; Ron's reaction was something he'd been dreading. "I hope so. I don't want to lose my best mate over something I can't help."

"Between us, he gets weird when Charlie's around—which really bothers Charlie by the way—but Ron's got Hermione now, and we both know she'll knock some sense into him. Ron'll say a lot of stuff and it'll hurt, but it's your call whether to forgive him or not. He's got to grow up sometime."

For the first time in a long while, Harry laughed. "When did you get to be so brilliant?"

"I've always been brilliant," replied Ginny with a smile. "But when I was around you, I was thicker than a plank. Star-struck, actually. Forgive me?"

"Don't you mean scar-struck?" Harry asked with a wry grin, and now it was Ginny's turn to wince. "I never meant to lead you on, you know? It's just that, with all that was happening, I never really had a chance to figure things out."

Ginny's smile faded and some of the lustre leached from her eyes. "You never really had a chance. Full stop." Her gaze was steady and the look she gave him was affectionate; in that moment, Harry was reminded powerfully of her mother, and his. "Reckon we should go break the news to Ron?"

Harry sighed. "Reckon we should, yeah," he agreed, climbing to his feet and extending a hand to help her up.

Flush with determination and prepared for the battle ahead, Ginny set her jaw and laced her fingers through Harry's. "I've got your back, you know—and don't forget, I have the best Bat-Bogey Hex Slughorn ever saw." Harry gave her a grateful glance and a gentle squeeze of the hand, and they returned to the Burrow with smiles on their faces.

Upon their entry, Ron dropped the silverware onto the trestle table with a clatter and bounded over. "Patched things up, have you?" he asked, the anxious hope in his blue eyes unmistakable.

Harry shook his head and brushed a kiss on Ginny's cheek as he dropped her hand. "We've ended things, actually. She's my best mate's sister and a friend in her own right, but she's got Michael and she's happy."

Rounding on his sister, Ron bellowed, "How could you? When he was running all about England, starving and half-frozen to death, you were two-timing him with Michael Corner!"

Ignoring Ron's outburst, Ginny leaned up and returned Harry's kiss. "If you find yourself in need of a new best mate, you needn't look very far." Then, with a roll of her eyes, she disappeared into the kitchen, leaving an uncomfortable silence in her wake.

The two young men stared uneasily at each other for awhile until Ron finally broke the silence and said, "You know, she doesn't seem all that upset."

"No reason to be," Harry said lightly. "It was mutual. She's got Michael, and we both knew I'm not right for her."

"What are you on about? You're perfect for her," Ron scoffed. "You're Harry Potter, for Merlin's sake."

Harry blanched a bit, but he noted Ginny hovering in the background, wand at the ready. Yes, she definitely had his back.

"Do you want the bad news or the really bad news first?" he asked.

"I don't want any news. I want you to fix this," Ron replied, his budding anger reddening his cheeks.

Harry gestured towards the living room and made himself at home in the same chair he'd occupied earlier. He toyed with a loose thread on his ragtag jeans until Ron finally sat down.

"What does it mean to you, being best mates?" he asked Ron quietly.

Ron opened his mouth to speak, but flushed and fidgeted instead. "I bollixed things up in fourth year; we both know that. And I didn't do so well with that Horcrux either, leaving you and Hermione like I did. But I've learnt my lesson. I may not like it or understand it, but I'll support you no matter what."

Grateful that Ron couldn't hear his heart hammering in his chest or feel his nerves strangling him, Harry leaned forward, his green eyes trained on Ron's face. "Do you mean that? Even if I decide I don't want to be an Auror?"

"But…." Wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers, Ron gulped and nodded. "Even if you don't want to be an Auror." He gave a nervous laugh. "Reckon you've had your fill of Dark wizards," he said, and then a stray thought caused his eyes to narrow. "You're not thinking of becoming the next Dark Lord, are you? 'Cause if you are, mate, I expect I'd have to rethink supporting you."

"What? You don't want to be the next Lucius Malfoy?" Harry teased with a fleeting grin.

Ron gave a dramatic shudder. "Wouldn't mind having the Galleons, but then I'd have to put up with all that bowing and scraping." He dredged up a smile that did nothing to hide the growing worry in his eyes. "What's this about, Harry?"

Suddenly, that bit of thread was fascinating, and Harry wound it around his finger a few times before speaking. "I just need you to understand that my life isn't your life. We're best mates, and I'm hoping that won't ever change, but I'm not you, Ron. My life, my experiences, are always going to be a bit different from yours, and I don't want to lose you over something I don't have any control of."

"Did you get an owl from the Ministry or something?"

Harry shook his head impatiently. "I'm talking about friendship and the stupid stuff we've fought about. I've forgiven you for not believing me when I said I didn't put my name in the Cup and for deserting us during the hunt."

"I reckon the only thing I've not forgiven you for is the acromantulas," said Ron, "and that was Hagrid's doing more than anything. You're not planning to have an acromantula farm, are you?"

Harry shook his head, barely managing not to roll his eyes.

Ron sat for a few minutes and puzzled over everything Harry had said. "Alright, then. You're not with Ginny, you don't want to be an Auror and you're not going to raise acromantulas. Reckon there's not much you could say that could put me off you."

A strange gleam appeared in Harry's eyes. "Really," he drawled. He pretended to rack his brain to come up with something so outlandish that Ron would go off his nut; all the while his insides were churning like he'd been hit in the stomach with a Jelly Legs Jinx. "Care to test that?"

"Are we back to the next Dark Lord thing?" asked Ron, just in case. "Alright, alright. I'm trying to come up with something." He screwed his face up in concentration, regarding Harry much in the same way he might examine a chess board, trying to think four or five moves ahead.

"I'm madly and deeply in love with Severus Snape?" Harry offered as casually as he could manage.

Ron sat so still he may as well have been hit by a Body Bind Curse. Drawing in a deep, slow breath, he extended his hand. "See that? Steady as a rock," he said, then exhaled loudly, collapsing back into the couch. "Good one, mate. Almost had me with that one, you did. So, what's the really bad news that you don't want to tell me?"

"I'm madly and deeply in love with Severus Snape," Harry said quietly, every line in his body begging, pleading with his friend to try to understand.

Ron's jaw dropped. He added one plus one and came up with fruit basket. "But…but…. Bloody hell, Harry! You're a bloke! And he's…he's…Snape, for fuck's sake! Bastard of the first water, utter prick, and did I mention the Death Eater part? No? And he was a bloody Death Eater!" Ron stood and began pacing before Harry. "How can you be a bloody pouf, Harry? You're so normal!"

Harry burst into hysterical laughter, rising from his seat as Molly, Arthur and Ginny came storming in from various parts of the house. "When have I ever been normal, Ron?" he shouted over the sound of Ginny's hex and Molly scolding, "Ronald Bilius Weasley, I will not have that language in this house!"

Over the din, Arthur said wearily, "Ginevra, please remove that curse from your brother. Harry, sit yourself back down." Turning to his youngest son, he said sternly, "Ron, I'll have you know that you're no better than Percy. Not another word, before you say something you truly will regret."

Ron, swiping at the giant bogeys fluttering their bat-like wings, grumbled as Ginny countered each one, her eyes narrowed dangerously. "What's the bad news, then?" he muttered, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring defiantly at the others.

"The bad news," Harry said clearly, "is that I'm gay." The room fell silent and he shifted uncomfortably as he tried to get a sense of their moods.

"You mustn't think of it as good or bad, son," said Arthur after a long moment. "It's a part of you, the same way your green eyes are. It doesn't define you any more than being a Seeker does."

"He's queer, and he's in love with Snape!" Ron shouted as the last Bat Bogey vanished.

Three jaws dropped simultaneously and it seemed to Harry that all the air in the house had mysteriously vanished. As he fought to take a breath, Ginny suddenly giggled. Horrified, she slapped her hand over her mouth; but her dark eyes danced with mirth and, seconds later, she abandoned the fight as lost, giving herself over to tear-inducing laughter.

Not even remotely hysterical, it was filled with mirth, with joy, and the happiness bubbled out of her like a fountain until she calmed. Then, wiping the tears from her eyes as her family looked on in confusion, she came to her feet and stood before Harry, her face wreathed in smiles. "Harry Potter, I love you," she declared, yanking him to his feet and pulling him into a hug.

"He dumped you for Snape!" roared Ron as Harry tentatively returned her embrace.

Ginny released her hold on Harry and turned to her brother. "You really are thick as a post, Ron. I'll say this slowly so you have a fighting chance. Harry did not dump me." She enunciated each word so clearly that they shone like polished crystal. "After everything that's happened, after everything he's been through, he's found someone worth loving and I am overjoyed for him."

Stubborn as a bull when vexed, Ron continued to protest. "But it's Snape!"

Ginny's eyes flashed in a way that would make even Charlie nervous—and he worked with dragons, for Merlin's sake. "You weren't there last year, so you've no idea what you're on about," she growled in a voice so deadly that the hair on the back of Harry's neck stood. "For an entire year, Snape stood between the Death Eaters and us, and he still managed to make everyone believe he was on Voldemort's side.

"Do you know what he suggested to the Carrows as a form of detention?" she asked heatedly.

Ron shook his head, knowing better than to square off against Ginny with his parents ranged against him.

"He suggested we practice the Cruciatus Curse on the lower forms," she replied with a twisted grin.

Ron blanched, drawing in a breath to shout his outrage when Harry suddenly laughed.

"He's brilliant!" Harry crowed. "Pure genius! How long did it take you lot to figure it out?" he asked Ginny as she flashed a grin at him.

"A few weeks," she admitted. "We were furious with him, which was what he intended, of course. But the DA—well, Luna mostly—started noticing how he always overlooked all our tiny mutinies unless they happened right in front of him. Then he'd pick three or four Slytherins and have them throw hexes at us for awhile."

"Four on one, you mean?" asked Harry.

"Yeah," Ginny replied with a broad grin. "Turns out they were brilliant training exercises. Best Defence lessons we ever had. They hurt, of course, and most of us ended up in the Hospital Wing a few times, but it wasn't anything Madam Pomfrey couldn't sort out by the next day."

Ron's patience finally snapped. "Is anyone going to tell me what in the bloody hell is going on?"

As Arthur's brow furrowed, Molly brought up her wand and casually tossed off a silent spell. Soap bubbles began frothing from Ron's mouth and he gagged. "I warned you about your language," she said fiercely as a greenish tinge began to colour Ron's face.

"From what Ginny has said, Ron, it would seem that Professor Snape managed to turn Hogwarts into a training ground for the Order right under You-Know-Who's missing nose," said Arthur thoughtfully. "It was well done of him, and I rather think that he saved a number of lives that way."

When Ron began to choke on the bubbles, Molly ended the spell, knowing it was too much to hope that her son would ever learn to think before opening his mouth. After a bout of coughing, he wiped his mouth and streaming eyes. "But the Cruciatus—"

"I tried it on Bellatrix Lestrange," Harry interrupted. "At the Department of Mysteries, and it didn't work. You really have to mean it, Ron. You have to want that person writhing in agony, and as much as I hated Bellatrix for killing Sirius, I couldn't wish that on her. Not even most Slytherins would be able to perform it, and I can't see any Gryffindors managing it, especially against a little first year. He saved them, Ron, by being cleverer than everyone else."

The pride so evident in Harry's voice, the way his face shone and his eyes lit up when he spoke of Snape, brought the truth home to Ron in ways that mere words never could. "You really are in love with the git," he said in dawning comprehension.

"Yeah, I am," said Harry. "And I'd prefer it if you'd not refer to him that way. There's tonnes you don't know about him, things you've never suspected, but he's got more courage and more honour than anyone I know. Ginny seems to think Snape's worthy of me, but she's got it backwards. I can only hope that someday I'm worthy of him."

"Do you know how Severus feels about you?" Arthur asked gently.

"I've no idea, sir," admitted Harry. "But he tolerates me well enough now. I'm down to being insulted five or six times a day." He grinned, wondering if they had any idea how remarkable an achievement that really was.

Arthur's brow furrowed. "Severus Snape is a difficult man, Harry. You're old enough to make your own choices, true, but I would not wish to see you hurt."

"Oh, I've no doubt he'll hurt me," replied Harry, his smile deepening. "Repeatedly, most likely. Snape doesn't suffer fools gladly, and he's told me more than once that I'm every kind of fool there is."

"Then why, Harry?" Ron cried out, anguished.

Since their first journey to Hogwarts he and Ron had been best mates. He would never have been Sorted into Gryffindor if it hadn't been for Ron, so Harry knew that he owed him an answer. "Severus Snape will never lie to me," he said seriously. "He will never candy-coat anything to make it more palatable, and he won't let me rest on any laurels the Ministry might want to hand me. There aren't many lo…vers," he added, stumbling slightly over the word, "who will overlook the whole Boy-Who-Lived thing. He will. He does."

"Lovers!" Ron's face took on an expression Harry hadn't seen since they were twelve and Ron was belching slugs.

"No!" The word burst out of Harry with the force of an Expelliarmus. "Uh…" He blushed as four pairs of eyes looked at him with varying degrees of interest. "I mean…well, just because I'm in love with Snape doesn't mean he loves me back. Not entirely," he finished weakly.

"Too much information, mate," said Ron. He looked up at the ceiling and sighed. "And here I was looking forward to a quiet year." He levelled a desperate gaze at Harry. "Any chance you've stopped talking in your sleep? Any chance at all?"

"Err…" Harry felt his cheeks grow hot and Ron groaned. He gave Molly and Arthur a despairing glance, feeling caught between a rock and a hard place, not wanting to hide away a part of himself, but not wanting to lose Ron's friendship, either.

He found himself wishing he had listened to Snape. He'd known Ron was going to be somewhat intractable, but since Ron had grown up with Charlie, Harry figured that he might have outgrown any lingering unease he had about being around gay people.

Snape had responded, in no uncertain terms, that Ron was "about as likely to be accepting as Lovegood is to discover a Crumple-Horned Snorkack; here, make yourself useful and grind these lionfish spines into powder."

Arthur gave Ron a meaningful look. "Why don't you boys go upstairs?" he suggested. "I expect Harry has a lot to tell you, and he could probably use a friend right now."

Between his father's warning glance and the hope shining in Harry's eyes, Ron didn't have much of a choice. "D'you reckon you want Ginny to come, too?" he asked hopefully.

Ginny shook her head, her dark eyes narrowing as she placed her hands on her hips. "If you mean to hide behind me, then no, thank you." She took a step closer to Ron and poked a slender finger against his chest. "This is your best friend. You've shared a room with him for seven years. You broke into the Ministry and Gringotts together, and now you're getting shirty because he chases for the other team. It has nothing to do with you, so get over it."

Yes, Ginny definitely had his back and Harry was infinitely grateful for it. "Please, Ron? Can we just talk?" Pain and worry lingered behind the hope in Harry's eyes, waiting in the wings to see if they'd be needed on stage. He gnawed on the inside of his cheek, holding his breath in anticipation.

With a curt nod of his head, Ron headed up the stairs, his back ramrod straight, his shoulders rigid. When they were alone, he asked guardedly, "What'd you want to talk about?" edging past Harry to sit down on his bed. He immediately thought better of it and went to stand by the window instead.

"Don't be a prat, Ron," sighed Harry. "Did you think that I was going to try to snog you or something?"

"Of course not," glowered Ron. "It's just, well…"

"No, you just thought that, since I like blokes, I'd suddenly try something with you," concluded Harry. "Never mind that I've known I'm queer since before fourth year." Harry snorted. "That's like saying you'd try it with every witch you meet."

Ron's scowl deepened and he glared out the window, arms crossed defensively in front of him.

"Great. You're about as discriminating as a bloody Niffler." Harry sighed as he sank down on Ron's bed, his elbows on his knees, hands lightly clasped. He looked up at Ron, still standing like a sentinel near the corner. "You're my best mate. We've been friends since we were eleven, but right now I might as well be Malfoy. It's not like you don't know any queer people, Ron, so what is it?"

"Charlie's in Romania, isn't he?" said Ron with an odd note of relief underneath. "It's not like I'll be sharing a bedroom with him anytime soon, yeah? But you and me, we do stuff together, like Quidditch and hanging out…"

"And changing clothes and sharing the dorm with three other blokes," finished Harry in resignation. "Look, I've seen you naked loads of times. Same with Neville, Dean and Seamus. I don't get off on it, all right? I'm about as interested in you as you are in Ginny."

Ron said nothing.

"What do you have in common with Severus Snape?" asked Harry suddenly, thinking that perhaps if he chose another tack, Ron might finally get it through his thick skull that he would never see Ron as anything other than a friend.

"With that greasy…?" Ron gulped as Harry's eyes hardened. "Not a bloody thing," he muttered. "Who've you told? You know, about you being…that way?"

Harry sighed. Again. "Snape said you'd be…that way," he replied, mimicking Ron's tone almost exactly. "And not that it's any business of yours, but I've told about a dozen people. Adults mostly. Coming here to talk to your mum and dad was loads harder than telling Pomfrey or McGonagall."

"You told McGonagall you're queer?" said Ron in amazement, his curiosity propelling him off the wall and onto the bed. He sat near the head and leaned back against the headboard as Harry situated himself near the foot.

Harry nodded, his cheeks taking on a rosy hue. "I didn't mean to, not really. The whole thing was a bit of a disaster." He blew out a breath and gave Ron a wry grin. "You know that talk the Heads and Pomfrey gave us in sixth year? That part when Pomfrey pretty much says come talk to me if you're queer?"

"Is that what she meant when she said it might not pertain to some of us?"

"D'you really think I'm going to need to know any contraceptive charms?" said Harry as he arched an unconsciously Snapeish brow. "But she did teach me some charms that I should know if I ever want to shag anybody. Really, though, I'd much rather be shagged, the first time, at least. Then maybe I'd have a clue about it."

Ron's face turned a pasty greenish colour, and he swallowed heavily. "Not really sure I wanted that mental image."

"Was it me bent over a desk in Potions or actually in a bed with Snape?"

"Harry!" moaned Ron, covering his eyes as he scrunched up his face. He cracked an eye open. "You've really got it bad. Are you sure? I mean, really sure? Maybe you got hit with a curse or something."

"Why do people say that?" asked Harry. "Has anyone ever asked you if you're sure you like girls? There was that thing with Krum, you know. You were a bit obsessed, actually, so maybe I should question your sexuality. Have you ever snogged a bloke?" It wasn't a fair question, Harry knew, given that he hadn't either, but he wanted to—one in particular.

"But we're blokes. It's normal to like girls," argued Ron.

"I'm normal, too," said Harry. "Except for this stupid bloody scar and being Voldemort's Horcrux for most of my life. That's not normal for anybody. But I'm a perfectly normal wizard, Ron, who happens to be gay, same as your brother, and in love with Snape, which seriously, I hope Charlie isn't."

"Might make Christmas a bit awkward," said Ron with a pinched expression on his face. "I'm trying to be supportive here, okay? I can't help that being around people like you makes me really nervous, but I don't know how I'm supposed to be now."

The pain lurking in the background moved to centre stage. "People like me? Should I ask McGonagall if any of Dumbledore's old robes are lying about? Start speaking with a lisp? Paint my fingernails and wear make-up? How am I different, Ron?"

Ron gave Harry a searching look. "I'm being a prat again, aren't I?"

"Yeah, you really are," said Harry, his shoulders slumping in abject defeat. "Ginny said you'd say some hurtful things, but I don't think I realised just how hurtful they'd be. You look at me and instead of seeing 'Harry', you see GAY in flaming letters. I look at you and see 'Ron', though, really, I should see BIG FUCKING IDIOT.

"You can't imagine what it's like, seeing you and Hermione walking along holding hands, knowing that if I held hands with Snape or anybody else I liked, you'd sit there and pull faces. Knowing that if I was going to get married, you wouldn't want to be there for me. You'll pretend to be good with it as long as I'm not gay in front of you, but I am and I'm not willing to be anyone but myself, not even for you."

Harry got off the bed. "I wanted to tell you about how I fell in love with Snape, and what it was like to talk to McGonagall about next year, but I don't think you'll ever be ready to hear it. I'm going downstairs. I want to send a letter to Charlie and let him know that he and I have more in common than he thinks."

~*~

"I'm sending a letter off to Charlie," Harry told Molly a little while after his abbreviated conversation with Ron. "Would you like to include a note or something?" He pushed his glasses up his nose and held the unsealed envelope out to her.

"Come over here and keep an eye on these potatoes for me," said Molly as she reached for it. She grabbed parchment and quill and sat down at the long trestle table, giving Harry a reassuring smile as she scribbled out a note. "Here you are, dear," she said after she'd finished. "Are you staying for dinner? Hermione will be here."

Harry felt torn. On the one hand, he wanted desperately to speak with her. On the other hand, he was expected back at the castle for dinner and wanted to know that Snape hadn't suffered any setbacks during his absence.

"Set the table for six," said Molly, the warmth in her voice nearly bringing tears to Harry's eyes. "I take it that your conversation with Ron didn't go very well."

"Not really, no," admitted Harry, shaking his head. "He thinks I'm not normal." He turned and sat heavily at the end of one of the benches. "My uncle always called me a freak, but after seeing Remus transform the night we found out about Pettigrew, I figured I wasn't nearly as weird as he thought I was."

He looked at Molly with worried eyes. "But what am I? McGonagall says I've nothing to worry about, since there are all sorts of magical beings in the Wizarding world. She says that if vampires can have donor bonds and Veela can have soulmates, then a pair of witches or wizards who form a lasting relationship is nothing out of the ordinary."

"She's absolutely right," said Molly. "The plates are in the cupboard and they're not going to fly to the table themselves."

"Then why was Charlie so upset when he told you and Mr Weasley?" asked Harry as he stood up. Though perfectly capable of using magic to levitate the plates to the table, he preferred using Muggle methods for a chore such as this. It gave him time to think and something to do with his hands.

Molly gave him an understanding smile. "Charlie was afraid, Harry. That's all there was to it. He thought I'd be upset about not having grandchildren from him, and he was afraid that Arthur would see him as less than a man. But we didn't, Harry. He's a splendid young man and we're very proud of him. Captain of the Quidditch team, dragon tamer, member of the Order. How can we not be?"

"I like Charlie," said Harry as he laid out the silverware. "But really, Bill's more my type," he confessed with a shy smile. "I don't think Fleur would appreciate knowing that, though." He pulled six goblets out of a different cupboard and carried them over to the table. "I guess I just don't understand why Ron is the way he is, growing up with Charlie and all."

"I should think Bill would be flattered," said Molly as she checked on the steak and kidney pies baking in the oven. "As for Ron, he is simply confused. Think of it this way, Harry. Ron is terrified of spiders."

"With good reason," said Harry as he set a cup at each place.

"He was afraid of them before the two of you had your little adventure in the Forbidden Forest, as you well know," said Molly a bit sternly, as though finding it impossible not to scold Harry again for his part in their little misadventure during the Chamber of Secrets debacle. "But he couldn't understand why you weren't bothered by them. He still doesn't.

"It's the same thing with you being gay. He cannot imagine himself being attracted to men. The thought leaves him cold, so he cannot comprehend how you could be." She turned the oven heat up and closed the door. "Arthur had a talk with him when Charlie mentioned that Ron was avoiding him," she continued as if sensing Harry's next question. "Would you like us to speak with him again?"

Harry shook his head. "No. This is best left between us. I'm just hoping Hermione will make him see reason." He gazed earnestly at Molly. "I'm not a spider. Really, I'm not. Honestly, I'd much rather Ron not think about my sex life at all. Merlin knows I'm not keen on thinking about his."

"It will work out," said Molly with a warm smile. "Why don't you wait for Hermione in the living room? She should be here any minute."

Some of Harry's anxiety surged back in. His emotions were in a constant state of flux, like the ebb and flow of the tide without a moon to harness it. He'd been at the Burrow for only a few hours, and he was already exhausted. "Do you think…" he began, but before he could finish, the Floo erupted in a shower of green sparks. He clutched the table as his knees started to shake, but got a grip on himself and walked unsteadily towards the fireplace.

"Harry!" exclaimed Hermione as she ran over to throw her arms around him, nearly knocking him over in the process.

"How have you been? Have you spent the entire summer at Hogwarts? Why haven't you written? You do have a new owl, don't you? When are you starting Auror training? Where's Ron? I thought he'd be with you," she gushed, expelling questions by the dozen.

When Harry didn't answer, she stepped back to eye him critically. "What's the matter, Harry? You look like you've just been hit by a Bludger."

"There's never a Beater around when you need one," muttered Harry, his stomach in knots so tight he wondered if he'd ever be able to eat again. "Come with me." He took her by the hand and led her to the sofa, claiming for himself, once again, the chair he'd sat in earlier.

Bewildered, Hermione sat down, her eyes sweeping around the Burrow as if searching for clues. "What is it?" she asked as Harry gave her a grimace of a smile. "Harry, what's wrong?"

For reasons Harry couldn't quite fathom, telling Hermione was harder—by far—than telling Ron or any of the other Weasleys, and he didn't know what he'd do if Hermione rejected him. For a moment, he entertained the notion of running back to Hogwarts, grabbing his things and fleeing the country rather than confess, but he thought he should give her the benefit of the doubt. One thing was certain, this wasn't quicker or easier than falling asleep.

"There's no easy way to say this," he said, his voice pitched so low it barely made it across the small space between them. "So I'm just going to come right out with it." He took a deep breath and met her frightened brown eyes with pure terror. "I'm gay, Hermione."

Hermione stared at him blankly.

Wondering if she'd heard him, Harry repeated it louder and waited for a reaction.

She blinked. And blinked again, then again and again like a demented owl. Harry could nearly hear the gears in her head screech to an abrupt, messy halt.

"You do know what being gay means, right?" he asked when he couldn't stand it any longer.

"Yes, of course," she said absently, still blinking and staring as though adding powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood no longer resulted in Draught of the Living Death and she didn't know what to make of the contents of her cauldron. "I just…" She blew out a breath and finally looked at him.

"Does Ginny know?"

Harry nodded, not ready yet to release the breath he'd been holding. Hermione's reaction was not what he'd anticipated. "I think she was expecting it. She's back with Michael Corner and has been for awhile. I guess we'd both been keeping secrets."

"So, who is he?" she asked with a hard edge to her words that Harry had not heard in months.

Harry drew back in his chair and blinked. "What?"

"We spent nearly a year together, Harry," said Hermione angrily, building up a good head of steam and rolling right over him. "And for a good while it was just the two of us. Not once did you bother to tell me you're gay, or that you even thought you might be, and Merlin knows we talked about everything else, including what we were going to do when we'd finally defeated Voldemort. Marry Ginny, you said. Become an Auror, you said. Have children, you said. Are you still planning to be an Auror, or have you changed your mind about that as well?"

"I'm going back to Hogwarts," said Harry in a voice roughened by fear, almost reeling from the verbal attack. "I've not sorted out what I'm going to do after I finish. But I've never changed my mind about being gay; I've come to terms with it. I wanted to marry Ginny. I wanted to have kids of my own someday, but I can't be something I'm not. And I'm not straight. I'm not, Hermione."

"Which is why I want to know who he is," she demanded. "Because if you've known for awhile now and kept it secret, then you wouldn't have decided to tell us unless there's someone you fancy and were afraid we'd find out before you could say anything."

There were times Harry wished Hermione didn't know him as well as she did. "You're right," he said nervously. "There is somebody, but you have to listen to me first. I wanted to tell you, really I did, but it's not the easiest thing in the world to know how to say, and every time we started to talk about Ron and Ginny, you tried not to cry and it never seemed like it was the right moment to tell you, especially since your way of coping with everything was to do more research and, honestly, I didn't think you were carrying around spare volumes of Homosexuality in Wizarding Britain: A Guide Through The Ages." He finally paused to take a breath. "You weren't, were you? Carrying a book like that around?"

"Is that how you figured it out?" she growled, her eyes flashing. "From a book?"

"No!" Harry exclaimed, eyes wide, not comprehending how Hermione, of all people, could have gotten it so horribly wrong. His heart stammered and stumbled along, first sprinting, then skipping whole beats entirely whilst the confused signals coming from his brain continued to argue about whether he should turn tail and run or stand his ground and wait for Hermione to come to her senses. A part of him wished she'd just punch him like she had Malfoy and get it over with.

"Look," he entreated. "You do realise I can't make this go away, right? Not that I it want to; I'm fine with who I am. I'm still me, Hermione." He wiped sweaty palms on his trousers and wished her eyes would stop flashing quite so angrily.

Hermione snarled, a full-throated growl that had Harry wondering if were possible to Disapparate from a sitting position. "You are such a git. When did you know, how did you finally figure it out and when were you planning to tell me?"

Harry had a whole new appreciation for how Ron had felt when he'd rejoined them on their Horcrux Hunt. "Is that why you're mad at me? Because you didn't know?"

"Because you didn't tell me," screeched Hermione so loudly that Molly dashed from the kitchen. Moments later, Ron galumphed down the stairs, his heavy tread causing eddies of dust to swirl in the sunlight.

"Thought I heard your voice," said Ron as he stepped off the bottom stair. "Told you he's madly in love with Snape, did he? Reckoned you'd be a bit surprised."

There was a single, blessed moment of silence before the walls started shaking from the force of Hermione's roar. "With SNAPE?!" She leapt to her feet, eyes blazing, her bushy hair all but standing on end. "The one who's spent half your life demeaning and belittling you? That Snape?"

Arthur and Ginny came running again as Molly crossed protectively to Harry's side. "Now, see here, Hermione," said Arthur in his most reasonable, let's-not-start-a-war tone. "If Harry's in love with Severus, then he's in love with Severus."

"Mr Weasley," said Hermione, her voice as cutting and controlled as an executioner's axe, "Snape despises Harry and made his life almost unbearable for six long, nearly insufferable years, and if Harry fancies himself in love with someone who was every bit as vile to him as Voldemort himself, then he should be checked for curses, hexes and potions. Right this minute!"

"I think Harry can love whomever he chooses," snarled Ginny as she came to stand at Harry's other side, "thank you very much. He's spent more time with Snape than any of us, so maybe he knows something we don't. Did you ever consider that?"

The pit of Harry's stomach became an abyss, and his eyes stung. "It's because of Snape that we won, but that's neither here nor there," he said shakily. "You've not taken the time to get to know him, either of you. Ginny gets it, though." He rose unsteadily to his feet and stepped around Molly to get to the fireplace.

"I reckon you've got a bit to talk about," he said, pushing through the growing lump in the back of his throat. "And I'm not ready to hear it. I'm going home." His reddening eyes met Arthur's, drawing on the older man's quiet, understated strength. "I'll owl you tomorrow."

He was hugged in turn by Molly, Ginny and, to his surprise and relief, Arthur. Ron and Hermione watched from the safety of the couch, where they both sat in mulish silence. "I'll get your letter off to Charlie," said Molly as she patted his cheek. The gesture was far more comforting than Harry expected. "Don't worry, Harry, dear. It will all work out."

Harry offered a sickly smile as he reached into the container of Floo powder. "I'm sure it will," he said thickly. "The Three Broomsticks," he said as clearly as he was able, and as he stepped into the brilliant green fire, he heard Molly growl, "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves." Somehow he thought that wouldn't be the final word on the matter.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: The Trouble with Slytherin is that it's Full of Snakes

 

Harry plodded through Hogsmeade with a heavy heart, his mind still back at the Burrow with Ron and Hermione. Mr and Mrs. Weasley's support was a huge relief, as was Ginny's. Ron was no surprise; even Snape had warned him to be cautious. Hermione, though…

Her voice rang in his head as he trudged along the path towards the castle, shoulders bowed under the weight of guilt. He could think of very few things he'd ever kept from her, and most of those were secrets that weren't his to tell. This, though, was a different kind of secret, one that he could have shared with her on any number of occasions, but had chosen not to. How many times had she sat quietly by, asking him what was on his mind when his head started to ache from all the thoughts circling around in it? Not once had he taken the opportunity to confide in her.

Most of his reluctance, he supposed, stemmed from growing up with some of the most intolerant Muggles in existence. His cousin had mocked him relentlessly the summer following Cedric's murder, and though he'd never dated one, Harry knew better than to admit to any interest in boys at all.

Still, even Charlie had had to 'come out' and found the process painful. Harry simply didn't know what to think. In a world where people could—and did—turn into cats, rats and dogs, a pair of wizards snogging was barely noticed. It was the snogging that drew attention, not the people engaged in it.

As he walked, he struggled to recall any gay couples at Hogwarts, and then shook his head at himself. There had been Lavender and Parvati, certainly. Personally, he had always wondered about Crabbe and Goyle, but wasn't sure if they were smart enough to have a sexuality at all, much less an alternative one. And he remembered the shock that had rippled through his year mates when Anthony Goldstein, a Hufflepuff, was spotted dancing at the Yule Ball with Blaise Zabini from Slytherin House. It wasn't that two boys were dancing together that set tongues to wagging; Slytherins never socialised with people outside of their House. Anthony had been teased for weeks, but Harry was too worried about the second Triwizard clue to pay any attention to it at the time.

By the time he reached the wrought-iron Hogwarts gates, Harry had concluded that Hermione was probably only mostly furious with him; she likely didn't care if he were gay, straight, or somewhere in between, and she might even forgive him someday for not telling her sooner— after she got over finding out she'd been slightly above twentieth on the list of those who already knew. Even Snape had only managed fourth, but that was because McGonagall and Flitwick had walked into the infirmary at a particularly bad time.

Minutes later Harry was in the dungeons, pressing his hand against the door and hoping Snape hadn't changed the wards again. To his relief, the door admitted him to Snape's quarters and he slipped through quietly, hanging his jacket on a nearby hook.

Harry was never certain which Snape he would encounter at any given time: the somewhat misanthropic former headmaster, the moderately irascible patient, or the snarling, seething Potions Master. On those rare days when he seemingly inhabited all three personas at once, Harry bit his tongue and kept his head down, doing only what was necessary before making his escape.

"I'm home," he called out softly.

From the bedroom, Snape's raspy voice grated over Harry's skin. "As I have so often reminded you, Potter, this is not your home."

Ah, the second one. Pushing the door open, Harry walked inside, not bothering to dredge up a smile. He'd learnt long ago that Snape saw through every mask he attempted to wear. "It is for the next ten months."

"The castle may be your home; my rooms are not," replied Snape as he sank back against the pile of pillows, his pale skin almost blending in with the crisp white sheets. Inky black hair wisped around his head like the remnants of a nightmare, and his drawn face was etched with pain.

Harry studied Snape's pallor, and the too-rapid rise and fall of the man's chest. "I'm sorry I was gone so long," he said as he extracted his wand from his pocket. He cast the three charms Pomfrey had taught him and frowned at the results. "Are you ever going to learn to ask for help when you need it?"

"I do not require your assistance, Potter," wheezed Snape, "I require rest, which you are disturbing. Please leave." Closing his sunken eyes, Snape turned his head away from Harry and pulled up the covers with spidery hands.

Having been through this routine countless times before, Harry knew not to take it personally. He smoothed the covers and selected the bottles and phials he would need for Snape's next round of potions. He mixed and measured, pouring carefully and stirring the requisite number of times, until he was certain Snape would be satisfied with the colour, consistency and smell.

"Here you are," said Harry as he perched on the edge of the bed. "Your daily dose of Nagini-Be-Gone." He handed Snape a glass of water to which he had added a powerful antivenin and detoxifier. A phial of Pain Reliever came next, followed by a potion packed with nutrients formulated to help heal Snape's damaged vocal cords.

"Better now?" asked Harry, gazing at Snape with concern. "If I'd known you weren't feeling well, I would have stayed here."

"And miss your visit to the Burrow?" Snape's eyebrow rose along with his upper lip, but the flicker of warmth in his dark eyes lessened their sting. "Sit with me, Potter, and tell me how it went." He stretched out a trembling hand and patted the mattress next to him.

There were few things Harry enjoyed more than sitting and talking with Snape, and he relished every invitation he received. He scrambled up onto the bed, sitting cross-legged near Snape's hip, and somehow managed a small but genuine smile, happy to be so near the man. "You were right about Ron, but Ginny gets it."

"Ginevra, for all her willingness to take unnecessary risks, has always possessed a broad streak of common sense. She would not wish you to feel guilty or unhappy about the reason you were unable to continue in a relationship with her."

Harry nodded as his smile faltered, then vanished altogether. "I don't know that Ron will ever get past it, though. He's never going to see me as anything more than gay. Molly thinks it's because he's got some weird, built-in fear that lives right next to one about the spiders, but what exactly does he think I'm going to do to him?"

"He believes," replied Snape, "that you will defile him, and he will enjoy it despite himself. It would throw everything he believes about himself into disarray, and he would be unable to cope with it."

"But…" Harry was aghast. "I wouldn't! Ever! Why would he think such a thing?"

"Because he is an ill-informed idiot." Snape considered Harry for a moment. "If you are willing, I suggest spending as much time with him as you can manage. Should he say anything that causes you any discomfort, tell him. Do not facilitate his bad behaviour."

"Was it like this for you?" asked Harry after a moment's reflection. "Losing friends…" His eyes widened as remembered who he was speaking to. "Never mind."

Snape reached out, resting long fingers on Harry's knee. "We agreed when you became my keeper that we would speak freely with each other. Thus far, I have kept my end of the bargain. See that you keep yours."

"M'not your keeper," Harry muttered, averting his eyes as his heart raced at the feel of Snape's hand. "I knew you'd be happier here, so I told Pomfrey I'd help." He risked a glance at Snape and promptly blushed.

"You wanted to know my experience," said Snape, his thumb absently stroking Harry's thigh. "I told Lily on my sixteenth birthday. I told Albus a year after her murder, when I requested clarification about a provision in my teaching contract. By and large, the Wizarding world does not care about such matters, Potter, but the Muggle-borns tend to bring their fears and prejudices with them to Hogwarts."

"Then why do we tell anybody if it doesn't matter?" asked Harry a bit breathlessly.

"Because to do so enables us to live an open and honest life." Snape's fingers curled in soft strokes as Harry bit his lower lip. "I do believe that is something you desire?"

A shiver ran through Harry and his breath caught. "I think I've earned it," he replied as his eyes feasted on Snape's mouth, thinking that snogging Snape would probably never be something he described as 'wet'.

"You have," agreed Snape. "When will you speak with Ms. Granger?"

It was like being doused with an ice-cold Aguamenti. "Hermione?" Harry asked cautiously.

"Are you acquainted with another Ms. Granger?" said Snape as he withdrew his hand. The terms of their agreement were simple: once Harry no longer felt it necessary to hide away a part of himself, he would allow Harry's infatuation with him to run its course without actively impeding it. That meant ending his farcical relationship with Ginny and telling Granger and the Weasleys why.

There was a protracted silence and Harry shook his head. "No." He drew in his hands and hunched over. "She was at the Burrow when I left," he said thickly. "She's really angry."

"Explain," commanded Snape, though his scratchy voice was gentle. "Given Ms. Granger's preoccupation with freeing house-elves, I cannot imagine a world where she would take issue with your sexuality."

"No," replied Harry slowly. "That's not it. She stared at me for a really long time, though. I had to ask if she knew what I meant by it."

Snape couldn't help himself; he snorted. "I have no doubt that Ms Granger believes she knows more about your orientation than you do."

"Yeah, well, if there's a book on the subject, she'll read it now, if she's not already," said Harry. "I expect she'll lecture me on traditions, customs and, um, safe sex." He felt his cheeks grow hot and wished he felt adult enough to discuss the subject with Snape. He was eighteen now, for Merlin's sake.

"Ms. Granger expects to be placed in charge of your intimate relationships, does she?" There was a curious look in Snape's eyes, one Harry couldn't quite interpret. It was almost as if Snape were gearing up for a lengthy battle and looking forward to it.

"God, I hope not." For a moment, Harry's stomach churned, but as he drew in a deep breath, he realised that Hermione had a good sense of boundaries, and Ron really didn't want to know what he wanted to do with Snape. "I thought about it on the way home, and I reckon she's mad because I didn't tell her until now."

"Was there a better time?"

"Yeah," admitted Harry. "Sixth year would have been good. I would have avoided hurting Ginny, though I'm not sure Ron would have wanted to spend half a year living in a tent with me had he known. Or I could have told her when it was just the two of us. She wouldn't have said anything to Ron. Now she thinks I've been lying to her."

Snape arched a brow. "Have you been?"

"Probably." Harry averted his eyes and nodded, wilting under Snape's penetrating gaze. "It would seem so." He sighed and lifted his head, turning beseeching eyes on Snape. "We'd sit by the fire and talk about what we wanted to do when it was all over. I wanted children, you know? It's been hard to let go of that, so I'd say what I wanted to hear. Marry Ginny, have kids, even though I knew deep down it wasn't likely to happen. Then the final battle happened, and Fred died, and you lived, and you know the rest."

Snape closed his eyes. "At some point in your life, Potter, you will find a like-minded individual to fall in love with. The two of you will set up house together, adopt a houseful of abandoned Muggle-borns and argue over whose turn it is to do the washing up. Being gay is not an impediment to a lifetime of domestic servitude." He cracked open an eye. "Unless, of course, you feel some compulsion to carry your genes forward one more generation and unleash another James Potter on an unsuspecting public."

"I wish you wouldn't say that," said Harry with an air of resignation. "I know you don't believe me, but this isn't infatuation. It's more—" he turned his thoughts inward as he struggled to put his feelings into words "— fundamental than that. My feelings for you have always run deep, and I felt about you the way you wanted me to, but when I knew the truth… Everything changed when I understood why things were the way they were, why Dumbledore kept so many secrets from me." He regarded Snape steadily, through eyes far too old for his youthful face. "Why your hatred for me died with Cedric Diggory."

"You understand I will make you no promises," said Snape, his voice weary.

"And you understand I've not asked for any?" Harry answered. "You need rest and I need food. I'll be back after I've eaten." He crawled forward and kissed Snape's forehead, the only liberty he allowed himself to take. Snape had nearly skinned him alive the first time, but had never voiced a complaint after that.

"You're still sleeping on the sofa," grumbled Snape as Harry tucked the covers in around him.

Harry laughed. "I never thought otherwise." He climbed off the bed, checked the supply of potions and made sure that Snape was as comfortable as possible. He hesitated briefly when he reached the door. "All I want is to be believed, sir. That's it."

"No promises, Potter."

Still, Snape held Harry's gaze until he motioned him away, and when Harry closed the door, he was smiling.

~*~

Over the course of the next two weeks, a constant stream of owls flowed between Hogwarts and the Burrow as Harry tried to mend fences and repair the damage he thought he'd done to his friendship with Ron and Hermione. Ginny and Mr and Mrs. Weasley begged him not to worry, but the thought of losing them tied his stomach in knots to the point where he was eating less than Snape.

"Am I worth all this?" asked Snape quietly one day, during a slow walk around the castle. He paused to close his eyes and lifted his face to the sun, basking in its heat.

"I don't understand," said Harry as he came to a stop beside him. He turned to look out over the lake, gazing at the light sparkling off the water. A light breeze was blowing and he inhaled deeply, the loamy scent calming and familiar. "Are you worth what?" Then, apropos of nothing, he added, "I need a new broom."

"Yes, you do," agreed Snape, shielding his eyes with his hand to look at Harry. "But when you've finished flying, your troubles will still be here waiting for you to address them." Taking Harry by the hand, he led him into the shadow of the West Tower in order to see him more properly. "Believe it or not, Mr Potter, I do not take any pleasure watching you suffer. If I am the cause of your problems with Ms. Granger and the rest of the Weasleys, then perhaps you require some time to yourself to examine your feelings more objectively."

Harry shivered at the feel of Snape's hand in his, goose pimples causing the soft down on his arms to rise despite the warm weather. Objectivity was nearly impossible, especially since every casual touch brought with it a flock of butterflies to flutter madly in his belly. "I know how I feel about you, and walking away isn't going to solve anything. Ron would be like this with any bloke I want to be with."

Snape arched a brow. "Is that so? You don't believe he'd be more kindly disposed toward Mr Finch-Fletchley than Draco Malfoy?" He released his hold on Harry's hand and tilting his head as Harry's eyes cut down to his hand before looking up to search his face.

It took a moment before the thinking part of Harry's brain caught up with what Snape was saying. "Malfoy's gay?"

"I do not know," admitted Snape with a frown. "But the entire school is well aware of the animosity that exists between the three of you. Four, if we include Ms. Granger."

"Yeah, I'd wish she'd've just punched me like she did that slimy git and got it over with," sighed Harry. "She won't answer my letters." A lump took up residence in the back of his throat and he walked past Snape to stare at the lake again. He felt the sting of tears and drew in a deep, shaky breath. The thought of losing Hermione hurt.

He turned at the feel of a hand resting on his shoulder, hoping his face didn't reflect his turmoil. As much as he wanted to take that one step forward and hope Snape would see fit to wrap strong arms around him, Harry didn't dare. He would make do with the crumbs of affection Snape didn't seem to realise he scattered about like so much scarab shell dust.

When Snape touched Harry's chin lightly with his hand, Harry looked up, his heart skipping a beat.

"If I might make a suggestion?" said Snape, his gravelly voice soft. "Purchase a book of coming out stories for Ms. Granger. I suspect that you will have better success finding one in a Muggle bookshop, but Flourish & Blotts has surprised me on a number of occasions."

For a moment, Harry couldn't breathe, couldn't think, could do nothing more than gaze longingly at Snape's mouth, his narrow, perfectly shaped lips. He swallowed, wanting to know how they'd feel pressed to his. He wanted so desperately that his hands shook, hungering for something he could not name.

Giving himself a mental shake, he forced himself to think instead about Snape's suggestion. Hermione, he knew, believed anything that was in published form, complete with author, title, dedication, introduction and footnotes. It was even more credible if bound in leather with the title stamped in gold foil on the front. But the true imprimatur of reliability was its inclusion in the Restricted Section of the library.

"Sir," said Harry thickly, "can you give me a pass to the Restricted Section? Hermione will believe anything she's not supposed to read."

Snape's eyes narrowed, showing traces of concern when Harry stepped back. "Will this be your first authorised entry into that section?"

Harry scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck, feeling the heat of his blush rising even back there. He took a deep breath to clear his head. "I admit we learnt how to brew Polyjuice Potion from a book we found in there, though Hermione did have a pass from Lockhart, so it wasn't completely unauthorised."

"From Lockhart?" asked Snape in amazement. "He taught Defence in what?" He counted back on his fingers. "Your second year?"

"We had an excellent reason, I'll have you know," said Harry, suddenly feeling much closer to twelve years old than eighteen. "We were trying to get Malfoy to admit to being the Heir of Slytherin, so Ron and I Polyjuiced ourselves into Crabbe and Goyle and listened to him boast for awhile in the Slytherin common room."

"You brewed Polyjuice Potion? In your second year?"

Harry couldn't blame Snape for looking at him askance, though he really was much better at Potions than Snape had ever given him credit for being. "Err, no. I didn't. Hermione did."

"And where was Ms. Granger whilst the two of you were impersonating the most doltish pair of students ever to be Sorted into that House?"

Despite the generally accepted prohibition about speaking ill of the dead, Harry couldn't help but snicker weakly. "The hair she thought was Millicent Bulstrode's actually came from a cat, you see, and she spent a few weeks in the Hospital Wing. Doesn't Madam Pomfrey tell you these things?"

"As a rule, no," said Snape. "Come, it is nearly time for dinner and I shall require your assistance getting to the Great Hall." He reached out and took hold of Harry's arm, allowing himself to be assisted for the return trip. "As I was saying, Madam Pomfrey notifies the teachers if a student is expected to be out of classes for longer than a day or two, unless it was something pertaining to you lot. There has been many a staff meeting where you were the sole topic of conversation."

"Lovely," sighed Harry as he walked at a slow, steady pace, his arm tingling where Snape gripped it. "Though I suppose I should have expected that, especially since I think I managed to earn almost as many detentions as Fred and George."

"Some of which could have been avoided," said Snape. "Others of which you earned. And then," he continued, coming to a halt near the foot of the stairs leading to the great entrance doors, "there were a fair few that I issued without cause. For those I apologise."

"Don't, alright?" said Harry quietly, his eyes searching Snape's face. "We've made our peace and I won't hold against you anything you did out of hatred, or on Dumbledore's orders or for any other reason." The corner of his mouth curved up in a small smile. "Let's go. Dinner's about to start and I'm starved." He turned towards the stairs and took a step forward.

"Before we go inside, a question, if I may?" said Snape, tugging lightly on Harry's arm to halt his progress. "I am curious. When we were speaking about a book for Ms Granger, why did you not take advantage when the moment presented itself?" His keen eyes fixed on Harry, and he moved closer.

"What?" quavered Harry, his mouth suddenly bone-dry, his heart hammering loudly in his chest. "Take advantage?"

"I told you," murmured Snape as he closed the small gap between them, "that I would neither encourage your interest nor impede it, so why did you not take advantage?" Snape's eyes dropped to Harry's lips and lingered there before travelling slowly over the planes of his face, the heat of his gaze searing Harry's skin.

Breathless, Harry tried to swallow. His knees went weak, and he could not comprehend how he was still standing. "You're saying I should?" he whispered, unable to find his voice.

"I'm saying the answer is not 'no'."

Harry lifted a hand trembling so hard he could see it shake and cautiously wrapped his fingers lightly around the nape of Snape's neck. He drew Snape closer; Snape did not resist. Nearly beside himself with apprehension, he gave Snape the softest of kisses, gasping aloud at the shock of arousal that surged through his entire body.

His hair was standing on end, Harry was certain of it. Before what he was doing could register, Harry found himself pulling Snape closer, his lips parting in welcome as he allowed Snape to lead him. Bright frissons of electricity raced up and down his spine, and he moaned as Snape's fingers buried themselves in his hair. Snogging Ginny had been nothing like this. Harry's blood was on fire, heat coursing through him, and for the first time ever he felt fully alive.

The kiss grew hungrier, deeper, and by the time they drew apart, Harry was little more than a quivering mass of arousal. He touched his fingers to his swollen lips, eyes wide with shock, with passion, with frustration so intense he could have wept from it. He rested a hand on Snape's shoulder and drew in a steadying breath.

"Idiot child," Snape murmured with what could only be affection. "Come here, Potter." He drew Harry close and enveloped him in a strong embrace that made Harry feel as though he mattered. "Breathe, Potter. Just breathe."

Harry inhaled slowly, pulling Snape's indefinable scent deep into his lungs, memorising the rich, pungent aroma and making it a part of him. He fought off the advent of tears, wondering why he suddenly wanted to weep.

"Better now?" Snape asked after a moment, as if sensing Harry's inner turmoil.

Harry nodded, abashed. He was both elated and depressed. The former he could understand, but he hadn't the first idea about the latter. Those kisses had been the most amazing thing he'd ever experienced in his life, better by far than a Wronski Feint flown to perfection, so why was he upset?

"It's a natural reaction," said Snape as if reading Harry's mind. "Or was for me. It was almost a relief, knowing that what I believed about myself was true."

That was it exactly, and Harry couldn't help but sigh in relief. "Thank you," he said soberly, pulling away. "Not for the snogging, though," he added hastily, "god, that was brilliant, but for…" He frowned and tilted his head, considering. "You knew I was lost and you found me."

And with that, Harry assisted Snape up the steps and into the Great Hall for dinner.

They wove their way through the small, crowded tables that dotted the Great Hall, Snape's arm across Harry's shoulders, Harry's arm supporting Snape at his waist. Many of the small army of witches and wizards working to rebuild the castle had elected to stay in the Hufflepuff and Slytherin dormitories rather than travel to Hogwarts by Floo, and they took their meals in the Great Hall with the staff who had remained over the summer.

During the earliest days of rebuilding, the Great Hall had been too damaged to accommodate the long House tables, so smaller tables were conjured instead. As everyone had settled into a routine and found a place to call their own, no one bothered to restore the Hall to its previous configuration. The teachers, though, and Harry, still sat at the Staff Table so they could discuss matters unrelated to the restoration efforts. Harry just kept an eye on Snape's well being.

Harry assisted Snape into his chair, and then took his seat at the opposite wing of the table, waiting until Snape had a plate full of food before tucking into his own. As he ate, McGonagall slid an envelope in front of him, apologising as she did so.

"The book lists for the upcoming term were sent out two weeks ago," she explained, "but as yours was addressed to you here at Hogwarts, it never went to school owls for delivery. Until now, we've not had a student remain at the castle over the summer, so I suspect the house-elf who sees to such matters was confused."

Harry finished his turnips before sliding a finger under the flap of the envelope and quickly reading the letter. "I reckon I have most of the books at Grimmauld Place," he said, "but I'll need a new copy of Advanced Potion-Making. I'm pretty sure my old one burnt up."

He read through the second sheet and saw he'd been named both Head Boy and captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. His shoulders slumped and he sighed. "Professor," he said cautiously, "can you choose someone else for Head Boy? I really don't want it." He turned pleading eyes on her. "It's been a year since I've been at school, and I'd rather not be in charge of anything."

McGonagall regarded him steadily for a moment. "What about the Quidditch team?"

Harry shrugged. "I don't even have a broom." He turned his head to find Professor Snape following the conversation with interest. "Was there Quidditch last year?"

"Regretfully, no," replied Snape, his tone guarded. "Circumstances did not permit it."

"It wasn't your fault, Severus," said Pomona quietly. "Every single one of us holds you in the highest regard. We only regret not recognising the truth when it was sitting right under our noses."

"I will offer Head Boy to Neville Longbottom," McGonagall decided, changing the subject before the conversation turned maudlin. "He certainly proved his worth last year. Such a courageous young man and a shining example of what Gryffindor House strive to be."

"Who is Head Girl?" asked Harry, having a feeling he already knew the answer.

"Ms. Granger," Flitwick supplied, jumping into the discussion for the first time.

Harry shook his head. "Professor, I know she's brave and quite brilliant, but Hermione and I weren't even here last year, and you shouldn't offer Head Boy to Neville. If I were you, I'd find someone from Slytherin House. Besides, I don't think having Head Boy and Girl from the same House is a good idea. If you must have two eighth years, you should have two seventh years as well, one from Ravenclaw and one from Hufflepuff."

There was a long silence at the Staff Table as everyone turned to stare at him.

"Look," stammered Harry. "Slytherin House is going to have enough trouble as it is, especially if Professor Snape is still their Head of House. You've got to have one of them as either Head Boy or Girl."

"And why wouldn't I be Head of House?" rasped Snape from his end of the table.

"You were Headmaster last year, right?" said Harry. "To be honest, I'm not sure why you're not still in charge, but I reckon you sorted that out months ago. I figured that Professor Flitwick was still Head of Ravenclaw and Professor Sprout was Head of Hufflepuff, but I've no idea who's Head of Gryffindor if Professor McGonagall is Headmistress. And I reckon Slughorn was Head of Slytherin last year, so both of those are vacant. To be honest, I don't even know if you're teaching Defence or Potions this year."

"How have you spent all summer at the Staff Table and yet manage to remain ignorant about what goes on here?" asked Snape incredulously.

"Easy enough," replied Harry with a grin. "I've not spent all summer at the Staff Table. I've only been here since you started taking your meals with the rest of us. What's that, about a week now? I've been down there with everyone else 'til now," he continued, gesturing with his fork at the scattering of tables, "but I asked Professor McGonagall if I could sit up here to make certain you eat properly."

"It's a conspiracy," grumbled Snape.

"Quite right, Severus," agreed Flitwick, his eyes twinkling far too much like Dumbledore's for Harry's comfort. "We banded together and agreed that young Mr Potter ought not to have his heart broken, so in turn, we decided you should live."

Harry turned scarlet, having no idea whether Flitwick was serious or not. He busied himself with the rest of his meal, nearly missing McGonagall's next question in his determination to keep his head down. "What was that?" he asked, venturing a quick glance at her.

"I said, as it appears you have some opinion on the matter, to whom would you assign Head of House duties?"

"Oh." Harry scanned the faces of the teachers sitting with him at the table and realised how few of them he actually knew. He'd had classes with all the Heads, of course, as well as Binns who, being a ghost, had no reason to eat. Trelawney was absent, as usual, but she never took her meals with everyone else, preferring to keep her Inner Eye from seeing anything worthwhile. In Harry's opinion, the North Tower really was the best place for her.

He gave the matter his full attention and squirmed uncomfortably when he realised everyone was waiting for his opinion on the subject. "If it were me," he ventured, "I would move Professor Flitwick to Slytherin House, give Ravenclaw to Professor Vector, keep Professor Sprout at Hufflepuff and…" he swallowed and shot an apologetic glance at Snape, "put Professor Snape in charge of Gryffindor."

Flitwick's jaw dropped as Snape buried his face in his hands. The rest of the professors struggled to keep straight faces, though Sinistra barked out a laugh before she could bite it back. "And this, Mr Potter," said Snape once he had recovered his equilibrium, "is why I pray you will never become Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."

To Harry discomfiture, McGonagall regarded him thoughtfully. "An interesting and quite unanticipated idea, Mr Potter. I shall think on it."

"You cannot be serious," exclaimed Snape as Flitwick blinked in surprise. "Me? Associated with Gryffindor House? The House that never once in its history have considered the consequences…" His voice trailed off as he realised at once to whom he was speaking. "Before acting," he whispered. "Potter…" he growled.

Harry grinned weakly. "Are you ready to return to the dungeons?" Perhaps if they left now, Harry thought, he might be spared the humiliation of being dressed down in public.

"The dungeons!" exclaimed McGonagall. "That reminds me, the repairs to Gryffindor Tower have been completed. I expect you to move back into your dormitory in the morning."

"But," protested Harry, freezing in place just as he started to rise from the table. "Professor Snape isn't recovered yet." He turned frantic eyes on Snape. "He still needs potions, he's not sleeping well and he needs help with loads of things."

"Be that as it may," said McGonagall crisply, "surely you must know how inappropriate it is for you to remain sequestered in his quarters now that he is able to care for himself. I'm quite certain that Professor Snape understands." The quelling look she gave Snape said in no uncertain terms that he had better.

Harry eyes darted between the two, hoping that one of them would explain why it was such a bad idea to remain with Snape. McGonagall had known about his sexuality for weeks now, so what had changed? Surely she hadn't seen them snogging; as far as he knew, they'd been alone, and no matter how much he twisted his thoughts beyond recognition, he couldn't imagine Snape snogging him in such a public setting unless he was convinced there was no one around to see it.

"Your letter," said Snape, nodding to the envelope Harry had left beside his empty plate. "You are officially a student again, and as such, you are once again subject to my authority. The headmistress' request is proper." Snape's expression was impassive, but his eyes burned.

The hair on the back of Harry's neck rose, and his stomach did a slow roll as thoughts of kissing Snape again filled his mind. He snatched the envelope off the table and slipped it into his back pocket, wishing he could pretend he had not received it. "Why can't I wait until the first of September?" he asked plaintively. "It's only for a couple of weeks."

"I am sorry, Mr Potter," said McGonagall, and for once it sounded like she meant it. "I cannot let you remain in the dungeons with Professor Snape. Your place is in Gryffindor Tower, unless you would prefer to move to either the Slytherin or Hufflepuff dormitories for the remainder of the summer."

"No, ma'am," replied Harry, shaking his head, eyes downcast. "I'll have Kreacher move my things out tonight."

"Wait until tomorrow, Harry," she said gently. "The house-elves have yet to begin furnishing the dormitories, and at the moment, there is nothing for your house-elf to put your belongings in."

Snape climbed unsteadily to his feet. "While I have your assistance, Potter, I should like to make use of it," he said, his hard black eyes glittering like obsidian as he gazed calmly at McGonagall. "Tonight, if you don't mind."

"Yes, sir," said Harry quietly, his heart pounding. Was Snape angry at him for bringing his infirmities to the attention of the rest of the staff? He hastened to Snape's side, lending his arm to assist him off the dais.

They walked at a steady pace to the dungeons. Unlike the old days when Harry could judge Snape's mood by how much his robes billowed, now they barely whispered around Snape's ankles, and Harry couldn't begin to fathom what was going through Snape's mind. When they reached Snape's quarters, Harry opened the door and escorted him inside.

As soon as the door closed, Snape turned, his black eyes piercing. "Have you lost what little remains of your mind, Potter?" he snapped.

"I don't…" said Harry uneasily. "The Gryffindor thing? Or not wanting to leave?" As long as Snape wasn't upset about being snogged, he could live with the rest.

"Yes, the 'Gryffindor thing', as you put it," replied Snape, moving to the couch with more fluidity and grace than he'd shown all day. "Me? Head of Gryffindor House? It's preposterous." He sat down and crooked his index finger, beckoning Harry closer.

Harry sat down in the middle of the couch, tucking one leg underneath in order to face Snape. He licked his lips, wishing they'd stop drying up every time he wanted to say what was on his mind. "I can explain if you'd like," he offered nervously.

"I'm all ears," said Snape drolly.

"The way I see it," replied Harry, folding both legs to sit cross-legged, "the Hufflepuffs won't cause much trouble this year. They're just not the sort, always keeping to themselves. Really, I'm not sure they'd even notice if the other three Houses went missing, except they'd not have any Quidditch matches to play, so it makes sense that Professor Sprout remains their Head.

"The other three Houses, that's where the trouble is likely to be. Ravenclaw are brilliant—"

"Ms. Lovegood notwithstanding," interrupted Snape.

"You're wrong about that," replied Harry sharply. "She's incredibly smart and very…perceptive. It's easy for people to overlook her intelligence because, well, she is a bit peculiar, I'll grant you that, but Luna notices things most of the rest of us miss. Anyway, Ravenclaw know Slytherin House are vulnerable now, and they're not above poking them with sticks just to see how they'll react. They'll see it as an experiment."

"Which is why moving Flitwick out of that House is a particularly bad idea," said Snape.

"Well, yes," replied Harry with a grin, "unless he's moved to Slytherin. I expect Ravenclaw are loyal to Flitwick." Harry's face darkened for a moment, green eyes flashing. "The same way I am to McGonagall." He drew in a deep breath as he forced a memory back into its little hidey hole, along with the other things he wished he could forget.

"Tell me," murmured Snape.

Harry's mouth went dry and he bit the inside of his cheek so hard he drew blood. He looked away for a moment, steeling himself. "The night of the battle," he said, his voice tight, "McGonagall came into Ravenclaw Tower whilst I was there trying to figure out what the last Horcrux was. Amortus Carrow—"

"Amycus," corrected Snape. "His name is Amycus."

"Whatever," said Harry dismissively. "It's not like I'll be sending him a Christmas card at Azkaban. Anyway, he spat in McGonagall's face. He spat in her face," Harry repeated, each word hard as flint. "And I, umm, used the Cruciatus Curse on him." He gazed steadily at Snape. "I don't regret it. I'd do it again if I had to."

"As would I," growled Snape, his dark eyes flashing much as Harry's had. "Your actions were justified, Potter. Do not allow it to consume you."

"I don't. I just…I try not to think about that day." Harry bowed his head as he fought to keep the ghosts that haunted him at bay. Fred. Remus. Tonks. All the rest. He drew a shaky breath. "Anyway, we were talking about Ravenclaw. If Flitwick heads Slytherin House, most of the Ravenclaws will think twice, maybe even three times, about acting against Slytherin, because they know Flitwick would be really disappointed in them."

"And you believe I'd have the same effect on my former House if I were to take Gryffindor House?" asked Snape, his brow arched, though whether in amusement or amazement Harry couldn't say.

"No," replied Harry with a quick shake of his head. "Quite the opposite. Right now, sir, the Wizarding world doesn't know what to make of you. They know you were a spy for the Order, but you killed Dumbledore, and even though they know why, most of them don't believe it. You're a Slytherin, so they're not sure if you can be trusted. If you go back to being Head of Slytherin House, people will think you really were a Death Eater all along."

"I was a Death Eater all along. Do not romanticise my actions, Potter. I was, for the most part, preserving my own skin."

"Yes, at the same time you were risking it. The whole thing could have blown up in your face at any moment. We both know that. That's why I think the Slytherins are likely to turn on you. You played both sides against the middle so well they're not likely to trust you. Gryffindor don't particularly like you—you've never given them reason to—but they'll respect you, especially because you've shown so much courage. It's not the typical Gryffindor bravery. It's bigger than that. I promise you though, if you take Gryffindor House, people will see you in a new light.

"With all of Gryffindor House behind you, no Slytherin would dare attack you directly—"

"No student would dare attack a teacher, Potter, regardless of House affiliation."

"Sir," said Harry gently. "A lot of Slytherins have parents who will be in Azkaban for the rest of their lives. They're humiliated and angry for being on the losing side, and they're going to be looking for a scapegoat. You betrayed them, and I'm not certain that your status as a teacher is going to protect you for long."

"Wouldn't that put you equally at risk?" asked Snape. "You destroyed the Dark Lord."

Harry shrugged. "I've been a target all my life. I just think Gryffindor House will need someone strong to keep them from continuing the war. McGonagall can't be headmistress and Head of Gryffindor and I know that House. They'll ignore anyone new. You might have noticed that we lot tend to be a bit hard-headed."

"Why so much concern for Slytherin? You've never shown any consideration for the members of that House before."

"I was almost put in Slytherin," Harry reminded Snape. "The Sorting Hat thought I would have done well there, but I'd already met Malfoy by then and didn't want to be part of the same House he was in. But it's not Slytherin I'm worried about; it's Hogwarts as a whole. I don't know how things were last year, other than what Neville and Ginny have told me, but I can wager that Slytherin were a lot like when Umbridge was in charge. Gryffindor and Ravenclaw will have some scores to settle, I reckon."

"We are talking about children, Potter. Children who will fear the loss of House points or privileges. Children who would prefer to remain out of detention."

"Look, I know I'm not explaining this very well," said Harry, frustrated with himself for his inability to get his point across. "Yes, we're children. Children who have fought a war. Children who have lost parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins. Children who are hurt and angry and confused. Who will be living at the place where they saw their friends and family murdered before their eyes. Maimed. Injured.

"Slytherin weren't allowed to choose a side. They were sent to Hogsmeade with the lower forms. The entire House, all of them, were thought to be Dark. Half the Wizarding world is convinced you're Dark, even though you fought for the Order. If you're Head of Slytherin, nothing changes. Don't you see? Slytherin need a Head who could never been seen as a Dark witch or wizard. They need to be seen as something other than the breeding ground for Dark Lords. You can't do that."

Snape sat quietly for a few minutes, clearly digesting Harry's words. "I believe you invest more influence in the Heads than we actually possess. The Houses are shaped largely through the prefect system, Potter. The leaders within each House guide and shape the students far more than the Heads do. Peer pressure is a stronger force than any loss of points could ever be."

Harry considered that for a moment, remembering his shame every time he managed to lose Gryffindor a significant number of points, knowing he'd let his Housemates down. "I see what you're saying," he said softly. "But I still think Gryffindor House needs you."

"Gryffindor House?" asked Snape, his voice low. "Or you?"

The slow rush of arousal swept through Harry and his eyes darkened as they searched Snape's face. He wetted his lips as his fingers curled and his breath caught in his throat. "It's bad enough that I have to leave here tomorrow," he said imploringly. "So don't tease me like that, okay? Not after—"

"I do not tease, Potter. Nor do I say anything I do not mean. Rather than tie your puny mind in knots, I suggest you attempt to think like the Slytherin you so nearly became," said Snape, his eyes lingering on Harry's lips.

"What do you mean?" whispered Harry, eyes widening as a frisson of anticipation raced through him.

"Idiot child. I will not spell it out for you. As you intimated, this is your last night here. Were I you, I would find a way to turn that to my advantage." Snape rose to his feet. "I am going to bed. I will see to my potions myself." Moving with purposeful steps, Snape strode into his bedroom, leaving the door slightly ajar.

Think like a Slytherin? Turn his last night with Snape to his advantage? The answer is not no. Blood rushed in Harry's ears as his mind raced. Should he? More important, could he? He loved Snape, there was no question about that, and didn't want to take advantage of him, but that kiss had been the most arousing thing he'd ever experienced. Wasn't it natural to want more? To explore further? Was it unfair if Snape had offered, even if only obliquely? The harder he thought, the more mired down he became.

Suddenly, Harry laughed. Tie his puny mind in knots indeed. That was precisely what he was doing, sitting here dithering when he could be in there with Snape, learning about himself, discovering the man who had so thoroughly captured his heart. With a confidence that was only partly feigned, he rose from the couch and slipped through the bedroom door.

Harry managed one step inside before freezing in his tracks. There, on the bed, lay Severus Snape, naked as the day he was born. Heat bloomed in Harry's face, and as he stood there gaping, Snape's hand began to move lazily over his prick.

"I was beginning to wonder if you'd appear," said Snape, his roughened voice pitched at a level that went straight to Harry's cock. "I will make this simple for you—do nothing to me you wouldn't want done to yourself. If, in your enthusiasm, you hurt me, I will say so. If you have questions, I will answer them. Agreed?"

Harry nodded dumbly as he knelt to unlace his boots, his fingers trembling so much that it was a wonder he didn't tangle them up. Once his feet were bare, he turned away from Snape and removed his glasses before pulling his shirt over his head. It was easier somehow, now that he couldn't see clearly. Taking a deep breath, he unfastened his trousers and stepped out of them and his y-fronts as well. Needing a moment to compose himself, he folded his clothes and set them neatly aside, then turned to face Snape.

"Come here, Harry," invited Snape, stretching an arm out towards him.

Harry blinked in surprise at hearing his name come out of Snape's mouth. "You called me Harry," he breathed, elated. To his recollection, it was the very first time Snape had ever used his name.

"So I did," acknowledged Snape. "For tonight, you may call me Severus if you wish."

Dazed, he took Snape's hand and allowed himself to be pulled to the bed. "I don't know what to do," he admitted in a low voice. "I've never done this before."

"At all?" asked Snape as he scooted over a bit to make room for Harry to lie next to him. "Or with a man?" He rolled onto his side and rested his hand on Harry's belly.

Harry moaned. "At all. I touched Ginny's bosom once, but mostly we just snogged." He lay stiffly on his back, giddy, terrified, eager, and at a complete loss as well. His heart was racing a mile a minute and he could barely see straight. "She tried to touch me a couple of times, but I asked her not to. It was…it felt wrong."

"Understandable," murmured Snape. "For now, I suggest you think about what you believe you would enjoy experiencing and do that. Explore, taste, feel. It is all available to you." He rolled onto his back and spread his legs.

"What if I do something you don't like?" asked Harry a bit fearfully as he turned, propping himself up on his elbow.

"I will tell you. Do not worry, Harry," said Snape. "There is very little you can do wrong. Trust me when I say there is no one way to do anything. Now, hand me my wand, please. It's on the bedside table nearest me."

To get to Snape's wand, Harry either had to crawl across Snape's body or get off the bed and walk around. He chose the former, leaning across Snape to grasp the hilt, and shivered at the feel of Snape's bare skin against his, much warmer and softer than he expected. "Your wand," he whispered shakily before leaning in to press his lips against Snape's.

Snape removed the wand from Harry's hand as he cupped the back of Harry's head, parting his lips under Harry's. He cast a wordless spell, dimming the candlelight before setting the wand on the bed next to him, safely out of Harry's way.

The tip of Harry's tongue made tentative exploration of Snape's lips, then dipping further into Snape's mouth. There wasn't much taste to speak of, just a natural sweetness that he found intoxicating. He kissed Snape again as he settled himself between Snape's legs, feeling the hardness of Snape's cock next to his own. "Ohhh," Harry breathed as a jolt of electricity rushed through him.

He dropped kisses over Snape's face as his hips began to rock, his cock rubbing against Snape's, becoming slippery with pre-come as he moved. Not wanting to come too soon, he pulled himself onto his knees, blushing as a strand of clear fluid dripped onto Snape's belly.

Snape's hand came up to rest against Harry's cheek. "Do not worry about such trivial matters. I assure you, we will both be in need of a bath by the time we've finished."

"I just…"

"Shhh. Just do what comes naturally. If you're that worried, you can simply lick it off." Snape's hand trailed down Harry's shoulder and arm before resting on the bed once again.

"Oh god," groaned Harry, his cock taking a hard twitch. Suddenly, tasting Snape sounded like the best thing in the entire world. He slid forward, kissing along the side of Snape's neck, dragging his tongue lightly over the scars left by Nagini. They must have been very sensitive as Snape gasped and shivered.

"Okay?" he asked uncertainly.

"Yesss," said Snape breathlessly, his body giving a convulsive shiver. "Very much so."

Pleased, Harry licked over the spot again, Snape's soft moan moving through him like hot syrup. God, he'd never get enough of that incredible sound. He kissed along the sharp angle of Snape's collarbone, tasting the flesh hidden within the hollow, breathing in Snape's scent.

He trailed his fingers over Snape's skin, memorising the peaks and valleys of Snape's body. He plucked lightly at Snape's nipples before pinching them lightly. "Oh, Merlin," he moaned as Snape arched up under him. He nipped lightly at one as his fingers rolled the other, then suckled on it, shivering as Snape cried out.

Harry knelt between Snape's legs as he kissed his way down his long, lean torso and over the flat planes of Snape's belly, nosing against the milky white flesh. Finally, hands resting lightly at the top of Snape's hipbones, Harry dragged his tongue along the hard column of Snape's cock, so long and thick he wondered how it would ever fit in his mouth.

"Hold the base with your hand," gasped Snape. "And don't choke yourself. It is not necessary to take in any more than you're comfortable with."

"Thank you," whispered Harry, turning grateful green eyes on Snape. He wrapped his left hand around the base as instructed, then lowered his head and inhaled deeply, familiarising himself with the aroma of Snape's natural musk. Gathering his courage, he swiped his tongue over the head, expecting the taste to be far more bitter than it was.

One of Snape's hands moved in his hair, tightening convulsively as Harry dragged his tongue over the crown more slowly. He delved into the slit, lapping up the fluid that was welling up there. He settled more confidently into his task, licking and tasting, exploring the head, the foreskin, the lovely ridge and thick vein. With a quick glance up to Snape's face, he took as much of Snape's cock into his mouth as he dared, suckled lightly and drew back slowly.

Snape's soft moans and cries wrapped themselves around Harry's skin, burrowing under his flesh and becoming a part of him, and Harry sucked harder. He loved the feel of Snape's cock on his tongue, the taste of him so much better than he had ever expected. He slurped as he drew more of Snape into his mouth, saliva welling at the corners of his lips. It was unschooled and inelegant, but Harry no longer cared. No matter how inexpertly he was doing this, Snape was enjoying it and that was what mattered most.

"Harry…" moaned Snape with a hint of warning in his tone. He thrust a bit into Harry's mouth, causing him to look up.

"What?" asked Harry, his red lips swollen, his eyes dark and glassy with pleasure. "Oh!" He grinned at the realization and kissed his way back up Snape's body until he was lying on top of him, covering him as completely as he could. He kissed Snape hungrily, wetly, and wondered if Snape could taste himself in his mouth. "I want you inside me," he murmured against Snape's mouth. "Is that okay?"

Snape wrapped his arms around Harry's slender form as Harry kissed him. "Do you honestly believe I would refuse you?" he murmured.

Harry blushed and shook his head, though his face said otherwise. Rejection was, and always had been, a very real possibility. He moved languidly, Snape's cock slipping along his as he pumped slowly against Snape's body, skin tingling from head to toe. As much as he wanted this, his body was demanding something more.

"Would you like me to cast the spells?" asked Snape as his hands moved soothingly over Harry's back. "You do you know them, yes?"

"You know I do," Harry gasped. Madam Pomfrey had been teaching them to Harry when Snape had barged into her office, demanding to be released from the Hospital Wing. Rather embarrassing, that.

"Lie still." Snape picked up his wand and trailed the tip of it lightly along Harry's crack, chanting slowly and softly so Harry could hear the incantations spoken properly and would feel them as they took hold. "There. Do as you will."

"Touch me," pleaded Harry, wanting, needing to feel more than a simple relaxation spell. This might be a one-off for Snape, but it meant so much more than that to Harry. He didn't know how to give except with his whole self, and he wouldn't rest easy if he'd held anything back.

Snape held Harry's gaze for a moment and nodded. "Turn around so you're facing my feet and straddle my chest."

It took Harry a moment to get situated and he turned to look over his shoulder at Snape, his face registering his confusion. Snape had scooted back toward the head of the bed and was reclining on the pillows. "Like this?"

"Just like that. Now, go back to what you were doing earlier," instructed Snape, dark eyes smouldering as his eyes dropped to the curve of Harry's arse and feasted on the sight. As Harry bent down, he said, "Lift your hips just a bit. Just like that."

It was not a hardship to return to licking and tasting Snape's cock, and Harry wrapped his hand back around the base as he'd been told earlier. No sooner had he lowered his head than he felt a touch at his entrance. He jumped, his cock throbbing.

"Relax, Harry," soothed Snape, stroking the small of Harry's back. "You wished to be touched."

Pulling his knees under him, Harry raised his hips a bit higher as his lips encircled the head of Snape's cock. He moaned as Snape slowly pressed a finger inside, working it in and out of his arse. He couldn't concentrate, licking and sucking mindlessly as Snape slowly stretched him open.

He couldn't help himself. He rocked back against Snape's hand, trying to pull Snape's fingers deeper inside, Snape's cock forgotten for the moment. He was so close, so damned close to something, something nameless, something wonderful, something he needed desperately. "More," he keened, crying out with strangled sob. He arched his back and pushed up on all fours, fighting to keep from touching himself.

"It's all right if you wish to come," said Snape as he opened Harry with three fingers, twisting them gently inside Harry's body. "We have all night."

"No," cried Harry. "Need…need…oh god! Please!" He pushed against Snape's fingers, rotating his hips, squirming, seeking, wanting, nearly insane with desire. He was shivering, arms shaking, moaning from deep in his chest.

Snape withdrew his fingers. "You're ready," he said, guiding Harry around and managing to avoid being kneed in the head as Harry turned clumsily to face him once again. "Lower yourself slowly. I will assist you." Snape reached down and steadied his cock, shifting Harry slightly with his other hand.

It took a bit of experimentation to find the right position, but after he had done, Harry sank down slowly, beads of sweat dotting his forehead and upper lip as his arse stretched to accommodate Snape's girth. He panted softly, clutching Snape's shoulder with one hand, the muscles in his thighs quivering as they supported his weight.

Snape worked his hand between them, touching the spot where he and Harry were joined. "Lubricus," he whispered as Harry lifted up a bit. "Better?"

"Yes," breathed Harry, as he lowered himself again, sinking deeper this time. He moved his hands to Snape's chest as he began to move up and down. "Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Oh, god, yes!" Faster and faster he rode Snape's cock, and moments later, Snape was slamming up to meet him. His fingers laced through Snape's—he wasn't sure how it had happened—and he threw his head back, his eyes closed as waves of pleasure washed through him.

It was nothing like Harry had ever imagined. He felt alive, every nerve in his body tingling, his skin singing with ecstasy. It was like flying high without a broom, so near the sun he could almost touch it. Sweet thermals of pleasure lifted him higher and higher, and when Snape shifted under him and touched something deep inside, he nearly screamed as lightning flashed behind his eyes. "Oh, sweet Merlin!" he gasped. "Please!"

Snape guided one of their clasped hands to Harry's cock and wrapped his and Harry's fingers around it. Together, they stroked it, Snape dragging his thumb through the stream of clear fluid seeping from the slit.

Harry arched and cried out, his orgasm ripping through him, splitting him wide open and exposing all the vulnerabilities he had so carefully buried away. He started to shake, turning his face away from Snape, wanting to hide once more.

"Shhh. Shhh," soothed Snape. "It will be alright. Lie down on your stomach and spread your legs. I'll take care of you." He pulled Harry beneath him, covering him as he gently guided himself back into Harry's tight heat. He moved his hips slowly, enveloping Harry with his entire body as he murmured softly in Harry's ear.

Tears trickled down Harry's face as Snape made love to him. He had found his place in the world only to have to surrender it in the same moment, and he knew he would be forever changed by this. His heart belonged to Snape whether Snape wanted it or not. He didn't know how else to love except with his entire being, but come morning he would have to pretend that none of this had ever happened, and he didn't think he could do it. Harry found Snape's hands and pulled them under his body, moaning as Snape took his pleasure with him, his heart breaking as he understood what he was giving up.

"I love you," he whispered, closing his eyes.

"I know, Harry," Snape sighed softly. "I know."

Chapter Text

For the next two weeks, Harry haunted the castle, lending a hand with whatever chore would bring him into Snape's orbit. It wasn't that he never saw the man; on the contrary, Snape partook in every meal before returning to the dungeon classrooms to ready them for the upcoming term. But no matter how hard he tried, Harry was never able to be alone with him. He reckoned it was probably better this way, but that didn't make him feel any happier about the situation.

The night before the students were set to arrive, Harry lay back on his four-poster in Gryffindor Tower, fingers laced behind his neck, and wondered if Hogwarts was ready to be a school again. Some parts of the castle were in danger of collapse, the creatures that dwelt in the Forbidden Forest were still restive, and the teachers already appeared to be on the brink of exhaustion. At least Ravenclaw and Gryffindor Towers had been repaired—which was something of a minor miracle—so none of the Houses would have to share their territory with anybody else.

He glanced over at his cupboard, packed with fresh quills, clean rolls of parchment and bottles of fresh ink. A complete set of textbooks sat on the shelf near his bed, and new robes hung in the wardrobe. He'd helped himself to some of the gold Sirius had left him and replaced his beloved Firebolt with a new one, though it didn't bring him as much joy as the one from his godfather had done. He'd even paid a visit to Eeylops, managing barely five feet before he was blinded by tears and had to flee.

He missed Hedwig to the depths of his soul.

Harry got out of bed with a sigh, curling up in the very window he'd sat in his first night at Hogwarts. He gazed out at the grounds, at the Forest, at the Quidditch pitch. So much of his life had happened here within the walls of the castle that he wondered how he would ever bring himself to leave this place. Even after a year spent on the run, he wasn't ready to call anywhere else home.

Tomorrow would see Ron, Ginny and Hermione back. The common room would be filled with students, though noticeably fewer than the last time Harry had been a student here. It occurred to him that Colin wouldn't be here to thrust a camera in his face every ten seconds, and Harry took a deep breath, refusing to give in to his threatening tears, afraid he'd never find his way out of the blackness of despair if he relaxed his guard for even a minute. Best to look forward and hope Ron and Hermione had managed to forgive him during their months apart.

As it had done every night since Harry had left the dungeons, his mind returned to that last night in Snape's rooms, his only night in Snape's bed. It had been far better than Harry could ever have imagined, much better than Charlie had led him to believe was possible. His mind frequently replayed portions of it when he least expected it, and more than once, he'd been caught off-guard by a wave of longing so powerful he could barely breathe. It wasn't simply sex he craved; he was lonely in ways that he'd never been before. It was as if he'd carved out the essence of his being and locked it away. Harry had left part of himself down in the dungeons that night, and he was helpless to get it back.

He watched as a waxing quarter moon inched across the night sky, and for a moment, he was sorely tempted to go to the top of the Astronomy Tower and cogitate for awhile. But it was late and he was tired. Tonight was the last night he'd have the dormitory to himself, so he might as well take advantage of that whilst he could.

Harry stripped down to his bare skin and lay back on his bed, imagining Snape doing all the things to him that he had done. His hand travelled lazily down the hard planes of his stomach, his fingertips trailing over the line of hair that led to his prick. He twisted a nipple, pleased when it hardened under his touch. Leaning over, he snatched a bottle of lotion off his bedside table and slathered some over his fingers. He rolled back the foreskin, teasing the head of his prick, rolling his hips as it lengthened in his hand.

Before long, Harry had worked up a fast rhythm, his right hand moving with practiced skill over his cock, his left hand seeking out his arsehole and fingering it. He lifted his hips off the bed, thrusting into the tunnel of his hand whilst his fingers sought that place inside that had caused entire galaxies to explode behind his eyes. "Aaahhh!" he cried out suddenly as his fingers found it, and he spilled seconds later over his hand.

Spent, Harry flopped back on his bed, debating the relative merits of tissues versus cleaning charms. "Sod it," he said aloud, though there was no one else to hear him, and disappeared into the bathroom to enjoy the last long, hot shower he was likely to have for months.

After breakfast the next morning, Harry joined the dozens of witches and wizards who had been helping in the reconstruction of Hogwarts as they made their final inspection of the castle. They wandered through classrooms and common rooms, storerooms and libraries. The house-elves spent the morning frantically rehanging portraits that had been sent out for repair, many of which complained bitterly about their new corridors. The Fat Lady, Harry was happy to see, had been restored to her place as guardian of Gryffindor Tower, and as its sole resident, he was asked to provide the first password.

"Would you like me to select one, dear?" asked the Fat Lady after Harry had considered and discarded a dozen suggestions. He was never at his best when surrounded by people, and the press of strangers made him nervous. But when he felt a light touch on his shoulder and looked back to find Snape behind him, keeping the small crowd at bay, Harry shook his head, feeling as though he could finally breathe.

"No, it's okay," he said, reining in a broad smile. He leant forward and cupped his hand around the Fat Lady's ear. "Fortiter et fideliter," he whispered before glancing back at Snape again. He stepped back and looked at her. "Do you know what it means?"

Bravely and faithfully. The Fat Lady's eyes grew misty, as though someone had suddenly painted over them with petroleum jelly. "I do indeed," she said, her eyes sweeping over the walls where so many portraits were still missing before coming to rest on Snape's face. "I truly do."

Snape looked at the portrait as though she'd suddenly taken leave of her senses. "What did you choose for a password, Potter?" he whispered into Harry's ear.

"I'm afraid I can't tell you, Professor," Harry whispered back as the portrait swung open to admit them. "You're not in Gryffindor." He stepped through and offered his trembling hand to Snape, then performed the same duty for McGonagall. In no time, a small crowd had gathered in the refurbished common room. Wands came out and the assembly began going through the dormitories to ensure the doors closed properly and the charms were set to keep the girls and boys separated at night.

Harry pulled Snape aside as nearly everyone vanished up the stairs. "Why did you come up here?" he asked, stepping as close as he dared. He glanced around furtively to see if they were being watched. "You didn't come up to Ravenclaw, and this is a long way for you to climb for nothing."

"Ensuring your safety is hardly a trivial matter," replied Snape, fixing his dark eyes on Harry. "The headmistress thought, and I agreed, that extra precautions should be taken, especially since, as you said, you're frequently a target."

With two witches and one wizard busy inspecting the Floo connections in the common room fireplace, Harry took advantage of the situation to steal the briefest of kisses, one that still managed to leave him lightheaded and weak-kneed despite its brevity. He quickly stepped back a respectful distance, his eyes filled with longing. "My room is up this way if you wish to see it for yourself," he said quietly.

The stairwell was crowded and it took several minutes for them to fight their way up and push inside. To his utter astonishment, Harry found several witches going through his wardrobe. "Put those back right now," he demanded, snatching his House scarf out of the fingers of one. Before he could blink, Snape was heading back down stairs, leaving him to deal with the mess alone.

Shooing everyone out of his dormitory, Harry took a moment to get his temper under control before going back down to the common room where, to his surprise, he found Snape blocking the portrait hole with McGonagall at his side.

"Is anything missing, Mr Potter?" said Snape in the low, quiet voice Harry recognised as his most dangerous. A number of those gathered had had Snape for Potions at one point or another, and judging by the hush that fell over the room, they knew that the worst possible thing they could do was to draw any attention to themselves.

"Not that I could tell," said Harry, his eyes hard, "but I wasn't expecting to be robbed, was I?"

Snape and McGonagall put heads together for a moment and whispered, leaving Harry to wonder what they were talking about so secretively. A moment later, they drew their wands and cast a Revealing Charm Harry had never heard before. Immediately, half a dozen people began to glow, and Harry soon found himself with an armload of things he hadn't noticed were missing: a new quill, a sock, a page from his copy of Quidditch Through the Ages, two twigs from his new Firebolt, and his toothbrush.

"If you will escort our guests down to the Great Hall, Severus," said McGonagall in a voice edged with frost, "I will accompany these miscreants up to my office and turn them over to the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol. Mr Potter, you have my full and deepest apologies for the conduct of these fools."

Harry didn't understand it in the slightest. He had worked alongside these people all summer as they restored the castle to as much of its former glory as possible, and now they were stealing from him? If they'd wanted a memento from the Boy-Who-Lived, they should just have asked. He would have been happy to give away whatever he had left of Dudley's old things; he certainly didn't want them.

He watched as Snape exited through the portrait hole and followed the last person out of the common room, after making absolutely certain no one was left in Gryffindor Tower. He felt much better knowing the Fat Lady was back at her post and that he was the only person who knew the password. As the portrait swung closed behind him, he looked around to find Snape standing at the top of the Grand Staircase waiting for the last of the small battalion of workers to march past.

Since they were bringing up the rear, the rest of the witches and wizards arrayed in a long squiggly line in front of them, Harry took Snape's hand as they started down the long flight of stairs together. He laced his fingers through Snape's, keeping his eyes forward, saying nothing as they walked side by side.

Snape glanced questioningly at their interlocked hands and arched a brow at Harry, but he must have chosen to say nothing about it, since his mouth snapped shut and his beetle-black eyes focussed on the small crowd ahead of them. The answer is not no. Harry's heart soared, so delighted to share such a simple thing that he could have burst from it.

Suddenly, Snape stumbled, his foot missing the next step. Harry cried out and yanked on Snape's arm, somehow managing to keep Snape on his feet long enough for him to regain his balance. "Are you all right?" he asked breathlessly, his eyes examining Snape's face. "Of course you're not," he continued, nearly frantic with worry.

Snape, Harry realized, looked dreadful. His pallor was ghostly, his thin lips two grey lines set in a waxy face. The bony hand clutching the balustrade shook. "I am fine, Potter," protested Snape. "It is merely a moment of dizziness. It shall pass."

"You're pushing yourself too hard," growled Harry. "I told them you weren't ready to be left alone, but no one ever listens to me. Are you taking your potions as you should?" Snape opened his mouth to reply, but Harry barrelled on. "No, of course not. You're perfectly capable of taking care of yourself, except that you don't. You never have done. I don't know how you're going to manage this term without help." Harry set his lips in a hard line, his eyes flashing with determination. "Once I see you to the dungeons, I'm going to speak with Madam Pomfrey. Maybe Professor McGonagall will listen to her."

"I am not an invalid, Potter, nor do I enjoy being treated as one," snarled Snape. "Escort me, please, to the Great Hall. You will find both Madam Pomfrey and Professor McGonagall there, should you choose to make a spectacle of yourself on my behalf. It is a course of action I do not recommend."

"I never said you were an invalid," Harry ground out. "I said you're a stubborn git who thinks he knows best, even when it's clear you don't. I'm going to take care of you, and that's that. Everyone else can sod off for all I care." Though his body sang with anger, the hands that assisted Snape down the stairs were gentle, their touch loving.

They took several breaks so Snape could rest, and the pair made it down the stairs without further incident. Upon reaching the Great Hall, however, Harry stopped and stared. Professors Flitwick, Vector and Sinistra were positioning people like chess pieces, moving them to various points in the Great Hall. Every once in awhile, they'd consult some chart and confer intensely, then move the witch or wizard in question to a new spot.

"What are they doing?" asked Harry as he stepped inside, only to have Professor Flitwick wave him back, his little arms gesturing madly.

"I've no idea," admitted Snape as he watched Vector and Sinistra argue about where to place a dour-faced witch who reminded Harry strongly of Moaning Myrtle.

Professor Sprout hustled over breathlessly. "Thank Merlin you've come." Her eyes narrowed as she gazed critically at Snape. "Filius is having a terrible time finding a north anchor. I do hope you're strong enough, Severus. Harry, I expect he'll ask you to take the south end. Are you up for it, lad?"

"Strong en—"

"I will manage, Pomona," said Snape over Harry's objection.

"But—"

"Is he ready for me, yet?"

"Not yet, but it won't be much longer," said Sprout in a rush. "Rest up for a moment, Severus. You look terrible."

"See?" said Harry indignantly. "You're not well. Whatever Flitwick needs, he should find someone else to do it."

"Professor Flit—"

"Quite the champion you have, Severus," interrupted Sprout with a grin. "Wait right there, you two. One of us will be over to collect you as soon as we're ready." She bustled off before Harry could get a single question answered.

With a sideways glance at Snape, Harry dragged over one of the benches piled up near the wall and urged Snape to sit. "Have you been taking the anti-Nagini potion as often as you're supposed to?" he asked with a scowl, standing over Snape with his hands on his hips. "I know you don't like that one."

"The one you refer to as 'Nagini-Be-Gone'? No," said Snape. "It slows my thought processes and causes my hands to shake. I cannot brew properly when I take it."

"But you have to take it until the toxins are gone. Pomfrey told me what will happen if you don't: paralysis, liver failure, kidney damage, dementia," he listed, ticking them off on his fingers. "Is being able to brew worth your life?"

"Use your brain, Potter," said Snape bitingly. "If I don't brew, there won't be any anti-Nagini to take."

"What about the Potions Masters at St Mungo's? They must be able to make it. They did for Ron's dad."

"They make sludge," said Snape dismissively. "And I refuse to consume their swill."

"Then let Hermione help you," replied Harry, desperately. "Or Draco. They're both at the top of the class for Potions. Or one of your other N.E.W.T. students."

"Lest you forget, Potter, you are one of my N.E.W.T. students and I wouldn't swallow one of your potions with a wand pointed at my head."

Harry arched a brow, a slight grin emerging from behind the cloud of worry, warming his face like a sunny day. "Is that so? Hermione and I will brew your potion and if it's up to scratch, you'll take it without a single word of complaint. Deal?"

"You said nothing about involving Ms Granger," said Snape suspiciously.

"Don't really know if she'll help me, to be honest," admitted Harry. "But you can't not take it, so either allow me to brew it with her help or I'll ask McGonagall to ship you back to St Mungo's. What's it to be?"

Snape's face darkened in anger, but before he could spit out a response, Flitwick toddled over to him as swiftly as his short legs could carry him. "Severus, can you support the charm at the north end? I'm all out of powerful casters, except for you and Mr Potter here." Flitwick grinned at the pair of them. "I require your magic, Severus. That is all."

"That is all," muttered Harry under his breath. "As if he has a limitless amount of energy." He took a step forward, edging between Flitwick and Snape. He regarded Flitwick through cool eyes. "Will it drain him, Professor?"

"Eh?" Flitwick shook his head. "No, Mr Potter. He may need a bit of a rest afterwards, but he'll be right as rain by the Welcoming Feast. Come with me, Potter. I'll need you down here. Severus, I'll return for you in a moment," he called cheerfully over his shoulder.

Reluctantly, Harry followed Professor Flitwick to the back of the Great Hall, looking over his shoulder at Snape instead of watching where he was going. He bounced off an older wizard and reached out automatically to steady the man. "Sorry," he said as he spun to follow Flitwick. "Sorry."

"All right, Mr Potter," said Flitwick as he jostled Harry around until he was standing in exactly the right spot, facing precisely in the right direction, wand arm extended to the proper height. "Do not move, not even an inch."

After placing Snape under the mullioned windows at the front of the Hall, Flitwick stood up on the Staff Table and brought everyone in the Hall to attention. He placed the tip of his wand under his chin and his amplified voice rang off the ceiling. "On behalf of Hogwarts, we thank you for helping us rebuild the castle. As the resident Charms Master, it is my pleasure to teach you the enchantments needed to bring our ceiling back to life." He gestured to the vaulted stone ceiling soaring high above their heads, the cold stone bleak and barren of life.

Harry's jaw dropped and his eyes lit up with excitement. He was going to help charm the ceiling, the one he glanced at a dozen times a day to anchor himself in the present, to remind himself that he was still alive, no matter what awaited him beyond the castle walls. Generations of students would look up as the school owls delivered letters from home and see blue sky and clouds, starlight and moonbeams, the threat of storms or the peace of a summer's day, and he, Harry Potter, would have had a hand in that.

He listened intently as Flitwick demonstrated the wand movements, and repeated it over and over and over until he could perform it properly. The incantation came next, but Harry didn't understand Latin well enough to translate and only knew that it had something to do with the stars, the sun and hope for the future. He repeated the charm, absorbing the cadence as fifty voices chanted it in unison.

"Practice, everyone," exhorted Flitwick. "Practice, whilst I speak with our anchors." He jabbed his wand under his chin and suddenly Harry could hear Flitwick's voice in his head.

The enchantment is a canon, a round, if you will. Once they've all said the first half, you four will need to come in. Watch my wand and pay attention. If it doesn't work the first time, we can try again. Remember that.

Harry fixed his eyes on Snape, standing alone in front of the tall windows, and his heart went out to him. Even now, when Snape's strength was required to help hold the charms in place, he was isolated, a solitary figure doing what was necessary for the benefit of others, no thanks given or expected.

It wasn't fair, Harry decided, that all of Snape's efforts should remain overlooked. If love was the greatest power ever known, then he would pour his heart into his spell so that years from now, when the ceiling was a mere afterthought to those who gathered within the Great Hall, the ceiling would remember that the man whose power supported the enchantments was loved beyond all reason.

"Three times through without stopping," cried Flitwick. "Keep your wands up and moving as I showed you. Those at the anchor points, you know what to do. On three, everybody. One…. Two…. Three!"

"In somnis mihi ad astra…" The sound of scores of voices chanting in unison brought shivers to Harry's spine, and he felt the magic swirl around him. Flitwick's wand gave a sudden twist and Harry knew instinctively that that was his cue. He focussed on Snape and began to speak the incantation, moving his wand as Flitwick had instructed. His heart swelled, his spirit soared as a jet of blinding white light burst from his wand. It exploded against the ceiling and trickled down the wall, disappearing into the stonework where the ceiling ended and the wall began.

Suddenly, the only voices in the Hall were his, Snape's, Flitwick's and Sprout's. They finished the charm, ending with a sharp flourish of wands. A bead of golden light spread from the anchor points and ran around the edges of the ceiling until they connected. Blue sky dotted with clouds soared overhead and a hush filled the room. Everyone held their breath until the four of them lowered their wands, then exhaled collectively under the shimmering summer sky. They had done it.

Harry's smile was brilliant, almost as bright as the spell light from his wand had been, but it faded quickly when he noticed Madam Pomfrey rushing to Snape's side. Enough was enough. Weaving his way through the chattering throng, he sprinted to the front of the room in time to hear Pomfrey scold Snape.

"I warned you about this, Severus. You cannot permit yourself to become exhausted."

"He's not…taking…the…antivenin," Harry panted, interrupting her mid-rant. He pulled air deep into his lungs and tried to steady his breathing. "Says it interferes with his brewing." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw McGonagall approaching and waited for her to join them.

"As I suspected," said Pomfrey tightly. "You agreed that you would take your potions as directed if I released you. Simply because you no longer have Mr Potter to play nursemaid for you does not mean you can ignore the treatment I have prescribed."

Snape's glare was mutinous, his lips set in the stubborn line Harry knew all too well. "I am perfectly capable of seeing to my own health. Now, if you will excuse me, I have—"

Harry quickly stepped in front of Snape and turned to address McGonagall. "Has either Professor Snape or Madam Pomfrey told you what will happen if he stops taking his potions? Told you how it's likely that the venom will paralyse him? Kill his organs? Cause him to go mad? Has he told you that taking it makes brewing difficult and that he needs help?"

McGonagall drew herself to her full height, her grey-green eyes flashing dangerously as they darted between Snape and Pomfrey. "Is this true?"

Pomfrey nodded. "Yes, all of it. It took almost six months before we were able to remove the last trace of that snake's venom from Arthur Weasley, and Severus' bite was far worse. It's true that some inhibitors cause tremors, but Severus refuses to take anything he's not brewed himself." She glared at Snape. "Sometimes I simply don't know what I'm going to do with you."

"Professor McGonagall," pleaded Harry, "you know who the best Potions students are. If you won't let me take care of him, will you let one or two of them help him brew the potions? Maybe let some of the N.E.W.T. students grade the essays from the first and second years? Or send a chaperone with me to the dungeons so I can make sure he takes his medicine? Call it Remedial Potions again. I don't care. Please let me help him. Or make sure he gets help. Please?"

McGonagall looked from one to the other. "Have you any antivenin left?" she asked Snape. "Or shall I send Poppy to St Mungo's to secure enough for the next few days?"

Snape's glare turned from mutinous to lethal in the space of a single heartbeat. "I have been unable to dice the Strychnos toxifera as finely as required."

"Merlin," breathed Harry, knowing that plant to be amongst the most deadly in Snape's arsenal. "Please tell me you're wearing dragonhide gloves when you work with it."

"I am a Potions Master," snarled Snape, "not an—"

"Imbecile. I know," finished Harry, the edges of his words sharp. "It's not like you haven't said that a hundred times already." He lifted his chin slightly. "I do listen, you know."

"Then why do you ignore every bloody word I say?" Snape ground out. "I do not require your assistance, Potter. As I said, I am perfectly capable of looking after myself."

"Yes," growled Harry, standing almost toe to toe with Snape. "I can see what a bang-up job you're doing. Why, you went all the way up to Gryffindor Tower, only to come very close to falling down the Grand Staircase because of it. You anchored the ceiling, and now you're so weak you can barely stand. You have the Welcoming Feast tonight and a full day of instruction tomorrow and…"

"Enough!" said McGonagall sharply. "You two squabble more than most married couples I know. Poppy, please request more potion from St Mungo's. As for you two, I will see you both in my office tomorrow as soon as classes end. No arguments, no discussion. I will also be inviting Ms Granger, Mr Malfoy and Mr Stephenson, from Ravenclaw." The lines in her face softened and her lips relaxed. Harry supposed it was a smile of sorts. "Get some rest, Severus. Mr Potter, this would be a good time to change into your school robes."

She beckoned to Sprout, who was busy chatting with three or four people who had helped restore the Greenhouses. "Pomona, would you please see Severus to the dungeons? Make certain he arrives safely."

Snape and Sprout sized each other up for a moment before Snape gave a tight nod of his head, his face falling back into its familiar impassive lines. "I thank you for your assistance," he said stiffly before throwing Harry a look of utter contempt.

"Yes, thank you, Professor Sprout," added Harry, giving Snape a warm smile in return. He knew Snape would be angry, livid even, but it honestly didn't matter to him. The only thing that mattered was that Snape received the help he needed, if not from him, then from someone else. He watched as Snape left the Great Hall, and then blew out a huge sigh of relief.

"I know he's likely to be pretty mad at us both," said Harry soberly to Professor McGonagall, "but thank you. He doesn't like being seen as weak, and he doesn't listen when I tell him he's not."

McGonagall gave him a penetrating look. "I rather suspect he's not the only one who doesn't know how to ask for assistance, Mr Potter." She reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "Off with you, Harry, whilst I tend to this lot. I will see you at the Welcoming Feast."

As he stepped down off the dais, he heard her whisper Sonorus before thanking everyone for their hard work over the summer. Not particularly interested in hearing any speeches, especially if his name was likely to be mentioned, he left the Great Hall and headed for his dormitory. Ron and Hermione would be there in a couple of hours and he still didn't know what he was going to say when they finally arrived.

~*~

The sun had set by the time Harry made his way down to the gates, and he paced nervously as he waited for the Thestral-drawn carriages to arrive from Hogsmeade Station. Every now and then he glanced back at the castle in all its majestic glory, as if unable to believe it was really there. Lights twinkled from the towers and spilled from the great oak doors that guarded the entrance, and though he knew that large sections remained off-limits, he thanked Merlin once again that there was such a thing as magic.

Though he couldn't see it from where he was standing, he peered through the darkness toward the Black Lake, remembering the night he'd sailed across it in a tiny boat with Ron by his side. He'd been both excited and terrified beyond all reckoning, having no idea what was waiting for him on the other side. He couldn't help but wonder who would be greeting the new first years upon their arrival at the castle, and it occurred to him that he had no idea who McGonagall's deputy was, which only served to make him more eager to see this year's Sorting.

Footsteps crunched along the path, accompanied by the jangling of heavy keys and a monologue of discontent. Filch was coming to unlock the gates, which meant the carriages would arrive any minute. Harry's mouth went bone dry and he puffed out a breath that did little more than fog up his glasses.

"What are you doing out of the castle, Potter?" asked Filch, his entire face twisted into a knot of suspicion.

"Waiting for Ron and Hermione," Harry answered calmly, though his insides felt like he'd swallowed the Giant Squid.

"If I had my way," sneered Filch, his stringy hair fluttering around his face like a moth-eaten veil, "you'd spend the rest of the year in detention for what you did to the castle. We're still missing half the trophies and we've not seen the Quidditch Cup since the last time you had it in your hands."

Harry shook his head, knowing some things would never change. Mrs. Norris still wove in and out of Filch's legs when she wasn't searching for mice and miscreants, and Filch still entertained fantasies of suspending students by their ankles until they rotted. "Haven't seen it. Sorry," he said, though he really wasn't. "But, if it'll make you feel any better, I plan to help with the rebuilding—after I've finished my homework, of course."

Filch scowled, his beady eyes narrowing. "Think now that you're a hero, you can get away with mischief, do you Potter?" he muttered as he unlocked the gates. "I'll be watching you." He pulled them open, trotting as they swung on their giant hinges.

"All right," said Harry absently as he craned his head to see if he could spot any Thestrals. Seconds later he leapt for the side of the path as a pair of the ghostly equines emerged out of nowhere to canter briskly up the path. Carriage after carriage thundered past, slowing as they began to line up at the foot of the steps that led to the enormous entryway doors. He spotted Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Neville, Luna, and Michael Corner in the second to last carriage and he twisted his hands nervously until they stepped out.

"Harry!" Ginny threw herself into his arms and hugged him tight, her face wreathed in smiles. "They know," she whispered. "Ron told them." She took a step back and eyed him critically. "Are you sleeping?" she asked, tilting her head.

"Not really," he admitted as his eyes searched for Hermione. Seconds later, Harry found himself surrounded by the others, all except the two he most wanted to see. He greeted the others as quickly as he could before excusing himself and chasing after them. "Hey. Wait up," he called, running to catch up.

Hermione turned to face him, her expression cool. "I'm still very cross with you, Harry," she said quietly with no preamble. Her eyes shone wetly, the light from the Entrance Hall shimmering in the unshed tears. "You may as well know that Ginny thinks very highly of Professor Snape—"

"How is your boyfriend, anyway?" interrupted Ron with a sickly smile, as though he'd taken an Unbreakable Vow to be supportive and kind, and was now thinking of testing whether it was as unbreakable as the books all said it was.

Harry paused for a moment before deciding to accept the question at face value. "He's getting better, thanks for asking," he said politely.

"So it's official then?" asked Hermione, her voice tight. "You're seeing Professor Snape? Despite the fact there are about a hundred rules against it? Despite the fact that he's as old as your parents? Honestly, Harry, do you truly believe that one summer can make up for the horrible way he treated you for all those years?"

"Yes," said Harry, "to all of it. I won't deny that I'm gay. I mean, what's the point? The Wizarding world doesn't care, so why should I? And I won't deny I'm interested in Snape."

"So it's just interest, is it?" she snapped. "A month ago you were in love with him." With a toss of her head, she marched up the stone steps that led to the castle.

Harry and Ron scurried after her. As they started up the stairs, Harry turned his head automatically to share an amused glance with Ron as they'd so often done in the past, but Ron kept his eyes glued straight ahead. Harry came to an abrupt halt as a wave of nausea hit and he swallowed convulsively, heartsick as he realised that nothing had changed. He'd survive the loss of their friendship, he'd suffered worse in his short life, but it all seemed so pointless.

He walked through the doors alone, the last one in the castle, and found Neville and Luna waiting for him. "Don't worry about them, Harry," said Neville with a smile. "We listened in as Ron and Ginny argued on the train. Ron's being a bit of a prat, but from what Ginny was saying, he's always been this way."

"Hermione will come around," Luna chimed in. "She's really quite worried, you know. She just doesn't know how else to show it." She laced her fingers through Neville's and smiled vaguely at him. "But it's not worth getting your aura in a tangle." Her smile brightened. "It looks like an angora dressing gown."

Harry gaped as Neville snickered.

"You're going to change the world, Harry Potter," sang Luna as she skipped off to the Ravenclaw table, leaving Harry and Neville to make their way to the far side of the Great Hall alone.

"You'd think she'd remember I've done that once," remarked Harry. They found their seats and climbed over the benches whilst Harry pretended it didn't bother him that Ron and Hermione ensured he couldn't sit with them. Still, he had Neville, Ginny, Dean and Seamus surrounding him, though he found it hard to look down the table without taking note of those who were missing.

The mood in the Great Hall was sombre, the benches noticeably less crowded than in years past, and Harry's throat tightened as he took note of those missing: Lavender Brown, Colin Creevey, Jeremy Alexander—a quiet boy whom Harry had rather liked—and at least a dozen others Harry hadn't known by name but had recognised easily enough. And it wasn't just Gryffindor which had suffered losses. Ravenclaw was missing a number of faces, as was Hufflepuff House. And Slytherin…

Harry rose to his feet to make certain his eyes weren't playing tricks on him. If there were fifty students at the Slytherin table, he'd eat his dress robes. Those who had elected to return to the school that had branded them all as traitors were huddled together like a litter of frightened kneazles. The degrees of unease that showed on their faces ranged from defiance to abject terror.

A flash of anger, brilliant and white-hot, raced through the Great Hall as the tall doors opened and Snape led the new students in. A harsh buzz began to build at the Gryffindor table and swept over the other House tables like a tidal wave. Someone hissed, a call that was quickly taken up by the other students, which did nothing to allay the fears of the parade of students marching up the aisle to be Sorted. Even the Slytherins' faces were grim.

Harry gazed at Ginny in dismay. Before he could move an inch, Neville rose to his feet, squared his shoulders and began to applaud. Shooting Neville a grateful look, Harry began to clap as well, and was joined almost immediately by Ginny. At the Ravenclaw table, Luna came to her feet, as did Michael Corner.

Discussion broke out at Hufflepuff table, then Ernie Macmillan stood up and Susan Bones and Hannah Abbott. Terry Boot stood, as did Romilda Vane and Nigel Wolpert. One by one, the members of Dumbledore's Army came to their feet and applauded, all except Ron and Hermione. The hissing faded away.

Professor McGonagall came to her feet and stood in the place where Albus Dumbledore had delivered his welcome to the new students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Harry's eyes stung with sudden tears. He blinked them away as he sat and tuned out her greeting, his attention drawn away by Snape suddenly dropping to one knee. Alarmed, he craned his neck to see what was happening.

A tiny girl, easily half a head shorter than the next smallest first year, was weeping, her tiny shoulders shaking. Snape was gazing up into her face, speaking so softly that there was no chance of his words carrying much beyond her. This was not the Snape of Harry's childhood. This was not the Snape who had ruled Hogwarts with an iron will, and as he rose, Harry shot Hermione a look that demanded she see the same man he did, the one whose every action served a purpose.

Hermione, though, was listening raptly to the Sorting Hat's song. To Harry, it sounded quite a bit similar to the song it had sung three years ago, and he wondered if anyone would heed its message that Hogwarts was only as strong as its weakest House. There were some who had called for the abolishment of Slytherin House; Harry would never lend his voice to their efforts. Had Draco Malfoy not been so hateful and disparaging of Ron's family, Harry might have been a member of that House. There needed to a place for those who were resourceful and cunning, who understood the nature of politics well enough to keep the gears turning.

Shoulders squared, back ramrod straight, Snape called the first name on the list, "Alchehayed, Fatemah," and the Sorting commenced. It wasn't long before Harry noticed two things: first, that there were a great many more students than he expected, and second, that more than half of them were obviously older than eleven. "Look at that one," whispered Harry to Neville. "He must be fourth year, at least."

"I heard that a lot of families who went into hiding when you said Voldemort was back are returning," Neville whispered back as "DuMouchel, Arsalan" was sorted into Ravenclaw. "It looks like he would have started when we were fifth years."

The Sorting seemed to take forever, and Harry had the sneaking suspicion that student after student was trying to convince the Hat not to call out "Slytherin." Judging from the expressions on their faces, many of them were losing the argument, though there were still a number for whom the Hat barely touched their heads before shouting out their House. When "Wright, James" was finally sorted into Gryffindor, though, Harry breathed a sigh of relief. He was starving.

Professor McGonagall rose to her feet as the muted applause died down. "Let the feast begin," she said simply and platters filled to overflowing suddenly appeared. Grabbing the pitcher of pumpkin juice that popped up right in front of him, Harry filled his goblet and drank swiftly. He slammed his goblet down with an enormous sigh, and then blushed as a dozen pairs of eyes turned on him.

"I was thirsty," he said simply as he took a dish of potatoes from Neville and plopped them onto his plate. A slice of roast followed, along with some greens and a fresh roll, and Harry let the flow of conversation wash over him as he started to eat. He didn't say much, preferring instead to watch the goings-on at the Staff Table instead. Every once in awhile he glanced past Neville to look at Ron and Hermione, but every time their eyes met, one or the other would look away as though embarrassed to be caught out staring. It didn't bring him much hope.

By the time Harry finished his treacle tart he couldn't eat another bite. He rested an elbow on the table and propped his chin in his hand, sated and about as content as it was possible to be. For once his problems didn't seem insurmountable. He was in love with someone his best friends did not approve of—and that was a story older than the hills, a much better saga than the one about a murderous Dark Lord who carried a grudge against an adolescent.

"I have a few start-of-term announcements that I must insist you pay attention to," said McGonagall once the level of conversation dropped. "But first, it is my honour to introduce Wendell Williamson, this year's Defence Against the Dark Arts professor and new Head of Gryffindor House. I expect all of you," she lifted an eyebrow as she gazed sternly at the Gryffindor House table, "will do your utmost to make Professor Williamson feel welcome."

A slender, greying man rose to his feet and bowed politely. It was then that Harry noticed that half the man's left arm was missing. He blinked and looked quickly at the man's face, wondering why he seemed vaguely familiar. He knew he hadn't seen him during the rebuilding, but earlier, before the war had really started.

"The list of restricted items has reached the point where, despite the best efforts of Caretaker Argus Filch, it is no longer feasible to enumerate them. Suffice it to say, no Zonko's or Weasley products—except, of course, Ronald and Ginevra—are permitted—" she paused for a burst of laughter from all but the Slytherin table "—in the castle. Needless to say, if it explodes, shatters, makes noise, emits foul odours, and I am, of course, referring to dungbombs and not your Potions, it is not allowed inside Hogwarts. If you find yourself questioning whether I would want to discover it tucked in your school bag or underneath your bed, the answer is no, I would not.

"The sixth and seventh floor corridors are off limits. If you see a suit of armour standing in your way, bear in mind that they are armed with swords, maces and battle axes, and then ask yourself if you wish to test yourself against my magic.

"The acromantulas—and for our new students who might not have encountered them, they are spiders roughly the size of Professor Hagrid. Stand up, Hagrid, if you would." McGonagall stepped back from the podium for a moment so everyone could get a good look.

A few first years gasped as Hagrid came to his feet. Whilst they had all seen Hagrid at the station (and a fair few had been amazed then), the thought of spiders that were equally as large had many of them seeking confirmation, their eyes as round as Galleons.

"Do you know what a Volkswagen is? They're about that size," Harry heard one girl say to the obvious distress of another.

"As I was saying," continued Professor McGonagall over the low murmur of conversation. "The acromantula are restless and have expanded their hunting grounds, so unless you wish to serve as their dinner, kindly do remember that the Forbidden Forest was so named for a reason.

"Due the abrupt end of the last school year, we will spend the first two weeks conducting placement examinations for first through fourth year students; both new and returning. O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. students will receive their timetables in the morning.

"Lastly, I wish to take this opportunity to introduce to you our Head Boys and Girls for the year: from Gryffindor House, Hermione Granger; from Ravenclaw, Terry Boot. From Hufflepuff, Hannah Abbott. And from Slytherin House, Draco Malfoy."

Harry's head snapped around quickly just in time to see Malfoy nod imperiously to Professor McGonagall, but when the white head came up he inhaled sharply. He had never seen such a bleak expression on Malfoy's face and Harry wondered how much pride it had cost him to walk through the doors and into the castle. "Will the war ever end?" he heard himself say quietly.

"I don't think so, Harry," whispered Neville. "At least, not for years." Neville looked across the Hall at Malfoy, his face hardening. "Forgiven him, have you?"

Harry turned clear green eyes on Neville. "Do you ever wonder how we'd have done if we'd grown up with Death Eaters for parents? Did he have any more of a choice than you did? Than I did? He saved my life, him and his mum. I have to let go of the hate, Neville. If I don't…" He shook his head, unwilling to become the face of the vanquishers.

Neville frowned, his brow furrowed with concern. "Are you feeling all right?"

"Not really," admitted Harry. "I spent all summer here, rebuilding the place and helping Snape. I didn't read the Prophet and all the articles because I've had enough of it, you know? I'm not this great saviour, and I didn't do anything that someone else in my place wouldn't have done. I had a lot of time to think, y'know? And I thought about what would happen when we all came back, how we'd all feel.

"The Slytherins have got to be feeling cornered, and if they think they're trapped, they'll strike first before anyone sees it coming. If that happens…" Harry clenched his fist and took a deep breath. "Then it all starts again. All these kids," his eyes swept over the House tables, "we'll teach them that Slytherins are not to be trusted and that lesson will follow them all their lives. Then the only thing we'll have done is made it possible for another Dark Lord to rise up and become the next Voldemort.

"We can't let that happen, Neville. We just can't."

Neville sat quietly, his dark eyes focussed on the Slytherin table. "You know what they did to Luna, right?"

Harry nodded as he came to his feet. "And Hermione and Dean and Mr Ollivander—and that's not even where it starts. Your mum and dad. Mine. Quirrell. Cedric. Sirius. Dumbledore himself. How many more names will we have to add until the lists are complete?" He felt eyes on himself and glanced over to see Snape regarding him steadily. "I'm not saying you have to like any of them. Just help me to keep the others off their backs."

"I don't know, Harry," said Neville as Luna joined them. "I'm not sure they'll listen to me."

"They're more likely to listen to you than to me. You were here last year; I wasn't."

"Harry's 'saving people thing' is acting up again," explained Neville to Luna as they left the Great Hall. "He's going to rescue Slytherin House from themselves."

"Oh, there's no need to do that, Harry," said Luna as they began the long trek up the stairs to the fifth floor. "The Sorting Hat will take care of it. That's what it's there for: to keep Hogwarts in balance."

"In balance," repeated Harry dumbly. If this was the Sorting Hat's idea of keeping the school in balance, Harry didn't want to know what it would be like otherwise. "Luna, do you suppose it's possible that, I don't know, a sword has been pulled out of it one time too many? Or perhaps it melted a bit on Neville's head?"

Luna gave the matter some thought. "No," she decided. "Its charms are better than that. It pulls its magic right out of the stones of the castle, you know. As long as even a little piece remains, they can sew up a new one. I've always wondered if it might be better as a top hat."

"Err," said Harry, feeling quite in over his head. "Right, then. I'll just leave you to it, shall I? Besides, Hermione needs the password so she can let everyone into the common room. Goodnight, Luna. I'll see you later, Neville." With that, he sprinted the rest of the way upstairs, where he found Hermione waiting impatiently for him.

"The Fat Lady won't allow me to change the password," she hissed. "Not unless you say it's all right." She turned and gave the others a weak smile before grabbing Harry by the arm and dragging him to the portrait. "So tell her," she whispered impatiently.

"Hello, dear," said the Fat Lady, smiling and batting her eyes at Harry. "Password, please."

Harry leant forward and whispered in her ear. "Did you know Hermione's Head Girl?"

"But of course, dear," said the Fat Lady, her eyes twinkling mischievously. "But the headmistress gave strict instructions that you were to set the password. If you give me your password, I'll open up and we'll see about setting another one."

"Please be nice to her," whispered Harry. "She's mad enough at me already." He gave the password and shrugged at Hermione as the portrait hole opened. In his estimation, most of the portraits were half-mad already. He climbed through and, deciding to leave the common room reunion for another time, went straight up to his dormitory. He was tired and wanted nothing more than to go to bed.

He had just pulled a t-shirt over his head when the door opened and Seamus and Dean stepped in. The three of them looked at each other for a moment before Harry turned to hang up his robes, whilst the other two started unpacking their trunks. Having spent the last two weeks in the dormitory, he had very little to attend to.

Harry was about to crawl in bed when Seamus dumped a bundle of socks in his wardrobe, slammed the drawer and said, "Is it true you're a ponce?"

'It's all right if you are," added Dean hastily. "We heard a rumour is all."

Harry looked from one to the other, removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, relieved that Seamus had put the question to him, if rather inelegantly. He turned back the covers and slid inside, wiggling his toes as he leaned back on his elbows. "No, it's not," he replied. "I'm gay though. Or queer if you'd rather, but I'm not a ponce. Nor am I a pouf. Good night." He pulled the hangings closed, shook his head and flopped down to go to sleep.

~*~

When Harry's eyes fluttered open the next morning, it took him a moment to place the sounds. He lay on his back, listening to Seamus and Dean argue about whose tie was on the bed and whose was on the pillow, whilst Neville cooed to the plants on the windowsill. Ron was looking for his Charms text and wondered aloud if he'd picked up Ginny's by mistake.

He pulled back the bed hangings and fumbled for his glasses, yawning as he shoved them on. "What time is it?" he asked muzzily, rubbing his head briskly to help him wake up.

There was an uncomfortable silence until Neville said, "It's almost quarter of seven. Better hurry if you want breakfast."

"Thanks," said Harry, pretending not to notice the daggers Neville was shooting at the others with his eyes. He scrambled out of bed, grabbed his bag of toiletries and headed for the bathroom, hoping with all his might that the dormitory would be empty by the time he finished. Only Neville seemed to be comfortable around him, and whilst Harry told himself it didn't matter, it still hurt a bit.

To his surprise, Neville was waiting for him when he dashed back out of the bathroom. "I know it's not well done of me, but I got a bit shirty with them, Ron especially." He watched as Harry got dressed, same as he'd done for the last six years. "Ron told them about you and Snape."

"Lovely," gritted Harry as he buttoned his shirt. "What do you think, Neville? Should I announce it at breakfast or figure everyone will know by lunch?"

Neville gave Harry his usual crooked smile. "Eh, the grapevine's not been fed all summer. Might as well give it something juicy to get the year off to a proper start." He pulled Harry's robes out of the wardrobe and handed him his tie.

"Weirdly enough, I get it now—about you and Snape. Last year…" He blew out a sigh and Harry could see some of the tension leave his shoulders. "When we learnt that he'd been on our side all along, so many things he did suddenly made sense. He made it so easy for us to hate him, but now no one knows how we're supposed to feel." His brow wrinkled, and he appeared lost in thought. "I reckon that's what you meant last night about the Slytherins. Well, no matter. C'mon. We're going to be late."

"Yeah, okay," replied Harry as he threw on his robes and grabbed his schoolbag. He wasn't entirely certain he understood what Neville was on about, but knowing he had at least three allies eased some of the ache in his heart. Harry knew Neville was more of a leader than he thought, and most of the D.A. would line up behind him.

The Great Hall was its usual beehive of activity by the time Harry and Neville walked in. As they reached the Gryffindor table, Ginny got up and moved away from her place next to Hermione. "Why don't you sit here?" she suggested with a gleam in her eye.

"Don't mind if I do," chirped Harry as he slid into the seat she'd just vacated. "G'morning, Hermione. Sleep well?"

Hermione's lips pressed into a thin line and she exhaled noisily through her nose. "Well, no. It's hard with Lavender not here. Parvati cried for hours. It's just me, Parvati and Fay in the dormitory this year, though Fay hardly counts. She should have been in Hufflepuff." As if realising she was speaking civilly to Harry, she clamped her jaws shut and began to butter a piece of toast with rare fury.

Harry helped himself to his usual breakfast: porridge, a rasher of bacon, a bit of sausage and a goblet of pumpkin juice and tucked in with enthusiasm. When finished, he glanced up at the Staff Table and blinked in surprise. "That bloke up there, the one with horns. Didn't we see him at the World Cup?" he asked as he nudged Hermione lightly with his arm.

"Oh my," exclaimed Hermione softly. "You know, I believe we did. Ron? Who is that man?" she asked as she racked her brain.

There was no need. Professor McGonagall had come to her feet and brought them to attention. "I have just a couple of announcements. First, I bid you welcome our new Transfiguration Professor, Gilbert Wimple." There was a smattering of applause, but most students sat with their jaws hanging open. "I am told," continued McGonagall, "that he enjoys his horns." Harry personally believed that McGonagall was trying hard not to snort.

"Second, I have the classroom assignments for the first round of testing. First years are to report to the Charms classroom. Second years to Transfiguration. Third years to Defence Against the Dark Arts. Fourth years to Potions. The morning will be spent on written examinations; the afternoon will be practical examinations.

"O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. students will receive their timetables from their Heads of House. The Head Boys and Girls and prefects have the examination timetable, so if any of you aren't certain where you belong, do please ask. Enjoy the rest of your breakfast."

Moments later, Hermione was mobbed by confused Gryffindors who were uncertain to which year they belonged and to which classroom they were expected to report. As she got the students sorted, Williamson stepped down from the dais and settled himself at the head of the table, scrolls of parchment tucked under what remained of his left arm.

Knowing how much he himself hated to be stared at, Harry merely glanced up as their new Head handed out their timetables. Since nearly everyone was engaged in testing the lower forms, he couldn't see how he'd have any classes that morning, but once he picked up his schedule for the day, he found that he had Transfiguration right off the bat.

When he walked into the room, he grinned, though it quickly faded as he watched his classmates pair up. Ron and Hermione sat together, as did Seamus and Dean, no surprise there, but he was a bit startled when Neville took the seat next to Terry Boot.

His head turned automatically as he caught a flash of white out of the corner of his eye. Draco Malfoy had just slipped into the room and stood uncertainly at the back of the class. Well, then. Gathering up every last bit of resolve he possessed, Harry walked over to where he stood. "Partner with me?" he asked levelly.

Draco's eyes flashed. "I don't need your pity, Potter," he hissed.

Harry shrugged. "Suit yourself." He turned and walked to one of the open desks, setting his bag on it to fish out parchment and quill. He arched a brow as Draco slid into the seat next to him, unsurprised when Draco glared back. Damned Slytherins, they always had to have things done on their own terms.

Professor Wimple strode up the centre aisle of the classroom and set his books on the teacher's desk. "Mr Boot, please explain to the class the difference between Conjuring and the Transfiguration of particulates." With that, they were off, Harry scribbling down so many notes that his hand started to cramp halfway through.

By lunchtime, nearly everyone not having classes with him knew that Harry was in some sort of relationship with Snape. That he also sat with Malfoy in Transfiguration swept through the castle nearly as fast. As he walked through the Great Hall, he thought he heard someone mutter, "Slytherin Lover." He paused for a moment and then brushed it off. He'd rather put up with that than see 'Potter Stinks' winking at him from every direction.

As he took a seat at the Gryffindor table, a sudden flurry of noise drew his attention. Dozens of owls swooped through the Great Hall, dropping letters, packages and copies of the Daily Prophet to a large portion of students. Automatically, his eyes searched for Hedwig before reality slammed back into him, and he rubbed his chest, his heart aching.

A school owl dropped a letter at his plate and Harry opened it. As he suspected, it was a note reminding him of his meeting with McGonagall after classes ended that day. He caught her eye and nodded, holding the parchment aloft, and then looked over at Snape, unsurprised to see him scowling. His hand was shaking; Harry could see it from where he sat, which meant that Pomfrey had poured some inferior Nagini-Be-Gone down his throat. He didn't need to see the harsh glare to know that tonight's meeting was not going to go well.

~*~

"Then we are agreed?" asked McGonagall sharply, in a tone that Harry knew meant the only possible answer was, "Yes, ma'am."

As the former headmaster, current Deputy Head and a Head of House in his own right, naturally Snape protested. "I do not require the assistance of students," he snapped, his tone biting. "If this is yet another attempt to indulge Potter's paranoia, I request that you exercise your considerable authority and refuse to give in to his dramatics."

McGonagall arched a brow as she glared at Snape over her cup of tea. "I rather think I shall exercise my 'considerable authority' and have Ms. Granger and Messrs Malfoy and Stephenson assist you with your duties. Mr Stephenson, you shall assist with Professor Snape's first year Potions classes. Mr Malfoy, you have the second years, which leaves the third years for you, Ms Granger.

"It was more difficult to work out an acceptable schedule for evenings, but you, Mr Weasley, will accompany Mr Potter to Professor Snape's chambers on Mondays, Thursdays and alternate Saturdays. You, Ms Granger, will have Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, leaving you, Mr Malfoy, with Wednesdays and the other Saturdays.

"Mr Stephenson, as you are unfamiliar with Mr Potter's momentary lapses of reason and with his tendency to leave chaos strewn in his wake, you are not expected to serve as chaperon. I leave the brewing to the six of you to sort out. I understand from Madam Pomfrey that she is critically low on a few necessary potions, so you will need to get started, preferably tonight."

"Professor," said Draco from his place in the corner, "Granger's carrying eleven subjects. If you'll permit me, I'll take her Fridays and if Potter will take the second year classes, I'll take the third years."

Hermione's mouth opened—to say something shrewish, Harry reckoned—then closed with an audible clack. "Thank you," she said after a moment.

"Very well," said McGonagall. "Now shoo. I have real work to do." As Snape rose unsteadily to his feet, McGonagall caught Harry's eye. "Mr Potter, assist Professor Snape to his office. I shall see you all at dinner."

Harry waited until the others had streamed out of McGonagall's office before offering his arm to Snape, giving the cantankerous professor the choice of taking it or not. Regardless of what Snape decided, though, Harry was not leaving without him, especially now that he'd been given orders from the headmistress.

When Snape did nothing but stare at him with the same distaste he'd show a jar of spoilt stinksap, Harry sighed. "Heard the rumours, have you? It's nothing you didn't already know."

"You are an imbecile, Potter," said Snape as he took a step towards the door. "I do not care to hear speculation about my personal life being bandied about the Great Hall, nor in the corridors between classes. I'll not have you ruin my reputation nor place my position at risk."

McGonagall looked up from the ledger book she was tending. "Which is why Mr Potter is to be chaperoned whilst assisting you. If you treat Mr Potter as you've always done, the rumours will die of their own accord."

"The rumour is that I've a bit of a thing for you," said Harry. "I've not heard a single one saying it is in any way reciprocated. I know the others will take the piss—"

"Language, Mr Potter," scolded McGonagall.

Harry nodded to McGonagall before turning his eyes back to Snape. "But I'll not deny the rumours, not even for you. I won't live a lie." He leaned closer to Snape. "I won't forget what you told me either, sir," he murmured softly before drawing back a respectful distance. "As I'm to escort you to your office, shall we go?"

"Very well," said Snape in capitulation. He took Harry's arm and left the office, his steps slow and measured as though in some pain.

"Sir," said Harry as the office door closed behind them. He led Snape to the spiral stair and stepped on with him. "You still mean what you said earlier, right?" he asked as they rode down together. "You've—"

Ron stepped out just as the gargoyle sprang aside. "Took you long enough," he complained darkly. "Malfoy was supposed to wait since it's Wednesday and all, but he and Hermione and that Stephenson bloke took off to the Hospital Wing to talk to Pomfrey, so I'm to see that you don't get up to any nonsense." He looked pointedly at Snape's hand on Harry's arm.

"Would you rather help him?" asked Harry, managing not to roll his eyes when Ron shook his head violently. "I thought not. Don't worry, I promise not to snog him whilst we're on the stairs." Without waiting for Ron to reply, Harry pushed past him and helped Snape slowly down the steps.

Chapter Text


The next two weeks flew by like an owl with a Howler.

After the meeting with Professor McGonagall, Harry and the four students assigned to assist Snape had gathered in Snape's office, only to spend the next hour being lectured and harangued. Harry's hubris was mentioned more than once, but unlike the others who squirmed and fidgeted, he just sat quietly and waited for Snape to run out of steam. Once Snape had finally ended his tirade, Harry asked which potions the hospital wing needed first. Hermione took it from there.

Together the five of them set an ambitious brewing schedule, and although Snape found fault with every ingredient he and Ron prepared, the two of them were able to keep up with Hermione, Draco and that Stephenson bloke, feeding ingredients into cauldrons as the recipes demanded. It was only when they were brewing the antivenin that Harry became as exact and demanding as Snape, double-checking each step to make absolutely certain their potion would measure up to Snape's impossible standards.

When he wasn't chopping, mincing, dicing or grinding, Harry was reading second year Potions examinations and organising the parchment scrolls by the quality of the essays. To his surprise, he found that he actually enjoyed the grading process, and he left helpful comments in the margins, knowing that Snape would likely obliterate them and write something much more scathing instead.

On top of all that, he still had his own coursework to keep up with, and after a full year spent on the run, Harry was finding it difficult to get back into the habit of studying and revising. By the time he staggered into the common room just before curfew each night, he wanted nothing more than to go to bed instead of reading for the next day's lessons. Possibly because the lower forms were still being tested, none of his professors had assigned any essays, something for which Harry was eternally grateful.

The bright spot in all this was that Snape was finally taking his potions as scheduled, and Hermione's expression was shifting gradually from resentment to intense speculation. Ron still wandered around like he'd just sucked all the juice out of a lemon, and Draco kept his head down and didn't talk to anybody, but Harry was able to breathe easier nonetheless.

It was on the third Saturday of the term that Ginny reminded him they had Quidditch try-outs that afternoon, and as captain, Harry needed to be there. At hearing that, Harry turned questioning eyes on Ron. "Do we have brewing to do today?"

Ron's eyes shifted from Harry to Ginny and back again. "The others will do it, surely," he whinged. "C'mon, Harry, we've Quidditch this afternoon. Can't you give it a rest for one day? It's Snape, for Merlin's sake. He'll get on all right without you."

Ginny's eyes began to glower as Harry drew in a deep breath and counted very, very slowly to ten. "I don't care if you like him or not, Ron. I am going to the dungeons, and you are coming with me. He needs my help, and McGonagall won't let me be alone with him."

"If I find out you're still being a prat, Ron," growled Ginny, "I promise the Beaters will be using you for target practice this season. Harry needs you to go to the dungeons with him, so go, and do try to remember he's your best friend." She looked at Harry. "You could do so much better than Ron, you know."

"Hey," said Ron indignantly. "I just don't want to go to the dungeons is all. It's creepy and I'm sorry, mate, I don't much care for your boyfriend."

Harry's gaze was steady. "I don't reckon you care much for me, either, but until I can get another chaperon, you're it."

"That's not fair," Ron shot back angrily, his face flushed. "I'm trying the best I can."

"I reckon you ought to try harder," said Harry. "Coming, Ginny? I was hoping you could clue me in about some of the ones who might be trying out today." He grinned and offered her his arm. "If you want to be my new best friend," he said, "there may be an opening."

"How's he doing?" she asked as they stepped through the portrait hole.

"Who? Snape or Ron?"

Ginny laughed and Harry was reminded of how much he liked hearing the bright, cheery sound. He had missed it. "I did mean Ron, but I'd like to hear about Snape, too. Any progress there?"

"We had one fine day," replied Harry with an enormous smile. "But ever since then, I've not been alone with him. McGonagall is trying to keep him out of trouble." He snorted. "Why does everybody think trouble follows me around like a lost crup?"

"Because it does?" asked Ginny with a grin. "I must say you've not softened him any. Still snarls as much as ever."

"Does he?" asked Harry with a glint in eye. "I thought he wasn't nearly as bad as the last time I had him as a professor. I've not heard him insult anyone, and I've been at all of his second year classes."

"I thought they were still testing."

"Not anymore," replied Harry as they stepped off the Marble Stair and made their way to the Great Hall. "They finished that, and they've all been sorted. They're mostly second years, with a few third years as well. We even have a couple of first years in there, if you can believe it. Snape says that one's father is a brewer and the other's mum works at St Mungo's, so I guess it makes sense that they know about Potions."

Ginny gave him an appraising glance. "It sounds to me as if you're keen on teaching as well as Snape. You were brilliant with the DA, you know. I know Ron wants you to be an Auror, but perhaps you ought to find out how to become a professor here."

"I wouldn't mind teaching Defence," admitted Harry, "except I'd like to stay on for more than a year. I don't see Williamson lasting longer than that. Do you?"

"He is Head of Gryffindor House," said Ginny thoughtfully. "I should think McGonagall wants a Head who will be here longer than that, otherwise why not appoint Vector or Babbling or someone like that?"

"Trelawney?" offered Harry slyly.

Ginny shuddered. "I'd rather it were Hagrid." They sat down at the benches and Harry poured himself a goblet of pumpkin juice before dishing up a bowl of porridge. When the platter of bacon made its way around the table, though, his stomach gave a powerful lurch as the scent wafted past his nose.

"No bacon today?" asked Ginny as Harry waved away the plate. He felt positively green and swallowed heavily as he shook his head tightly.

"No." Harry glanced at the food that filled their table. "Maybe just a bit of tomato. I guess I'm just a bit off-colour."

Ginny clucked her tongue in sympathy. "You do look a bit peaky. See Madam Pomfrey if you don't feel better by lunchtime?"

"Yes, Mum," Harry grinned. He tucked in, but before he'd taken more than a couple of bites a hand landed on his shoulder. He looked up into the face of a very remorseful Ron.

"I…you're right," he said as Hermione came to stand at his shoulder, ready to mediate if their tempers got out of control as she so often had done in the past. "I know I'm being an utter prick, but I'll do what you said. I'll try harder."

Harry looked at Hermione before meeting Ron's eyes. "Not good enough," he said after a long silence. "I believe that you want to try harder, but I'll know you mean it when I see it." He swung his feet over the bench and faced them both directly. "I love you both, you know, but sometimes it seems like you're hoping I'll choose you over him." He turned back and started in on his breakfast. "I won't make that choice," he added as they sat down.

"We want you to be happy, Harry," said Hermione. "We do. We're just not certain you will be with Snape." She selected a piece of toast and poured herself a cup of tea.

It was the nicest thing she'd said to him since that day at the Weasleys. "We're all right, then?" asked Harry uncertainly. "You're not mad at me anymore?"

"It hurt, you know," said Hermione quietly, "finding out something that important after all that time. But I understand, at least I think I do, why you'd not said anything. We did have that task we'd been set. But I still wish you'd told me then."

"Why?" asked Harry. "Why does it matter so much when I told you?"

"Because that's what best friends do," she said emphatically. "They confide in each other. They tell each other things they've told no one else. You're my best friend, Harry. You always have been."

Harry didn't know what to say to that. It was true, of course, and whilst Ron had always been his best mate, he was closer by far to Hermione. "The next time I have something important to tell anyone, you'll be the first to know," he promised.

"Like if you've shagged Snape?" suggested Hermione with a gleam in her eye. Ron shuddered whilst Ginny began paying close attention to the conversation.

Harry froze for an instant. "And you'll tell me if you've shagged Ron, right?"

Hermione went bright pink and Ron's ears turned red. "Well, perhaps not quite that personal."

"Besides, you're gay," Ron pointed out. "Why would you want to know about something like that?"

"Because we're best mates, and that's what best mates do?" ventured Harry. "Honestly, whether I'm gay or straight doesn't have anything to do with knowing how it was and whether you liked it. I wouldn't want the play-by-play regardless." His stomach gave an odd twist, but it might have been at the sight of Ron shovelling an entire piece of bacon into his mouth.

"They have, you know," said Ginny as she sliced through a bit of ham. "Ron snuck into Hermione's room almost every night whilst she was staying at the Burrow. Most times they remembered to put up Silencing charms, but sometimes not." She gave Ron a flinty look. "You won't find many virgins amongst the DA. No point in waiting if you're not sure you'll last the year.

"And before you ask, Ron, it is absolutely none of your business who I was with," she tacked on with a fierce glance at her brother.

"What do you mean, it's none of my business?" growled Ron. "It's—"

"You are my brother," snarled Ginny, "not my minder, and certainly not my best friend." She winked at Harry before taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but hurry up and eat. Harry wants to get down to Snape's."

"Oh, we need the bases for healing potions started," said Hermione. "Aaron and I will be down after lunch to finish them so just put a stasis charm on them when you've finished."

"Who's Aaron?" asked Ginny as Ron gobbled down a last piece of French toast.

"Stephenson," replied Harry. "Sixth year from Ravenclaw. Stonking at Potions. Better than Hermione, even. Kind of cute, too, though I think he's got a thing for Draco. It's a bit sad that Draco's straight as Ron."

"Stephenson's queer?" asked Ron a bit nervously.

Harry shrugged. "Dunno. He's not said and I've not asked."

Clearly, this did not make any sense to Ron. "Then how do you know he's got a thing for Malfoy?"

With a shake of his head, Harry slung his schoolbag over his shoulder. "Why don't you see if you can figure it out for yourself? There's a chance I'm wrong, but I don't think I am. Now, come on. It's nearly eight and Snape's not been up for breakfast."

~*~

Harry walked in silence down to the dungeons, with Ron trailing along a few paces behind. He felt quite at home here, the mouldering old stones worn smooth in places from the thousands upon thousands of feet that had trod on them. The air was heavy, thick with the acrid scent of damp mortar and old clay, but no matter how much others might wrinkle their noses at it, Harry found it comforting.

As they made their way deeper into the dungeons, three Ravenclaws burst suddenly out of the tunnel leading to the Slytherin common room, nearly knocking Harry off his feet. One of them reached out to steady him, wheeled quickly and then ploughed into Ron as he sprinted away.

"Oi! Watch where you're going," shouted Ron as he spun on his heel to watch the three of them retreat down the corridor. He turned back to Harry, eyes speculative. "What are a handful of Ravenclaws doing down here?"

"More important, why are they running out?" asked Harry, his expression grim. He looked up the corridor, brow furrowing as the clatter of footsteps receded into the distance. He looked back down the tunnel and took a couple of steps towards the common room before turning back, undecided about what to do next. His instincts were no guide, pulling him as they were towards Snape and the common room both.

"No idea. Do you know the password to the Slytherin common room?" asked Ron as Harry stood unmoving in the mouth of the tunnel.

Harry shook his head. "Do you?" he asked. He reached for his wand and waited to see if any Slytherins came dashing out in pursuit, but from the far reaches of the tunnel there came only silence. He shrugged and turned back.

"Hermione doesn't tell me stuff like that," said Ron as they headed deeper into the dungeons and to the corridor that led to Snape's personal quarters. "You know how she is. Takes her responsibilities seriously and is really good at—" his eyes cut towards Harry "—keeping secrets."

"I didn't not tell her because I didn't think she'd keep it secret," said Harry, stopping short as he worked out whether that amounted to a triple negative. "Yeah, okay, that's right," he said as he started walking again. "I didn't tell her because I wasn't ready yet. You know how it was out there. I wasn't thinking of much beyond the next Horcrux."

"Or our next meal. Or avoiding the Snatchers. Figuring out how to break into Gringotts."

"Or the Ministry."

"Riding a dragon."

"Escaping Nagini."

"Don't forget that bloody swim in the Forest of Dean," added Ron. "Loads of fun that was, mate."

"Snape was there, you know," said Harry as they entered a narrow passage that seemed to change directions every ten feet or so. "In the Forest. It was his Patronus that led me to the sword."

"What do you mean, his Patronus?" asked Ron as Harry paused at a stone that jutted out slightly from the wall. He watched as Harry pressed his hand against it and murmured softly. The rough surfaces of the stones smoothed out as the fine lines of wood grain began to emerge as a door came into view.

"I told you a Patronus led me to the sword," said Harry as he pressed down on the latch that appeared. "It was his. His Patronus is a doe." He stepped into the room and slid his schoolbag off his shoulder, setting it in corner as Ron shuffled through the door.

"His…what?" asked Ron, but Harry ignored him.

"Professor?" Harry called out softly, walking with familiarity through the room and heading for Snape's laboratory. It was empty. He scratched his head and wandered back out. "Professor Snape?"

He returned to the sitting room where Ron stood uneasily in the centre, clutching his wand and his schoolbag. "He's not here, mate. Let's go."

"He's here," said Harry confidently, though he wasn't entirely certain how he knew that. He moved to the bedroom door and eased his way inside, leaving the door open wide behind him. Rules were rules, and despite Snape's opinion to the contrary, he did try to follow most of them. His face softened into a smile at the threshold as Ron peered over his shoulder.

"Ugh," said Ron with a shudder, but Harry crept in quietly, pausing at the edge of the bed to gaze at the still figure sleeping soundly in it.

Snape was on his side, curled up lightly with one hand tucked under his cheek and the other resting at his waist. His jet black hair pooled around his head like a puddle of ink and his eyelashes rested quietly just short of the top of his cheekbones. His mouth was slightly open and the lines of his face were smooth, peaceful. His nightshirt was bunched up around his hips and his left foot was tucked in tight behind his right.

Puzzled, Harry examined the potion phials next to the bed. There was a full bottle of Nagini-Be-Gone, half a phial of nutrient potion and roughly a third of a phial of Sleeping Draught, none of which explained why Snape was still asleep at eight o'clock on a Saturday morning when he was usually up by six.

"Professor?" he said as he sat gingerly on the edge of the mattress. He leant over and brushed a lock of hair off Snape's cheek. "Snape?" he murmured as he ran his hand lightly over Snape's skull.

The hand at Snape's waist came up and wrapped around the back of Harry's neck, the fingers curved lightly against his skin, and Harry found his head pulled down and his lips captured in a tender kiss. He purred softly as he returned the kiss, drawing back just in time to see a hint of iris before finding himself being kissed again.

Behind him, Ron cleared his throat noisily, and Harry pulled away with obvious reluctance, watching keenly as Snape's eyes finally fluttered open. "Good morning, sir," he said softly as he caressed Snape's cheek, the skin underneath warm and stubbly, the feel of Snape's whiskers against his palm both new and pleasing. "How are you feeling?"

For a moment, Snape's eyes were warm, and then it was if a curtain snapped shut between them, his gaze turning impassive. He pulled the duvet over himself and propped up on his elbow. "Potter," he acknowledged. "Mr Weasley," and if anything, Snape's voice cooled to the point of frost. "What brings you to my chamber at this hour of the day?"

"It's past eight," said Harry, "and you weren't at breakfast. I would have been here sooner, but Ron wasn't ready yet. Are you feeling alright, sir? You've not slept this late since the term started."

"A few miscreants played a prank that went awry, and it was past midnight before we got it sorted," replied Snape with a yawn. "And yes, Potter, I took the bloody potions as directed, which is why I'm still abed at this godforsaken hour."

"What sort of prank?" asked Ron as he gazed past them from the safety of the doorway.

Snape's eyes narrowed as he sat up straight in bed. "A box of doctored Honeydukes Finest found its way into the common room. The chocolates had been laced with the active ingredient in Puking Pastilles. I don't suppose you would know anything about that?"

"He doesn't," said Harry quickly. "Nor does Ginny, Neville or Hermione. I can't speak for the rest of Gryffindor, though."

"What makes you so certain, Potter?" demanded Snape.

"Because my friends know I would bring that sort of information to you and Professor McGonagall," said Harry as he turned to give Ron a stern look. "I'd also owl Ron's mum and dad if any of the Weasleys did anything that stupid. Isn't that right?"

Ron swallowed and shifted nervously before meeting Snape's gaze. "He would, Professor," said Ron, his lip curling in mild disgust. "But I can owl George to see if he's sold a lot of Skiving Snackboxes lately."

"Is that why you were up late?" asked Harry. "Because of the chocolates?"

"Partially," said Snape. "Three of the students were allergic to ground cephaelis root so I was up brewing until all hours."

"Why didn't you send for me?" asked Harry as Ron said, "See? I told you he doesn't need us anymore." Harry glared. "We're not having this conversation again. I'm here until Pomfrey says he's cured, no matter how long that takes. And since I'm not allowed to be here by myself, you're staying with me."

Ron's face darkened, and he gritted his teeth, the muscle in his jaw working overtime as he quite obviously swallowed back his words of protest.

"Mr Malfoy offered his assistance," said Snape, his gaze fixed on Ron. "As did Mr Nott. You," he continued, turning his attention back to Harry, "and Ms Granger had left not twenty—" A soft chime rang insistently throughout Snape's quarters, causing all three heads to swivel and stare up at the ceiling. Snape threw off the duvet and leapt out of bed as Harry scrambled out of his way.

"What is it?" asked Harry, reaching automatically for his wand. Ron's was already out, and he turned quickly to cover Harry's back.

"One of my students requires aid," said Snape as he threw open the doors to his wardrobe and extracted his worn dressing gown and slippers. He thrust his feet into them and stormed through the bedroom door, Harry hard at his heels.

"Sir, I know you're in a hurry, but…" Harry blew out a breath. "Maybe a minute in the bathroom first?" Drool was caked on Snape's cheek and his oily hair was a tangled mess, worse than Harry's by far. "If you tell me where I need to go, I'll see to the student until you get there."

With a curious look at Harry, Snape disappeared into the bathroom without a word, emerging in less than a minute and looking a bit more dignified than when he stepped in. "Follow me, both of you," he said tersely, leading them down a hallway Harry didn't remember seeing before.

The two fell into step behind Snape, wearing identical expressions of determination. A hundred thoughts swirled through Harry's mind as they hurried down the corridor, most of them focussed on Slytherin House as the target of another class war. In the minds of too many wizards, it was not enough that Voldemort had lost; the victors wanted to ensure that his followers were well and truly beaten, never to rise again. He could not comprehend how those wizards didn't see the seeds of a new Dark regime being sown through their actions.

As they approached the end of the corridor, Harry heard the muffled sound of someone pounding on a heavy door and their muted cries of distress. Lifting his wand, Snape tapped the centre of the door and waited as it slid into the wall, revealing Demelza Montague, the tiny Slytherin Snape had comforted at the Sorting.

"They're in the common room," she shrieked, rivers of tears running down her face. "And they're all dead! All of them! Even Geoffrey!" She grabbed Snape's hand and ran down the hallway, towards the entrance to the Slytherin common room.

Harry and Ron took off at a run behind Snape, and Harry braced himself for whatever might lie ahead. Demelza's terror had been quite real, and Harry pictured a scene much like the one that had greeted him when Dumbledore took him to meet Horace Slughorn for the first time. He prayed that there wouldn't be too much blood, that whatever had killed all those Slytherins had been quick and painless.

They arrived at the common room to find that pandemonium reigned throughout. Those students who were not screaming and crying were staring in wide-eyed horror. As soon as they stormed through the door, Demelza let out a low moan and buried her face in Snape's robes, sobbing as though her heart was shattering into a million pieces.

Alarmed, Harry pushed through the mass of hysterical students to see what happened—then came to an abrupt stop. His heart froze as all the breath exploded from his lungs. There, in the middle of the floor, lay Snape, his eyes closed and sunken, his skin grey and waxen, his body still as death.

But it couldn't be. Snape was with him, and Harry looked back into the drawn face of the real Severus Snape, who was staring up at the ceiling. He turned back quickly just in time to see the Dark Mark fade from sight and change back into Snape's dying body.

"Boggart," Harry whispered through ashen lips, pointing his wand helplessly at it. "Riddikulus," he cast shakily, but to no effect. The counter-curse had seemed so much easier in his third year Defence class with Remus Lupin. He stared at the body, his mind numb. He was expected to find something amusing about this? He looked around in a panic for one of the older students, but they, too, wore identical expressions of fear and horror. He did not want to know what they were seeing.

He glanced at Ron, and the Boggart shifted to a tall ginger wearing tatters for robes and holding a broken wand aloft. "Ron! Help me!" he shouted, and the sound of his voice seemed to rouse Snape from his momentary stupor.

"Get the children out of here, and leave this to me," snarled Snape as he stepped in front of Ron and Harry, his wand drawn and his dark eyes sparking with anger.

It took a moment for the command to register, but Harry grabbed Ron's shoulder and pushed him towards the cluster of students cowering behind the long black sofas that littered the room. "Everyone, come with me," he said loudly, peeling the tiny Slytherin off Snape's robes and lifting her up into his arms. "Umm, can you show me where the boys' dormitory is?" he asked her as she wept.

A boy half a head shorter than Harry and green to the gills took an unsteady step forward, the light filtering through the Black Lake only highlighting his sickly pallor. "The dorms are this way."

As he and Ron herded the students down the broad, sweeping stairway, Harry glanced over his shoulder in time to see Snape square his shoulders and face down the Boggart.

"Riddikulus," Snape shouted, and the Boggart shifted into a brightly coloured hot air balloon that slowly collapsed in on itself.

"You all right?" Harry asked Ron as they followed the Slytherins deeper into their lair.

Ron gave him a shaky laugh. "Reckon I'm over the spiders." He peeked back over his shoulder and seemed relieved to know the Boggart wasn't following them. "I'm thinking we ought to do Boggarts again in Defence this year." He gave Harry a sideways glance. "I know what you saw."

"I haven't a clue what you saw, except it looked like you," said Harry. "You're afraid of yourself?"

"Remember the locket?" asked Ron as a sharp cry echoed through the stairwell. "You don't think…?"

"Yeah, I do," replied Harry grimly, gripping his wand as he racked his brain to come up with some way to turn Snape's corpse into something humorous. "There were three of them, weren't there? I reckon they each managed to sneak one in." He jumped back and plastered himself against the wall as the students they were guiding downstairs came stampeding back up.

He grabbed one, an older girl, and said urgently, "Tell Professor Snape there's another one down here."

"Yes, all right." She gave him a quick, frightened nod and rejoined the throng.

As soon as the path was clear, Harry and Ron trotted swiftly down the stairs, their faces set in hard lines. "I'll take this one," said Ron. "I think I know what to do with it. Just stay behind me."

The staircase ended in the middle of a long corridor. Harry figured that the boys' dormitory was at one end, with the girls' dormitory at the other, and he wondered if there was some enchantment that would keep the boys out of the girls' rooms like there was in Gryffindor Tower. It didn't take much effort to determine which corridor was which; there, in the middle of the right-hand fork, stood an emaciated Ronald Weasley dressed in rags, a vacant expression on his slack face.

"Never going to amount to anything, are you?" it said. "Thick as a post you are. Last one to figure things out. Born poor, die poor. Worthless, stupid, inc—"

Ron stared his doppelgänger right in the eye and called out "Riddikulus!" and suddenly the Boggart turned into Percy Weasley at his pedantic best.

Harry couldn't help it; he snickered. Moments later, Ron was laughing as well, and Percy vanished right in the midst of a monotone speech on the value of assistant undersecretaries in the Ministry.

"I see you have the matter well in hand," said Snape from behind them.

Harry spun quickly and resisted the urge to hurl himself into Snape's arms. "We think there's another one somewhere. I don't know if it's in the common room or down here."

"A third Boggart?" said Snape with a frown.

"Yeah," said Ron. "We saw three Ravenclaws running away from here a few minutes before we got to your rooms. They were right chuffed about something, too. Reckon they found a way to smuggle them in."

The frown on Snape's face deepened, and he eyed them both thoughtfully. "Very well. Mr Weasley, please inspect the rest of the boys' dormitories. Mr Potter, I will give you access to the girls' areas. I will return to the common room and see if I can discover anything there or in one of the associated libraries. Should either of you require assistance, send a Patronus." He lifted his wand and cast a bright yellow spell at the top of the archway. The magic shimmered across the corridor and the passageway opened.

If Snape's dressing gown could have billowed, it would have as he headed back to the common room. Harry watched him go and then exchanged a look of trepidation with Ron. "I'll send a Patronus if I need you," he gulped. Then, gathering up his courage, he started down the hallway before Ron could talk him out of it.

Harry's heart sank. He had no confidence in his ability to defeat a Boggart in this form, and found himself wishing that his greatest fear was still fear itself—or a Dementor. Either would be fine. It would be child's play to banish one of those. All he had to do was imagine Goyle and Malfoy wearing Dementor cloaks and falling over their own two feet. He could even send his Patronus at it and watch it flail about in a panic.

The Boggart was in the third room he checked. Harry knocked softly on the door and, when no one answered, he pushed his way inside. Snape was lying in the middle of the floor appearing every bit as dead as he had in the common room. Harry's heart stopped for a moment and he drew in a sharp breath. "Riddikulus," he whispered, waving his wand in a jiggly pattern, his hand shaking too hard to manage the movement properly.

Snape remained unmoving on the floor. "No," said Harry to himself as he stared in horror. "It's a Boggart. A Boggart. Snape is not dead. This is not real."

It didn't help. Not four months earlier he had walked past rows and rows of bodies, attended funerals, memorialised friends and family. Now he was staring at a life that he didn't want, one bereft of the steady support and understanding that Snape given him. He lifted his wand again as his eyes filled, but realised almost immediately how futile a gesture it was. He couldn't do it.

Harry ran from the room, slamming the door shut behind him and trapping the Boggart inside. He closed his eyes, remembering his last day alone with Snape, and cast, "Expecto Patronum." Before he could say a word, the gleaming white stag leapt through the wall and galloped away. Then Harry walked back into the room as if drawn there, his eyes riveted on Snape's lifeless body.

A few minutes later, Snape entered quietly from behind. "Wait for me in the corridor," he said, and Harry barked out an odd, choked sound. He stumbled out of the room, his head down, his eyes averted, closing the door behind him.

Once in the corridor, he conjured his Patronus, which lingered this time, waiting for him to provide it with a message. "Found the third one. Meet us in the common room," he said and sent it on its way. Snape was out in under a minute. "It is banished," he said as he stood in front of Harry. His eyes narrowed. "I was under the impression that you had studied Boggarts under Lupin. You know the charm that banishes them, so why did you fail?"

Harry said nothing, just walked to Snape and wrapped his arms around him, burying his nose in Snape's chest and breathing deeply. Snape smelled of valerian and St. John's Wort, the aroma of the potions he'd been taking seeping through his pores. Harry didn't mind. The smell was real, the sound of Snape's heartbeat calming. The arms that held him close were comforting.

"My Boggart changed," said Harry after a moment, his voice muffled by Snape's dressing gown.

"Look at me," said Snape, lifting Harry's chin and shaking his head when Harry kept his eyes down. "While I am not yet in perfect health, my life is in no danger. I fully intend to live for many more years yet, no doubt to the dismay of legions of students who have yet to pass through these halls. Your fears are groundless."

"That's why they're fears," mumbled Harry. He looked up and met Snape's gaze. "It used to be a Dementor. I can banish those, no problem. This, though…" He shook his head. "I've no idea how to banish that. I can't face the thought of you dead." His voice cracked on the last words as his hands flew up to cup Snape's face, and Harry leaned in, kissing him hard.

For a moment, Snape returned the kiss, Harry pressing up against him hungrily. Then he broke it off, provoking a groan from Harry. "This behaviour is the reason you are not permitted to be alone with me," Snape said shakily. "If you wish to be found trustworthy, you must demonstrate you have the self-discipline necessary to be entrusted with that responsibility."

"I was alone with you all summer," Harry protested resentfully.

"Yes, and what happened the moment we were told you could no longer remain in my rooms?" asked Snape. "I am saying that if you have a care for me, as you insist you do, you must consider what effect your actions will have on me. I do not wish to be dismissed from Hogwarts. This is my home, and I intend to remain here."

"You're right," said Harry. "I didn't think." He stepped away from Snape and started back towards the mouth of the corridor. "I should get back. Ron will be waiting and I still have bases to brew before Quidditch trials start." He trudged up the corridor, its smooth stone floor, arched ceiling and stone walls so very different from Gryffindor Tower.

Ron was waiting at the foot of the stairs when Harry stepped through the archway. "Got it all sorted, did you?" he asked.

Harry shook his head. "Snape banished it. I couldn't," he admitted. "Let's get back to Snape's lab. I need to finish before lunchtime. Will you help?"

Ron gaze Harry a quizzical look, unable to remember a time when Harry was unable to perform one of the standard defensive spells. "Sure I will," said Ron. "Shouldn't take but a couple of hours with us both working on it."

They hurried up the stairs and entered the common room, surprised to see the Slytherins seated in rows by year. Many of the upper forms were missing, including all of the sixth and seventh years, but Harry remembered that they were holding their Quidditch trials this morning and suspected that was where they might be. "What do you suppose is going on?" he whispered as Snape walked in.

"Some sort of meeting, I expect," Ron whispered back as Snape stood before the assembled students.

"I shall return in five minutes. We will speak then of what occurred," said Snape, his voice more melodious than Harry remembered hearing for quite some time. "Remember, you are protected here. Salazar Slytherin takes care of his own." He turned to Harry and Ron. "The two of you come with me. You have work to do."

Snape escorted them back to his rooms. "Leave the brewing. I will explain to Madam Pomfrey that her potions will be delayed. Pensieve your memories of your journey here, and I will examine them later. Mr Weasley, if you are unfamiliar with the technique, Mr Potter will be able to assist. Now you must excuse me. I have matters to attend to." He disappeared into his bedroom and was back in minutes, fully dressed and with every hair in place, striding back up the corridor and exuding confidence with each step he took.

~*~

The skies were leaden, a uniformly dull grey that didn't even reveal the location of the sun. In other words, it was ideal for Quidditch. There was no breeze to speak of; the temperature, though cool, was not by any means cold and, with the sun obscured, Harry would have little trouble finding the Snitch. It was unfortunate that today was try-outs and not a match instead.

He walked out onto the pitch, Ron and Ginny flanking him, his new Firebolt in hand. "Looks like we have a fair few trying out. Ron, why don't you get them divided up in groups depending on what they're trying out for, and we'll go from there?"

"Got it, mate," replied Ron. He waded out into the crowd and started bellowing directions. "All right, then. Chasers over there, Beaters on this side, Keepers behind me and Seekers over by Harry." Once they were organised into four very uneven groups, he returned to Harry's side.

Harry shook his head. "Ginny, would you go work with the Chasers? See if any of them can catch? I'll see what I can do with this lot."

"Don't you want to see if any of them can fly first?" asked Ginny as she picked up a Quaffle. "What's the point in seeing if they can catch if they can't stay on a broom?"

"If I know who can't catch, then I don't have to worry about whether they can fly," said Harry. "They'll be out straight away. Besides, I don't want anyone to wreck up there. This is safer."

Ginny flashed him a smile. "This is why you wear the captain's badge." She turned and started towards the cluster of Gryffindors chatting amongst themselves. "Listen up. Here's the first test." She started explaining as Harry walked towards the potential Beaters at the other end of the pitch.

Before long, the Chasers, Beaters and Keepers had balls flying all over the place, and after an hour Harry called for a rest and summoned Ron and Ginny. "Cut them by half if you can. Don't keep anyone you can't work with. We fly next. Take the lead, Ginny."

As Ron and Ginny culled the worst of the lot, Harry walked over to the would-be Seekers and spoke with the four of them. "You all know the objective is to catch the Golden Snitch and earn 150 points for Gryffindor, but you must do this whilst avoiding Bludgers, Chasers and the other Seeker. It's not only eyesight; it's about flying to the limits of your abilities. A Seeker must be determined, but most of all, he or she must be fearless." He smiled at them, and then had each of them introduce themselves.

Rylan Wimberly and Modraed Murley were both third years, both wiry, both young. "I reckon I'm a third year, but I'm doing second year over," said Rylan, his face reflecting his confusion.

"This is my first time at being a seventh year," replied Harry, "although last year would have been my seventh. And you?" he asked the third, a dark haired older year student who was at least as tall as Ron.

"I'm Falconner Price," the boy said with an easy smile. "I'm a fourth year—again. I was a first year when you were Triwizard Champion."

"I'm Hollie Bevens-Calder," the taller girl chimed in. "I'm doing my O.W.L. year again." She gave Harry a bright smile. "I can't catch, but I'm a good flyer and I notice things. I wanted to try out for Seeker last year, but we didn't have Quidditch."

"Then here's your chance," said Harry. "Let me tell you what's going to happen. Once Ron and Ginny have made the first cuts, we're going to play a game of follow-the-leader. Anyone who misses a gate is automatically disqualified. As soon as we're down to a full team and a back-up for each position, we'll start the hard part. I know I'm captain, but if any of you finish ahead of me, the badge goes to Ginny," he said.

"Why to Ginny?" asked Rylan. "Is she automatically on the team?"

"Good question," said Harry, "and no, she's not. She's trying out, same as everyone else, but she's the best Chaser I've seen in six years of playing, so I'm guessing she'll pass the trials. Anyway, the three best flyers for Seeker will have a Seeker's duel. You all know what that is?"

Only Modraed didn't, so Harry explained. "Ron or Ginny will release the Snitch. The first one to catch it is Seeker. Then whoever is left will fly for reserve. Now, go join the others whilst I set up the course."

Floating above the Quidditch pitch was a series of gates that, to the Muggle-borns, looked like a ski slalom course set on the side of a mountain. Knowing that Gryffindor would be holding trials, the Slytherins who used the pitch earlier in the day must have left the flags up. Harry frowned; Slytherin House was not known for their habit of doing friendly things. He mounted his Firebolt and started to fly the course.

As he passed through the sixth gate at high speed, a loud explosion sent him hurtling off course. He spun wildly for a moment, but was able to get his broom back under control and circled back to take a closer look. Ron and Ginny were already waiting for him on the ground, as was half the team.

"What the hell was that?" demanded Ron as the tatters of a yellow flag waved feebly in the air.

Harry looked at the post and the remnants of cloth floating down to the ground like confetti. "I don't think it was meant for us—or for me. I think this was meant for the Slytherins. Look around. See any other yellow flags?"

"You think some Hufflepuffs did this?" asked Ginny in surprise. "Harry, they're, well, they're Hufflepuffs. They stay out of House rivalries, except for Quidditch, of course."

"I'm going to fly the rest of the course," said Harry. "Keep an eye on the people in the stands, okay? They might reckon they left a trap or two behind." He flew toward the centre of the pitch and circled around once to gain speed, then entered the course through the gate that had just exploded. He soared easily through the rest of the gates, weaving in and out of them until he was satisfied that no danger remained.

As he finished flying the course for a second time, Ginny flew up next to him. "Ron saw three students sneaking out of the stands," she said. "Idiots. They should have just walked out. Would have been much less obvious. He thinks he recognised one of them. Leanne something or other."

"I'll let Snape know," said Harry. "Want to help me with the course? It's too flat. We need some gates that go up or down as well."

"You take the north end, I'll take the south," said Ginny, and she flew off. Minutes later they had a rigorous course that would challenge even Ginny and Harry's abilities, whilst Ron gathered up all the students and gave them a pep talk.

"We'll be sending you in one at a time, ten seconds apart." Ron conjured a large clock with a bright red second hand that floated above midfield. "Fly through the centre of the clock, then straight through the middle hoop at the far end. Turn and enter the course. If you miss a gate, a chime will sound and you're out. You can pass people on the course, but not when they're flying through a gate. I'm going to fly the course at a slow speed. You must beat that time to stay in contention. Any questions?"

There were none. As Harry and Ginny looked on, Ron flew through the course slowly enough not to miss any gates, yet quick enough that marginal flyers would be hard pressed to beat the time he posted. As Ron exited the course, Harry pulled his wand and put the time up, 3:18:304, the enormous numbers floating well above the clock. There was another set of numbers just above that, but right now it read 0:00:000.

"The time to beat is three minutes, eighteen and some-odd seconds," called out Harry at the top of his lungs. "Let's see who's the fastest Gryffindor of them all. You, Romilda, mount up and show 'em how it's done." The Gryffindors all cheered as she took to the skies.

As Ron and Ginny got everyone lined up in no particular order, Rylan kicked off and took to the skies. Ten seconds later, Ritchie Coote took off after him. By the time the three of them were ready to try their hand at the course, half of the hopefuls had missed gates or simply given up. The fastest time was posted by Falconner Price, with a blistering 1:58:972 and Harry wondered if he'd be able to beat it, then asked himself if he really wanted to.

"Gin," he asked quietly as Andrew Kirke started his run. "How would you feel about being captain this year? Think you can handle us?"

"Don't you want it, Harry?" she asked, surprised.

"Not really," admitted Harry. "I just want to fly. Let's see how this turns out, but don't be surprised if I ask McGonagall…I mean Williamson if it's all right if I hand it off to you." He gave her a crooked smile. "I'm so used to McGonagall being our Head of House that it's hard to remember she's not anymore."

Ginny gave him an understanding smile. "Let me know what you decide." She mounted her broom and flashed him an eager grin. She was airborne in the blink of an eye, crouched down low over the handle of her broom and shot like an arrow through the centre of the clock, starting the timer.

"Your turn, Ron," said Harry. "You've flown it once, so let's see a great time," he continued, giving his best friend an encouraging smile. He clapped his hands and whistled loudly as Ron shot off the ground, then looked at the clock, waiting for his signal to start his run. When it came, he focussed on Ron and leapt into the sky.

Harry sailed through the centre of the clock just as the chime sounded, his broom pointed right at the middle hoop at the far end of the pitch. He passed through it, pulled hard to the left and started to fly at top speed. He swooped and soared, corkscrewing down one section, entering another in a slow sloth roll to set up for the series of gates set in sharp chicanes. Half of those who had washed out had missed two or more gates in this section, but Harry flew through them with reckless abandon, the wind roaring in his ears.

Once out of that section, he pulled up sharply, flying almost straight up to sail through the next gate, and then diving right after that with a hard turn to the left to catch the one after that. It was flying at its purest, just him and his broom, with no Snitch or Bludgers to worry about. He executed a sharp U-turn, arced over the gate and aimed for the last one, set obliquely to the turn he'd just exited. He rolled onto his back and dove backwards toward the ground, sailing cleanly through the last gate. Righting himself, he crouched low over his broomstick and sailed through the left hand hoop next to where he'd started, cheering and pumping his fist as he burst through it.

With a huge smile on his face, Harry directed his broom back to midfield and rejoined his team. No one said a word as he hopped off and the smile died on his face. Ginny was pale and Ron looked as though he was about to throttle him. "What's wrong?" he asked nervously, his fingers tightening on the shaft of his broom.

"You flew a reverse inverted dive," said Ginny dumbly, as though she didn't believe her own words. "Not even Krum will try one of those."

"Look at your time, mate," advised Ron, his freckles standing out in stark relief against the whiteness of his skin.

Harry craned his neck and looked up. There, in gigantic flashing numbers was his time for the day, an incendiary 1:42:171. He gave a slow blink and looked again. "But I couldn't have," he said. "It's not possible." He'd seen Falconner fly and figured he hadn't stood a chance.

Falconner tapped him on the shoulder and held out his hand. "Best flying I've ever seen," he said sombrely. "And I've been taking lessons since I started school."

"Thanks," said Harry, "but I really don't know how I did it."

"Hollie and I will fly for reserve," said Falconner. "Neither of us wants to fly against you. No offence," he added with a smile, "but you're that good."

An hour later, Gryffindor had a new Quidditch team and a new captain in Ginny Weasley. To the surprise of no one who had seen him fly, Harry was Seeker with Falconner in reserve. Ron was back at Keeper, and Ginny would be playing Chaser along with Gillian Mathews and Jimmy Peakes. Ritchie Coote and Jack Sloper would be Gryffindor's Beaters. The only player Harry didn't know was Gillian, but she had the same intensity as Ginny, so Harry thought she'd do well.

As they walked off the pitch and up to the castle, Harry decided he wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep for a week. "I'm knackered," he said to Ron. "Wake me for dinner and don't let me go back to sleep. I need to finish Charms and see to Snape tonight."

"It's Saturday, mate," complained Ron. "Save Charms for tomorrow so we can get Snape done early. I want to see Hermione before she locks herself in the library."

"What's wrong with now?" asked Harry, covering a huge yawn behind his hand.

Ron's eyes cut to Harry. "She's doing her Charms essay and if I spend time with her now, she'll just make me do my homework."

"That's Hermione," said Harry with a laugh.

They were quiet the rest of the way up to the castle, and by the time Harry reached the Gryffindor common room he was dead on his feet. "Tell Hermione about this morning if you haven't already. I need to sleep," he said to Ron. He stumbled up the stairs and when Ron awoke him three hours later, he wasn't sure how he'd made it to his bed.

~*~

By the time Harry and Ron made it back down to the dungeons, Harry was exhausted. "This is ridiculous," he complained as he yawned for a sixth time, afraid he was going to dislocate his jaw if he opened his mouth any wider. "I shouldn't be this tired. I've done nothing all day."

Ron snorted. "So nothing includes three encounters with a Boggart, Quidditch trials where you set a new school record…"

"Some record," said Harry as he rolled his eyes. "Circling the pitch isn't exactly something they keep records of."

"Fastest flying I've ever seen," said Ron. "And let's not forget the gate that blew up. Not exactly an uneventful day, mate." He knocked on Snape's door, but before Snape could answer it, Harry had it opened.

Snape had evidently come to his feet to greet them, but arched a brow when Harry walked in with Ron at his heels. "And for a moment I thought you might have acquired a patina of good manners. How disappointing to discover I am wrong," he drawled. "I would invite you in, but I see you've already decided to make yourself at home."

Harry was too tired to lift his head off the back of the couch, but a soft smile graced his features nonetheless. "I won't stay long. Too tired," he said. "I know I need to brew, but I just can't, so I'll be here early tomorrow morning to take care of it. Ron and I will leave as soon as I know you've taken today's potions."

He lifted his head in time to see Ron drop into a nearby chair whilst Snape sat at the other end of the couch, studying Harry as though quantifying some unexpected result in a familiar potion. "Are you well, Potter?"

"I'm fine," replied Harry as Ron scoffed aloud. "Today's been a bit more than I expected, what with the Boggarts and the problem on the pitch. Who's captain for Slytherin? Malfoy?"

"No, Varian Urquhart has that honour," said Snape, sitting up at the abrupt shift in conversation. "Though he's in the Hospital Wing at the moment with a broken femur and a concussion, as are three other students. What do you know of it?"

"This time it was Hufflepuffs," said Harry. "Have Ron Pensieve his memory, since he thought he recognised one of them."

"She was a friend of Katie Bell," interjected Ron. "I thought she was a year ahead of us, but I could be wrong. I remembered her from when Katie was cursed by that necklace."

Snape thought for a moment, remembering the necklace well enough. "The girl in question is Leanne Castle, and no, she was in your year. What is it she's supposed to have done?"

"You know how we set up gates for flying tests?" asked Harry, his eyes closed and his voice sounding as though it was coming from far away. "I was flying the course that the Slytherins left up to see what I wanted to change. One of the gates exploded when I flew through it. The gate flag was yellow. That colour is used for cautions, not gates, but I was flying too fast to notice."

"Too fast to notice?" asked Snape with a frown. "I'm familiar with the gate system, Potter. Blue for open, red for closed. Yellow flags aren't for cautions. They're used to signify particularly challenging gates. Yellow is used because it stands out."

"That one didn't," said Harry. "I don't remember seeing any yellow until after the gate exploded."

"How is that you managed to avoid injury?" asked Snape suspiciously.

Harry lifted his head. "Gryffindor had nothing to do with it, if that's what you're implying," he said wearily. "If we were stupid enough to booby-trap the pitch, don't you think we'd have made certain all the traps were gone before anyone flew the course? And they had no way of knowing I'd be first through that gate, so don't think that someone from my own House was trying to do me in for being a Slytherin lover."

Snape's eyes bored into Harry. "I beg your pardon?"

"That's what they're calling him, Professor," said Ron from the safety of his chair. "Because he sits with Malfoy in classes. 'Slytherin lover' is probably the nicest. You don't want to know the worst."

"There's worse?" said Harry, sitting up for the first time since he'd collapsed onto the couch.

Ron flushed and looked away. "It's not from our years or from anyone in Dumbledore's Army," he said. "I've heard it from the fifth and sixth years, mostly. Ignore it, Harry. They don't know you or how you are."

"How I am?" asked Harry slowly, praying this wasn't about to turn into another one of those moments. He was running out of patience for them, especially coming after what felt like a relatively normal day, Boggarts notwithstanding.

"Not like that," protested Ron. "I meant you're loyal, especially to someone who's done you a good turn."

"So what are they saying about the esteemed Mr Potter?" asked Snape, and though his tone was icy, Harry knew it wasn't directed at him, but at those who would try to use words to hurt him.

Ron swallowed heavily and met Snape's eyes. "They're pretty good at whispering stuff when there aren't any professors around, but the worst I've heard is 'Death Eater whore'. I'm sorry, Harry."

Harry leaned back against the couch and closed his eyes again, sorely tempted to go to sleep where he was. "Don't be," he said tiredly. "It's no worse than I expected. I'm only surprised they're not saying it to my face."

"I am impressed by your relative equanimity," said Snape, his face was dark with ire. "Be assured, Potter, should I hear any such insults I will ensure that the culprit writes lines until his hand aches."

"Just don't use a blood quill, okay?" said Harry in the same sleepy tone. "Umbridge did and it scarred."

"His right hand, Professor," said Ron quietly. "You can still see the marks." He tilted his head and looked at Snape. "Didn't you know?"

Snape lifted Harry's hand and stared at the words carved there. I must not tell lies. "She should be in Azkaban," he seethed, then looked at Harry when he didn't reply.

Harry was fast asleep.

Chapter Text

By the time the Whomping Willow had started dropping its leaves, October was nearly half over and Harry had finally fallen into a routine he could live with. Ron usually managed to have him out of bed by seven-thirty, which made him late enough for breakfast that most of the bacon and its associated aroma was gone. After washing down a piece of toast with a goblet of pumpkin juice, his stomach felt settled enough to eat a full breakfast, which he devoured.

At lunchtime, Harry would down another goblet of pumpkin juice and slap together a fast sandwich, which he carried out of the Great Hall and into his next class. As soon as he finished eating, he'd lay his head down on his desk and sleep until Draco woke him. Double Herbology on Wednesdays was the class that gave him the most trouble. The greenhouses were warm and their loamy atmosphere inevitably lulled Harry into a heavy sleep.

On the days he didn't have Quidditch practice, Harry took another nap before dinner. Neville, Seamus, and Dean seemed to share in the responsibility of waking him up in time to eat, something for which he could not thank them enough. They also provided a buffer between him and Hermione, who was determined to nag him straight to Madam Pomfrey.

"I keep telling you I'm fine," protested Harry as he sat down at the Gryffindor table in time to intercept the shepherd's pie that was making the rounds. "This is the first year I've been able to sleep without Voldemort poking around inside my head, so maybe I'm just catching up on the four years' worth that I missed." He filled his goblet with pumpkin juice and tucked in.

"Maybe he's about to grow a bit," said Neville from behind his plate of lamb chops and greens. "I grew about four inches taller during fifth year and I was tired all the time."

"And you were working really hard in those extra Defence classes we had, too," said Ron to Neville between bites. "The same way Harry's doing for Snape, so leave off him, Hermione. Harry's fine. Besides, Snape would march him to the infirmary himself if anything were wrong."

Harry blinked and looked up from his food. "You think Snape would send me to Pomfrey?" A smile broke over his face, and he wasn't sure if it was due to the thought of Snape caring about him, or at the small step towards acceptance that Ron had just taken.

A small grimace flashed across Ron's face so quickly that Harry wasn't positive he'd seen it. "Much as I hate to admit it, I reckon he tolerates you. More than he does the rest of us at any rate, except Malfoy."

Hermione shook her head. "Any concern Professor Snape shows toward Malfoy is because of what's happening with the Slytherins."

"They're disgusting, every last one of them and they deserve everything that's happened to them," snarled Parvati, her face twisted with loathing. "You weren't here, Granger. You don't know how it was with them torturing the rest of us every chance they had."

"So that gives us the right to bully them?" asked Harry, setting down his fork and rubbing his hand over his stomach as it churned. "To ruin their potions and tear up their Herbology projects? To hex them in the corridors and charm their Gobstones to squirt acid? We're six weeks into the term, and nearly every single Slytherin has been to the Hospital Wing at least once. Are you really saying you're fine with all that?"

"Yes," said Parvati as Hermione exclaimed loudly, "Of course not!"

Before he quite knew how it had happened, a quarrel about the Slytherins had broken out with Parvati, Seamus, and Dean on one side and Neville, Ginny, and Hermione on the other. Ron was too busy eating to involve himself and Harry was too busy listening to participate.

"You were in the DA, Seamus," argued Ginny. "You know how often Snape ran interference between us and the Death Eaters, so don't tell me that the only good Slytherin is a dead Slytherin."

"It's not just me that's sayin' it," retorted Seamus. "There are loads of others, even some in the DA."

Neville's face darkened. "If it weren't for Snape, we would have been killed at the Ministry back in fifth year. He's the one who notified the Order and saved our arses. And if Voldemort hadn't trusted him, we would have had the Carrows in charge here, and they would have been a thousand times worse without him here to keep them reined in. You lot can do what you want, but if I hear that the DA's done anything, I'll take it to McGonagall."

Harry glanced over at the Slytherin table. The entire House was sitting with their backs to the wall, wands laid carefully by their plates. Their eyes moved constantly over the other tables, alert to any possible threats. He knew that they never travelled alone if they could help it, even visiting the loo in pairs. This was not the better future he had hoped to see.

"Draco saved my life. So did his mum," said Harry as Neville and Seamus glared across the table at each other. "I wish I wasn't the only person who remembered that. I'm going to Snape's. I'll see you later." He passed up his favourite treacle tart, having lost his appetite for sweets not long after the start of term. "It's Draco's night, so if I'm not back by curfew I'll see you in class."

Harry shouldered his schoolbag and stopped by the Slytherin table to wait for Draco to finish his meal. He sat at the end and looked around, ignoring the whispers and pointed glares he was receiving from the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables. A few of the younger Gryffindors gave him a dirty look, but they went back to their conversations pretty quickly. Having suffered the vagaries of popularity all the way through school, it truly didn't bother him, though he wished at times they could be a bit more creative with their insults. Almost all of them had withered under the wicked barbs Snape tossed about with impunity; if they wanted their insults to be effective, they should take a page from his book.

"I gather you're waiting for me to escort you to the dungeons?" asked Draco as he paused at the end of the table. "Hurry up, Potter. I don't want to spend any more time up here than necessary." His light grey eyes swept over the Great Hall and his fingers twitched on his wand.

"Go ahead of me," said Harry quietly as he came to his feet. "I'll cover you." He slipped his schoolbag off his shoulder and carried it by the straps, prepared to drop it should trouble arise. He stayed a step behind Draco, walking slightly to the left, aware of every scrape of wood against stone, of every clatter of silverware against dinner dishes. When he heard the whisper of a Tarantallegra, he had a wordless shield charm up before Draco could take another step.

"You must have ears like a kneazle," said Draco as they passed the Grand Staircase. "I didn't even hear that jinx, and I've been hit with enough of them that I can almost identify them by their sound."

"Spells have different sounds?" asked Harry. "I didn't know that."

"It's not so much that the spells themselves have different sounds," admitted Draco as they trod through the stone arch that led to Snape's quarters, "but hexes don't sound the same as curses. Jinxes are different from charms. And the more dangerous the spell, the more they…well, sizzle is the best word I can come up with. They hiss and crackle a bit, kind of like footsteps on wet gravel."

"Maybe we could meet up in the Defence classroom and try it," offered Harry, but Draco only shrugged.

They walked in silence the rest of the way, though Harry paused periodically to ensure no one was following them. Walking through the dungeons with Draco always made him just the slightest bit uneasy, though he'd never been threatened directly. He knew Draco was barely tolerated by most members of his House and loathed by everybody else, and that made him a favourite target. It was only the fact that a number of students thought him to be a friend of Harry's that saved him from further abuse.

"Are you planning to fall asleep again, Potter?" asked Draco as Harry pressed his hand against Snape's door and whispered the password.

"I didn't plan to fall asleep last time," said Harry. "What do we have to brew tonight?" He set his bag by Snape's desk and looked over the scrolls of parchment he had to grade: thirty essays on the properties of powdered moonstone written by the Hufflepuff/Ravenclaw second years. That meant he'd have the Slytherin/Gryffindor set on Friday.

Draco flipped through the inventory list, his brow furrowed. "Not much, according to this. Pepper-Up, Headache Remedy and Snape's antivenin."

Harry frowned. "Let me see that." He looked at the line Draco was pointing to, and then gazed up at him. "Snape shouldn't be out of that already. Hermione was working on it with Aaron last week. They should have decanted it yesterday."

"Granger didn't tell you?" asked Draco.

"I haven't really had a chance to talk to her. I had to get up early to finish that project for Sprout, especially since I got a bit behind in class." Harry felt his cheeks grow warm. No matter how hard he tried, he simply could not stay awake in Double Herbology. Sprout had tolerated it after a fashion, but her sympathy was wearing thin. "And I napped at lunch, same as usual."

"Waking you up was great fun," said Draco with a roll of eyes. "You know, you really ought to see Pomfrey. If you fall asleep during Quidditch, it'll be me they blame."

"It's not that bad," protested Harry. "I stayed awake in today's class—sort of. I just have loads to do is all. Anyway, Hermione didn't mention the potion at dinner." She'd been too busy urging him to see Pomfrey instead. "So what happened to it? It looked fine when I went into the lab to clean up. They were just about to cast the charms when I left."

"You know how it's supposed to simmer under stasis for twenty minutes after it's turned clear blue?"

Harry nodded. Putting a stasis charm on something that was supposed to move was a tricky bit of magic and it had taken the five of them nearly a week to master the necessary charms. "Yeah, and then you remove the charms and bring it to a boil."

"Yes, and then as soon as the steam stops rising and the potion shifts to lavender, you stir it widdershins, sprinkle in ground dragon eggshells, and cast that spell that keeps the particles in suspension."

"Then it thickens a bit and turns this disgusting greenish-tan colour. Smells really horrible."

"Right," said Draco. "Everything looked perfect, but when they brought it to a boil, it turned black. Snape was livid when he found out, said that someone had used magic near the potion when it was in stasis."

Harry's brow furrowed. "But I was there when they cast the stasis charms. I'd been cleaning 'til they reached that point, and I never use magic in there unless I'm casting that suspension charm. Once it was in stasis, we left the lab. I was on the couch reading for Transfiguration, Aaron was working on a set of Arithmancy problems and Hermione was writing some myth in Ancient Runes. I remember them arguing over the position of some rune called Theoren or something."

Draco stared. "It's called Kaunan and it means different things depending on whether or not it's inverted. Anyway, someone used magic in there so we've got to start all over."

It didn't make any sense. They were all extra-careful when brewing the Nagini-Be-Gone, especially since it was so time-consuming to make. Harry knew to his bones that none of them had cast a single spell that night. "When did Snape find out it was ruined?"

"You're pathetic, Potter," said Draco. "You fell asleep—again. Granger told him last night when you were doing your Sleeping Beauty act. I can't believe you slept through his lecture. She said she'd not seen him that mad since that night in the Shrieking Shack. She said something about your godfather, but I've no idea what she was on about."

Harry knew. "It was in third year. It doesn't matter," he said, thinking that perhaps he should see Madam Pomfrey if he was falling asleep and not even knowing it. "Do you want to brew or start preparing ingredients for Snape's potion?"

"I'll brew. You're never happy with what the rest of us do," replied Draco.

"It's for Professor Snape and he deserves the best I have," said Harry stiffly. "So if I seem particular about the ingredients that go into his potion, it's for good reason." He hung the inventory list back on its hook outside the laboratory and stepped inside.

"I wish the two of you would just shag and get it over with," muttered Draco as he followed Harry in. He pulled down three number ten copper cauldrons and started measuring out the amount of distilled water he required.

"What?" asked Harry as he pulled down a jar of crushed primrose leaves, nearly dropping it in surprise.

"Merlin, Potter. You don't actually believe I'm that thick, do you?" Draco snorted. "The entire castle knows you've a thing for him, and don't try to pretend you've not noticed he watches you constantly."

The blush spread across Harry's cheeks and neck and he busied himself with pulling down more jars off the shelves. Pickled Jabberknoll spleen, crystallised stinksap, goldenseal, snapping dragon pods and powdered horn of benedictus. "He doesn't pay any more attention to me than he does to anyone else," he said as he set the jars in a careful row.

"I know you can see past the end of your nose," said Draco as he lit the fires under the cauldrons. "You're a Seeker, for fuck's sake. Though…" He eyed Harry thoughtfully. "Hmm. Yes, he would be the sort, wouldn't he?"

The look Draco gave him turned speculative, and Harry's blush deepened. Had Snape's interest in him become more than strictly professional? He hardly dared to hope that Draco wasn't simply having him on, that there was some truth to his words. Still, he couldn't keep his fingers from trembling as he counted out the Death's Head moths he would need.

His feelings for Snape hadn't changed. Every day Harry felt his love deepen within him, wrapping its tendrils around his heart and crawling through his veins, seeping into muscle fibre and worming its way into his nervous system. He nurtured it and cared for it, let it fill him from the inside out, and he was not ashamed to wear his heart on his sleeve or in his eyes. It was part of him, and tearing it out would leave him raw and bleeding. If Draco could see it, why couldn't Snape?

"Why Snape though?" asked Draco as he started assembling the ingredients he needed. "At first, I thought you were trying to get even with him for all the shite he put you through, but I was wrong. You're different with him. You listen, you treat him with respect, and if anyone thought you weren't serious about him, your Boggart put paid to that idea."

Harry went still. He set down his silver knife and wiped his palms on his robes. "My Boggart?" he said in a hushed voice, the colour seeping from his face.

"The entire House knows what you saw, Potter," said Draco quietly. "Haven't you wondered why it's not been added to the rumours about you floating around this place?"

In all honesty, it had never crossed Harry's mind to wonder about it. He'd been too concerned about his inability to defeat the Boggart to worry about what the rest of the students would think of its form. He was considered to be the best in his year at Defence, and his failure rankled. Williamson had assured him they would cover Boggarts in much more depth as part of their preparation for their N.E.W.T.s, but the thought of confronting Snape's corpse again terrified him.

"We lost," continued Draco as he began to pulverise some bicorn horn into powder. "A fact that's being hammered home every single day. And when term started, there wasn't a person in Slytherin House who didn't hate Snape—except for a very few of us. But once again, he's the only one standing between us and the rest of Hogwarts." He looked up and met Harry's eyes. "Except for you. Slytherins will turn on a dime to save their own skins, but they can't figure out your game. And because you don't seem to be in it for any reason other than the fact that you seem to be in love with Snape, they'll keep your secrets as long as you don't betray him."

A movement at the corner of his eye caught Harry's attention and he looked up to see Snape standing in the doorway with the most peculiar expression on his face. "I won't betray him. Ever," said Harry as his gaze shifted back to Draco.

"See that you don't," said Draco. "Hand me that mandrake root, will you? I forgot to get it down."

"Don't touch that, Potter," said Snape sharply as he walked into the laboratory. "In fact, I don't want to see you in here at all."

Harry stared, his hand hovering over the bundle of greyish twigs. "But your potion…"

"Draco will see to preparing the ingredients. I shall take over the brewing for the infirmary." Snape gave Harry an intense look that Harry didn't understand. "There are first and second year essays on my desk that require marking. Unless you plan on being here all night, I suggest you get started on them. They will not evaluate themselves."

Snape's request made no sense whatsoever. His hands were still wracked with fine tremors; Harry could see them every time Snape reached for something, although they were far less pronounced than they had been. Nodding his acquiescence, Harry pulled his hand away from the mandrake root and stepped back from the workbench. "I'll get started on them," he said as he pushed past Snape on his way out of the laboratory.

Before he managed to cross the threshold, Snape took hold of his upper arm. "One more thing before you fall asleep. I would like you to accompany me to the Hospital Wing on Saturday. I know you prefer to be present when that witch conducts her examinations, and your presence tends to reduce the amount of time spent in idle chatter."

"Excellent," said Harry with a brilliant smile. "I'm certain you're loads better than last time." Without further ado, he settled himself at Snape's desk and dipped his quill into Snape's bottle of red ink, thinking again about how much he enjoyed what he was doing—even if it was for Potions.

He picked up the first essay and began to read. Flobberworm Mucus got its name when my stupid crup, Flubber, got worms and accidentally sneezed.

~*~

The ceiling in the Great Hall was leaden that Saturday morning, the colour conjuring thoughts of fireplaces filled with old logs slowly devoured by yellow tongues of fire, of curling up on sofas with large mugs of hot chocolate in which marshmallow islands floated lazily. The candles hanging far above could do little to alleviate the feeling of cold damp that seemed to seep through the very stones of the castle but, despite the dreariness of the day, when Harry finally made his way to breakfast, he was smiling.

Harry gave Malfoy a brief smile as he passed the Slytherin table, then looked past him to the Staff Table where Snape sat eating quietly. It was hard to see the tremors unless one knew what to look for, and Harry took that as a sign that the potions were working the way they were designed to.

"It's Malfoy's day, right?" asked Ron as Harry sat down to eat.

"Did Snape ever explain why our last batch of antivenin failed?" asked Hermione as she finished the last bit of egg on her plate. She watched as Harry washed down his daily toast with pumpkin juice, her eyes registering the way he still avoided the bacon as much as possible.

"Yes, it's Malfoy's day, and I know as much about it as you do," replied Harry, trying to answer both questions at once. "Someone used magic, that's all I know, but I told Snape and Draco both that we didn't. None of us did." He refilled his goblet and loaded a bunch of fruit on his plate, forgoing his usual sausage and egg for porridge and blueberries.

"But it can't have been magic," said Hermione with a frown. "We're all of age, except Aaron of course, but he won't be seventeen for months yet. We've brewed it twice now, and it worked perfectly. One of the ingredients must have gone bad."

Harry shook his head. "I check them as I go, and Snape's meticulous about his stores. I'll bet he can tell you without looking when they expire." He took a bite of porridge and gave her a shrug. "It could have been anything. But Draco and I got the base started last night so you and Aaron can finish it tomorrow. Snape still has enough of the last batch to see him through the weekend."

"I never thought I'd hear you spend so much time talking about Potions," said Ron as he reached across Hermione for another sausage. He scowled when she slapped his hand.

"Have you considered asking?" she said sharply.

"Not really," said Ron. "I'm still hungry so give over, Hermione." He speared the last two sausages with his fork and dumped them on his plate before reaching for the bowl of scrambled eggs.

"It's no use, you know," said Ginny. "Mum has tried for years." She rolled her eyes before glancing over at Harry. "Quidditch practice at two o'clock. Will you be finished at Snape's in time?"

"Should be," said Harry, "but if I'm late, get Falconner in the air. He needs to spend more time flying with the team anyway. He's really good when there's no one around him, but when there are a few brooms nearby he tends to get a bit lost up there."

Ginny's brow furrowed as she tilted her head. "Why don't you come a bit later, then? We have the pitch until five, so we've plenty of time to let him try his hand at Seeking whilst Ritchie and Jack are sending Bludgers at him."

"Fly us both as Seeker today," he suggested. "I can teach him a few tricks." They chatted about Quidditch whilst Hermione watched, with undisguised interest, every bite Harry put in his mouth.

"What is it now, Hermione?" he asked, exasperated. "Why is my breakfast so fascinating?"

"It's not your usual fare," said Hermione thoughtfully. "Nothing you've done since the start of term has been ordinary, and I'm trying to work out why. And before you bite my head off," she continued, her eyes narrowing, "I'm almost convinced it has nothing to do with Professor Snape. I wonder, though, if it's because you've no longer got Voldemort in your head."

This was what gave Hermione the ability to drive him absolutely spare. "That's what I've been saying, isn't it? Besides, you're eating more than usual. Maybe because we spent most of last year half starved. And Ron never stops stuffing his gob."

"This isn't about how much you're eating," she replied heatedly, "but what you're eating. Or rather, what you're not eating. No bacon, no sausage, no mushrooms, only a bit of egg and piles of fruit."

Harry felt the colour rising on his cheeks. "Yeah, well, I've gained a bit more than I wanted to," he muttered before shovelling a spoonful of sliced fruit into his mouth. What business was it of hers what he chose to eat? He ate what sounded good and was trying to avoid stuffing himself with pudding after dinner. He had no idea why he was gaining weight, especially given the length of his days, but he kept his fingers crossed that Hermione wouldn't connect it with his constant napping.

"A bit more weight would do you good," said Hermione, much to Harry's surprise. "You've always been far too thin, but we've your relatives to thank for that. Just use some expansion charms on your clothes if they're not fitting well, and if you don't know how to cast them, let me know and I'll teach you." She glanced sideways at Ron. "Though I suspect Ron might know them."

Ron shook his head, his cheeks bulging with food. "Never seem to gain an ounce," he said, though he took the time to swallow first. "No matter how much I eat." He returned to the remains of his breakfast and appeared to be considering thirds, but apparently decided against it.

"Gain too much weight, Harry, and I might have to shift you to Keeper," said Ginny sagely. She gave him a wink and a quick grin whilst Ron spluttered, spraying bits of toast onto his plate. They chattered and teased each other as they debated whether to shift the Quidditch team positions around based on size. "Though that would make me Seeker and I hate that position," said Ginny firmly.

"Time for me to go," said Harry suddenly. "Snape has an appointment with Madam Pomfrey and he said I could be there for it." No sooner had he spoken than there was a huge crash from the other side of the Great Hall. As hundreds of heads swivelled toward the Slytherin table, a din of screams, cries and low moans broke out.

Harry sprang to his feet and sprinted across the Hall, with Ginny, Neville, Luna and Hermione at his heels. The Staff Table emptied and Harry glanced quickly at Snape, unsurprised to see fury and concern etched on his sharp features. Terry Boot, Hannah Abbot and Ernie Macmillan were already helping some of the Slytherins to their feet as Harry shot past the Hufflepuff table.

"What happened?" he demanded as he crouched down next to little Demelza Montague, who was lying in a pile of broken crockery and spilt pumpkin juice. He helped her sit up and wiped away the blood streaming from her mouth, discovering she'd bitten through her tongue and lower lip. He grabbed a napkin and quickly transfigured it into a thick pad of gauze. "Here. Bite down gently on this."

"The benches disappeared," said another dazed first year, holding the back of his head. "And bits of the tables, too." He looked up at Snape and whimpered, and Harry noticed that blood was trickling from between his fingers. "Hermione?"

"On it," she said as the rest of them spread out and started helping the students. She pulled her wand and began to cast a rudimentary healing charm as Harry moved on to the next student, whilst Neville and Terry began cleaning up the remnants of breakfast that had crashed to the floor along with the students.

McGonagall, Snape and Flitwick began to examine what was left of the benches and tables, casting spells and conferring periodically, their voices too low to be heard. Every once in awhile, one of them would turn his or her attention to a particular student, then return to their investigation, their faces grim.

A crowd had gathered around the Slytherins, and whilst most wore expressions of shock and concern, a few appeared far too pleased with themselves. Harry committed those faces to memory, intending to Pensieve them for Snape once they'd delivered the wounded to the Hospital Wing. He worked his way to the end nearest the Staff Table and found Draco sitting on the floor, his back to the wall and his arm clutched tight around his middle.

"Are you alright?" asked Harry as he dropped quickly to his knees next to Draco.

"Ribs, I think," wheezed Draco as he shook his head. "The legs vanished. Timed spell," he said between breaths. "Daphne fell on me."

"Ron," bellowed Harry over his shoulder. "Draco's hurt. Help me get him to the Hospital Wing." His brow furrowed as he turned his attention back to Draco. "If you can move your arm away, I can try to immobilise your ribs," he said.

Draco gave him a searching look. "No offence, Potter, but I think I'll wait for Pomfrey." He leaned his head back against the cold stones and closed his eyes.

It took Ron several minutes to break away from the fourth years he was helping, and when he arrived his sodden trousers dripped a trail of tea behind him. "Harper's got a pretty nasty burn over his left arm, but he's on his way to the infirmary. What's the matter with Malfoy?" he said, his face contorting strangely, as if uncertain whether to regard Draco as friend or foe.

"Ribs," said Harry. "I'll take the right, you take the left." They helped Draco to his feet and joined the parade of walking wounded. Slowly, in twos and threes, the injured Slytherins were helped or carried to the infirmary. In a fit of pique, Demelza would allow no one but Snape or Harry to help her, and Harry's expression couldn't help but soften as Snape carried her through the line.

To his surprise, Harry found himself pressed into service along with Aaron and Hermione. "You know the potions by sight, Potter," said Pomfrey briskly. "Not many do. Now fetch me four phials of number two Pain Reliever, six Headache Remedies, three Skele-Gros, a phial of Blood Replenisher and that large tub of Bruise Paste." The three of them scurried off to the Potions closet and pulled various bottles off the shelves whilst she started repairing the deep gash on Josalynn Carwell's left arm.

When Harry finally had a spare moment, he wandered back through the Hospital Wing and found Snape sitting in one of the chairs lining the wall with Demelza nodding in his arms. Half a dozen students sat on either side of him waiting for their turn to see the mediwitch, cradling their damaged body parts and wearing bored expressions on their faces. Harry couldn't blame them. This was not his favourite part of the castle.

"Do you know who did this?" he asked softly.

"We have our suspicions," said Snape, shooting Harry a warning glance. This was not a subject to be discussed in front of an audience. "It will be some time yet before my assessment should you choose to wait."

"Wild hippogriffs and all that," said Harry, wishing he dared to give Snape a kiss, but he knew just how wrongheaded a move that would be. It would do nothing to demonstrate that he was mature enough to be part of an adult relationship. "I'll see if Madam Pomfrey requires anything else, then." He ran his hand over Demelza's hair and earned a sleepy sigh for his efforts.

"Feeling paternal, Potter?" asked Snape with only a smidgen of his usual contempt.

"No more so than you," replied Harry with a grin. He walked back onto the ward and found Pomfrey tucking the boy with the head wound into bed.

"You should be fine by dinnertime," said Pomfrey. "Now take this and get some sleep." She placed six drops of a green potion Harry recognised, but couldn't recall the name of, into a glass of water and handed it to him. "Wiggenweld in solution," she said to answer Harry's unasked question. "For concussion. You've had it several times."

"Ahh," said Harry, giving the bottle a quick glance. "Is there anything else you need?"

"Two more Headache Remedies, one Sleeping Draught, and mix up a pitcher of Calming Draught. Half a phial in water. Give it to the children over there." She gestured with her wand to a corner of the infirmary where four girls sat with white faces and tears trickling down their cheeks.

Pomfrey ran them ragged, and Harry felt like a house-elf by the time the last Slytherin was sent back to his common room with instructions to take half a phial of Headache Remedy now and the other half when he went to bed that night. He started back to the Potions closet, intent on taking inventory, but found Aaron Stephenson there instead.

"Thought I'd find out what Hermione and I needed to get started on," Aaron said a bit shyly. "I don't think I ever said so, but thanks for letting me help with brewing. I want to be a Potions Master someday and this has been great fun."

"Fun?" While Harry enjoyed nearly every moment he spent in the dungeons—those he hadn't slept through—he wasn't sure he'd categorise the brewing as fun. The marking, yes. Chopping, dicing and grinding, no.

"I don't think you want to be a potioneer," said Aaron. "But yeah, it's fun. If you see Hermione, tell her I'll get all the bases started and that we'll do the antivenin tomorrow."

"She's over there," said Harry, spotting her bushy head next to Draco's. "Why don't you tell her yourself? And Draco too, come to that. He'll probably be released tomorrow." Assuming Pomfrey kept him that long. He'd only spent the one night in the infirmary when he regrew all the bones in his left arm, and Draco had only cracked three ribs.

Having nothing else to do, Harry sat down in a chair next to Draco's bed, tilted it back on two legs and closed his eyes until it was time for Snape's appointment. He found himself being shaken awake, and judging from the angle of the sun, some hours had passed. He rolled over and stretched, only to find Pomfrey handing him a plate of food and phial of Nutrient potion.

Disconcerted, he glanced around, reaching automatically to the table next to the bed for his glasses. He put them on and blinked. "How'd I get here?" he asked as he sat up in the bed he had no memory of entering. He took the food and potion, downing one and tearing into the other as though he'd not eaten in days.

"Professor Snape found you sleeping in a chair and moved you to your bed," sniffed Pomfrey. "He had me examine you before he'd consent to be examined himself. You're anaemic, Potter, so I'll be sending you back to your dormitory with a bottle of Nutrient. One tablespoon in the morning and the evening should take care of it."

"Anaemic?" asked Harry between bites. He took a quick glance at his watch and gasped. It was already after two. Ginny was going to kill him—and he still didn't know how Snape was doing. "Is that why I'm sleeping so much?"

"Probably," said Pomfrey. "If you don't feel better in a couple of weeks, come and see me and I'll do a more thorough examination. Right now, I suspect it's because you're a bit low on iron—unusual for boys, but not unprecedented—and about to add an inch or two to your height. And before you ask, Professor Snape is doing very well. He's not pleased that I want him to continue with his regimen for another four weeks, but the venom is nearly out of his system so his prognosis is exceptionally good." Her face softened. "You're working miracles with him, Harry."

Rather than let her see him blush, Harry focussed his attention on his sandwich. "He's not making it easy," he mumbled, inwardly pleased that she thought he was good for Snape. It was the best news he'd had in weeks. "Can I send the potion up to my room with Kreacher? He'll make certain it gets there safely. I'm late to Quidditch practice."

Half an hour later saw Harry on his broom flying through the Gryffindor Beaters and Chasers in an intricate aerial ballet, a pale-faced Falconner at his side. "You're supposed to try to beat me to the Snitch," called Harry. "Have you spotted it yet?"

Falconner shook his head as he hunched his shoulders and tried to stay in Harry's slipstream.

"It's by the opponents' left hoop," shouted Harry as he pulled up sharply into what Muggle pilots called an Immelman, a half-loop followed by half a barrel roll to turn right-side up again. He crowed as he rolled out, crouching low over his broomstick to streak towards the Snitch. At the last second, he dove sharply in a frightening Wronski Feint, pulling out at the last second to see if Falconner followed him or actually caught the Snitch this time. As he flew skyward, black dots danced before his eyes and he grew lightheaded for a moment. He shook his head to clear it, and vowed not to do that on a full stomach again.

"Great," shouted Harry a moment later. "Now let it go again and close your eyes for ten seconds to give it a head start." He sailed around in lazy S-curves and waited for Falconner to start Seeking again. An hour or so later, Ginny called a halt to the day's practice and told Falconner to order a practice Snitch through Quality Quidditch and get used to catching the blasted thing.

~*~

After taking a quick shower to wash the events of the day off his skin, Harry made it to the Great Hall just in time to catch Professor McGonagall's daily announcement. He squeezed into his usual place between Neville and Ginny and gave her an apologetic smile before nodding his head respectfully to Snape.

"This morning marked the eighty-seventh attack on Slytherin House since the start of term," announced McGonagall, her lips pressed together in the firm line that always made Harry fear that the next word out of her mouth would be "expelled."

McGonagall's hard eyes swept slowly over the group of students seated in rows at their House tables. "The war is over, a fact that many of you seem to have forgotten, despite the fact that many of you were here to witness it. There will be no more attacks. No more hexes, jinxes or curses. No more ruined homework or stolen textbooks. You will all remain in the Great Hall once the meal is concluded for an explanation of some new rules that will go into effect immediately. Enjoy your food—if you can."

The usual buzz of conversation started as soon as the tables filled with food, and as he ate, Harry found himself wishing he'd sat with the Slytherins, if only to see for himself what they made of McGonagall's announcement. Snape must have held some sort of meeting with his House, since none of them appeared particularly nervous about sitting back at their tables again. With a sideways glance at Hermione, he filled his plate with a thick slab of roast beef that he slathered in dark gravy, poured himself some pumpkin juice and tucked in.

The tension that had started building when pudding was served ratcheted to new heights when the dishes disappeared. The floating candles flickered and there was a thunderclap of voices when Snape stepped out of the nearby Staff Room with the three-legged stool and the Sorting Hat.

"What's he doing with the Sorting Hat?" whispered Neville, his eyebrows drawn tight together.

"No idea," Harry whispered back, his eyes fixed on Snape. "I suppose McGonagall will tell us, though."

"Hush," ordered Hermione as she leaned back against Ron, turning her full attention to the podium where McGonagall stood whispering to Sprout and Flitwick. Snape was standing next to the stool, his face inscrutable.

"Should any of you no longer remember the song the Sorting Hat gave us at the Welcoming Feast," said McGonagall, "I shall reiterate its message for you. Hogwarts is as strong as its weakest House. Without the contributions of all four Houses, Hogwarts will fail." She drew herself up. "I have no wish to be the last Head of this School, so with the assistance of the four Heads, I have reached the conclusion that we are all responsible for the success or failure of Slytherin House, and in order to ensure that there will continue to be a Slytherin House, the Sorting Hat will appoint a guardian for each student who has been Sorted into that House.

"You will all be called, one at a time, to be appointed as a guardian or to have a guardian appointed for you. If you are not appointed, you will be expected to aid those who have been. You will be given more information once the Sorting is done." She turned slightly. "Professor Snape, please call the first name."

Snape unrolled a long scroll of parchment and called out the first name. "Hannah Abbott."

Harry watched as Hannah made her way up to the stool and sat down, her face wreathed with confusion. As the Hat settled on her head, she smiled and appeared to be listening.

"Daphne Greengrass," announced the Hat, and Hannah pulled it off her head and handed it back to Snape as she gave the Slytherin girl a cool smile.

The next two students, Euen Abercrombie and Stewart Ackerley, were sent back to their seats with a sharp "Next" from the Sorting Hat. The first Slytherin, Malcolm Baddock, was assigned to Orla Quirke of Ravenclaw. Harry wasn't surprised when Seamus was sent back to the Gryffindor table without having been assigned anybody, but he was a bit astonished when the Hat assigned Astoria Greengrass to Hermione.

The Sorting Hat appeared to be a bit confounded when Luna came up, and Harry grinned, knowing exactly how the Hat felt. There weren't many students at Hogwarts that made Harry wish he could eavesdrop on the conversation that must be taking place, but Luna was such an unusual witch that he couldn't help but wonder what was being said. Like everyone else, he gasped when the Hat decided that Luna would be Draco Malfoy's protector, and he couldn't help but glance at Neville to see what his fellow Gryffindor thought. Harry was surprised that the Hat had passed on Neville, and he couldn't help but think it had made a terrible mistake.

There was a bit of confusion when Draco came up, and Harry winced in sympathy as the Slytherin moved a bit wrong and gasped in pain. "I'm fine," said Draco as Snape set the Hat on his head, then snatched it off when the brim announced "Neville Longbottom!" as loudly as it could. Until now, the Hat had merely confirmed guardianship, as it had when Millicent Bulstrode was confirmed to have the protection of Terry Boot.

"I thought the Hat wanted Luna to keep an eye on Draco," said Ron, frowning as Draco thrust the Hat back at Snape.

"Maybe the Hat is expecting Draco to guard Neville," said Ginny. "Though I can't imagine why."

"Or perhaps Draco needs both of them," said Harry darkly. "He's been targeted more than anyone else, and he's getting it from both sides."

"I reckoned you'd be assigned to him," said Seamus coldly, "since you've turned into such a Slytherin lover and all, spending every last minute down in the dungeons. Reckon the Hat will Sort you into Slytherin where you belong, Harry?"

"Shut it," hissed Ron as Demelza Montague was called forward. Harry leaned forward to see who she'd end up with, half-hoping the Hat would call his name. He liked the little girl quite a lot; in many ways she reminded him of himself as an eleven-year old, curious about everything and determined to leave no stone unturned if it would give him answers.

To his disappointment, the name that came out of the Hat's brim was Ron's. "But she's a first year," exclaimed Ron. "How am I supposed to protect her when I never see her?"

"All that will be explained, Mr Weasley," said McGonagall from the Staff Table, "when we have finished Sorting."

By this point, there were only twenty or so Slytherins who hadn't been assigned yet, and most of the Hat's announcements were nothing they'd not heard before. They already knew that Michael Corner would be protecting Theodore Nott. Parvati was still unhappy about having to monitor Julian Harper and positively glowered when the Hat confirmed it.

It was with some trepidation that Harry made his way to the front when his name was called. He heard several people mutter the usual imprecations, but he ignored them. "Professor," he said as he gazed steadily at Snape, satisfied for the moment that Snape was not overdoing it.

"Have a seat, Mr Potter," said Snape, and even if he was just imagining there was warmth in Snape's tone, Harry was happy to be up here with him. "There are forty-seven essays that require marking," Snape murmured softly as he held the Hat over Harry's head for a moment. "Will you be down later this evening to see to your duties, or shall I expect you tomorrow?"

"Tonight," replied Harry in hushed tones. "Tell Draco? It's his night."

"Then come tomorrow," replied Snape as the entire Hall leaned forward to hear their conversation. "He requires rest."

"Okay," said Harry, smiling up at Snape, knowing he had very little to hide. The Board of Governors couldn't dismiss a professor simply because a student fancied him. Were that the case, Gilderoy Lockhart would have been seen to the gates by the end of his first day.

"Ahh, Harry Potter," said the Hat as it sank down on Harry's head. "I never thought I'd have the chance to peer inside your head again. Hmm, very interesting. I see you're carrying a bit of Slytherin around inside of you."

"I knew it," Harry told the Hat triumphantly. "You're barking. Voldemort's dead. He killed himself—twice. I know, because one of those times, I died, too. Still think I'd do well in Slytherin, do you?"

The Hat chuckled. "I said you carry a bit of Slytherin, not that you should be placed there. No, you've become quite the Gryffindor since I the last time I looked into your mind. But again, you would have done well in Slytherin, and you will do well with this Slytherin."

"What do you—?" But Harry never got to finish asking his question since the Hat was throwing him headlong into yet another controversy.

"Harry Potter shall bond with Severus Snape," the Hat announced—to utter chaos.

A roar swept through the Great Hall as Harry snatched the Hat off his head as though it had burst into flames (again). He leapt off the stool, looking wildly around the Great Hall, searching for a drawn wand or sign of a spell gone terribly wrong. He stared at the Gryffindor table, his green eyes wide with horror, unable to bring himself to turn to meet Snape's gaze. Uncertain about what to do or say, he walked on shaking legs back to the table.

"So you're Snape's fucktoy now." The hateful words came from somewhere along the Ravenclaw table, and into the sudden hush, four professors and McGonagall docked Ravenclaw varying amounts of points. The giant hourglass complied with all of the orders and enormous sapphires the size of hen's eggs floated back up into the top of the hourglass, leaving a sizable dent in the number of points they had amassed.

"Detention, Mr Stretton," said Snape in a voice so cold that frost rimed the windows at the back of the Great Hall. "Graham Pritchard," he called out, then said sotto voce, "Mr Potter, I should like a word with you when we have concluded tonight's business."

Harry turned and gave Snape a tight nod. "Yes, sir." He slunk back to his seat, still trying to piece together what the Hat might have meant and what he was going to do about it. He only hoped Snape believed he had nothing to do with what came out of the Hat's mouth…err, brim.

No sooner had he sat down than the questions started. "I don't know why the Hat said that, but it wanted to put me in Slytherin too, so I don't put much stock in what it says," he whispered over and over. "No, I've no idea what Snape wants."

"I wouldn't want to be in your shoes, mate," said Ron.

"I'm not sure I want to be in them either," admitted Harry, shooting Snape a worried glance that Snape appeared not to see. His mind drifted as the rest of the students came up as their names were called. What could the Sorting Hat have meant? He found himself afraid that Dumbledore had been wrong, that he'd misunderstood the conversation he'd had in his head, or at King's Cross Station—he still couldn't quite work out which—and that some piece of Voldemort's soul had survived. The thing under the railway bench wasn't dead; at least, no more dead than he had been.

He managed to think his way through to the Ws and looked up only when Ginny's name was called. He watched with vague interest as she spoke with Snape and discovered he was curious enough to wonder what they talked about. Whatever Ginny had said caused Snape to look in his direction, though as usual, Harry had trouble interpreting the carefully blank expression Snape wore.

"I wonder what the Sorting Hat is saying to Ginny," murmured Hermione. "She looks really angry and it hasn't even given her a name yet."

"Maybe it doesn't want to," offered Ron. "Gin's not one to be told no." Seconds later, the Hat nearly leapt off Ginny's head as it shouted "Blaise Zabini." To Harry's eyes, it appeared there was no love lost between Ginny and the Sorting Hat, and for once, he knew exactly how she felt.

Ten minutes later, they were finished. Snape disappeared back into the Staff Room with the stool and Sorting Hat in hand, and he was gone so long that Harry thought he must have put the Hat on to discover for himself what the blasted thing had been talking about when it had been sitting on Harry's head.

As soon as Snape returned, McGonagall returned to the podium to deliver the rules. "From this moment until the Leaving Feast in June, all guardians are responsible for both the safety and conduct of the Slytherin who has been entrusted to their care. Should any member of Slytherin House, including its Head, be threatened or injured again, should a single spell, curse or hex end on their person, the guardian and the guardian's House shall lose fifty points each.

"If the perpetrator is known, that person will spend every Saturday from now until the Leaving Feast in detention with Mr Filch. As you may have noticed, the castle is still in need of repairs, and unless it has been your fondest wish to learn Muggle construction techniques, you may wish to think twice about what you do with your wands.

"All guardians are expected to escort their students to and from classes. Points will not be taken from guardians for tardiness. Guardians will have access to the Slytherin common room and may, if they choose, allow their students to accompany them to their own, where they will be made to feel at home." McGonagall squared her shoulders and her eyes hardened. "Any guardian found to have abandoned their charge will be dismissed and will have their wand snapped by the Ministry of Magic. They will be expelled not only from Hogwarts, but from Magical Britain as well."

She held up a scroll of parchment and allowed it to unfold. "I hold here Educational Decree Number Thirty, and yes, I am well aware of how unwelcome those words are. But in case any of you are thinking of ways to avoid performing your duty, know that Hogwarts has the unconditional support of Minister of Magic Kingsley Shacklebolt. He will be here tomorrow, should any of you wish to complain about how onerous your new duties are.

"Those of you who were not entrusted with the care of a Slytherin are expected to support those who have. It would be most unfortunate to find yourself in a duel with a friend who is sworn to protect someone placed by circumstance in a vulnerable position. As I believe you all to be intelligent students, I am certain I need not spell out for you that your teachers and I will be less than forgiving of those who develop a habit of making poor choices. You do not want to be sent to my office. Should any of you have further questions, your Heads of House will be in your common rooms shortly. You are dismissed. Guardians, please escort your Slytherins to their common room.

One more thing," McGonagall said as she started to step away from the podium. "Twenty-two Slytherins were wounded in today's prank. I award Slytherin House 440 points in compensation for their injuries. I am also docking Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff 150 points each." She waved her wand and the Ravenclaw table groaned as the last of their sapphires floated upwards.

There was a mad scramble as the newly appointed guardians sought out the Slytherins they were supposed to protect, and Harry wondered if any of them would be able to overcome their animosity long enough to work together for the sake of the school. It was an interesting experiment and one that Harry hoped didn't come crashing down on all their heads.

He straddled the bench and watched as they got themselves sorted, and he was actually pleased to see most of the members of Dumbledore's Army make an effort to be helpful. He smiled as Ron and Demelza sized each other up; Ron must have passed muster since he was lifting her up and consenting to carry her to the dungeons.

At long last, he was alone with Snape, and Harry watched as the man strode over to the Gryffindor bench, his robes billowing as much as they ever had in the past. Harry propped his chin up with the back his hand, his elbow resting on the table, eyes wary, his expression guarded. "I don't know why the Hat said we should bond," he said defensively before Snape could say a word.

"Did I ask you to provide an explanation?" said Snape, as he came to a halt in front of Harry. "I saw your reaction to the Hat's pronouncement, and I believe I am familiar enough with your deceptions to know a genuine response when I see it. What did it say to you when I set it on your head?"

Harry felt his face grow numb, and he folded his shaking hands in his lap. "Did you speak with it?" he asked, trying to buy himself a moment in order to corral his fears. He let his eyes drift to the tabletop that, despite its antiquity, was free of initials carved into it. A part of his mind wondered if the house-elves were responsible for keeping it graffiti free.

"Yes," admitted Snape in a low growl. "That ridiculous bit of millinery was of little assistance."

"What did it say?" asked Harry, looking up, his innate curiosity bleeding through the naked fear etched on his face.

Snape sat heavily on the bench next to Harry. "It told me to stop being shirty with it and speak to you."

Not even the merest flicker of a smile appeared. If anything, Harry grew more panicked. "Aren't you needed in Slytherin? Professor McGonagall said the Heads would be there to answer questions," he said in rush, needing more time than he had to have this conversation. He flung himself off the bench and prowled the Great Hall, his hands twisting nervously. He knew he owed Snape a recounting, but in order to do it properly he needed to talk about that moment in the clearing and what came after. He wanted to give Snape access to certain memories, but he couldn't do it whilst being chaperoned.

Snape watched Harry with growing unease. He stood quickly and walked to the Staff Room with brisk steps. "Come with me, Potter," he said crisply and waited at the door for Harry to enter.

Harry walked into the room, remembering it from his time as a Triwizard Champion, an honour he had neither sought nor wanted. To his surprise, it appeared almost exactly as he'd seen it last, with trophies and awards tucked away in nearly every corner. He swallowed what little saliva remained in his mouth and walked on trembling legs to the nearest chair. He sat down rigidly, eyeing Snape with caution.

As though understanding Harry's sudden need for space, Snape strode to the fireplace and extracted a measure of Floo powder from an ornate crystal trophy sitting on the mantelpiece. "Minerva McGonagall's office," he said in his usual measured tone. He knelt on one knee and thrust his head into the fire, waiting for the headmistress to answer.

"Trouble already, Severus?" asked McGonagall in alarm.

"Nothing of the sort," replied Snape. "Though I do require your permission to speak with Harry Potter outside the presence of his classmates. The matter is more complicated than I originally suspected, and I anticipate there will be a legitimate need for privacy."

There was a long silence whilst McGonagall weighed Snape's words. Finally, she pursed her lips and gave a sharp nod of her head. "Very well, Severus. I will expect a full accounting tomorrow."

"Under Veritaserum?" asked Snape with a hint of a sneer in his tone.

McGonagall arched a brow as she gave him a penetrating stare. "A Pensieve recording should suffice. I trust you and Harry will remember the rules. Good night, Severus, and do not hesitate to summon me should you require any assistance." She withdrew before Snape had a chance to snort his displeasure.

Snape rose to his feet and turned to eye Harry critically. "It appears you will be spending the evening in my quarters regardless. Walk with me to the dungeons. I will join you in my rooms as soon as I am able."

~*~

The next hour passed in a blur.

Not certain what to do, Harry sat down at Snape's desk and started marking essays whilst he waited for Snape to finish with his students and whichever guardians might have taken the opportunity to see the Slytherin common room for themselves. He'd barely started work on the fourth one when Snape entered through the hidden passageway that connected his suite with the corridor outside the common room.

To Harry's surprise, Snape poured himself a Firewhisky and handed Harry an opened bottle of butterbeer before inviting Harry to sit with him on the couch. To the best of his recollection, Harry had never seen Snape drink anything stronger than a tea so black it bore more than a slight resemblance to pitch.

They said nothing whilst they nursed their drinks, each one lost in his own thoughts. "I'm still pants at Occlumency," said Harry out of the blue. "I reckon I'll never really master it, but until tonight I didn't think I'd need to."

"Go on," said Snape softly.

Harry shifted on the couch, tucking one leg up as he turned. "There are three memories I want you to view, but I don't want to put them in a Pensieve. I want you to see them here," he said, tapping his temple softly. "I need you to understand," he said imploringly, "and you can't unless you experience it." Cold sweat dotted his forehead and upper lip, and he felt as though he was all eyeballs and jangling nerves.

"In my wardrobe is a clean nightshirt. Go into my room and put it on," said Snape after a long moment's thought. "You're already pale as a sheet, so I'm under no illusions that this will be in any way a simple task for you. You may react strongly to reliving events that are clearly traumatic in nature, and I wish for you to be as comfortable as possible. Given your recent predilection for falling asleep at inappropriate times, I feel it is best that you do so in a bed rather than on my couch."

It was much like the earliest days that Harry had spent down in this part of the castle, and he went through his usual bedtime routine with little thought about the possible consequences. He washed his face and started at his reflection, his too-wide eyes eating up half of his bleach-white face. It was little wonder Snape wanted him to lie down; the poor man was probably afraid Harry was going to faint.

Automatically, he pulled a blanket out of the tall wardrobe and lay down on top of Snape's bed, removing his glasses and tossing them haphazardly onto the bedside table. He got up almost at once and prepared the potions that Snape was still required to take, and then waited beside the bed for Snape to emerge from his turn in the bathroom.

Snape paused as he stepped into the room and shook his head slowly, his black hair swinging around his narrow face as he gazed from the collection of potions to Harry and back again. "Save the Sleeping Draught until we've finished, and make sure there's enough for yourself in case you require it."

Harry shook his head. "The only thing that will help after this is Dreamless Sleep, and I'd rather not take it if I can avoid it." As soon as Snape had settled into bed, he handed over the Nutrient potion and waited for him to take it.

"Aren't you supposed to be taking some of this as well?" asked Snape.

"Oh!" exclaimed Harry softly. "I guess Pomfrey told you, eh?" He measured out a quantity and swallowed it quickly, grimacing at the taste. It would never not taste like the bottom of a rubbish bin to him. He handed Snape his dose of Nagini-Be-Gone and waited until Snape had drunk all of it before climbing up onto the bed and stretching out next to him.

As Harry lay on his back, pulling forward the memories he wanted Snape to view, Snape lowered the lights. "You heard about the graveyard when Dumbledore made me tell him what happened," said Harry in a small voice. "You know the Cup was a Portkey. You know Wormtail resurrected Voldemort. You know my wand connected with his and the spectres of my parents let me get away. I want you to see it," he continued with a noticeable quaver in his voice. "I want you to pay special attention to the thing Wormtail put in the cauldron." He turned his head and found Snape on his side, his deep dark eyes focusing all their attention on him.

Harry pushed the memory to the front of his mind, feeling the sharp prick of hot tears. He couldn't help it, the horror and guilt still gnawed at him whenever he remembered. "Whenever you're ready," he whispered, clenching his hands into fists so tight his nails sliced into his palms.

He scarcely heard the whispered spell before his hand was reaching with Cedric's for the Triwizard Cup, and though he tried to divorce his emotions from the recollection, it was impossible to do so. In forever and no time at all, he was aware of Snape withdrawing gently from his mind, Snape's calloused fingers wiping the tears off his cheeks.

"Did you see it?" Harry rasped hoarsely. "That sort of human thing Wormtail dropped into the cauldron?" His stomach rolled and heaved, and for a moment Harry thought he was going to be sick. He drew in huge gulps of air and jumped when Snape's slender hand began moving in slow circles over his stomach.

"Yes," replied Snape in a hushed voice. "I saw it. The Dark Lord as he was before he regained corporeal form. Potter…I take back every vile thing I ever said to you."

"Please don't," begged Harry, pushing the words past the lump in his throat. "You're the only one who's ever seen me and I can't lose that. I was lucky, and the wand thing was because I was his Horcrux. You were more right than wrong about me anyway.

"The next one…no one really knows about it because I've only ever told Ron and Hermione, and even they don't know all of it. Promise me that you won't tell anyone about this. You know what I had to do. You nearly died to make sure I found out in time. If there was ever anyone who deserved to know what happened, it's you." Harry shivered and pulled the blanket around himself. He turned onto his side and curled into loose ball. It was the best he could do. He turned stark, fearful eyes on Snape and nodded, unable to speak.

"I open at the close." Harry heard Snape gasp as his mother and father appeared. He saw Voldemort cast the Killing Curse, saw the world turn bright green and a long period of nothingness before he stepped out of blinding white light into a place that reminded him vaguely of King's Cross station, and this time when he peered under the bench, he stared at the thing underneath for a long, long time.

The face that greeted him as he came out of the memory was nearly as white as his own. "Why did you want me to witness that?" demanded Snape. "What could possibly be so important that you required me to see you die?"

It took Harry several minutes to find the strength to answer. He buried his face in the mattress, giving his full concentration to the simple act of breathing. Pulling air into his lungs seemed beyond his abilities at the moment. His chest felt as though it was wrapped in iron bands, and his heart was beating so fast Harry wasn't sure it was doing any good at all. "The bit of soul under the bench, you saw it, right?" he said, or thought he did. He didn't know if he'd managed to force the words out, or if they were still fluttering around the inside of his head like frightened birds.

Snape was silent for so long that Harry finally had to lift his head. "I did answer, didn't I?" he asked uncertainly.

"Yes, to both," said Snape so grimly that Harry intuitively looked behind him for danger. "I presume you will connect the dots for me," Snape growled, clearly unnerved by the memories to which he'd been a witness.

"As much as I can," said Harry in a near-whisper. "This is the last one. Then I hope you can tell me what it all means, because I don't understand what it's saying." He pushed forward his conversation with the Sorting Hat which, compared to the other two, was mercifully short, though no less gut-wrenching for its brevity. Tears coursed down Harry's cheeks as he thought about the ramifications of still possessing a bit of Voldemort's soul.

Without a word, Snape gathered Harry into his arms and let him cry himself out. "I will speak with Dumbledore's portrait in the morning," he murmured tonelessly. "Sleep, Harry. Your body requires rest."

~*~

Dumbledore's portrait proved to be as dumbfounded and perplexed as Harry and Snape, and as the castle settled into its new routine, the two of them pored over all the notes about Horcruxes that Dumbledore had made over the course of Harry's life. The three of them agreed the Killing Curse should have worked. Voldemort should be dead and the last trace of soul eradicated. None of them had any idea why the Hat thought Harry should bond with Snape or what that had to do with any last hidden remnants of Voldemort yet to be found.

In light of the Sorting Hat's pronouncement, the only time Harry felt almost human was when he was in the air, and he approached Quidditch with a new ferocity, flying with such reckless abandon that even Ginny was giving consideration to benching him.

"You do realise I'd rather lose than see you kill yourself, right?" said Ginny angrily as they finished their last practice before the upcoming match against Slytherin. Tears glittered in her brown eyes, and Harry felt a wave of guilt crush him. She was right and he knew it. He nodded, hanging his head.

"You've not been yourself since that night with the Sorting Hat," she said more quietly. "You do know you can tell us anything, yes? I'll help you if I can, Harry. I don't like seeing you like this."

Harry sat down on the bench in the changing room and picked at his nails for a moment. He glanced around to make certain they were alone, and then said in a voice so soft, it was almost impossible to hear. "The Sorting Hat said I'm still carrying around a bit of Slytherin inside me."

Ginny put her hands on her hips and gave him a long, searching look. "And you're thinking it might be Voldemort," she said, unsurprised when Harry nodded. "Then if the Hat is right, it's been that way since the Battle. Don't let it worry you so much, Harry. It's not like you're suddenly going to go 'round the twist or anything. Besides, if anyone wanted to try to bring him back, they'd have to capture you first, and I don't think Snape is willing to let that happen."

Harry's head snapped up and a weak laugh bubbled out. "That might be the most sensible thing I've heard all month. Thanks, Gin," he said, standing up to give her a hug. "Oh, I meant to ask you. What do you do with Blaise whilst we're at practice?"

Ginny laughed and reached up to pat him on the cheek, recognising Harry's change in subject for what it was. He was still too worked up to speak with her about it. "He hangs out with Draco, Luna and Neville. I'll collect him as soon as I've cleaned up here. Feeling better now?"

"Yeah, I am," he replied, breathing easy for the first time in a month.

"Good," she said with a bright smile. "Tomorrow I still expect you to fly hard against Draco, but not like you're trying to punch a hole in the sky. Got it?"

"Yes, Captain," he said and snapped off a jaunty salute. He locked his broom in the broom closet and helped her finish up the few remaining duties that came with leading the team. "I'll try to catch the Snitch early. It's supposed to rain tomorrow and it gets cold up there."

"Try warming charms on your gloves," she advised and they swapped tips all the way back to the castle.

When Harry awoke, rain was lashing at the windows of the castle and spattering angrily against the weathered stones as though determined to unleash its raging torrents on those sheltered within its walls. Up in Gryffindor Tower, Harry traced a raindrop down the window with his fingertip, shivering at the cold that seeped through the glass, dreading the thought of flying in this tempest.

He tugged on his Quidditch uniform, and then peeled it off to cast expansion charms on it so it would fit properly. He sighed and examined himself in a nearby mirror, shaking his head in dismay at the pot belly he was developing. It was perplexing at best, exasperating at worst. At this rate, he'd be as round as Crabbe had been by Christmas. His diet made no difference; he gained weight whether he ate meat and potatoes or stuck to fruits and vegetables.

Suited up, he bounded into the Great Hall and filled up on porridge and tea. Across the Hall, Draco Malfoy was going through his usual pre-match rituals as well, and Harry hoped he'd have a chance to wish Draco luck before Hooch blew the starting whistle.

As Ron shovelled food down at a fearsome rate, Harry pulled his wand and cast warming charms on his gloves and cloak. He handed his glasses to Hermione, who smiled and cast a strong Impervius before handing them back. "Your charms hold better than mine do," he said by way of thanks.

"And here I thought it was a good luck thing," said Hermione with a smile. "See you after the match. Oh, I'll be in the Slytherin stands with Demelza, Blaise, Luna, Neville and Astoria. We're all sitting together. Most of the Gryffindor guardians will be there." She gave Ron a peck on the cheek and scurried off to the Slytherin table, waving at Demelza as she wound her way through the Hall.

Attacks on Slytherins were dropping more every week, and some genuine friendships seemed to be blooming. Harry couldn't be more pleased, though he still turned into a seething mass of anxiety whenever he thought about his own conversation with the Sorting Hat. He only wished he'd confided in Ginny earlier. She had a rare understanding of what it was like to live with the spectre of Voldemort haunting her thoughts, and that made her insight invaluable.

A groan went up from the Gryffindor Quidditch team as it stepped out of the castle doors and into the fierce squall. The rain was bitterly cold, and unless Harry missed his guess, there were bits of ice mixed in as well. After a short speech from Ginny—"Dammit, Harry, catch that fucking Snitch early so we can go back inside"—they trooped out to the pitch and stood in a miserable circle as the announcer read their names off a card.

Harry stepped over to Draco as Ginny shook the Slytherin captain's hand. "I just wanted to wish you luck," he said earnestly as the rain started dripping off his nose. "You were the best I ever played against, and I've been looking forward to doing it again."

Draco gave him a quizzical look and extended his hand. "May the best Seeker win—and it won't be you, Scarhead."

Harry laughed and shook Draco's hand. "We'll see, Ferret." With that, he kicked off and shot skyward, pulling into a loop and whooping in sheer delight as he flew out of it. He caught Snape's eye and smiled, then started flying in lazy circles as he waited for Hooch to release the Snitch and blow the whistle. By the time he'd completed his first lap he was soaked to the skin and ready to be done.

The whistle sounded, the Quaffle flew into the air and the match was underway. Gillian Matthews caught the Quaffle and streaked off toward the Slytherin end with eight players in pursuit. She passed to Ginny, but the pass was intercepted by one of the Slytherin Chasers. Before the Chaser had reached the midfield, Jack Sloper had sent a Bludger rifling right past the front of the Chaser's broom. Jimmy Peakes was right there, and picked off the dropped Quaffle.

Harry pulled his attention from the match and started scanning the skies for any sign of the Snitch. The rain made the tiny golden ball nearly impossible to spot, and he squinted in reflex as he soared around the pitch.

"And Weasley scores, putting Gryffindor on the board," shouted the announcer to the scattered cheers of those Gryffindors who had braved the storm to watch. Harry turned to give Ginny a thumbs up and nearly flew straight into the Snitch, which was streaking at him as though shot from a cannon. He closed his fist around it and stared at his hand before lifting it over his head.

Hooch blew her whistle and the players pulled up in confusion, looking around and waiting to find out who had committed a foul. There was silence from the announcer and Harry wasn't certain whether the match was actually over or not. He flew over to where Hooch was hovering.

"Well, Potter?" she asked sharply. "Did you need a time-out?"

"No," said Harry. "I have the Snitch." He held it up and displayed it for both teams. "But I think there's something wrong with it. It flew at me."

"What?" said Draco, a look of utter betrayal twisting his fine features. "Snitches don't fly into Seeker's hands, Potter. What did you do to it?"

"Nothing," said Harry, clearly bewildered. He handed the Snitch to Hooch with a shrug. "If you've got another one, we can restart the match. There has to be something wrong with that one."

"Are you barking, mate?" said Ron in astonishment. "You caught it. We won."

Harry shook his head. "Not if the Snitch was tampered with. Can we replay it, please?" he asked. "With a different Snitch?" He was wet, he was cold, but he wouldn't accept this as a win, not when someone had clearly rigged the game against Slytherin House.

Ginny studied Harry's face and nodded slowly. "It's all right with me," she said to Madam Hooch over the howl of the wind. "If Harry thinks the Snitch is bad, that's good enough for me. We do have a spare, right?"

"Naturally," said Hooch. She flew off to the announcer's booth to tell McGonagall, Snape, and Williamson what had happened and waited for someone to bring a new Snitch from her office. The players flew back to the ground and reformed, casting warming charms on each other whilst they waited. Harry lifted his eyes to the Teacher's Box, worried about what Snape was thinking.

A Slytherin Harry recognised as the boy who'd flown as Seeker during his sixth year ran onto the pitch with a small box in his hand. He handed it to Madam Hooch before retreating to the safety of the stands. She unsealed the box and passed the Snitch to both Draco and Harry.

They both took a few turns catching it before it could fly away. As Harry handed it back to Draco, he asked, "Does it look all right to you?"

Draco shrugged. "To be honest, I'm not sure how you'd tell if someone had charmed it to fly to either one of us, but it seems to be behaving normally." He gave Harry a bit of a smile. "I figured you meant it when you asked to replay the match. No hard feelings, Potter."

"Thank you," said Harry. He signalled Ginny. "We're ready." He cast a quick glance over his shoulder at Snape, but at this distance and in this weather it was impossible to see anything more than a vague outline.

Hooch cast a series of charms over the Snitch. "Just in case," she said, her stern features almost harsh. "That should cancel any enchantments that might have been cast on it and restore it to match condition." The players kicked off, the Snitch was released, the whistle blew and the Quaffle was thrown into the air and into the hands of Slytherin Chaser, Eamon Hughes.

Less than a minute later, Ron blocked an attempt on goal and tossed the Quaffle to Ginny as Harry soared over his head. He flew alongside Ginny only to peel off moments later and follow Draco around the pitch for a lap or two. There was a furious battle for the Quaffle in midfield as Peakes dropped the slippery ball and four Chasers dove for it.

There was a near-collision, and wanting to get out of the way, Harry pulled up sharply and turned hard left, peering through the raindrops for anything that looked shiny and gold. No sooner had he straightened out of the turn than the Snitch flew into the side of his head, beating against his cheek until he put his hand up. With a sigh, he lifted his hand and flew toward Hooch.

"Not again," came the plaintive wail from the announcer. "Potter has the Snitch," the voice said in resignation.

As Hooch took the Snitch from Harry's outstretched hand, she blew the whistle and signalled the match had ended. "In all my years, Potter, I've never seen a match finish in less than thirty minutes, much less two of them. What did you do to the Snitch?"

"Nothing," protested Harry. "You checked it yourself. Even Draco thought it was okay. I don't know what happened. I've never been attacked by a Snitch before. Bludgers, yes. Snitches, no." He followed Hooch and the rest of his teammates to the ground. The sharp chill he felt inside had nothing to do with the weather.

"Final score," came the dejected voice from the announcer's booth. "Gryffindor 160, Slytherin zero. Worst Quidditch match ever."

Draco was waiting for him when Harry dismounted, his blond hair plastered to his head, dripping. "I've no idea what happened, but I know you didn't cheat," he said bluntly. "Which means your magic's gone all wonky. There's no other explanation. Go see Pomfrey, Potter. In the meantime, I'll try to convince the House that it was an honest match. Wish me luck."

"Maybe I should talk to them instead," said Harry, his heart plummeting to his toes at Draco's words. If his magic was going wonky, as Draco put it, maybe Ginny's assertion was all wrong and he was going 'round the twist—or hosting the next Dark Lord somewhere in his skull. The thought sickened him, and if it weren't for the Anti-Apparation enchantments, he would have been halfway around the world already. He must have spun on the spot since Draco's hand came out and steadied him.

"Better yet," said Draco quietly, his silver grey eyes filled with concern. "Go see Severus. I'll go with you." He beckoned to Ritchie Coote and snatched Harry's Firebolt from his hand. "Do Potter a favour and put this away for him," he said, thrusting the broom at Ritchie.

"Okay," said Ritchie with a puzzled glance at Harry. Ritchie headed towards the Gryffindor changing room without another word, apparently having decided there were some things he did not need to know.

As Draco wrapped a protective arm around his shoulders, Harry heard Ron shout. "Oi! Where are you lot off to?" Before Harry could say a word, Draco turned. "Dungeons," he replied succinctly.

Harry allowed himself to be led to the castle, walking automatically, his thoughts darting about so quickly that he barely had time to process one before ten more were clamouring for his attention. They were halfway to Snape's rooms before he even noticed that Draco had cast drying charms over them both.

"Thanks," he chattered, his body wracked with deep shivers. They rounded a corner, nearly colliding with Snape, but Harry walked straight into him. He wrapped his arms around Snape's middle, burying his face in Snape's shoulder and trying to absorb some of the man's warmth into his skin. He felt numb inside and out, and he wasn't sure he'd ever be warm again.

"I've no idea what's going on with Potter, sir," he heard Draco say, "but he's a mess. He tried to Apparate out of here or something once the match was over. He's damned lucky he didn't Splinch himself. His magic's gone all wonky so I was going to take him to the infirmary, but I think he needs to be here instead."

Snape wrapped an arm around Harry. "Go to the common room, Draco, and tell them I will be there directly, that I am investigating the outcome of today's match with Madams Hooch and Pomfrey and will decide if Slytherin will file a protest at that time."

"It was a fair match, sir," replied Draco. "Whatever happened wasn't Potter's fault."

"I understand that," said Snape. "But there are appearances and there is the truth. You should be able to recognise the difference by now. I will be in the Hospital Wing with Potter should my presence be required." He pulled away slightly and Harry turned toward the dungeon entrance, his face drawn, his eyes downcast. "Thank you, Draco," said Snape. "I won't forget this. Let's go, Potter."

Minutes later, Harry was in the examination room, tucked in a far corner of the Hospital Wing with Madam Pomfrey standing over him. "Catching the Snitch twice within fifteen minutes must be some sort of record, Mr Potter," she said lightly. "Why don't you have a seat over in the corner whilst I see if I can finally rid myself of Professor Snape?"

Harry's brow furrowed. "No, I'd rather he stayed, if it's all right."

Pomfrey gave him a speculative look. "I only meant that since he's here, I can examine him as well to see if we've managed to remove the last of that creature's poison from his system." She turned to Snape. "You know the drill. Outer robes and shoes off, please, and open your shirt." She Summoned Harry's and Snape's charts from her office and skimmed through the notes she'd made at Snape's last appointment.

The opportunity to sit quietly and observe helped steady Harry's frayed nerves, and he wished with all his might that something might actually go right for a change. All he wanted to be was normal, just another face in the crowd, but every time he turned around something unusual seemed to happen. He'd turned around so often, he was surprised he hadn't worn a hole in the earth.

He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and watched as Snape grumbled his way over to the bed and stretched out on it. Madam Pomfrey worked with her usual crisp efficiency, extracting a bit of blood from the crook of Snape's arm and adding three drops of pure Nagini-Be-Gone to the sample. She waved her wand over it and jumped back when it burst into flame.

Snape sat up swiftly and Harry drew back as he gasped. "What happened?" he exclaimed as Madam Pomfrey stared at the culture dish and the end of her wand. She handed the small phial of potion to Snape.

"Could something be wrong with this?" she asked, shaken. "It's the solution Harry brewed after you were brought in here. I've been using it as the testing medium all along."

For once Snape made no disparaging remark about Harry's potions making skills. He uncorked the phial and rubbed a drop between his fingers before inhaling it, his eyes closed. "It appears to be unspoiled. Perhaps the culture dish contained some contaminant?"

"It must have done," replied Pomfrey, though Harry didn't see how that was possible. She was meticulous to the extreme, and having served a few detentions cleaning cauldrons, he knew how important cleanliness could be. She brought in a new dish and heat-sterilised it as they both looked on.

"Shall we try this again?" she asked, her hand poised over Snape's arm. When he nodded, she again extracted the small amount of blood she required. Harry watched intently as she cautiously added the three drops of solution, keeping his fingers crossed that this time the liquid would turn clear when she cast the spell. Instead, the fire was bigger, the flames leaping at least a foot over their heads.

There was a pronounced silence as the three of them exchanged long looks. "It is not my blood that is at issue," said Snape finally. "Nor is there a problem with the potion or the culture dish, which leaves magic as the last element unaccounted for. Given the events that occurred at the Quidditch match, Mr Potter," he continued, "I suggest Madam Pomfrey give you a very thorough examination."

Pomfrey's wand was already trained on him when Harry came to his feet, his trembling fingers fumbling with the clasp of his cloak. He felt the tingle of a powerful charm sweeping over him before he'd even had a chance to remove his shoes, and he felt the colour drain from his face as some sort of involuntary squeak spilt from her lips.

"On the bed, Mr Potter," she said in a hushed voice, which frightened Harry more than he cared to admit. He lay on his back, but sat up immediately when she ordered him to remove his shirt. He was slow to comply and clutched it to his bare chest once he had it off.

He'd gained at least six pounds since she'd seen him last, almost all of it in his belly, and for the first time in his life he was ashamed of how much he weighed. He had no idea how Dudley coped with being the size of a small whale; he could barely manage being the size of a small horse. He lay back, covering his eyes with his forearm. He didn't want to see the horror and disgust on their faces. Consequently, he never saw the look of alarm that passed between Pomfrey and Snape.

The dicta-quill started scratching furiously, and as he lay there, Harry imagined the notes it was jotting down.

Wizard
173 cm
73 kg
Prone to fits of wild magic
Myopic
Anaemic
Possessed by Dark Lord
Survivor of Killing Curse—twice

The word "unremarkable" would never be seen in his medical records. Pomfrey's wand kept moving and the quill made notation after notation after notation. She palpated his abdomen, pressing hard enough in places to make him wince. The tighter her lips pressed together, the higher his heart rate soared.

"Stay here, Potter," she snapped before bustling out of the room, the long parchment trailing along behind her. As his eyes followed her, he gnawed on the inside of his cheek. A flock of hummingbirds took up residence in his stomach and started jabbing their needle-like beaks into him from the inside. He risked a glance at Snape and felt his heart stop.

Snape was sitting in the chair Harry had occupied earlier, his face waxen, his expression utterly blank. It was like looking at a graven image, and Harry wasn't positive Snape was even alive. "Professor?" he whispered, panicked. "Professor Snape?"

Snape's head turned a fraction of an inch as he blinked once very slowly, and Harry couldn't tell if his presence registered at all. As if exerting some tremendous force of will, Snape's jet black eyes began to show some signs of life as they finally rested on Harry's face. "I'm here, Potter." His voice sounded like he was speaking from a dark corner of the earth.

Madam Pomfrey bustled back in, carrying an ancient tome that Hermione would have drooled over. She laid it on the bed next to Harry's hip and opened it to a marked page, scanning down the lines of text with her finger. She paused at a particular paragraph and repeated some phrase several times under her breath before lifting her wand and casting.

Bright green light uncomfortably close to the colour of the Killing Curse flared from the tip of her wand and surrounded Harry from armpit to knees. It congealed around him in a pulsing ball of light, and then erupted in a spectacular miasma of rich colour. "I believe I've found the source of the magic that ruined my diagnostic spells," she said weakly.

Harry's heart raced and he broke out in a cold sweat as he reminded himself that dying really didn't hurt very much. "Easier than falling asleep," Sirius had said, and it turned out to be true. He took a deep breath, steeling himself to hear the words he'd spent the last month trying to avoid. Voldemort was still alive, harboured somewhere inside of him.

"I don't know how this happened," Pomfrey said in a faltering tone, her eyes cutting towards Snape, who was as grim as he'd ever been. "But it appears you're pregnant, Mr Potter."

A wave of revulsion swept through Harry as his unease transfigured itself into terror and tried to strangle him. As his mind once again supplied an image of the creature under the bench at King's Cross Station, his fingers curved into talons and he began to claw at his stomach.

"Get it out! Get it out!" he screeched as he raked deep furrows into his flesh, tearing at his skin until his hands were bloody. "It's not a baby," Harry shouted, his eyes wild. "I'm not pregnant. It's Voldemort!" Oh god, he was going to be sick. "You have to get it out of me!"

Pomfrey blanched as she made to grab for one of his wrists, but Harry knocked her hand away, determined to root out the last bit of evil harboured inside of him. "If you won't, I'll have someone kill me." He glanced frantically around the room. "Malfoy owes me a favour. Lucius. I know he wouldn't mind killing the Chosen One. Get it out or I'll go to him." He started to scramble off the bed when the world went black.

Chapter Text

Ch 6: It's Hard to Catch a Snitch When There's a Quaffle in Your Belly

It was nearly evening when Harry awoke in his usual bed in the Hospital Wing, and the moment he stirred, Madam Pomfrey poured Calming Draught down his throat. He blinked at her in surprise and threw off the bed covers as he sat up. The memory of his examination returned with a rush, and he fumbled urgently for his glasses, needing to escape the infirmary, to leave Hogwarts whilst he grappled with this newest crisis.

"Back in bed, Potter," ordered Madam Pomfrey in the most no-nonsense tone Harry had ever heard her use. "You will be remaining here overnight. You've had quite a shock and need time to recover."

"You don't understand!" exclaimed Harry as he swung his legs out of bed and prepared to hop out. He swayed, suddenly lightheaded, and frowned. "What was that potion you gave me?"

"Pure Calming Draught," said Pomfrey with a tiny grace note of triumph. "I suspected you might try something like this. Drink this," she continued as she pressed another phial into his hand. "It's your Nutrient. I'll have dinner sent to you in a few minutes, so make yourself comfortable, Potter. You'll not be going anywhere for hours."

Harry gave her an owlish blink as he stared at her. Madam Pomfrey's cap was askew and her apron was rumpled. Tendrils of grey hair snaked out from her untidy bun, and the back of her hands bore scratches. She looked as though she'd been trampled by a herd of hippogriffs, and he suspected he'd been responsible for that.

"I'm sorry," he said thickly, "but it's Voldemort. I know what you think the test said, but it's not true. It can't be true. I've not got the right parts." He stuck his tongue out and waggled it experimentally. It felt wooden and clumsy in his mouth. He lay down, still blinking slowly, suddenly feeling as though he was running at a much slower speed than everybody else.

The cloud of panic that kept trying to form inside his head was slowly being smothered by a thick fog of lethargy, and as Madam Pomfrey bustled away to fetch his dinner, Harry tried to enumerate the reasons her diagnosis couldn't possibly be right.

First, whilst he was willing to accept the possibility that he was harbouring some sort of being, it was categorically impossible for it to be a foetus. Second, pregnancy was a condition that required bits typically associated with being female—and he wasn't. Harry had male bits. Harry liked having male bits, and the mere thought of having hidden female bits was rather frightening. Third, the Sorting Hat, whose enchantments appeared to be more powerful than Harry had ever suspected, said he was still carrying a bit of Slytherin inside of him.

It was this last piece that was more distressing than the others. Tom Riddle had been the Heir of Slytherin, which made it more than likely that he was serving as an incubator for that deformed scrap of humanity. As far as Harry knew, he was the only human Horcrux in history. When he, Ron and Hermione had destroyed the other Horcruxes, they had also destroyed the receptacles that had housed Voldemort's soul, but he had lived. Plus, he couldn't help but recall that Dumbledore had told him once that because he was such a brilliant wizard, his mistakes were likely to be huger than anybody else's. This, he thought, definitely fell into the category of huge mistakes.

Fear as unadulterated as Pomfrey's Calming Draught began to percolate through his veins. He should have known his days on this earth were numbered, had been since he was a baby. When he made it back across the divide, the very first thing he was going to do was have a word with the Fates. By his reckoning, they owed him a better life than this one. Every time he dared to be happy, they found a way to ruin it for him.

For the first time in his life, Harry was in love with someone who was perfect for him, who knew and understood him and, most of all, saw him as an ordinary young man caught in extraordinary circumstances not of his own making. The one night of passion he had shared with Snape was the most life-affirming thing that had ever happened to him, and now, once again, he was waiting for Death to tap him on the shoulder.

He needed to speak with Draco. Harry's statements and memories had kept Lucius out of Azkaban, and though he owed life debts to Draco and Narcissa, he owed nothing to Lucius. Indeed, it could be said that Lucius held him responsible for his abrupt plummet from the very height of power. Surely the oldest Malfoy would desire to seek revenge on Harry for his misfortunes?

Harry was debating the means by which he might sneak out of the Hospital Wing and into the dungeons when Madam Pomfrey set a tray containing a thick sandwich and a goblet of pumpkin juice across his lap. He jumped. He'd not even seen her coming.

"Do try to eat, Harry," said Pomfrey, her eyes reflecting her concern. She waved her wand and clucked slightly under her breath at the numbers that momentarily flashed above his head.

"I can't be pregnant," muttered Harry as she crossed the ward to the only other patient on the ward, a Hufflepuff who had never heard Moody's first word on wand safety and was missing part of his right buttock. Harry drained his glass of pumpkin juice and wondered if she'd added anything to it.

He took a bite of his sandwich; it tasted like sawdust and he set it aside. The sconces and chandeliers sprang to life, filling the Hospital Wing with soft light, and Harry lay back against the pillows and tightened the sheets over his stomach. There was a definite bulge there, like the spare tyre his Aunt Petunia ridiculed their neighbour for having. Funny how Harry had always thought a layer of fat would be soft and squishy. This was hard as a Quaffle, and he poked at it, half suspecting Voldemort would poke back.

Time drifted by without notice, and Harry stared at the ceiling, determined to keep his mind clear of everything. No matter how hard he tried to prevent it, though, he still saw the terrible thing under the bench, heard its enfeebled cries. He couldn't allow it to survive.

Harry's ears pricked up at the familiar sound of boots crossing the hard stone floor, and he propped himself up on his elbow as Snape came into view. The light seemed a bit brighter, the atmosphere less oppressive, and Harry felt some of his terror lessen. If there was one person in the entire castle who knew what must be done and would help him do it, it was Snape.

Snape came to a halt at the foot of the bed and gazed down his long nose at Harry—or more specifically, Harry's stomach. "How are you feeling, Potter?" he asked, his demeanour uncharacteristically subdued. When he finally met Harry's eyes, he looked pensive.

"Err…" said Harry, bewildered by a Snape he wasn't certain he'd met before. He fluffed the sheets and shifted slightly onto his hip to keep Snape from staring at his middle. "Won't you sit down?" he asked, sensing a strange distance between them. After six solid months spent in Snape's presence, Harry had thought this awkwardness well behind him. He bit his lip as Snape pulled a chair over and settled himself into it.

The two men stared at each other for a few uncomfortable moments until Snape cleared his throat. "As you were unconscious for the better part of the afternoon, it falls to me to tell you what has transpired since your examination, and before you get it in your head that I consider this to be some onerous duty that has been foisted upon me by the headmistress, I volunteered to undertake this task."

A cold chill ran through Harry's veins and he sat up in the middle of the bed, crossing his legs and laying his clasped hands in his lap. He regarded Snape for over a minute before speaking. "Did I faint?"

"No," said Snape succinctly. "I cast a Sleeping Spell on you. It's not often used, but markedly safer than using a Stunning spell on a person in your condition. It was necessary to prevent you and Madam Pomfrey from further injury." His finely arched brows drew close together. "You do recall you acted rather precipitously?"

"How would you react if Madam Pomfrey told you that you're pregnant?" snarled Harry, keeping his voice down so that the Hufflepuff at the far end of the infirmary couldn't overhear. The last thing he wanted was to hear the latest round of insults certain to be hurled at his head. His skin was thick, but not impenetrable.

"I believe," Snape said slowly, his eyes searching Harry's face, "that I would reject the news much in the way you have, but you know me well enough to know when I will Occlude my thoughts and when I will share them with others."

"Lash out at them, you mean," muttered Harry.

"From time to time," Snape acknowledged with a nod of his head. "We both know I can be a very cruel man, particularly at moments where I believe myself to be threatened." He pulled the chair closer and glanced again at Harry's stomach. "My shortcomings, however, are not what we are discussing. In the face of such monumental news, I would do what I do best."

"Create a potion to get rid of it?" asked Harry, hope dawning in his green eyes.

Snape pressed his fingertips together, his expression solemn. "If such a thing were possible, I would not hesitate to brew such a concoction, but I remind you of the outcome of the spell Madam Pomfrey cast upon you. Do you remember it?"

"Yes," said Harry, looking away. "It's green, and not a shade I'm likely to ever forget."

"I am not talking about the spell itself, but the result of it. It was readily apparent to me that the colour distressed you, but it was the violent explosion of a broad spectrum of spell light that is of importance." He leaned forward and laid his hand on the bed. "Despite being associated with death, the colour green is representative of life. Had you not carried life inside of you, the spell would have dissipated the moment it touched your core.

"But it didn't, Harry, and that's significant. The spell surrounded you, and what burst forth was an estimation of the magical strength of the foetus, or being, if you prefer. Based on what I witnessed, it is very strong. If I administered an abortifacient to you, it is quite likely you would die along with the foetus."

Harry swallowed heavily and his hands started to shake. "If that's what it takes," he said in a tight voice. "This thing can't be allowed to live." He had a strong suspicion that this method would be much more painful than standing in front of an enemy who was pointing a wand at his chest.

A decided chill settled over them as Snape straightened slowly, his expression closed off. "Any solution that results in your death is unacceptable to me. If it is your desire to terminate, we will find a method that we both find acceptable. Should it become necessary to carry it to term and your fears come to fruition, I will destroy the thing myself."

The silence pressed in on Harry from all sides, wrapping around his chest and making it hard to breathe. "I would rather die than risk having this thing survive. I can't be responsible for the rebirth of Voldemort. Not again. I can't have that on my conscience." Too much resided there already. So many deaths. So many deaths… "I can't do this," he whispered brokenly.

"Idiot child," said Snape in a low growl underscored with affection. "This is not a burden you need carry alone. All you need do is ask and I will do whatever you require." He reached forward to lay a gentle hand on Harry's knee.

"You won't give me what I need," said Harry, his voice low. "If I knew how to do it better or right, I would, but—"

"Oh, there you are," Luna sang out as she wandered out from the shadows. Snape snatched his hand away as Harry's head came up. "Draco thought you might be here since no one has seen you since the match. I told him you'd left it a bit late, to be honest, but the heliopaths have been saying that for ages."

Snape looked at her blankly, but Harry said, "That I've left what too late?" While he knew that Hermione thought Luna's propensity for taking advice from mythical creatures was sheer stupidity at best, Luna was right far too often to attribute it to chance.

Luna's wide eyes finally drifted over to Harry's face and she studied him carefully. "Maybe I shouldn't say anything if you've not been told yet." She gave him an understanding smile. "Your aura is really quite lovely now. Both of them, actually."

Snape rose slowly to his feet and took a step towards Luna, looming over her. "What do you know of Potter's condition?" he asked in the slow, careful voice that sent a prickle of alarm down Harry's spine.

Luna pushed past Snape without a word and took Harry's face in her hands. Her light blue protuberant eyes stared into his, but Harry felt no touch of her mind barging into his, no sense of having his insides examined. He honestly had no idea what she was looking for or expecting to find.

She dropped her hands and turned to look at Snape, a slow smile breaking over her face as if she had suddenly taken notice he was there. "He's brimming with magic, and not all of it is his. Can't you feel it?"

"Is it Dark magic?" asked Harry hurriedly, without giving Snape a chance to respond. "Can you tell?"

"Dark magic?" she asked, her usual vague expression morphing rather suddenly into one of keen interest. "What a curious thing to ask." Luna's gaze shifted from Harry to Snape and back again. "Magic just is. Why is yours in such a muddle?"

"Is it in a muddle?" asked Harry, not quite certain what that meant.

"Oh, yes," replied Luna, the keenness leaving her eyes to be replaced by its usual distance. "It has been ever since you put the Sorting Hat on your head. I thought to ask you then, but it appeared you had so much going on inside your head that your thoughts were started to leak out. It was a bit surprising that the Wrackspurts ignored you, but I've not seen any around your head in ages."

"What are—" Snape began, but Harry shook his head before he could finish the question. Some roads were better left unexplored. Snape gave Harry a short nod and stepped back.

"Luna, have you heard of Horcruxes?" said Harry slowly, as though still trying to make up his mind about asking his question. "Has anyone mentioned them to you?"

Luna nodded, her expression fixed on Harry. "Ginny told me that's why you went into the Forest."

"The Sorting Hat said I was still carrying a bit of Slytherin inside me," admitted Harry, his voice heavy. "This magic that's not mine, I think it's Voldemort," he continued in a hushed voice. He glanced at Snape out of the corner of his eye to find Snape's dark eyes focussed intently on Luna's face.

"What did you tell it?" asked Luna as she gazed vacantly around the Hospital Wing, rocking back and forth onto her toes, her radish earrings swaying gently.

"I told the Hat it was barking," replied Harry, watching as she wound a strand of purple twine she wore around her neck like a garland around her finger. It probably kept the Blithering Humdingers at bay. Harry had no idea.

Luna speared him with a surprisingly sharp gaze. "Did you ask it what it meant?"

Snape turned hawk-like eyes on Harry, and Harry squirmed a bit under the duel scrutiny. "Well, no," said Harry. "I don't know what else it could have meant."

"Perhaps, Potter," said Snape with dawning comprehension, "this would be an ideal moment to conduct some further investigation into the subject."

~*~

A quarter of an hour later, and over Madam Pomfrey's strong objections, he and Snape were at the door to McGonagall's office and tapping politely, Harry wearing the same Quidditch robes he'd played in earlier.

"Professor Snape. Mr Potter. It's no surprise to see the two of you," said McGonagall as she gestured to the chairs opposite her desk. Despite the absence of twinkling gadgets and sparkling instruments, the office still reminded Harry powerfully of Dumbledore, and he glanced up at the dozing portrait. "Did you bring Mr Potter here to plead your case, Severus?"

"No," replied Snape stiffly. "We've not discussed any of that. We've more pressing matters to attend to."

"More important than Potter's health and the well-being of the child I'm told he's carrying?" asked McGonagall, her gently lifted eyebrow telling Harry that she was not convinced Pomfrey's diagnosis was even remotely likely. Still, as Snape's had, her eyes dropped to his stomach, though his uniform hid the slight bulge around his midriff.

"You told her?!" exclaimed Harry, rounding on Snape. "You told her what Pomfrey said? How could you do something like that?"

"I am obligated to make such disclosures to my employer," snarled Snape, his dark eyes flashing, "unless there is someone else who might step forward to claim responsibility for your state." Faint spots of colour stained his sallow cheeks as he glared.

Harry blanched, stunned by the accusation, and shook his head automatically. "No," he said weakly, stepping back and fishing for the arm of the nearest chair. "No one." He sat heavily, his wide green eyes staring up with shock.

Even McGonagall was taken aback. She pushed back from her desk, her mouth opening in a surprised "O". "Professor Snape," she said sharply, her tone one of rebuke. "That was…"

"Potter requires the use of the Sorting Hat," Snape interrupted, his expression hard, his eyes warning her not to continue down that path.

She snapped her jaws shut and her lips thinned into a tight line. She peered over the top of her spectacles at Snape before her gaze swung slowly to Harry, who was staring at Snape in pained surprise. "Is this true, Harry? Do you want to speak with the Sorting Hat?"

Yanking his eyes away from Snape, Harry nodded. "Yes. I need to understand what it said to me." His eyes shifted up to Dumbledore, thinking to himself that the portrait seemed to be taking quite an interest in the proceedings, for all that it appeared to be asleep.

McGonagall gave Harry a searching look before fetching the Sorting Hat off the shelf and setting it on Harry's head.

"Back again, Mr Potter?" said the Hat, its words sinking straight into Harry's mind. "I suspected I would visit with you again before all was said and done. I see your little Slytherin has grown stronger since the last time I looked inside your head."

"Yeah, about that," replied Harry. "What do you mean, my little Slytherin? Is it Voldemort? Have I still got a bit of him inside me?"

To Harry's great unease, the Hat laughed. "Oh ho ho. No, Mr Potter. The Heir of Slytherin is dead, the line ended. Only Hufflepuff's remains, but they fled centuries ago, during the purges."

Not wishing to embark on any discussion about the History of Magic, Harry ignored the last bit. "What do you mean, then? What little bit of Slytherin am I still carrying?" he said to the Hat, gritting his teeth in frustration. Why were magical objects enchanted to be so difficult? Couldn't it tell he needed the information?

"I never said you were still carrying anything," corrected the Hat. "That is your own assumption. I stand by what I said, you are carrying a bit of Slytherin—the Head of Slytherin House's bit, to be specific. It is his heir you carry."

Harry's hand flew to his stomach and he pressed it against the hard bulge slowly forming there. "You mean Pomfrey was right? I am pregnant?"

The Sorting Hat did not reply, but Harry was certain it was laughing at him. He removed it slowly with shaking hands, a large knot of anxiety congealing slowly in his gut. "This can't be real," he said hoarsely as he twisted the brim. "It's not possible."

McGonagall removed the Sorting Hat from Harry's hands before he could do any harm to it. "Start at the beginning, Potter," she said in her crisp voice, her Scottish brogue a touch thicker than normal. "Tell me everything that has to do with this."

Without so much as a glance in Snape's direction, Harry recounted everything from the day McGonagall had told him that Gryffindor Tower had been reopened to the examination Pomfrey had conducted that afternoon. The more he spoke, the easier the words seemed to come. "That's why Professor Snape and I have been meeting with Dumbledore's portrait, because we thought the Sorting Hat meant that Voldemort's soul had somehow survived because I had. We destroyed all the other containers, you see, and none of us knew if I was the only person who'd ever been made into a Horcrux. But when Madam Pomfrey's spell worked, I thought it must be Voldemort inside of me, since the Hat said I was carrying a bit of Slytherin."

"What did the Sorting Hat say to you this time?" asked Snape as he took the chair next to Harry.

Harry ignored him, choosing to keep his eyes trained on McGonagall. He still could not comprehend why Snape had seen fit to question his fidelity, and knowing that Snape didn't trust him stung Harry more than he cared to admit.

"Professor Snape asked you a question, Mr Potter," said McGonagall after a long minute had passed.

"I know," said Harry. "But I don't want to answer it. He thinks I've cheated on him, and I never have done. I wouldn't." He shot Snape a reproachful look before turning his attention back to McGonagall. "I stand by my friends and he should know that."

A heavy silence filled the room whilst Harry looked down at his belly. He couldn't begin to understand how this could have happened. His mind insisted there was no possible way it could be true, yet at the same time he knew that Pomfrey's test had been right. He couldn't resolve the paradox, he couldn't be both pregnant and not, but a small voice at the back of his mind was insisting that he was going to have a child and that he'd better grow used to the idea.

Harry sighed and turned in his seat. "Use Legilimency—and then you can tell her what it said," he said to Snape, looking directly at him. He pushed the memory forward, starting at the moment they'd walked into the headmistress' office, wanting Snape to know how much his accusation had hurt.

It was over in seconds. Snape rose from the chair and walked around the room, pausing here and there to pick up a pincushion from this table and a scrying glass from that shelf, only to set them down again immediately. He stood next to the tall window and gazed for a moment out at the lake, his hands clasped behind his back. Harry wondered how many times he done that during the past year.

"The Sorting Hat confirms the results of Poppy's test," said Snape as he turned away from the window. "The Hat informed Potter that he is, at this moment, carrying the heir to the Head of Slytherin House. Potter is pregnant with my child," he said in a daze.

"Did I hear you properly?" said one of the portraits excitedly, stroking his long ginger beard as he turned dark grey eyes on Harry. "The young man is expecting?"

"It's been centuries," exclaimed another. She was wearing a white head covering held in place by a slender circlet with a golden triangle in the centre. Her tunic had red sleeves and she was holding a goblet in her hand. Harry recognised her, but could never remember her name. He looked at her curiously.

"What do you mean?" he asked politely, feeling the colour rise in his cheeks. "It's happened before, then?"

She nodded her head slowly. "Yes, but not since Quintin Tremble was headmaster. You can try waking him, but he was stone deaf before he died and pretends to be so now."

Snape hadn't moved away from the window since he spoke, so Harry walked over to him on legs that felt none too steady. He felt an apology dancing on the tip of his tongue, but he wasn't certain what he was supposed to apologise for. This was nothing he could have predicted and at the moment, he wanted no part of it.

"Do you recall what I said about Occlumency when we spoke in the Hospital Wing?" Snape asked softly before Harry could find the right words to say what was on his mind.

After a moment, Harry nodded. "Is that how you felt?" he asked in the same tone.

"Regrettably, yes."

"Is that an apology?"

Snape gave Harry a searching look. "Will it suffice for one until I can make amends at a better time?"

"I'm sorry," whispered Harry. "I didn't know. I just…I just…didn't know." He wanted to shout "Why me?" at the top of his lungs. He wanted to pound his fists against a wall, hop on his broom and fly to Majorca. He wanted to dig a deep hole and pull his Invisibility Cloak over himself, never to be seen again. He did none of those things, staring at Snape in dismay instead.

Snape looked past Harry to McGonagall. "Given the circumstances, I should like to move Potter to the dungeons. I have been cleared by Poppy to resume my duties and no longer require assistance brewing potions for the castle. I would, however, prefer to keep Potter on to aid with my teaching responsibilities."

For a moment, it appeared that McGonagall wanted nothing more than ten minutes of peace and quiet and a large splash of Firewhisky. "You are well aware of your options, Severus," she said tartly. "You will marry the boy, or you will resign your post at the end of term."

"Hang on," said Harry, turning swiftly to face her. "Don't I get a say? What if I don't want to marry him?" Before either Snape or McGonagall could say a word, he said, "I don't want to marry anybody who feels as though he has to marry me. That's not how it works. When I get married—if I get married—it will be for love, like my mum and dad did. And he's not resigning his post. I'm of age, as he said, and we had no reason to think this would happen. None at all."

"Professor Snape engaged in a sexual relationship with a student: you, Mr Potter," replied McGonagall. Her face softened and she looked at him through kind eyes. "I'm sorry, Harry, but that's the way it has to be. Severus knows that. If you marry him, he can keep his post. Otherwise, he will be required to leave before Christmas."

"I won't be forced to get married," said Harry stubbornly, his face darkening as his ire grew. "And he's not resigning. I'll leave before I'll let that happen. I have a home. Sirius left Grimmauld Place to me." He shook off the hand that had settled on his shoulder, whirled sharply and headed for the door.

"Except for Potions lessons, Mr Potter, you are barred from the dungeons," called out McGonagall as she pulled her wand out and waved it in a complex pattern.

Harry glared hotly at her, gave Snape a glance filled with fury, then hurtled himself through the door, slamming it hard behind him. He stormed through the castle, brushing past Neville and Luna, who had been waiting for him at the fifth floor landing, and raced over to the portrait hole. "Amortentia," he snarled, causing the Fat Lady to cringe before swinging open to let him.

A hush fell over the common room the moment he set foot inside, and Harry could see a hundred questions forming in the eyes of his fellow Gryffindors. "Bollocks," he muttered and pounded up the stairs to his dormitory before anyone could ask him a thing.

~*~

As soon as the door banged shut, Snape set about brewing a pot of proper tea, telling himself that it was not the sting of rejection he was feeling, but the natural let-down that occurs at the end of a day fraught with tension and upheaval. How in Merlin's name could Potter be pregnant? He glanced at Dumbledore's portrait, as he had so often done during his disastrous year as headmaster. "If you tell me this was all part of the plan," he growled, "I shall relocate you to the North Tower."

"No, Severus," said Dumbledore. "This is unexpected. When you and Harry came to me seeking my aid, I will admit this possibility never once entered my mind. Was Poppy able to learn anything further?"

Snape shook his head as he poured out, adding a splash of milk to Minerva's cup before handing it to her. He sat down beside her and took a sip of his own before looking up at the portrait. "She found nothing unusual about his anatomy or physiology. Harry Potter is an entirely normal wizard who happens to be pregnant. There are no missing parts, nor extra parts save for a womb that is currently occupied."

He tilted his head back to look at the portraits arrayed far above Dumbledore's. "Headmistress Sakndenberg, might I have a moment of your time?" he asked, his tone respectful. When she gave him a slow nod, he continued. "I believe you mentioned that this phenomenon has occurred in the past?"

Sakndenberg appeared to study Snape for a moment before answering. "Yes, and I directed him thus to make enquiry of Headmaster Trimble," she replied. "As this is a matter personal to you, I shall inform you that Hogwarts once had a Professor of Alchemy, Michael Sendigovius, who bore a child during Everard's tenure. It came as a surprise to all, as none knew he was that way inclined."

"Headmaster Everard," said Minerva. "Everard, wake up."

Everard gave a loud snort before removing his hat and scratching his head. "Merlin, is the castle under attack again?" he asked in a gravelly voice. "How's a man to rest?"

Minerva ignored his complaint. "What can you tell me about Professor Sendigovius?"

"Is he seeking a position again?" asked Everard. "He was given the boot, you know. Scandalous affair. Took up with one of the Ollivanders right under our noses, though the cat was certainly let out of the bag when he turned up in the family way. Had to discharge him, no help for it. Can't have those impressionable students believing that Hogwarts endorses that sort of behaviour. He and his paramour, Finnoc, settled somewhere outside of Bath, I believe."

Snape and Minerva exchanged a look. "It's a place to start, Severus, though I do not know if the old records survived. Filch might know." She thanked the portraits and sipped her tea. "What do you intend to do about this?"

"You heard him, Minerva," replied Snape, his voice as tight as the fist around his heart. "Potter will reject any proposal from me out of hand. He will not be forced, nor will he believe any declaration of sentiment. He knows me for a Slytherin, but anything straightforward will be seen as a blatant attempt at manipulation."

"If I may, Severus," interjected Dumbledore. "I have come to know Harry quite well. If you are committed to him and not the Boy-Who-Lived, if you undertake this obligation for love and no other reason than that, then might I suggest a more traditional approach?"

Minerva sat back, eyes wide and jaw slightly open. "Is there a chance you love the boy, Severus?" she asked, as though the very thought of Severus Snape loving anybody was the most astonishing revelation in a day filled with surprises.

Snape shot her a cool look, bristling slightly before turning back to Dumbledore. "If you are suggesting I propose on bended knee, then I beg you to bear in mind that Potter is unlikely to accept."

"No, no," replied Dumbledore, his blue eyes finally starting to twinkle again. "I suggest you broach the subject with Arthur and Molly. They are the closest thing Harry has to parents, and he holds their opinion in high regard."

"Very well," replied Snape after a moment's thought. "I shall owl them directly."

Dumbledore shook his head as Minerva gave a small cough. "Harry will need to tell Arthur and Molly about this latest turn his life has taken, and such conversations are better conducted face to face. I suggest you accompany Harry to the Burrow and speak with them then, preferably whilst Harry is within earshot. Above all, Severus, be honest. They, like Harry, can spot a twist of the truth from miles away."

~*~

The storm that blew in with the Quidditch match spat its last raindrop late Wednesday night, ushering in a brisk, chilly Thursday morning. Throughout the past few days, Harry had found it harder than he thought it would be to avoid changing his clothes and showering outside the presence of Ron and the others without raising suspicions. Ron had already taken to teasing him about his weight gain, but since that horrible day in the Hospital Wing, the baby seemed to be growing daily, and Harry did not want to invite more comments or, worse, speculation about the cause.

Madam Pomfrey had demanded his presence during his first free period, so after second year Potions had finished, Harry trotted up to the Hospital Wing to be poked, prodded and examined from head to toe.

"You are at fifteen weeks, Mr Potter," said Pomfrey, her surprise at his condition giving way to her professionalism. "Based on what you've told me, you should expect to deliver sometime during the first week of May. Professor Snape will commence brewing Nutrient potions specifically formulated for your needs, and I expect you to take them. I want to see you here every Tuesday at the same time. Are we clear?"

Harry nodded and fled, heading straight for the broom shed and a fast fly through the driving rain.

Before he knew it, Saturday had rolled around again to end an entirely unsatisfactory week. Not once had Harry had the chance to speak with Snape outside of Potions class. In a brief fit of kindness, McGonagall had relented and allowed him to continue assisting with Snape's second year students, but he was, as she had said, banished from the rest of the dungeons. Naturally, he had tested the enchantments and found himself hurled back against a hard stone wall, rubbing the back of his head where the two had collided.

"I need to speak with you—alone," hissed Harry into Hermione's ear as he swung his leg over the bench to take his seat at breakfast. He loaded his plate—despite everything, his appetite had not diminished—even electing to take a few rashers of bacon. The smell no longer bothered him, and he was looking forward to the taste.

Hermione shot Ron a quick glance, but he was busy filling his mouth and arguing about the relative merits of the Chudley Cannons (none) over Wigtown Wanderers (many) with Demelza, who had in the past month managed to become an honorary Gryffindor in spite of her numerous Slytherin tendencies. "Room of Rewards on the sixth floor," she murmured. "After lunch. I'm tutoring Astoria this morning, and I need to finish my Arithmancy chart for Monday's lesson."

Harry nodded. He'd fallen behind on revision since being barred from Snape's rooms and was at least a chapter behind in both Charms and Transfiguration. "Did Flitwick set an essay last week?" he asked, brow furrowing.

"Yes," said Hermione crisply. "Fifteen inches on the difference between the protective enchantments for buildings and those for personal property for Tuesday. There's a section in the library with loads of information, but don't bother with the Hartwell. It's rubbish."

"Can I read your essay?" asked Harry as he speared a fat sausage from the platter that was floating down the centre of the table. "I've not started mine yet and I need ideas."

"Ron's not started his either," she said as she ate. "I'll give you my list of sources. Then, when you've both written something out, I'll go over them for you, but you can't have my essay to crib from."

It was enough. After breakfast, Harry and Ron disappeared into the library. Ron pulled books off the shelves whilst Harry made notes, and by the time lunchtime rolled around Harry had amassed a foot of notes and assembled a rough outline. He duplicated both rolls of parchment and handed one set over to Ron.

"Thanks, mate," said Ron gratefully as he sent the books back to their respective shelves. "Hermione was more helpful before we started going out, but now she expects me to do it all on my own. Set a good example, she says. When," he continued as they passed through the library doors, "have I been an academic inspiration to anybody?"

"Never," said Harry with a small grin. "You're the last one I'd ask for help with lessons, if that helps any. I wish I could work in Snape's rooms. It was quieter there and I got loads more done."

"When you were awake, you mean," said Ron. "That potion Pomfrey has you taking must be helping. At least you're managing in Herbology now, and you're up earlier than most everybody." His brow furrowed and he shot Harry a quick glance as they skirted down a side passage as their staircase moved away. "Don't tell me you're not sleeping again."

"I'm sleeping some," said Harry. "Just not as much. I've had a bit on my mind."

"It's not about Snape, is it?" said Ron. "Blimey, but I'm glad to be rid of the dungeons. No offence, mate, but I still can't figure out what you see in him. He's not a pleasant bloke and not much to look at, either, though he treats you loads better than he used to."

"He had to treat me like shite," said Harry as they entered the Great Hall. "You know that. And yes, it has to do with Snape, so you needn't worry about listening to me whinge about it." They settled themselves at the House table, and before long the room was filled with hundreds of voices chattering about inconsequential matters.

Harry's eyes drifted as he ate. The Slytherins, most with their guardians, were strung loosely along their benches instead of huddled into the tight, protective mass that had marked their behaviour at the start of term. Neville and Luna had started taking their breakfast and lunch with Draco, and Harry was pleased to see a smidgen of Draco's pride return. Even Parvati had lost a bit of her resentment, though it had taken a few hexes at the student she was protecting before she started to come around. Fewer than a dozen students had earned year-long detentions, and when Slytherin had pulled far ahead on house points, the rest fell into line.

Once Harry had finished eating and students began to amble out, he shouldered his schoolbag and drifted out of the Great Hall with the others. Hermione had said the Room of Rewards was on the sixth floor, but Harry couldn't recall a place with that name. As he reached the sixth floor landing, though, he spotted a portrait that looked vaguely familiar.

It was Vindictus Viridian, author of one of the best books on curses and counter-curses Harry had ever seen. "Will you let me in," asked Harry politely, "or should I see if Peeves is about? He's not been making as much of a nuisance of himself since the castle was rebuilt and might need inspiration."

Professor Viridian glared. "You've improved since I last saw you. Go on in, you rapscallion."

"Hermione will be here shortly," said Harry as the portrait shifted over to reveal a door. "I'll be happy to send Moaning Myrtle your way if you—Hermione."

"I heard your voice," she said breathlessly, "and ran the rest of the way up the stairs. I probably shouldn't have done, but I don't think we'll be discovered." She pushed through the door and settled herself in an overstuffed chair set next to a case of small awards given to the best Charms student in each year. There were hundreds of them.

Harry closed the door and took the seat opposite her. A low table covered with bound essays filled the small space between them. Thinking for a moment, he turned and cast a Muffliato charm at the door to keep from being overheard.

Hermione gazed curiously at him before pulling her wand and casting a couple more spells. "It must be important, whatever it is. This will ensure that Viridian doesn't tell anyone we're here, but he won't open the door for anyone else until we've left."

Now that he had her here, Harry didn't know how to begin. He found himself staring at his hands, twirling his wand slowly and watching the play of light on the smooth, fine-grained wood.

"It will be all right," said Hermione softly.

"Not this time," said Harry as his head came up to look at her. "I know I hurt you by not telling you I'm gay. I apologise for that. Again."

"Apology accepted," she said. "I know why you didn't say anything, but the fact that you didn't forced me to look at our friendship in a different light. I thought it meant you didn't trust me, that you didn't want to confide in me, and after everything we'd been through, it really hurt.

"I read those books you mentioned, though, and I understand you needed to be ready to talk to me. And seeing you with Professor Snape helped as well. You're very different when you're around him, more yourself, I think. I'm so sorry, Harry. I never meant to make you think I'd abandoned you."

"Thank you for helping me with Professor Snape," said Harry. "He needed it and I couldn't do it alone."

"Does this have anything to do with him?" she asked, concern showing in her brown eyes. "He is all right, isn't he? McGonagall sent word that we didn't have to brew for the infirmary any more, but the three of you are still assisting with his classes."

"He's loads better. He doesn't have to take the Nagini-Be-Gone and Pomfrey's taken him off everything except the Sleeping Draught."

"So, what is it, then?"

Harry swallowed heavily and looked away, resisting the urge to get up and pace. He set his wand on the table and clasped his hands tightly, massaging the edge of his hand with his thumb. "Remember how I told you if I ever had something important to tell anybody, you'd be the first to know?" he asked, his lips twisted in a grotesque imitation of a smile. "Would you settle for fifth?"

A note of alarm appeared on Hermione's face and she nodded, not saying anything until he'd spoken his piece.

There was no good way of preparing her for the news. Harry wasn't entirely certain he'd accepted it himself, but he couldn't deny it, either. "I know this will be hard to believe. I'm not sure I believe it myself," he said in a low voice. "So I'm just going to say it. I'm pregnant." He choked on the last syllable and coughed.

There was a long silence; Harry was beginning to think Hermione should be an interrogator, since she was so good at saying nothing for such a long period of time.

"Harry James Potter, that is not in the least bit funny," she suddenly screeched, her face reddening by the word. "If you wanted to take petty revenge, you might have attempted to be a bit creative." She shot to her feet and flounced towards the door, but Harry stopped her.

"Look at me, Hermione," he said heatedly. "Do I look like I'm taking the piss?" He grabbed her hand and pressed it against the side of his belly where the slight bulge was most pronounced. "Does that feel like I'm lying?"

Hermione's eyes widened and her face grew pale. "But it's not possible," she whispered.

"Don't you think I know that?" Harry shouted angrily. "Nothing in my life is ever possible, but fuck if it doesn't keep happening." He flung himself back in the chair, head in hands. "McGonagall says Snape has to marry me or he'll be sacked," he said, looking up. "I'm eighteen, single and pregnant. The bloke I'm in love with has to be marched to the altar to marry me. I swear, Hermione, I am so fucking tired of being me."

"Oh, Harry," she cried as she perched on the arm of his chair to give him a one-armed hug. "How long have you known?"

Briefly, Harry related everything that had happened since the night they'd all taken a turn under the Sorting Hat. As he spoke, Hermione moved back to her chair, pulling parchment and quill from her satchel. "That's what Snape and I had been working on up in the headmaster's…headmistress' office until last week. Even Dumbledore thought I was right, until I wasn't."

"I still don't understand how it could have happened," she said, her eyes narrowing in a way that Harry knew from long experience meant hours in the library engaged in research that had nothing to do with school. "It flies in the face of everything we ever knew. Does Madam Pomfrey have any explanation at all?"

He leaned back, his hand splayed across his stomach. "None at all, though one of the portraits in McGonagall's office said it's happened before." He blew out a long breath. "How am I going to explain this, Hermione? Ron's going to go off his nut and Seamus…" His voice trailed off. Some of Seamus' animus had bled off, but Harry had no idea how he'd react to this.

"Don't say anything until you're ready, and leave Ron to me," advised Hermione. "But tell me what the portrait said. It might be important."

Harry did so, but not without Hermione grilling him on every last detail. "Honestly, Hermione, that's all she said. It seemed like news to Dumbledore, so I don't know what more I can tell you."

Hermione pursed her lips, her eyes taking on that faraway expression that meant she was organising her thoughts, developing and discarding theories as quickly as she could conceive of them. "Who knows?" she asked after a long pause during which she wrote out lines of investigation she intended to pursue, starting with Hogwarts: A History, if only to find out which portrait had spoken with Harry.

"What?" asked Harry in confusion.

"Who have you told?" she said more slowly, pronouncing each word clearly.

Harry blinked. "I've told you."

Hermione gave an impatient snort. "You said I'm fifth. Will you tell me, please, the four people ahead of me?"

Not certain whether he should roll his eyes, Harry shook his head slightly instead. "Madam Pomfrey, since she's the one who figured it out. Snape, of course. McGonagall, but only because Snape told her, and Luna."

"Luna knows?" asked Hermione, recoiling slightly. "Luna?"

"I think she knew before anyone else did," said Harry. "Dunno how exactly, but she's Luna. I don't ask. It's a bit too much like talking to Trelawney sometimes, except Luna doesn't end every conversation with 'You're in grave danger'. It makes speaking with her loads better."

Hermione laughed, and it made Harry feel better to hear it. Their conversation drifted to homework and House gossip, and before they knew it, the afternoon was nearly over.

~*~

By the middle of the week, Harry was done with being denied the opportunity to spend any time with Snape outside of lessons. After Wednesday's Defence Against the Dark Arts class, he waved a short good-bye to Hermione and walked down to the Potions classroom with Ron, who was on his way to meet Demelza and walk her to Charms. Neville and Draco were a few feet ahead, and Harry was still amazed at how well the three of them got on.

"Second year Potions isn't until tomorrow," said Ron when Harry failed to make the turn towards the Grand Staircase.

"I know," said Harry. "Do you realise I've not said a word to Snape that's not got to do with classes since the Quidditch match? No good morning, no how are you feeling? And the only thing he says to me is 'Potter, fetch more pickled salamander spleens for Bani-Sadr' or 'Tell Frobisher to chop the marrow root, not dice it'."

"Maybe he's gone off you," said Ron with a shrug as they rounded the corner into the winding passage that led to the Potions classroom. "Wouldn't be the worst thing."

Harry's insides twisted into a hard knot that lodged right behind his breastbone. Though not entirely unexpected, it was the last thing he wanted to hear from anybody. "Right," he said curtly. "Now I know what to say if you hit a rough patch with Hermione."

Ron came to an abrupt halt, shock written all over his face. "But you like Hermione…" His voice trailed off. "I've done it again, haven't I?"

"Both feet this time." Harry waved it off as he waited for Ron to catch up. He had far too much to worry about to concern himself with Ron's perpetual blind spot regarding Snape. "Look, we've been over this. I accept you're never going to like Snape, but I love him, and you've got to decide whether I'm worth it despite how you feel about him. Now, I plan to spend every moment I can in his classroom, whether I'm supposed to be there or not. I can't explain why, not yet, but I have to be here.

"There's Demelza," continued Harry. "When you're walking her to class, try to remember that she's a Slytherin and actually likes you." His tone suggested he couldn't quite work out why.

The corridor grew crowded as the first year Gryffindors and Slytherins poured out of the laboratory and mingled with the third year Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs who were trying to get in. Guardians were trying to collect their charges, and in the chaos someone tripped, knocking two more students off-balance. Wands came out and bands of students squared off until a deep voice spoke from behind. "I have eight hundred and sixty-two flobberworms that require de-veining before they start to decay."

Wands vanished in a heartbeat and order was restored in an instant. Harry leaned back against the wall as the smallest students scurried past, an amused grin peering around the corners of his mouth as he watched Snape take command of the situation. His prediction for this term had been wrong in one important respect—no one had attacked Snape. No one dared.

Settling himself at a bench at the back of the room where he had a clear view of the front, Harry pulled out his copy of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi and started memorising the magical properties of lichen collected during a partial lunar eclipse. As Snape gave the instructions for the morning's potion, Harry sat back with a smile. The anxiety that had been building started to ebb when Snape met his gaze with nothing more than curiosity in his eyes.

"What are you doing here, Potter?" Draco hissed under his breath as the third years stampeded to the supply closet to gather their porcupine quills and jabberknoll down.

"If this is the only way I can see Snape, then I'll be here every free period I have," replied Harry in a low voice. "Besides, it's nicer in here than either the common room or library." He glanced up as Snape made one of his many passes through the room. "And if he assigns detentions, I'll be here for those as well," he continued in a slightly louder tone. His eyes darkened as Snape's gaze bored into him, and a surge of desire swept through him.

"Dammit," shouted a Hufflepuff as a glass phial filled with bubotuber pus rolled off his workbench and shattered on the floor.

Snape whirled and stalked towards the miscreant, his robes billowing magnificently. "Detention, Mr Owens," intoned Snape. "And ten points for destruction of school equipment."

Draco caught Harry's eye and winked. Harry lit up like a beacon and turned his attention to his book before Snape could see his delighted expression.

By Friday night, Snape had assigned at least one detention in every class Harry visited. Whilst Snape had students crushing scarab shells, scrubbing cauldrons or stripping veins out of flobberworms, Harry wrote essays, outlined chapters, revised his notes and marked the stack of second year essays Snape set in front of him. He didn't have an explanation for why he felt better when he was near Snape, but as he hadn't been chased out, he wasn't going to invest much time thinking about it.

They still hadn't exchanged any words beyond stilted formalities, but only the most naive of students failed to notice the intensity of their gaze, the charged atmosphere electric between them. "Like binary planets," whispered a Ravenclaw to her lab partner, noting that Snape made a point of checking on Harry several times during every lesson.

"That will be enough," Snape announced about thirty minutes before curfew. "Clean your stations and return to your common rooms. Potter, please remain for a moment."

Harry sat up and stretched, massaging the ache out of his lower back. "Yes, sir," he said as he slipped his fingers under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He blinked and gave Snape a sleepy smile, then started to fill his schoolbag with books and scrolls of parchment that were his notes for Defence class. He disagreed vehemently with Williamson's assessment of the practicality of compound spells in defensive situations. Harry thought them inherently unstable and difficult to cast when speed was of the essence, but the leading sources sided with Williamson.

Harry waited for the few students serving detention to leave before walking up to the front of the room and standing next to Snape's desk.

"Potter," said Snape, acknowledging him with a slight nod of his head.

"Professor." Harry's eyes searched Snape's face whilst a thousand questions crowded the tip of his tongue, jostling to be the first one asked. Are you sleeping all right? Are the tremors gone? Are you eating? I've missed you. But he stood there dumbly, unable to say anything at all. He stepped a bit closer and inhaled deeply, catching a trace of Snape's own scent underneath the oily smell of Essence of Murtlap.

"Are you well?" asked Snape awkwardly, seeming at a loss for words.

"Well enough, I suppose," said Harry cautiously, not knowing where the ease that once lay between them had vanished to. "And you? The venom is gone?"

Snape said nothing as his eyes travelled slowly over Harry's body, pausing at Harry's midsection and narrowing when his gaze settled there, as though by focusing harder, he could make out the changed contours of Harry's stomach.

"It's getting bigger," said Harry in a low voice, as if ashamed of what resided there. The conflict ran deep; he was presented every day with proof positive that something was in there, but he could not wrap his head around the thought of having a baby. It was simply too far-fetched, even for the magical world.

"May I?" requested Snape as he came out from behind the desk, his hand outstretched as if to touch. His dark eyes never left Harry's belly, his fascination readily apparent.

"Is that why you wanted to me to wait?" asked Harry in surprise. "So you could check up on your heir?" He all but spat the last word before turning swiftly and striding towards the bench where he had left his schoolbag, not sure where his irritation was coming from. He wanted Snape to touch him—but not like that.

With a flick of his wand, Snape sealed the exit shut. "Potter…Harry, wait." He followed in Harry's footsteps and pulled Harry away from tugging uselessly on the door. "We are mired in a situation neither of us had any reason to anticipate," he said as he rested a hand on Harry's shoulder. "A period of adjustment is to be expected. Please…" It was almost as if the word were unfamiliar to him.

Harry rested his forehead against the cool dungeon wall, ignoring the comfort of Snape's hand. "I don't want you to start thinking of me as some sort of freak."

"As you have so often pointed out, being 'Harry Potter' is more than enough." Snape's voice was soft and soothing, and Harry thought that there was a chance Snape understood how hard it was. "Come. We've not much time before curfew." He pulled out a stool from under the workbench and sat down.

Heaving a sigh, Harry turned away from the wall and took the seat he had staked out as his. "You've no idea what this is like. I don't even know who I am anymore," he said, directing his words to the hard, smooth surface of the work station.

"You're right, Potter," replied Snape with a lift of his eyebrow. "I couldn't possibly know what it's like to be seen as something other than who I am. Be that as it may, whilst I may consider the circumstances to be…'freakish', you are most decidedly not."

Harry looked askance.

"I asked you to remain for two reasons," continued Snape, ignoring Harry's apparent doubt. "First, I would like to tender my apologies for the insulting things I may have inadvertently implied."

"There was nothing 'inadvertent' about it," snapped Harry. "You meant to embarrass me in front of McGonagall and all those portraits. Like you said, you lash out."

The lines around Snape's mouth whitened as Harry's words found their target. "I will not deny that, but I do apologise nevertheless."

"What was the other thing you wanted to tell me?" asked Harry, his tone brusque. He knew he should accept Snape's apology, but a small, petty part of him was determined to win the battle against curling up in Snape's arms to seek what small comfort he could find there.

"I would like to escort you to the Burrow tomorrow."

Harry's head came up sharply and a flash of panic appeared in his brilliant green eyes, chasing away the anger that was trying to rise to the surface. "The Burrow?" he said weakly, his heart suddenly leaping into triple time. He knew he needed to tell the Weasleys, had even started mentally composing letters during the long hours he spent assiduously avoiding his homework.

"Harry, it is better to tell them sooner rather than later," said Snape, brow furrowed with concern. "This is not a secret you can keep for much longer, and it's something they should hear from you. You will not be alone, unless you wish it. I will be there for as long as you desire."

Nodding, Harry tried to work up enough saliva to swallow. "You're right," he said, though it felt like his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. "When?"

"I shall meet you in the Entrance Hall at three o'clock," replied Snape. "Professor McGonagall is aware that we will be away and has given her approval. We are expected to be back no later than seven."

"Three o'clock. Right." Harry rubbed sweaty palms on his robes as his eyes darted away. "I accept your apology," he said stiffly as his fingers fumbled with the clasp of his robe. He came to his feet and stepped close to Snape, reaching out to guide Snape's hand to his stomach. "I haven't felt anything yet, but as it's yours, I reckon you have the right to touch it when you want to."

He bit back the low moan that bubbled up from underneath the place where Snape's hand came to rest, the low heat of arousal that constantly simmered in his veins boiling over at the touch. Happy as he was that Snape seemed to be taking an interest in him, Harry knew, or at least suspected, that his pregnancy was the impetus behind it. He looked at Snape's hand, the long fingers exploring the firm contours of his softly swollen belly.

"This is…" Snape paused as he glanced up and met Harry's eyes, and Harry was taken aback by the naked longing he saw there. "I've never…"

"Yeah," said Harry quietly, covering Snape's hand with his own. "Me either."

Chapter Text

Ch 7: A Trip to the Woodshed

 

A few minutes before three o'clock, Severus Snape stepped through the archway that led to the dungeons and scowled ominously as a cluster of students dashed into the castle, chattering excitedly until they caught sight of his stern visage. They fell silent and scurried past as his right hand moved with due deliberation towards his left side, as though he might pull his wand on anyone foolish enough to be in high spirits after a visit to Hogsmeade. Only someone intimately familiar with him would have noticed that he relaxed ever so slightly as his fingers pressed against a small packet tucked into an inner pocket.

His dark eyes followed a pair of Ravenclaws up the Grand Staircase, softening a bit when he spotted a glimpse of messy black hair on its way down. He watched from his vantage point as Harry trotted down the steps and took a moment to observe him unseen. Gone were the soft lines of childhood, his features sharper and more angular than they had been when Harry was eleven. The past year had aged him; Harry's steps were purposeful and his jaw was set in grim determination. The only sign of agitation he exhibited was a clenched left hand and a faint line of worry in his brow.

Their eyes met, and Snape felt the gentle pull on his strength as Harry's took on an apologetic cast. His gaze swept over Harry's body, and he frowned to see Harry garbed in his school robes, a light cloak the only thing he wore to ward off the hard chill of this last Saturday in November. Most of the students had already discarded their robes for the more practical—and if Snape were completely honest with himself, more comfortable—Muggle-style attire.

"No gloves?" asked Snape as Harry made his way to his side.

Harry shrugged, gnawing for a moment on the inside of his cheek. So the boy…young man was nervous. Snape had suspected as much, but it was satisfying to have his suspicions confirmed. "I got pretty good at Warming Charms last year," said Harry dismissively. "How are we getting there?" he added, stepping through the oak doors and onto the steps leading out from the castle.

"I spoke with Madam Pomfrey about safe means of travelling," replied Snape as they walked briskly down the path to the gates. "She suggested Portkey. Professor Flitwick charmed this to leave at our discretion." He pulled from his robes a stainless steel stirrer and held it out.

Harry set his jaw and nodded as he reached out to place a bare finger on the cold metal. Snape pulled his wand and touched the tip of it to the stirrer. "Portus," he said, feeling the sharp pull right behind his navel immediately after he spoke. As he was dragged through the compressed space, he began to doubt Poppy's assurance that this was by any means a good way for Harry to travel, given his condition.

Snape took a step forward as he sensed the Portkey journey coming to an end, whilst beside him Harry stumbled. Snape made a grab for his arm and steadied him, his dark eyes sharp on Harry's face.

"Merlin, I hate those things," muttered Harry as he regained his balance. "I'm always afraid I'll end up back in the graveyard." Snape looked at him in shock, the horrific memory of Voldemort's resurrection now burned indelibly in his own mind, but Harry's eyes had already slid away to stare at the Burrow, the colour seeping away from his face. Snape's eyes followed and he swallowed heavily, hoping Minerva had paved the way for their visit as she'd promised.

Other than his colleagues at Hogwarts, Arthur and Molly Weasley would be the first members of the Order of the Phoenix with whom Snape had spoken since the end of the war, and though he didn't show it, he was very uncertain about his reception here. George had lost an ear at his hands, and Ginevra had been abused on his watch, though he'd done everything in his power to mitigate the harm to the students under his care. Fred had died during the Battle of Hogwarts, and Snape had no idea whether that, too, would be added to the ledger that tallied his crimes.

Then there was Harry. Though Harry's condition had been unforeseeable at best, Snape knew that responsibility for it would be laid, rightfully, at his feet. He was a professor at Hogwarts. He was, in all ways that mattered, Harry's superior—not in any qualitative sense, but as one who had power and responsibility over him. That Harry was of age was of no consequence; the Weasleys would see coercion in his actions, no matter how consensual the actual circumstances had been.

Snape would never deny that he desired Harry—still did if truth be told—and he was more than willing to marry him, though it would be the misalliance of the century to be sure. But he doubted that Harry's purported love for him would survive to the birth of their child, not when there were so many more suited to his youth and beauty than Snape could ever be.

Giving himself a mental shake, Snape cleared his mind of all thoughts and Occluded them as powerfully as possible. He had no illusions that either Arthur or Molly practiced Legilimency of any sort, but he wanted to be prepared for the accusations of molestation that were bound to be thrown at him. His first duty was to Harry, and the fact that his reputation was nearly as black as that of Voldemort himself was of no consequence. Harry was blameless, and Snape would ensure that they understood that before he and Harry left.

He donned his mask of impassivity and laid his hand on Harry's shoulder. "Are you ready to proceed?" he asked. "Or would you prefer a moment to prepare yourself?" Though it was much warmer here than it had been at Hogwarts, Snape could not suppress the chill that ran through him.

Harry shot a sharp glance at Snape, eyes wide, pupils dilated in fear. He drew a steadying breath, focusing his attention on the front door and the twenty paces past the fence it would take to get there. "Stay with me," he said in a tight voice.

"Always," murmured Snape as he took a step forward with Harry, then another and another until they were both striding up the path. He stood at Harry's shoulder as Harry knocked at the door. Though his fingers itched to hold his wand, he refrained from touching it. He had come in peace and wished it to remain that way.

Arthur opened the door and invited them in, and as Snape moved past him into the front room, he tried to interpret the expression in Arthur's eyes. Concern, naturally. Caution, to be sure. There were traces of grief haunting his eyes as well, and Snape knew it would never really go away.

"Welcome to the Burrow, Severus. Harry," said Arthur, his voice far warmer than Snape had expected. He regarded the two of them with curiosity, but before he could invite them to remove their cloaks, Molly hurried towards Harry, her arms outstretched.

"Harry," she cried as she hugged him tight, but the second she had enfolded him in a motherly embrace she stiffened, her brown eyes widening. She drew back, her gaze shifting rapidly between Harry and Snape as her mouth hung open a bit, and the look she gave Arthur was filled with alarm. She pulled Harry close again, her eyes filling with tears, and Snape could not imagine what must be going through her mind.

Molly stepped away and forced a smile to her face. "Sit down, sit down. Arthur, take their cloaks whilst I put the kettle on. I can see we'll need a spot of tea, perhaps a biscuit or two," she said far too cheerily, her face almost grey. She bustled off to the kitchen without another word, as fast as her legs would carry her.

Arthur stood rooted to the spot, and the look he shot Snape practically begged for permission to panic.

Snape shook his head slightly and removed his cloak. "Arthur, please feel free to assist Molly in the kitchen. I will see to everything here." He stepped forward to help Harry, unsurprised to find him trembling. As Arthur moved towards the kitchen, shooting them a worried glance over his shoulder, Snape escorted Harry to the same chair Harry had sat in that summer and settled him in it.

"What happened just now?" asked Snape, looking down on him with a frown.

Harry slowly tilted his head back to look up at Snape. His enormous green eyes stood like marbles in the snow, so white was his face. "You saw how she hugged me," he whispered, clearly shaken and unwilling to be overheard. "She knows." He blinked and his brow furrowed. "She knows…something," he amended. "She felt it."

Snape hung their cloaks and returned to the front room to take the chair next to Harry's. "Upon their return," he said quietly as he sat rigid and still, "assure them you are well. Molly is frightened, that much is clear, as is Arthur by his wife's reaction. I've no doubt they fear the worst."

"They're going to wish it was true," scowled Harry.

This time, Snape did roll his eyes before casting a wary glance towards the kitchen where Molly and Arthur had holed up. Minutes later, Arthur stepped round the corner, floating a large tea service in front of him whilst Molly followed behind, dabbing at swollen eyes with her apron.

Before anyone could ask, Snape rose from his chair to pull the tray out of the air and set it on the low, battered table that rested in the centre of the room. He poured whilst Arthur and Molly settled into their customary places on the couch, demonstrating, as they so often had, a united front in times of crisis.

They sat silent for a moment, Harry and Molly sipping at their tea whilst Snape and Arthur ignored theirs. Finally, just when Snape was about to speak, Arthur cleared his throat.

"We received an owl from Minerva McGonagall this morning," he said in his ordinary fashion, "telling us to expect Harry and that he would not be travelling alone. I cannot say I am surprised to see you with him, Severus, given what we've heard from Ronald and Ginevra, but I would have thought we'd be meeting his new Head of House if there was any trouble at school." He turned his attention to Harry, his expression open and trusting. "Has this anything to do with what you told us last summer?" he asked, his voice gentle though his expression was too shrewd for Snape's comfort.

Snape's heart raced as Harry nodded, and he couldn't help but clasp his hands tightly together. He turned calm eyes on Arthur, though behind the mask his thoughts raced to the point he could no longer keep up with them.

"Did Ron or Ginny tell you about the Sorting Hat?" asked Harry through pale lips, his hands tight around the sturdy mug. He gazed into it so intently that he appeared to Snape to be trying to read the leaves through the milky liquid.

Arthur and Molly exchanged a puzzled glance that did nothing to abate the worry that underlay it. "Yes, of course," said Molly. "Ron mentioned it in his last letter, and then went on for an entire paragraph about someone named Demelza. Ginny's letter said it announced to the entire school that the two of you would bond, though she thinks, and I'm inclined to believe her, that it got a bit addled when it burst into flames on Neville's poor head. But that was over a month ago." She gave Harry a reproachful look.

Harry's head snapped up and his hands shook, splashing tea all over his robes.

Arthur grimaced wryly. "Perhaps we ought not give Harry tea when he's sitting in that chair."

Harry gave Snape a panicked glance that quickly turned to one of exasperation when Snape extracted his wand and used a Cleaning Charm to siphon off the tea. "I'm not entirely helpless, you know," he said in a low voice.

"I did not think for a moment that you are," replied Snape calmly as he stored his wand. "Please continue." He pretended that Arthur's frown and Molly's scowl did not unnerve him. He was, he reminded himself, in the presence of people who regarded themselves as Harry's surrogate parents, and he knew they would go to great lengths to keep Harry from harm.

"When Snape placed the Sorting Hat on my head," began Harry slowly, "I thought it told me I was still carrying a piece of Voldemort's soul—" He stopped when Molly drew a sharp breath and her eyes filled. "I'm sorry," said Harry swiftly, his eyes filled with pain. "I am so sorry." He swallowed. "The Sorting Hat said I was carrying a bit of Slytherin in me. I didn't know what it meant."

Harry used the night of the fiasco with the Sorting Hat as his stepping-off point, stumbling over his words in his haste to spill them. He spoke again of the night in the graveyard, describing in detail the rebirth of Voldemort, then segued to the night of the Battle of Hogwarts and his solitary walk into the Forbidden Forest, omitting from his tale only the part about seeing Sirius, Lupin and his parents.

Snape watched Arthur and Molly huddle together as Harry recounted his story, their hands intertwined, their knuckles white. Silent tears streamed down Molly's face and Arthur, by nature a cheerful person, looked as grim and heartsick as Snape had ever seen him. Snape closed his eyes, Harry's story renewing afresh the heartbreak he had experienced whilst reliving those moments through him.

"There was a bright green flash," said Harry, his words thick, "and then I was in King's Cross, and that thing from the graveyard was under a bench and it was making this pathetic sound. Dumbledore told me that it was beyond our aid, but it was still alive, and after what the Sorting Hat said, I had to tell Snape, so I showed him the memories.

"I was a Horcrux too, though Dumbledore never told me. I found that out from the memories Snape gave me in the Shrieking Shack. That's why I had to go out there, you see, and let him kill me. But we, Ron and Hermione and me, destroyed the other bits his soul was stored in." Harry turned beseeching eyes on Molly and Arthur. "I thought that since I lived, he did too, and I couldn't have that. I needed to be sure he couldn't come back."

Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but Snape caught his eye and shook his head slightly. No matter how little bearing this might have on the reason for their visit, Harry needed the catharsis that came with sharing the horror of that night with people who understood the enormity of the task that had been laid at his feet.

"Go on, son," said Arthur in a gravelly voice whilst Molly wiped the tears that flowed freely with the corner of her apron.

Harry choked a little and cleared his throat, guilt for the pain he still believed he had caused carving new lines in his forehead. "Snape and I talked to Dumbledore: his portrait, I mean. He didn't know what was going on any more than we did, but he told us where he'd left his notes and which books to read to see if anybody had been a Horcrux before. Then the Snitch kept flying into my hand and I ended up at the Hospital Wing."

Molly stared at Harry in bewilderment, casting glances in Snape's direction as though pleading with him to make sense of it all, but Snape refused. This was for Harry to tell. He would only step in if Harry couldn't continue.

"Surely Ginny told you about the Quidditch match," said Harry, sitting up to stare back in confusion. "She must have done."

"She did mention something about you catching the Snitch ten minutes into the match," said Arthur, clearly befuddled. "Harry…."

"We're just worried about you, dear," said Molly earnestly, an undercurrent of fear edging her words. "We know something's not quite right," she added, her voice dropping to a near whisper as her gaze was drawn to Harry's slightly swollen belly. "We can't lose…not again." Tears welled once more.

Given that Molly usually spoke in either a shout or a roar—the natural consequence of living in a house with eight other people—her hushed tone told Snape that she was maintaining her composure by force of will and habit alone. "It is nothing so dire," he reassured them quietly.

Harry's eyes darted between the three of them and he swallowed. "The first Quidditch match the Snitch flew into my hand. It's never done that before so I asked Madam Hooch for another one. Ginny said we could restart the match since it must have been tampered with, but the new Snitch did the same thing," said Harry in a rush, as though speaking faster would reduce the amount of information he was compelled to provide. "I caught it twice in about fifteen minutes, but it was raining, and we didn't want to be out there any longer, so Madam Hooch let the match stand."

None of the confusion had abated in the least. He went on. "Afterwards, Draco said that the since the Snitch hadn't been jinxed, it must be my magic. That's why Snape took me to the Hospital Wing, to see why it had gone off. Pomfrey did this test with a spell and it exploded in loads of colours, and I knew that the bit of Slytherin was growing, but she said there was nothing that could be done—"

At this, Molly let out a soft whimper, her face going bone white. She squeezed Arthur's hand so hard that Snape was sure she must have broken some the bones. Nonetheless, Arthur didn't react except to draw his eyebrows a bit closer together.

"But then Luna came and so we went to talk to the Sorting Hat again to find out what it meant," concluded Harry, skipping over the most important details so he could reach the end. He gazed imploringly at them, and Snape wasn't certain if Harry had run out of words or out of courage.

The tension rose with each second that tiptoed past, and Snape slowly pressed his hand to the hilt of his wand, inwardly relieved that it was just where it should be. Arthur and Molly appeared near the breaking point, and he hoped vaguely that once Harry finished, whatever Molly cursed him with wouldn't hurt very much.

"Son," Arthur asked nervously, "what did the Sorting Hat say?"

Harry bit his lip hard as he looked back and forth between them. "It said I wasn't still carrying a bit of Slytherin inside me. I'd gotten that part wrong. It said…it said…" He stopped suddenly and drew a deep breath, a faint wheeze rasping at the back of his throat. "I can't do this," he moaned as he leapt to his feet. "I can't…I can't…" He turned and rushed to the door, but Snape was on his feet and at the threshold before Harry reached it.

Taking the matter into his own hands, almost literally as it turned out, Snape pulled Harry close, unsurprised when Harry started to struggle. He leaned in close and said in a soft growl, "I told you I would stay with you." Arthur and Molly dashed up from the sofa to embrace Harry as well. "I did not agree to help you flee. Tell them what you came to say."

Harry gave Snape a troubled look before turning within the circle of Snape's arms, the fight gone out of him as quickly as it had arisen. He took a step back, and Snape laid a protective hand on his shoulder. "It said," he said slowly, "that I'm carrying the heir of the Head of Slytherin House."

Arthur and Molly waited for Harry to continue, neither one seeming to realise what Harry had just said. The silence grew thick, filling their ears, settling its heavy weight over their shoulders like sodden cloak.

"It's Snape's," said Harry into the deathly quiet. "I've not been with anyone else." A bit of bright pink appeared in his cheeks as he confessed to having been intimate with the man. "It was only the once, but…" He shifted under Snape's hand. "Guess that was enough."

The Weasleys continued to stare uncomprehendingly and Snape, being all too familiar with this particular battlefield, said quietly, "Harry is pregnant."

Arthur's mouth dropped open, his eyes agog as his cheeks suffused with colour, whilst Molly's face went three shades whiter. "I beg your pardon?" said Arthur. "Did you just say…what did you say?" He removed Molly's hand from his arm before she bruised him any further.

"I'm pregnant," said Harry unhappily, dropping his head and looking up at the Weasleys over the rim of his spectacles.

Molly's face darkened slowly, anger crackling around her like Fiendfyre. "What have you done to that child?" she seethed, her wand coming up so quickly that Snape wasn't sure he had even seen her move her hand. The tip went back as she began to hex him, but before the curse could leave her wand, a powerful burst of magic pushed her backwards into the room. Her wand flew from her hand, and at the apex of the arc, it exploded to pieces. The core writhed in the air for a moment, burst into flame, and floated to the floor as a bit of ash.

"My wand!" she cried before taking another step back and giving Harry a wary look of surprise.

"It wasn't me," whispered Harry as Arthur and Snape exchanged bewildered glances. Arthur turned to his wife, a silent question in his eyes, and she gave a brief nod of her head.

"Harry," said Arthur gently. "May I have your permission to, err, touch you for a moment? Your, err, stomach area, to be precise?" His eyes included Snape in the question, but Snape acquiesced to Harry with a tilt of his head.

"Err, all right," said Harry hesitantly. "I mean, of course, but why?"

"Old wives' tale," said Arthur. "Do you mind opening your robe? It's not entirely necessary, but it's supposed to work better that way."

A vivid blush consumed Harry's face in seconds. His fingers fumbled at the clasp and he opened his robe to reveal a half-unbuttoned school shirt and tracksuit bottoms. "I've nothing left that fits," he mumbled to the floor as he exposed his slightly rounded stomach to the room. "And there are always people in the shops."

"We will see to your wardrobe as soon as possible," Snape murmured into Harry's ear. "What is this wives' tale, Arthur?" he said to divert some attention away from Harry's body.

"First, you gather your magic in your hands," explained Arthur as he began to rub his hands together briskly. He closed his eyes for a moment, opening them as he laid his bare hands on the gentle swell of Harry's belly, then leapt back instantly as though bitten, wringing his hands and shaking them. His palms were scarlet. "Then you, ahh, touch the baby. The tingle is supposed to evaluate the strength of its magic." He gave the bulge an appraising look as Harry hid it under his robe as quickly as he could.

Snape nodded, remembering the great pulse of colour caused by Poppy's diagnostic spell. "I assume you've done this before?"

Molly walked back into the room carrying another wand. She gave it and Snape a look of mild disgust. "With all of them," she said tightly. "Shall we sit back down?" She ushered them back into the front room, fury still radiating from every pore of her body. "The twins gave quite a kick," she said in that same astringent voice.

Harry folded himself back into his chair, making himself as small as physically possible. "I'm sorry," he said in a choked voice. "I didn't know this could happen. I still don't know how…" He turned his head and looked out the window.

"Harry, dear, we're not angry with you," said Molly in the most soothing tone she could manage before turning cold eyes on Snape. "Was it a potion? A spell, perhaps? If we discover you've used an Unforgivable on him, Severus, you will wish you were safely in Azkaban."

Snape's eyes glittered, but before he could formulate a response Harry interjected, "He doesn't know how it happened. Neither do I. No one does. Not Pomfrey, not Luna and not Hermione, so don't blame him, all right? It's my fault for being a freak."

The word hung suspended in the air, a toxic cloud that slowly dripped its poison over all of them, stirring memories that Snape would rather not recall. "How like Petunia you sound," he said bluntly, as the spot where the word had festered for so many years was scraped raw yet again.

Harry recoiled. Molly drew her wand, and Arthur leapt to his feet, shock registering in his blue eyes. "Come with me, Severus," he said firmly, stepping in between Snape and the end of Molly's wand. "I believe there are a few things we should discuss. No, Harry, remain where you are."

Snape shot Harry a quelling glance as Harry rose halfway out of his chair. "As you wish." Snape's tone was impassive as he rose to follow him out of the Burrow, abandoning Harry to Molly's clutches. He felt her eyes burn into his back as he left, and he wondered how many more apologies he would owe them before it was over.

~*~

Arthur led him to a dusty, dank shed filled with the oddest assortment of gadgetry Snape had stumbled across in eons. Some of it was instantly recognisable; most, Snape couldn't begin to guess the purpose of. He stood awkwardly in the centre of the shed whilst Arthur picked the innards of a toaster off a workbench and perused them.

"Astonishing, is it not, all that Muggles can accomplish with little more than ingenuity?" said Arthur as he set a thin wire heating element aside, looking up at Snape with a frank expression. "I've known you for nearly twenty years, Severus, and in all those years, I've never known you to do anyone a kindness if you could help it. But Harry…he's a different sort, is he not?"

Snape said nothing, but checked his mental shields nonetheless. His face remained impassive; years of performing for the Dark Lord had ensured that keeping his emotions hidden was little more than habit.

"I still remember the first time I really saw him. He was twelve then, or close to it, and my youngest sons had just rescued him from spending a summer locked up in a small bedroom at his aunt and uncle's house." Arthur poked his wand into the teeth of a paper shredder that, predictably, did nothing. "What do you know of him, Severus?"

"He is The Boy-Who-Lived," replied Snape, his tone one of studied disinterest. "Is there a point to this?" He sidled over to a nearby pottery wheel and spun the dusty platform, which moved about a quarter of a revolution before screeching to an abrupt stop.

Arthur's face hardened: a disconcerting sight on someone so mild-mannered. "He deserves much better than that—especially from you."

A trickle of unease crawled down Snape's spine, and he turned to face Arthur. "Very well. Potter is a reasonably intelligent young man whose acts of bravery saved our world from utter ruin. Despite all the accolades and attention he has received, he would prefer to remain quietly in the background and live his life in peace. He is, among other things, headstrong, stubborn and reckless. In short, he is a Gryffindor." He paused for a moment, his hackles starting to rise. "Potter has a sufficient number of champions, Arthur. You need not add your name to the list."

Arthur regarded him for a long moment before conjuring up two small wooden chairs. He sat easily in one and invited Snape to sit in the other.

Ignoring the invitation, Snape leaned back against the workbench and folded his arms tightly across his chest. He was tempted to cross his ankles as well, but preferred not to hamper any attempt at escape he might need to make.

"I regard Harry as one of my own," said Arthur in a mildly aggrieved tone, "so let me be frank. Harry grew up with abominable people who were horrible to him. I've met those wretched people on several occasions, and for you to tell Harry he reminds you of his loathsome aunt is very nearly cruel. I won't stand for cruelty in my home, Severus. It would be a simple thing to ask you not to visit again. I daresay Molly would be delighted, but that would be a terrible thing to do to Harry."

Snape strode to the door of the shed, snarling when he found it spelled shut against him. When had Arthur done that? "What business is it of yours how I conduct myself with Potter?" he snapped angrily.

"Come back and sit down," said Arthur, and Snape recognised the tone as the same one he had employed with countless students over the years: compelling and authoritative, with a slight dusting of an implied warning if obedience wasn't immediately forthcoming. He knew he had no choice but to sit and participate in the negotiations that already appeared to be underway.

Snape returned to his chair, pulled his wand and conjured a small table. The older man Vanished it almost immediately. "No barriers between us, Severus," Arthur said sternly. "You asked what business is it of mine. Harry is part of this family and that gives me the right, little though he may appreciate my interference. So, let me explain to you all the ways you're quite wrong about him.

"The first summer he was here, Harry hung back any time he was with anyone other than Ron. Fred and George spent most of the summer coaxing him out of his shell. He was a tiny little thing back then, Severus, and unfailingly—almost unnaturally—polite. Was almost afraid to take seconds from the table if he was still hungry. We almost lost him in Knockturn Alley that year, but Hagrid brought him back. Molly was nearly beside herself.

"The next summer, we found a fellytone for Ronald to use to ring Harry. His uncle said there was no one of that name residing at their house. Harry told me later that his uncle didn't care much for magic, and I discovered that he wasn't making excuses for his uncle's bad manners. You are aware, of course, that Harry grew up believing that his mother and father were killed in a motorcar accident."

"Nonsense," scoffed Snape. "Petunia Evans knew full well how and why her sister died."

"Perhaps. Perhaps not," said Arthur, "but Harry knew nothing of our world until his eleventh birthday, when Hagrid delivered his letter to him in person. His aunt and uncle believe us all to be freaks, Severus, but Harry, who grew up hearing that every single day, took it to heart. Can you imagine?"

Flashes of Spinner's End. A little girl with a yellow flower. A small, greasy boy wearing his mother's cast-offs because he had nothing better. Yelling. Fists. Curling up in a corner and wishing it would all go away. Tears, always tears. Harry wasn't the only one tarred with that brush. "Petunia used it often," said Snape hollowly. "On Lily. On me." He slammed the door shut on memories that still had the power to wound.

Arthur nodded in understanding. "On the eve of the war, Harry tried everything in his power to save them. He had spent ten miserable years with people who didn't give two Knuts about him, but the night the Order moved him to the Burrow was the night Harry finally convinced them to go into hiding. They didn't even say goodbye to him, but we might never have been able to get Harry to safety had they refused to go."

For a moment, Snape was pained; how many times had he accused Harry of being reckless, arrogant and self-centred, harping at Harry for his celebrity? How many times had he thought Harry to be just like his father, when the only things they had in common were messy black hair and a love of Quidditch? It wasn't merely feigned loyalty to the Dark Lord that drove Severus' hatred; much of it had been fuelled by the belief that Harry led a charmed life.

"I regret causing injury to your son," said Severus stiffly, needing to divert the conversation away from Harry until he regained his balance. "I needed to appear loyal and attempted to send the spell past his shoulder."

"We understand, Severus. Kingsley told us how it all came about."

"I needed to be at Hogwarts in a position of trust." The words spilled out, and Snape felt powerless to stop them. "The headmaster knew Potter would appear there eventually, and I had information vital to defeating the Dark Lord that I had to pass on to him. The Carrows…I-I did what I could, but…" Snape's sallow complexion paled. "We came so close to ruin," he whispered, his dark eyes pleading with Arthur to understand.

"We know, Severus. Harry knows, and so does Ginny," Arthur assured him. "But that's not what I'm trying to tell you. Harry does not desert the ones he loves, and he has chosen you. Harry has—"

"An almost unprecedented ability to love," said Snape in a long sigh. "I know. Albus spoke of it at almost every opportunity. I do not doubt Harry believes himself to be in love with me, but there are other considerations."

Arthur leaned back in his chair, his jaw resting lightly in his hand, his index finger curled over his lips as he studied Snape thoughtfully. "I don't think this is about Harry at all," he said after a long minute. "Nor is about the child." He blinked in disbelief. "Almost impossible to believe, but there it is. And Harry has no idea. No wonder he looks a bit ragged. I imagine he's had a rough go of it."

"He spent about a month nodding off in his afternoon classes," Snape confirmed, ruthlessly shoving his alarm beneath the surface. He chose to ignore Arthur's unvoiced conclusion and forged on. "Other than that, and a few unexpected bouts of wild magic, he's quite healthy. I suspect he's worried about how Ronald will take the news. Their friendship has been strained of late."

Arthur drooped a little. His shoulders slumped as he dropped his head. "I'm sorry to say Ron has always been a bit of a prat about queerness. He's still skittish around Charlie, for Merlin's sake. I'm afraid Harry won't be able to look to Ron for support."

"Ronald will find himself ostracised should he voice his opinion too loudly. Those who are numbered amongst Potter's friends are quite loyal to the boy. I would be most surprised to see Ronald's relationship with Ms. Granger survive if he chooses to align himself against her."

The lines in Arthur's forehead deepened. "I am not too sure about that. Hermione was very angry with Harry when he came out. I've no idea how she will respond."

"Ms. Granger has been told. Potter named her in his list of people who are as much in the dark as he is. He would not have done so had she been ignorant of his plight." Snape pursed his lips. "I suspect Ms. Granger is already engaged in research and will, no doubt, hound Potter for more information, despite knowing he has none to give."

"If Hermione doesn't keep Ron in line," said Arthur, "then Ginny will. Molly won't stand for it, either. And speaking of Molly, since this is not about Harry, I'd like to know what it is about."

Snape grew distant and cast his eyes around the cluttered workshop again. Dumbledore had advised him to seek the assistance of Arthur and Molly, but he had always done better when working alone. This time, though, he knew Dumbledore was right. "I was with Potter when Minerva was told of his condition. She was shocked, as we all have been," he said in measured tones. "As Potter was officially a student when the child was conceived, I am required to marry the boy or resign my post. Potter categorically refuses to be dragged to the altar and is likely to view any proposal from me as offered solely for the purpose of providing the child with two parents."

Arthur was not by any means slow, and Snape observed him closely as he turned the problem over in his mind. "Harry would find it hard to believe you would propose for any other reason," he said gravely. "For all Harry is quite fond of you, I've seen little of his affection returned."

"It is not my way," said Snape, "to show affection in a public setting. Potter spent the entire summer playing nursemaid whilst I recovered from being attacked by that loathsome snake. He endured the very worst of my temper on a daily basis and if, after all that, he still feels for me what he claims…" He paused and a whisper of uncertainty flitted through his dark eyes. "It was always my intention to court him once he had left Hogwarts.

"I was admittedly taken aback when the Sorting Hat announced to the entire castle that I would bond with him. A few Ravenclaws maligned Harry almost the moment the Sorting Hat stopped speaking, but he bore it well. His skin is much thicker than my own."

"Something he learnt at Rita Skeeter's hands, I'm afraid," said Arthur. "Go on."

"It wasn't until afterwards that I found out what the wretched thing had told him privately, but I decided then and there that I would offer marriage to him at Christmas. If it was true that he was still harbouring a bit of the Dark Lord, I believed he would desire a place where he would feel safe, and I wanted that place to be with me." Snape suddenly appeared weary. "I trust you see the dilemma."

Arthur scrubbed the nape of his neck as he mulled the matter over. "As I see it, you've given Harry no reason to regard a proposal from you with anything other than suspicion. He likely believes that you wish to remain at Hogwarts, or that your concern rests with preserving your reputation by doing right by him."

"Neither of which is true," declared Snape. "My concern is solely for Potter—Harry—as it always has been."

"That might be the most honest thing you've ever said to me," said Arthur with a warm smile, "but let's set that aside. You're in the tall weeds with Molly, not only because of Harry's current state, but because you compared him to that wretched aunt of his. Persuade her that you truly love the boy, and that you want to spend the next hundred or so years with him, and I think Harry will come around."

Snape reached into his robes and extracted his wand, along with something that appeared to be a fine handkerchief tied with a pale blue ribbon. He hesitated before handing the tiny bundle to Arthur. "I've not many things of value, but I would count these among them. I removed them from my vault the weekend after the Sorting Hat incident."

To Snape's surprise, Arthur handed it back unopened. "I believe you, Severus, but I'm not the one who needs convincing. Save it for my wife. Shall we go back to the house?"

Without another word, Snape handed his wand hilt first to Arthur. "We are not that many months removed from war, and I fear what I might do to protect Potter and myself should she take it in her head that I mean him harm."

Arthur laughed as he pocketed Snape's wand. "I shall remind her you are unarmed. Unless I'm very much mistaken, she'd have to get through Harry to get to you, and she would never hurt a hair on his head."

The two of them returned to the house to find Harry engaged in an argument with Molly whilst they peeled potatoes for dinner. It amused Snape to see Harry using a knife to peel his small mound whilst Molly used the spare wand that didn't want to cooperate with her. As far as he could tell, they were evenly matched.

"But if I weren't having a baby, he wouldn't ask me," Harry was protesting mulishly as he stood at the sink, potato in hand. "So it doesn't matter, does it? I'd much rather give it away than have it grow up in a home without love."

"You'll feel differently after it's…hello, Arthur." Molly's brows knit together and she pressed her lips into a thin line as she craned her head to greet her husband. Beside her Harry startled. "Severus. You will be joining us for supper?" Though one eyebrow arched in question, her clipped words left little doubt that they'd been ordered to stay.

Arthur stood next to the trestle table and set Snape's wand down in the middle of it. "Hello, dear," he said cheerfully as Snape continued on his path to Harry's side. "I'm to tell you that I have Severus' wand."

"What?" exclaimed Harry, turning swiftly toward Snape, his green eyes searching his face. "Why'd you give your wand to Mr Weasley?"

"Call me Arthur, son," said Arthur.

"Because I prefer not to be hexed if I can help it," replied Snape over Arthur. "I am told I have been unspeakably cruel to you and that I owe you an apology." As he spoke, his eyes crinkled slightly at the corners, and he lifted a brow in inquiry.

Harry turned his attention back to the potato in his hand and set the blade to it. He shook his head slightly. "No more of a git than usual," he said with a shrug. "You've been loads worse."

The look Molly shot him was blistering. "If you will procure a knife for me," said Snape, "I will assist with preparations for dinner."

"Take your wand and hand you a knife," muttered Molly. "He must think Gryffindor is synonymous with stupid."

"Or perhaps I can set the table for dinner," said Snape smoothly. "I'm certain Potter can show me where everything is kept. I merely wish to make myself useful."

"Harry, give me your knife and help Severus with the table," said Arthur as he slipped Snape's wand into his robes. "I will try my hand at doing this the Muggle way."

"Okay," replied Harry, bewildered. He handed the knife to Arthur, then rinsed and dried his hands before showing Snape where everything was kept. Together they spread a blue gingham cloth over the table and pulled the dishes out of the cupboard.

"Did I hear you properly?" asked Snape quietly as they dealt out the dinner plates. "You would give our child to someone else to rear?"

Harry dropped the forks he was holding as his head shot up. He glanced around and watched Arthur and Molly for a moment, but they were speaking quietly to one another as Molly sliced the potatoes into a pot of water. "If Pomfrey's right about everything, I won't even have finished N.E.W.T.s before it comes," he replied in a low voice. "I wanted to apprentice with a Defence Master and see if I could break the curse on the Defence Against the Dark Arts post. I can't do that with a baby to mind."

Snape's sallow complexion faded and he clutched the spoon he was about to set down. "It took both of us to create it. You must know I'd never permit a child of ours to be adopted by someone else."

"You hate kids," said Harry balefully. "You've made no secret of that, so I don't think saddling you with one is such a great idea."

Snape drew himself to his full height, his cheeks burning with indignation. "You refuse to be 'dragged to the altar', you will not to allow me to share in my child's life, and I'm either unspeakably cruel or a git, depending upon whose opinion is being solicited. Is this truly your idea of love?" He threw the spoon onto the table, turned in a swirl of black robes and stormed out the door.

This was not going according to plan. After his conversation with Arthur, it had been his intention to lead Harry into a conversation about marriage and play to Molly's maternal instincts whilst he told her that as much as he'd like to do the right thing, Harry wouldn't permit it. Then, after a few words about love and the disastrous marriage of his own parents, he would agree with Harry that a relationship between the two of them would be fraught with difficulties. That would be Molly's cue to tell them both that marriage required effort on both their parts, but was worth it in the end. But listening to Harry talk about giving their baby to someone else to rear had shot his strategy to hell.

He was alarmed by how much the thought disturbed him. He'd already told Harry he would provide whatever assistance was necessary; what more could the boy expect from him? Midnight feedings and nappies, potions for colic and baths and nights spent in a rocking chair trying to coax the infant back to sleep, Snape was willing undertake all of these and more.

He started down the path to the orchard as he contemplated engaging the services of a solicitor to ensure that Harry didn't sign away their rights to the child, realising only then that he had no idea how the Ministry would respond to this latest development. Severus Snape never acted without having some idea about the outcome, but now he was adrift in uncharted waters and it terrified him.

The moment he set foot under the boughs, the windows in the kitchen blew out.

"Harry!" Snape turned and ran as swiftly as his legs would carry him, hurling himself through the door just as Molly pulled it open to go find him. He stumbled and nearly fell on top of her, snarling like a rabid dog as he pushed her unceremoniously out of his way. "Harry!"

Harry stood in the centre of the kitchen, his eyes wide behind his glasses. His right hand rested protectively over the slight rise underneath it, and he turned slowly at hearing his name. "Err, I think the baby has some strong ideas about being put up for adoption," he said, bemused. "We were, uhh, talking about it and, well…" He waved his hand in the direction of the shattered windows. "That happened."

Snape pulled Harry into his arms, torn between kissing the boy senseless and unleashing every invective contained within his prodigious vocabulary. "The windows can be replaced. You cannot be." He held Harry at arm's length and bent slightly to glare directly into his face. "If I have to chain you to my side for the rest of your life," he growled, "I will see you safe and well cared for."

"Okay," said Harry earnestly.

"Okay, what?" replied Snape, straightening as he dropped his hands. Surely Harry wasn't taking him literally.

"Professor McGonagall said we have to get married if you want to keep your job," said Harry in a hurried tumble of words. "Ron's mum spent the entire time you were with Mr Weasley scaring me with stories of how much work babies are, and then there was all that stuff you said." Harry shifted uneasily. "I've not been hearing what you've been telling me. You've always been there, whether I wanted you to be or not, and then I got it in my head that you put up with me because it amuses you to do so. But maybe that's not it at all."

Harry took Snape's hand and guided it towards his stomach. "We've always been in each other's shadow, and now that's never going to change. I'm having your child. I'm…" Harry stopped suddenly and his jaw dropped as he looked up at Snape in astonished surprise. "I'm really pregnant," he said weakly. He stumbled and sat heavily on the nearby bench.

Snape stepped forward quickly and dropped to one knee in front of Harry, who looked as though he had been struck by a Bludger whilst walking into the Charms classroom. Automatically, Snape's eyes sought out Arthur and Molly, only to find them regarding the pair with understanding smiles.

"He's fine, Severus," said Molly with far more cheer than the circumstances seemed to warrant. "It happens every time. Arthur, help me get these windows repaired. I can't cook with leaves blowing all over the stove."

"I can help," said Harry as he started to rise.

"Oh, no," said Molly quite firmly. "You sit there. You and Severus still have some talking to do. Won't take but a minute. Oh, I wish I had my wand; this one doesn't cooperate at all. I do hope I can find something at Ollivander's. It's been rather hit or miss there lately, what with all the need for new wands."

"We'll go tomorrow after luncheon, dear," Arthur said as Molly's spell hit the window and broke it again. He lifted his wand and pointed it at the window frame. "Reparo," he said, swirling it with a flourish. "Perhaps you'd best leave this to me."

Not quite certain where his own wand had disappeared to, Snape turned his attention back to Harry. "Do you believe yourself capable of explaining what just happened?" he asked somewhat crossly, his nerves almost as shattered as the glass.

"With the windows?" Harry glanced up as a dusting of plaster rained down from the ceiling. A large crack zigzagged between two rough-hewn beams and he pulled his wand to fix it. "Temperamental little thing," he remarked.

Snape felt adrift, the conversation too disordered for his liking. "The ceiling?" he ventured.

Harry laughed. "No." He pointed his finger at his stomach and gestured. "This. Takes after you."

"One can only hope," said Snape dryly. "I'm still waiting for you to tell me why something you've known for weeks has come as such a surprise."

Harry's brow furrowed for an instant and he drew a deep breath. "When Sirius fell through the veil, my first thought was to go after him, but Remus held me back. I didn't know what had happened, what the veil meant, and I couldn't accept that he was dead. I spoke with Sir Nicholas, but he said Sirius had moved on. It was weeks before I really understood that Sirius wasn't coming back. It's kind of like that. I knew I was pregnant, but it wasn't real until just now. It's the difference between knowing and accepting, I guess." He gave Snape a gentle smile. "It's okay now. I have you."

At the sound of Black's loathsome name, Snape's attention had wandered to more pleasant things: Harry's lips, his eyes, the strong shoulders and (still) narrow hips. He followed just enough of the conversation to appear to be listening, though he wished his courage ran more towards the demonstrative; the thought of kissing Harry was infinitely more appealing than hearing him speak of his godfather. But, bemoaning his innate reserve, Snape pushed away his desires and forcefully pulled his mind back on track. "Am I to understand that somewhere in that meandering narrative you expressed a willingness to entertain my suit?"

Harry tilted his head, the wheels clearly turning. "If that was a proposal," he said, his lips quirking in a reasonable facsimile of a smile, "it was pretty horrible. I know you're not one for romance. I know if I should ever want flowers—though I've no idea why I would—I'd have to get them myself."

"Received many proposals, have you?" asked Snape, his eyes glittering strangely. The mere thought infuriated him. He had first claim on the boy and was determined to ensure that none should follow.

For a moment it appeared that Harry was besieged by memories best left undisturbed, but it passed with only the merest ghost of a shadow. "Loads of them," he said. "You were lucky enough to be unconscious for it, but yeah. That whole Saviour thing. One witch was about a hundred years older than me, but she reckoned I'd like someone with a bit of experience. Never thought I'd be grateful for being bent, but she'd have put me off women for life otherwise."

Movement caught Snape's eye, and he turned to see Arthur and Molly easing their way out of the kitchen in a transparent bid to give them some privacy, something that was neither requested nor desired—no matter how tempting he found Harry to be. "I require a moment of your time and my wand," he said to them before turning back to Harry. "And you sit. You've no reason to stand about and a reasonable excuse not to."

As Harry indignantly demanded to know what Snape was on about, Arthur pulled Snape's wand from his robes and returned it, whilst Molly tried to usher everyone out of the kitchen and back into the front room, where civility might stand a remote chance of surviving. Snape followed Arthur to the sofa with Harry yapping at his heels, haranguing Snape as much as he dared.

Snape pointed at the chair, inwardly relieved when Harry sat without question. "There is nothing wrong with me," continued Harry, "Pomfrey even said as much, so if this is one of those pregnancy things, then don't, alright? I'm not tired, nothing hurts, nothing will hurt and I don't want anyone to treat me as if I'm made of glass."

"Are you quite finished?" asked Snape as Arthur bit back a grin with no small effort.

"Yes," said Harry sullenly.

"Very well, then." Snape's expression softened into amused affection, which in anyone else would have been a broad grin. Before his mask went back on, he turned to Arthur and Molly. "As I suspect you have by now surmised, I did not accompany Potter here solely to acknowledge my responsibility in this matter. I came because…" He hesitated and glanced at Harry, who was looking understandably confused. "It is my fervent wish," he continued slowly, "to enter into a marriage contract with Potter, and I have come to ask for your permission to do so."

Arthur blinked as Molly's hand flew to her lips as she gave a little gasp. "A marriage contract, Severus? With Harry? Are you certain?" she cried, her eyes lighting up.

"What's a marriage contract?" asked Harry as Arthur said, "Have you the necessary tokens?" It was custom that drove the question; Snape had already shown that he did.

Snape nodded, his long fingers slipping into the inner pocket he'd checked when he was waiting for Harry at the foot of the stairs. "I retrieved these the weekend after the Sorting Hat made its announcement," he said for Molly's benefit. "It was my intention to gift these to Potter at Christmas, along with a betrothal contract. Minerva's demand that we marry threw a curse into the cauldron." He untied the ribbon and displayed to Molly and Arthur a pair of wide gold bands completely devoid of embellishments. "I regret that my house has no real heirlooms to offer, but the Princes fell out of favour generations ago."

"What's a marriage contract?" repeated Harry as he craned his neck to see what Snape was holding, but either by design or accident he couldn't see what was in Snape's hand.

Arthur nodded solemnly as Snape wrapped the rings up and tucked them back in his pocket. "What are you prepared to offer him?"

"Would someone—" interrupted Harry, but Molly shushed him with a finger laid across her lips.

As the small square of fabric vanished back into his pocket, a thin scroll of parchment appeared between Snape's fingers. He unrolled it carefully and read from it. "Unrestricted access to my Gringotts vault; half of all future income and earnings; joint ownership of all properties, patents, copyrights, and trademarks, with only the house at Spinner's End to remain in my name alone; status as next-of-kin; all children produced as a result of our union equal beneficiaries under the terms of my Last Will and Testament."

Arthur nodded as he reached for Molly's hand. "And what are you prepared to accept from him in exchange for your generosity?"

For the first time since they arrived, Snape appeared nervous. "The use of the Potter vaults should my income prove to be insufficient to provide for Harry and our children, and I would be deeply honoured if he would consent to take the name of Prince for our family."

"But—" exclaimed Harry.

Arthur quelled Harry with an uncharacteristically sharp glance before resuming his exchange with Snape. "And the Black legacies?"

Somehow, Snape managed not to sneer. "To remain entirely in Harry's name and under his control. As with any properties left to him by his parents."

"That's…" Arthur's eyebrows rose in disbelief. "That's extraordinarily generous of you. Are there any codicils or conditions you anticipate adding?"

"Two. First, the contract is for life, not a term of years. Second, any infidelity on either side will result in a permanent separation and forfeiture of all assets, even those specifically excluded in the marriage contract. Definition of terms will be included in the language." There was something uncompromising about Snape as he said it, a certain set of his jaw, an intensity in his eyes. This was not a man who would ever forgive a lover who strayed.

"Is that everything then?" asked Arthur. Molly had settled down beside him and was hanging on every word when she wasn't fixing her gaze on Harry to ensure that he remain silent.

Some of Snape's tension eased and his shoulders relaxed enough that he no longer appeared forbidding. "Yes, the rest can be worked out between us." He came to his feet and bowed to both of the Weasleys. "Shall I take my leave of you whilst you discuss the matter?"

Arthur rose as well and walked with Snape to the foot of the stairs. "If you go through the kitchen, the second door on the right has some books on ancient curses from Mesopotamia that Bill brought back from Egypt. You are welcome to look through them. We shall be with you presently."

~*~

Snape followed Arthur's directions and found himself in a study that wasn't much different from Arthur's workshop, with the exception that it was part of the house. He closed the door behind him and sat at a desk heaped with reams of papers, rolls of parchments and, most improbably, a troll doll with vivid turquoise hair atop a bright yellow Muggle pencil.

He picked the pencil up and twirled it, watching the troll spin around without a single plastic hair out of place. Curious, he stretched out a finger and stroked the hair, mussing it up before attempting to straighten it. "At long last, a head of hair worse than Potter's," he said idly. "There's no help for his, either," he said to it gravely as he leaned the pencil against a brass lamp, the little troll's black eyes glittering lifelessly back at him.

"Perhaps I should examine those books Arthur mentioned." It occurred to him that he was speaking to a doll no more than an inch tall, and he despised himself for a moment. Listing the particulars of the marriage contract with Arthur—in front of Harry no less—had been almost as nerve-wracking an experience as walking up the long path to Malfoy Manor to report on the doings of the Order, so to steady his nerves he had elected to talk to a Muggle toy. Preposterous.

"You know he's no idea what's been offered to him," Snape told the troll as he picked it back up. "Idiot child. Why I am giving him everything I own is beyond even my comprehension. I should have followed my own advice and proposed to Potter on bended knee. If I had abased myself sufficiently, I've no doubt he would have accepted eventually. But no, I had to offer a contract of marriage instead, as if I were as pretentious as a Malfoy."

He dragged a finger over the spines of a row of books without a word from the titles sinking in. "At least Potter understands that magical contracts are binding. I wonder, though, if he understands that they see to themselves. If he agrees to the terms, there's no reneging on them." He had no that hope Harry understood the honour Snape was paying him. "It should come as no surprise that Potter wouldn't recognise a chivalrous gesture if it came with a slain dragon to lay at his feet."

Allowing superstition to get the better of him, Snape slipped the little troll into his robes, then turned to examine the bookcase piled haphazardly with knick-knacks and mementos accumulated over thirty some-odd years of marriage. He allowed himself a moment to indulge in the distant hope that his quarters might one day become a pleasant jumble of things that belonged to them both, and then pushed the thought away with an inward sneer. "What a fool I am to think I've any hope of making him happy."

As he started to turn away, a ratty book with torn binding caught his eye, and he removed it from the shelf. The pages were dog-eared, and whatever illustration had been stamped on the cover had long since worn off. He opened the book to find himself holding a well-worn copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard and, having no knowledge of them, began to read.

He was halfway through The Warlock's Hairy Heart—a tale he found disconcerting on any number of levels—when the door opened and Arthur stepped through. His head came up sharply and he drew in a quick breath. "Have you any word for me?" he asked anxiously, though he should have waited for Arthur to speak first if the traditions were to be followed properly.

"Harry has two questions he wants answered before he decides," replied Arthur. "But he says he must ask you directly. He says the only way to get a full answer from you is to see what you have to say. I must confess I'm not quite certain what he's on about. I'm perfectly capable of carrying a message."

"Very well," said Snape. Did the boy believe him incapable of keeping his thoughts off his face? He, who had fooled Voldemort for three taxing years? He set the book on the desk and came to his feet. "I will answer his questions and then, perhaps, we can see the matter done."

Arthur glanced at the book and smiled. "I cannot tell you how many times we read to the children from that book. Ronald quite enjoyed Babbity Rabbity, though the twins preferred the Warlock's story. They always were a bit savage." He led Snape from the room and asked softly, "Are you truly hoping for a contract, Severus?"

Snape shook his head, his fine black hair swinging gently against his shoulders. At some point he would have to discover how the Warlock's story ended. "No, though I would be pleased to have one. It was my hope that negotiating the matter might lead Potter to accepting a mere proposal instead."

"Prepare to be surprised," was all Arthur would say as he led Snape back through the kitchen.

They walked into the living room, and Snape resumed his seat as Arthur reclaimed his spot on the couch next to Molly. Snape glanced at Harry, who was practically vibrating from the intensity in his eyes. "I am told you have some questions for me."

Harry shot Arthur a quick glance, receiving a small, encouraging nod from the man before facing Snape. "Two questions, but I won't know the second until you've answered the first."

Snape, too, sought guidance from Arthur, but all he received from his silent enquiry was a brief shrug of shoulders. Not even Molly appeared to know what Harry wanted to ask, so he braced himself and nodded. "I will answer any question you put forth."

Harry swallowed and for a moment seemed to be at a loss for words. "This marriage contract, it isn't some sort of odd guardianship thing with a bit of sex thrown in, is it?" His face went florid, the colour blooming riotously in his cheeks.

"I beg your pardon?" Snape stared at Harry as though the boy had gone completely around the twist. "'Some sort of odd guardianship thing'? What in Merlin's name is that supposed to mean?"

"Some sort of arrangement where you can watch over me and the baby and tell yourself that you're doing it because of the contract," said Harry, faltering a bit under the anger in Snape's eyes.

"If you believe that I would enter into a marriage contract in order to have a convenient lie with which to assuage myself, you're more of an idiot than I imagined," snarled Snape, stung by the insinuation that he would be willing to live a lie so that he could safely pretend his concern for Harry's welfare was simply contractual in nature.

Some of the colour left Harry's face, but he still appeared flushed and uncertain and very, very young. "In that case," he said, taking a deep breath, "s-secondly, does that mean that you care about me? Not," he continued, Harry Potter, or being the…" his brow furrowed for a moment, "the mother of your child, but about me?"

That, then, was the crux of the matter, and Snape understood the purpose of the first question as he contemplated his answer to the second. Whilst Harry, as foolish a Gryffindor as ever there was, was prepared to suffer the heartache of unrequited love, he was determined to know if there was hope for a comfortable ending, if not a happy one.

"I believe," said Snape in a slow, quiet voice, his eyes gentle, his open expression unexpectedly warm, "if you are prepared to step out of the shadow of being Harry Potter and become known to your friends and family—and to yourself—as Harry James Prince, you will find the answer you seek." He came to his feet again and took a step in the direction of the kitchen. "Shall I leave you to it, then?"

Harry was silent for a long moment.

"I accept," he said softly, his head down.

Snape froze. "What did you say?" he whispered.

Harry rose and walked over to stand in front of Snape, his face inches away. He met Snape's gaze, and Snape was heartened to see a trace of nervousness in Harry's eyes. "I accept the contract," Harry said in a rough voice. "Mr.—Arthur told me that as soon as we sign it, we're married." He leaned in a little bit. "I love you," he whispered, and just as their lips were about to meet, Molly shouted.

"Oh no, young man!" They sprang apart; Harry looked guilty, Snape appeared outraged. "You are not depriving me of a wedding! Contract marriage or no, you will do this up properly." Her hands were on her hips and comprehension dawned as she looked back and forth between them, realising she had interrupted a private moment between them. "We'll discuss this after dinner," she said in a fluster and scurried off to check the lamb.

Harry snickered. "I think we embarrassed her," he said as he turned back to Snape, hiding his face in Snape's robes. His snickers turned to laughter, and he was still chuckling when he looped his arms around Snape's neck to kiss him. "I'm sorry," he said against Snape's lips, "but the look on her face…" He laughed again and gazed up at Snape with dancing eyes. "I'll do better next time."

"I'm not letting you go until you've managed a proper kiss," warned Snape as he pulled Harry into his arms.

"Not much of an incentive, then, is it," said Harry with a laugh. "Still…" He tilted his head as his lips met Snape's. They fell into a kiss as passionate as it was tender, Snape losing himself in the sweetness of Harry's mouth.

"It appears," said Snape went they broke apart, "that the potential is certainly there, but it is my belief that individualised instruction would not go amiss." He glanced past Harry to see Arthur's amused grin. "Such lessons to be conducted privately." And when Harry whispered that he was eager for the advanced class, Snape glared.

Chapter Text

Ch 8: It's All There in the Fine Print

 

After a fairly enjoyable dinner with Field Marshal Molly and her aide-de-camp Arthur, Harry and Snape returned to the castle almost an hour late, their heads spinning with lists of things to do. Despite their protests, Molly seemed determined to arrange a wedding every bit as extravagant as Bill and Fleur's—though without the attack by Death Eaters and fall of the Ministry to liven up the reception.

"She won't really, will she?" asked Harry, slipping his hand inside Snape's as they walked from the gates back to Hogwarts, knowing that once the castle doors opened, he would be required to keep a respectable distance. He truly did not see what difference it could make now whether or not he moved into Snape's quarters or exposed their relationship to the harsh glare of the sun. They were getting married in two weeks (three, if Molly had her way), and it was impossible for him to become any more pregnant. But Snape was adamant that they conduct themselves beyond reproach.

"Won't really turn our wedding into a circus?" asked Snape as he laced his fingers between Harry's. "She may attempt to do so, but she will not meet with success. Come. We are past due and Minerva will not be best pleased."

Harry slowed his pace, his reluctance to walk into the castle increasing with each step. It was agony being this close to Snape without being able to do more than hold hands. The pain was bone deep, an ache that only Snape could assuage. He longed to touch, to taste, to familiarise himself with what he'd had the merest hint of months ago. He might be surrounded by friends, but he was so desperately lonely he found it difficult to haul himself out of bed each morning. The person with whom he wanted to share his day was off-limits to him, and Hermione was hardly an adequate substitute.

"Please," he whispered, coming to a sudden stop. "Please. I need…" Snape turned to look at him and Harry launched himself forward, tugging on Snape's hand and hurling himself into the man's arms. His nose collided with Snape's, but his mouth found Snape's lips, and he kissed him hard.

It was violent, it was passionate, it was messy, but Harry didn't care. He licked at Snape's mouth, begging to be let in, and he moaned when Snape's arms went around his body, crushing him against a hard chest. As Snape's lips parted, he took over the kiss, his tongue thrusting into Harry's mouth, claiming him as though the gold ring were already on his finger.

They kissed until Harry was hard and keening with need, and when Snape pulled away, Harry snarled out a harsh, wordless cry of frustration. He stood in the middle of the path breathing heavily, his breath exploding in small white clouds that dissipated on the sharp breeze coming off the lake. When he had calmed, Snape gathered him in his arms. "We cannot, Harry. You must be patient, whether you would choose to be or not."

"How do you stand it?" cried Harry, his eyes blazing in anger. "I need to be with you. Not just…god. It hurts to be away from you." He closed his eyes and turned his back on Hogwarts, tilting his head back and breathing in the cold night air. Two weeks. He could manage two weeks.

"Do you truly believe me to be so unaffected by you?" Snape's voice was right next to his ear and Harry faced him, only to have Snape grab his hand and press it against the hard bulge between his legs. "I desire you, but beyond that I wish to make you mine—a wish that could be jeopardized by even one indiscretion." He released Harry's hand. "A fortnight, Potter. That is all."

"A fortnight," mumbled Harry against Snape's chest. He stepped back and pushed his emotions under the surface where they wouldn't show. After a moment, he asked, "Do I look all right?"

Snape pulled his wand and the just-kissed look vanished. "There. Minerva will be waiting and we still have much to do." He placed his hand at the small of Harry's back and guided him the rest of the way, through the tall doors that guarded the entrance hall, where McGonagall stood with crossed arms and a tight-lipped scowl.

"The Portkey was charmed to return you to Hogwarts promptly at seven," she said as she peered at them over the rims of her spectacles. "It is now after eight o'clock. I trust there is a reasonable explanation forthcoming?" The arched brow told Harry that she was more worried than angry.

"Should there come a day when you find yourself with a Weasley as a future mother-in-law," replied Snape, matching her expression, "you will understand why we were delayed."

"Mother-in-law?" Minerva stared for a moment before her eyes lit up, and Harry fleetingly wondered what it was about weddings that addled women's senses. "You mean he accepted?" Her eyes shot over to Harry, and he glanced shyly over at Snape before nodding. "You do understand that this changes nothing regarding your restrictions?"

Before Harry could utter a single syllable, Snape interjected. "We discussed this before our return. We marry on the 12th of December, though Molly will undoubtedly contact you to see if you will permit her an additional week to prepare." He hesitated. "I would be grateful if you would explain to her the impossibility of complying with her request."

"Oh?" Minerva's voice was cool enough that Harry nearly shivered. "Two weeks is not enough time to plan a wedding. Perhaps a month would be better."

"No!" blurted Harry, then he clamped his jaws shut. He was struggling now; a month was more than he could tolerate. He took a deep breath and squared his gaze with McGonagall's. "You said we had to get married before the end of term or Snape would be sacked. If we give in to Mrs Weasley, we'll run out of time. We're getting married on the twelfth, with her help or without it. Excuse me." He started up the stairs, but Snape held him back.

"Stop. We are not finished yet." Harry returned to Snape's side, having forgotten that he had an agenda for the rest of the evening, none of which included sex. "I need to speak with Ronald and Ginevra Weasley, Hermione Granger, Neville…" he shuddered, "Longbottom, Luna Lovegood and Draco Malfoy. Please send for them and direct them to my quarters. It would be advantageous to Harry and me if Ronald could come in advance of the rest. We have much to discuss with them and, as such, I will provide them with passes for the night."

McGonagall's piercing eyes searched Snape's face, and after a moment, she gave a tight nod. "We will continue this conversation tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I believe Mr Malfoy is in the Slytherin common room along with his minders. I will send Mr Weasley to your quarters upon your assurance that you will find an appropriate chaperone for you and Mr Potter. I will not brook any disobedience on either of your parts, am I clear?"

Harry set his jaw obstinately as Snape nodded. He knew the stakes as well as they did, but there were times when he believed they saw him as little more than an impetuous thirteen-year-old. He'd lived two lifetimes since then. "I wish you'd remember that I actually care about what happens to him." He stalked off in the direction of the dungeons, determined to find a minder beyond reproach.

He knew the path to Snape's quarters in his sleep and could even find the door to the Slytherin common room on his first try, but as he approached, he realised he had no idea of the password. He frowned at it as he dithered over what Draco might have chosen. "Pure-blood," he said. It had worked in his second year, but apparently Draco had matured a bit since then.

"Thicknesse." Nothing happened. "Nagini. Horcrux. Gringotts." It was worth a try. "Norwegian Ridgeback." It was a dragon and Draco was very blond. "Swedish Short-snout."

"Half-blood Prince," said Snape from out of nowhere in a dry-as-dust tone. The latch clicked and the door swung inward a bit. "You are not the only one who knows me by that moniker."

The common room hushed as Snape swept in and Harry smiled a bit as Neville, Luna, and Draco looked over from their seats by the enormous fireplace. Draco came to his feet and strode over, his brow arched in curiosity. "What is it, Potter?" he said, his words clipped as if he were irritated by being interrupted, though Harry hadn't done anything more than enter the room behind Snape. He gave Snape a searching glance, but Snape merely stood by and observed Harry.

"Demelza Montague, have you seen her?" asked Harry. "And can the three of you join us in Snape's quarters in about twenty minutes or so? I've a bit to do first or I'd ask you to come with us now."

"I'm here." Demelza's head popped up as she knelt up on a sofa to peer over the back of it. "Can you help me with Transfiguration, Harry? I can't get my teacup to stop looking like a tortoise shell no matter what I try."

"I need you to come with us, so bring your tortoise and your book," said Harry, though his eyes remained fixed on Draco. "Can you?" he asked in a low voice. "I wouldn't ask, but it's important."

"When isn't it?" said Draco with a sigh of resignation. "Has this anything to do with the Quidditch match? Or is it about why you and Snape weren't in Hogsmeade today?"

Harry hesitated for a moment. "Both, actually," he admitted. "If you're busy, I can speak with you tomorrow. I'd just, you know, rather like to get it over with."

Draco turned and gave Neville and Luna an appraising look. Luna face was wreathed with smiles, and she clasped her hands together as her smile broadened. "Twenty minutes. We might be a few minutes late, though. Neville's reviewing the effects of lunar cycles on pteridophytes. Riveting stuff, that."

"I wonder if even Hermione knows the properties," said Harry with a snort. "Ready, Demelza?" he asked as the pint-sized Slytherin appeared at his elbow, nearly swallowed whole by her schoolbag. He took it from her and swung it onto his shoulder.

"Is Ron going to be there?" asked Demelza. "I've not seen him all day 'cause he went to Hogsmeade with Hermione and I got stuck down here since he wasn't around to take care of me. I s'pose I could have gone to the library with Draco, but he's a dead bore when he's studying. Did you have trouble with Transfiguration, too? Ron says you did, but I don't believe him."

The look that passed over Demelza's head between Snape and Harry as they left the common room spoke volumes. Demelza was chattering away about her lessons, with Harry interjecting an appropriate sound here and there to show he was paying some sort of attention to her.

"Why am I coming with you?" she asked after a long-winded summary of her Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons, where she wasn't quite certain how the Dark Arts figured into anything, but she was having fun learning how to hex people.

"Mr Potter is not permitted to be in my presence without another person in attendance," replied Snape as he opened the door to the passageway that led to his living room. "For reasons known only to him, he requested you."

Harry's eyes narrowed a bit as he turned his head in Snape's direction, but he categorised the remarks as Snape being Snape. "I need to speak with Ron, and I don't know when he'll be here. You can go back to the common room when he arrives. Whilst we're waiting, why don't you show me the Transfiguration problem you're having trouble with?"

Harry handed his cloak to Snape as he got Demelza settled on the sofa and cleared a spot for the tortoise. "Tortoise to teacup, right?" he asked as he pulled his wand. He didn't even have to think about it. He moved his wand in a quick pattern and a delicate teacup with tiny forget-me-nots appeared where the tortoise once stood. He waved his wand again and the tortoise reappeared.

"Show me what you're doing," he said as he watched her wandwork carefully. There was a tiny flash of yellow and the tortoise, now with the upper half of the cup rising gracefully from its shell, began to crawl across the table.

Demelza heaved a sigh. "Last time my cup had no legs at all, just a head where the handle was supposed to be. And it was still green."

Harry smiled. It had taken him forever to master this transformation in his first year and understood her frustration all too well. Hermione had made everything look easy, and it wasn't. Not at all. "Okay, I want you to pretend to write the word 'tea' with your wand in joined-up writing. Don't point it at me or the tortoise. Just do it like this." He wrote the word and sparkling letters hung in the air for a moment before vanishing.

Demelza mimicked Harry, but no letters appeared and she slumped down on the couch. "I can't do it."

"You can. Stand up. Close your eyes. When you think of your magic, what colour do you see?" His magic had always been red and gold, just like the first sparks that came from his wand, and now he pictured it flowing through him, wrapping around the baby before spreading out to his hands.

"Err…" She scrunched her eyes shut and furrowed her brow as she held her arms out straight. "It's blue," she blurted. "Like the sky."

"Keep your eyes closed," murmured Harry. "I'm going to guide your hand. You push your magic through your wand." He switched his wand to his other hand and covered her right hand with his own. He flashed a brilliant smile at Snape, who was leaning against the door jamb to his bedroom, arms folded across his chest and left ankle crossed over right as he watched Harry with intense interest.

Together, Harry and Demelza wrote "tea," and a steady stream of silvery blue sparks shot out of the end of her wand. "Open your eyes and see," said Harry, flushing a little under the scrutiny. Other than the fact it was Transfiguration, it was no different than teaching Defence to his year mates.

Demelza's eyes grew round as saucers. "Did I do that?"

Before Harry could answer, the door burst open and Ron fell through, breathing heavily as though he'd sprinted down from Gryffindor Tower. "Zounds!" he exclaimed as he charged over to Demelza, picking her up and swinging her up in the air.

"Gadzooks!" Demelza giggled. "Harry's helping me with this stupid teacup. It keeps wandering off."

Ron glanced at the misshapen tortoise as he set Demelza down. "Hmmm. Worse than usual, mate," he said to Harry. "You usually manage to make its head into the base and leave a bit of tail right under the handle. What went wrong this time?"

"I was showing her how you do it," Harry fired back, grinning. "Go on. Show her how it's done. Oh, and don't forget the incantation. You know, like the one that turns rats yellow."

Ron pulled his wand, screwed up his face and completed the transformation by turning the tortoise into a teapot with a turtle head for a spout. "Got an Excellent on my O.W.L., too. Can't imagine how that happened."

Harry transfigured the teapot back into a tortoise and rolled his eyes at Ron before addressing Demelza. "Now I want you to push those sparks through your wand whilst you move the wand like Professor Wimple taught you. It might take a couple of tries, but I know you can do it."

As Demelza practiced, Harry stepped next to Ron. "'Zounds'?"

"It's a game," explained Ron. "We try to use words that have a 'z' in them as greetings. Not as easy as it sounds, mate. So, what's the emergency? I got a note from McGonagall telling me to scarper on down here and to tell Hermione and Ginny to be here at nine."

A cold chill ran down Harry's spine as he imagined Ron's reaction to his news, and he understood why Snape insisted he be present. He couldn't help but wonder if Demelza might also serve to keep the famous Weasley temper somewhat contained. "Have a seat, why don't you?" invited Harry as he stepped opposite Demelza.

As if he'd been waiting for a cue, Snape straightened and strode into the room, coming to a halt at Harry's right shoulder, his dark eyes sweeping slowly over Ron's face to Demelza.

"Demelza, I need to tell Ron something very important," said Harry. "Can you keep a secret?"

"Do not answer that," said Snape, stepping in front of Harry and giving him a stern look as he passed by. "Ms Montague, we are about to conduct a conversation the subject of which must remain confidential. I must impress upon you that should you become privy to this information, you must not discuss it with anyone outside of this room until you have been given leave to do so. It is not your information to share, but is being entrusted to you to hold until the proper moment. Do you believe yourself to be capable of safeguarding the affairs of others until released from your obligation?"

Demelza stood, her chin up as she gazed into Snape's dark eyes. To Harry's surprise, she dropped into a deep curtsy and bowed her head. Snape nodded his head in acknowledgement. "I am capable, sir. I won't divert anything to anybody." She paused and looked at Snape quizzically. "Is divert the right word?"

"I believe the correct word is divulge," said Snape. "Assure Mr Potter that you are as good as your word."

"Is it your secret, then?" she asked solemnly.

Harry nodded. "I promise you won't need to hold it very long, but if you'd rather not keep it at all, I will walk you back to your common room."

Demelza shook her head violently. "No. I want to hear it too. I get left out of everything 'cause everybody thinks being small means I'm too young to know stuff, and I hate that. I'm twelve. I'm not a little kid anymore."

"Welcome to my world," muttered Harry, earning a confused glance from Ron and Demelza and a sharp cough from Snape. "I mean, you're right. Sit with Ron then, and if it looks like he's about to hex me, sit on him."

"That won't be necessary," said Snape. "Your wand, Potter." He held out his hand and nodded as Harry offered his wand, hilt first. "Ms Montague."

Demelza pulled her wand and looked from it to Snape. "I'm not that good with it yet," she confessed as she set it in his hand. Snape pulled his own wand and laid it across his palm with the other two.

Ron came to his feet and pulled his wand, tapping it against his palm as though trying to decide whether or not to surrender it. "I reckon we're safe down here if Harry's given you his," he said with as much nonchalance as he could muster. "Though I don't like it by half." He dropped his wand into Snape's waiting hand as though he was afraid he'd change his mind.

Harry kept his eyes down as Snape moved away from him and set all four wands on the mantelpiece over the fireplace. He didn't look up again until he felt the weight of Snape's hand on his shoulder.

"I reckon you know I left the castle with Snape," Harry began as he lifted his head. "Draco knew."

"Well," said Ron slowly as he sat back down next to Demelza. "I didn't really know you'd left 'til I went looking for you to see if you wanted any of the chocolate frogs I brought back. When I couldn't find you, Hermione said not to worry, but she didn't know where you'd gone off to. She thought it might have something to do with St Mungo's." The fact that Ron's freckles had started to stand out told Harry that his best mate had been more worried than he wanted to let on.

"No, it's nothing to do with St Mungo's," said Harry with a brisk shake of his head. "We were at the Burrow."

"The Burrow?" asked Ron, his eyebrows drawing together. "You went with Snape to my house?"

Harry nodded. "Remember the Quidditch match against Slytherin?"

"Not bloody likely to forget that one," Ron grinned. "You caught the Snitch twice in about ten minutes. It was brilliant!" The smile vanished. "I wish you'd sit down, mate. You're making me bleedin' nervous standing there like that. Like the world's about to end or something."

Harry wetted his lips and fetched a chair that Snape took from him almost the instant he picked it up. He sat with a heavy sigh and craned his head back to give Snape a warning glance, but found himself out-warned. "Alright," he said and turned back to Ron and Demelza. "The Snitch. I didn't catch it. It flew into me."

"But…"

"Yeah, I know. Draco thought it was my magic so Pomfrey checked." Harry fidgeted and twisted his fingers as he stalled for time. He couldn't just say it. Ron would never believe him. "I went to the Burrow to tell your mum and dad what she found out. It's not bad, really. It's just…well, if it's weird or strange or never happens except for maybe once, it's always to me, right? I mean, I survived the Killing Curse and all. I was a Parselmouth 'til I wasn't. You know. It's not enough to be Harry Potter without having a footnote or two."

"Harry…" pleaded Ron." Just say it. We'll sort it out later."

The hand was back on his shoulder, and Harry knew that although Snape would not allow anything to happen to him, he couldn't spare Harry the hurt that was headed his way. "You know how I've been telling you that you have to decide if you want to be friends with the likes of me?"

"For Merlin's sake, Harry!" exploded Ron. "We both know I'm a git, all right? I'm a prat and I know it shouldn't matter, but I'm trying not to let it bother me. I don't know why you and Charlie being like that makes a difference, but you're still Harry and I still want to be your friend. Does this have anything to do with being queer? You don't have that Muggle disease or anything, do you? Is that why you've been acting so odd lately?"

"What do you mean I've been acting odd?" asked Harry with a frown. He'd changed his daily routine only slightly, just enough that Ron and the others wouldn't see him undressed, but other than that he could name nothing he'd done lately that would give Ron any reason to worry.

"You've been sleeping a lot, or at odd hours, and not on your stomach, either, which you've always done. You've started showering at night instead of in the morning, like the rest of us. You've been following Snape all over the castle, even sitting in detention when you don't have to. You won't eat bacon…"

"I had some this morning," said Harry defensively.

"And you don't change clothes in the dormitory. You always go into the bathroom, like you're avoiding us. And after seven years, too. I know you've been gaining weight, loads of it actually. Did Pomfrey say why?"

The hand on his shoulder squeezed, and Harry closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the power of Snape's magic flowing into his arm. It was a nice illusion and gave him the courage to open his eyes and gaze nervously at the first friend he'd ever had. "She did. She says I'm pregnant." He wondered for a moment why it didn't get easier with the telling, and then waited for the explosion.

It didn't come.

Ron stared for a moment and gulped before leaning forward to bury his face in his hands. His shoulders shook slightly and Demelza settled in next to him, snuggling up close against his side. Ron wrapped his arm around the tiny Slytherin's shoulders for a moment before scrubbing his face with his hand. When he looked up, his eyes were watery but there was no trace of tears.

"You've no idea," he croaked, "how chuffed I am to hear that. We all thought you were dying of something. Your stomach's been getting bigger and bigger, but the rest of you is as thin as a rail. Then Dean said his grandmother died of some weird tumour thing and that she'd bloated up like you've been doing just before she passed, so Neville, Dean and I have been taking turns in the library to see what you might have." He shuddered. "Scary stuff diseases are, mate."

Harry didn't know what to make of it. "You did hear me say I'm pregnant?"

Ron nodded as Demelza's face scrunched up in confusion. "You're a girl underneath?" she asked bluntly, her dark eyes flashing as Ron clapped his hand over her mouth.

"No, all boy," said Harry, almost as confused as Demelza. "Least as far as I can tell."

"Harry," Ron asked as his colour started to shift towards the grey-green end of the spectrum. "How does it get out?"

It was a question Harry had resolutely avoided thinking about and he wasn't keen to hear the answer. He'd seen enough horrifying things to provide him with enough fodder for a lifetime of nightmares, and he had no desire to add to it. He recalled having interrupted Dudley once whilst his cousin was watching a film with the rest of the neighbourhood thugs; not even seeing Lupin transform into a werewolf had prepared him for watching a creature burst out of a man's chest—even if it had been make-believe. The thought of anything bursting out of him made his stomach churn.

"The child is not due until late April," said Snape into the silence. "By then Madam Pomfrey will have researched the matter fully. There is no need to create panic over an event that is months away." He moved another chair from in front of the fire and sat next to Harry.

Demelza pulled Ron's hand away from her mouth and studied Harry soberly with eyes the colour of amber. "If you're not a girl underneath, how did it get in there?"

Ron gurgled and hid his face behind Demelza's back. "You do not want to know the answer to that, Zany."

"Yes, I do," she insisted. "If you can ask how it'll come out, why can't I ask how it got inside?"

Interesting, thought Harry. Apparently, being male and pregnant was acceptable within Ron's world view, but being gay wasn't. Harry wasn't sure how Ron managed to justify that to himself, but Harry did allow that his pregnancy might not have really registered with Ron yet. After all, it had taken Harry until today to reach the point where he believed it to be true. He'd know better tomorrow whether Ron was accepting or merely relieved to know Harry wasn't about to die again.

"Surely you've worked out how babies are made," said Harry when no one else seemed willing to volunteer the information. He glanced at Snape with questions in his eyes. His own education had come from a lecture from McGonagall not long after they'd started their third year; one that covered more than Harry ever wanted to know about anatomy in general and girls in particular.

Demelza rolled her eyes. "I've two brothers and two sisters, and I know pixies have nought to do with where babies come from. But I don't know how two boys make babies."

"Nor does anyone else, though I believe Ms Granger to be hard at work researching the matter," said Snape. "The news, whilst not unwelcome, was most unexpected."

Demelza frowned and opened her mouth to continue along that vein, but apparently thought better of it. "Is a boy or girl?" she asked a moment later, though Harry suspected that Ron was going to be inundated in the very near future with questions he'd much rather not answer.

"We won't know that 'til it gets here," said Harry, wondering if he'd missed something important from Madam Pomfrey.

"Madam Pomfrey can let us know," said Snape. "All you need do is tell her is that you wish to know the gender of the child, and she will perform the necessary charms."

"But I don't want to know," replied Harry. "I want to wait to find out when it's born." His mind was quite made up on the matter, though he'd arrange for Snape to be told if he had a burning need to know, provided Harry would be kept in the dark.

"Why ever not?" asked Demelza, staring at Harry as though that was the most shocking thing he had said thus far. "You won't know whether to get boy clothes or girl clothes."

"I honestly don't think a baby is going to care whether there's a dragon or a unicorn on its shirt," said Harry dryly. "And Ron's mum is going to let me have some of the clothes she has stored—and since she had six boys, I'll bet there's loads of dragons in there."

"Don't forget she had Ginny last, mate," Ron pointed out. "There's a fair few boxes of Ginny's things as well, so you'd best hope your little boy likes fairies, pixies and pygmy puffs."

"My little boy won't care, Ron," snapped Harry. "He'll want to be fed, clean and warm. He'll want to figure out what fingers and toes are and who his parents are. He'll want to be nurtured and loved, and if he wears pink at the start of his life, then he does."

Snape's eyes grew wintry as he gazed across the small space at Ron. "It is probable that any child of ours will be homosexual, as both of its parents are. However, it is just as likely that our children will be as heterosexual as you are. Regardless of their orientation, they will be raised to accept people as they are, provided those people have the intelligence of a flobberworm," he said with a sneer. Something in his tone strongly implied that he doubted Ron possessed as much.

"Ron's not thick," said Demelza scornfully. "He's just a Gryffindor. He doesn't know how to see from all angles."

"Wait a minute," protested Ron. "I know how to spot the angles. I know how to exploit them and find my way through."

"Hmph," snorted Demelza. "See, if you really knew how to see the angles, you'd know how to be best mates, and you wouldn't care if Harry's baby wears pink."

Ron always appeared a bit homely when he blushed, and right now even his ears were bright pink. It clashed dreadfully with his hair. "Do you play chess?" he asked, keeping his gaze averted from Harry and Snape.

Demelza shook her head, her thick brown hair swaying around her shoulders. "I know the pieces and how they're supposed to move, but my stupid brother wouldn't teach it to me."

"You believe yourself proficient enough at the game to instruct others?" asked Snape, his eyebrow arched, though whether in disbelief or amazement Harry couldn't say.

"He's really good," said Harry quickly. "There's no one in Gryffindor House who can best him. Not even Draco's managed to come close. You should give it a try." He couldn't imagine Snape not playing the game. No one with intellect to burn didn't play chess.

Snape regarded Ron through narrowed eyes. "You will present yourself here at one o'clock tomorrow. If you have in your possession your own set of pieces, bring them. I will furnish the board. Tournament rules will be in effect."

"Timed?" asked Ron without batting an eye, and Harry was proud of him for that.

Snape tilted his head. "Naturally. Best of three?"

"Since tomorrow is Sunday," ventured Harry, "why not play in the Great Hall? There will be loads of people who'd love to see that."

Ron and Snape exchanged a world-weary glance as Demelza looked wide-eyed between them. "The first match will be a private affair. Should a rematch be called," Snape gave Ron a speculative look, "then the Great Hall will be an appropriate forum."

Harry knew instinctively that Snape was up to something, but wasn't certain in which direction he was heading. All he knew was that he planned to be there for it.

A soft knock sounded at the door and Harry rose automatically to answer it, giving no thought to how it might appear to Ron and Demelza. This had been his home over the summer and he was comfortable here—more comfortable than in Gryffindor Tower, truth be told. He could move throughout Snape's quarters with his eyes closed and knew without having to think where everything was stored. Even Draco and Hermione preferred Snape's rooms to their common rooms, though they no longer haunted the place as they once had done.

He opened the door to admit Hermione, Ginny, Luna, Neville, and Draco, and glanced around to ensure they had enough chairs. "Sit anywhere," he said. "There are more chairs—"

"We know our way around," scoffed Draco. "Hello, Professor. Weasley." He flopped into the chair Harry had been sitting in whilst Harry disappeared into the small dining room to drag a few more seats into the room.

"We learnt Summoning charms in fourth year, Potter," reminded Draco, though his expression belied his sarcasm. "I would have thought you'd remember them from the tournament."

"Ha ha. I've not got my wand, so I guess I'll have to resort to doing it by hand." Harry set out three more chairs, though truth be told, he'd much rather banish Ron and Hermione from the couch and curl up there with Snape. He set his chair as close to Snape's as possible and sat quietly, preferring to let Snape conduct this part. To his amusement, Demelza refused to surrender her place by Ron's side, much to Hermione's surprise.

They sat around in a circle, the silence growing heavier by the moment, until Demelza asked, "Are these people inside the room?"

"What?" asked Harry, his eyes round behind his spectacles, whilst Ron said yes and Snape said no.

"No," repeated Snape.

"They are," insisted Ron.

Draco stood, his silvery grey eyes cool. "Harry, why did you ask to speak with us? I could use this time for revision if it's not important. Otherwise, would you please get on with it?"

To Harry's dismay, Snape said nothing. "I guess it's left to me, then," he said in a long sigh. "Snape and I are getting married in two weeks. We would like you to be there to witness our vows," he said more calmly than he would have believed himself capable of.

"Harry!" Hermione leapt to her feet and tackled him where he sat, whilst Ron, Draco and Neville sat with their jaws hanging open. Demelza clapped her hands together and beamed a smile at Snape. Ginny squealed and Luna offered her usual vague smile before saying, "The baby is really pleased about that. I can tell by your aura."

Neville gazed uncertainly between Luna and Harry whilst Draco froze. Ginny blinked and turned a peculiar shade of pink. "Potter, what is she talking about?" demanded Draco as he turned to stare at Luna. "What haven't you told us?"

"Harry's having a baby!" crowed Demelza, having decided they were all insiders. "And he doesn't want to know if it's a girl or a boy 'cause he doesn't care if it wears pink or not," she added triumphantly.

Everyone started talking at once, and Harry reached for Snape's hand as Hermione stalked over to Luna and began to berate her for her indiscretion. "Nice to see they're all happy for us," Harry remarked quietly. "It's a load off my mind, not having to worry about how my friends will react. I'd sign the contract now if I weren't so afraid of what Molly would do to us."

"Indeed. It is solely due to Molly's wrath that I have refrained from suggesting it," replied Snape, leaning close so Harry could hear him over the din. "This is not to discount Professor McGonagall's displeasure were we to do something she would regard as rash."

Harry snorted. "She was Head of Gryffindor House. She expects rash. Have you any idea what they're arguing about?"

Snape turned his attention to the tight knot of students all talking at once and at the top of their lungs. "From what I am given to understand, Ms Granger is angry with Ms Lovegood for stealing your thunder; Ronald is being berated by Draco, Longbottom and his sister for saying that the only reason I'd want to marry you is to get into your pants; and Ms Montague is siding with Ms Lovegood and telling Ms Granger to mind her own sodding business."

"Hmmm," said Harry as he trailed his fingers along the soft skin of the inside of Snape's wrist. "I'm not surprised Luna said something, so Hermione is bang out of order; Ron's got it backwards and usually speaks before thinking, but Ginny, Neville and Draco know that; and Demelza's adorable, if a bit outspoken."

"So the only reason you agreed to the contract was to get into my pants?" asked Snape, his dark eyes suddenly hungry, and Harry licked his lips in response.

"Not only," Harry murmured. "I just considered that to be a spectacular benefit, but no matter how gorgeous your prick, I'd not have agreed if I didn't love you. Having your baby was a factor, but not the whole of it, not nearly." He felt his knees go weak when Snape's fingers began to explore his hand, the touch slow and sensuous.

The angry voices faded to the background as Harry's world narrowed to the man beside him. "Would McGonagall think it rash if we disappeared for a few minutes?"

Snape's eyes smouldered, the heat scorching Harry's eyes wherever his gaze touched. "A few minutes are insufficient for my needs. Nor is it what you deserve. I will settle for nothing less than the opportunity to know you completely, to explore every inch of your body and discover every hidden place that melts your bones with pleasure. You will be mine, Harry, answerable to my merest touch."

Harry's eyes fluttered closed as a rolling wave of pleasure surged through his veins, his heart resonating like a bass drum as it hammered in his chest. His cock stirred, filled, as his mind helpfully supplied images of the two of them entwined on the bed, echoes of Snape's moans providing a sostenuto for his own sharp cries ringing in his head. He shivered and drew air into his constricted chest. His eyes opened and his adoration of Snape was plain as day. "In that case, sir, I'll wait—"

"Yeah? Well having Snape's kid is about the last thing he needs," shouted Ron, his face bright red. "Don't you think being queer is enough? It's not right—"

Snape was on his feet as Harry crashed back to earth, his green eyes filled with pain. Hermione shouted back and Harry didn't need to see her face to know that tears glittered in her eyes. "Why do you have to ruin everything? Harry's always wanted a family of own, and the portrait said it's happened before, so it is right!"

The room fell silent as Snape's eyes bored into Ron's and the only sound heard was the snap of Snape's robes as he crossed the room to stand nose to nose with Ron. "If you have some objection to Harry bearing my child," he said in a low voice that nearly shook from rage, "you are welcome to excuse yourself from my presence and never set foot in here again."

All eyes focussed on Ron—except Harry's. No longer would he stand for Ron's insults, thinly veiled or not. Not ten minutes ago, Ron claimed to be happy for him, but Harry had had no expectations that it would last. Still, he hadn't expected everything to come crashing down quite so quickly.

To his surprise, Ron stood his ground.

"I already said I'm happy about the baby," Ron snarled back, his blue eyes flashing. "It's brilliant actually, but he's eighteen and he's not left school yet and now you're bonding, like that bloody Hat said. It's like all those fucking months in that bloody tent when we didn't have a bloody clue what we were on about, and now he's right back in it again, going forward without a plan. You're doing the right thing by him because it's the right thing," he continued, jabbing his finger into Snape's chest, "but that's not what he needs at all. I'm fucking tired of everyone deciding Harry's life for him, and I know he's tired of it as well. It's about all he's talked about for the past three years, but I'll bet you didn't know that, did you? Did you even give him a choice or just tell him when to show up?" He turned to Hermione and pointed his finger at her as well. "And you know that at least as well as I do."

"It wasn't like that," said Harry as he came to stand next to Snape. "Not at all. We spent hours speaking about the contract with your mum and dad. We've still a bit more—"

"Contract?" interrupted Draco, his eyes widening. "You offered Potter a marriage contract?"

Ron's jaw dropped and he took a step back, only to trip and fall onto the sofa. "I—I didn't—" A sharp glance from Neville cut him off and he rose to his feet, his jaw working frantically. "My deepest and most sincere apologies, Professor Snape," he said rigidly before offering Snape a formal bow. "I insulted you without knowing the facts."

Harry's eyes swept around the room. Except for Hermione they all wore the same expression, one of profound respect, and Harry didn't have the first idea why. Mr Weasley had explained that marriage contracts weren't as common now as they once were, but when he pointed out the fact that they were self-regulating, Harry's mind drifted to his previous unhappy experience with the Goblet of Fire, and he had missed much of what Mr Weasley had to say on the subject.

Snape rested his hand on Harry's shoulder, the gesture both affectionate and proprietary. "It is because of the close bond of friendship you share with my intended that I accept your apology," he said sharply. "Were it left to me, you'd be barred from my presence for life."

"Professor," murmured Harry. "He meant well. I mean, he's my best mate, and most of the time he is making an effort to accept me as I am." He rested his hand against his stomach. "Even when it's really hard to do that."

Some of the tension left the room, but Hermione still wore a mulish expression and Harry braced himself for the next explosion. He returned to his seat and, at his cue, the others sat back down as well. It was a more congenial atmosphere with the eight of them gathered around the low table in front of the sofa rather than on their feet and staring each other down, and Harry slipped his hand inside Snape's, resting their linked fingers on Snape's thigh.

"Professor," said Hermione carefully as though handling a volatile potion, "as a Muggle-born, I'm afraid I don't quite see why having a contract matters. It's a bit like going into it thinking it will fall apart, isn't it?"

The pure-bloods in the room stared, and even Ron appeared aghast. "Why would you think something horrible like that?" he demanded. "Marriage contracts rule the marriage, so if they decide they'll be married for ten years, there are no hard feelings when it's over."

"That's barbaric," exclaimed Hermione. "Planning for the end before you've even started?"

"I'm surprised Professor Binns doesn't cover this in History of Magic," said Snape. "If we taught a course on Wizarding Culture, this wouldn't come as such a surprise. Surely you know that the Wizengamot is structured loosely after the Muggles' Parliamentary House of Lords? That its seats are hereditary? That alliances between Wizarding houses were much more important a century ago than now? Contracts of Marriage were once quite common, but fell out of favour near the end of Queen Victoria's reign. Today, contracts are more symbolic than practical—more a formalized expression of devotion and fidelity than a political manoeuvre of the past, although many of the Dark Lord's promises were predicated upon the idea that the old houses would rise in power once again.

"To allay your concerns, Ms Granger, I did not offer Potter a term of years. I offered him a life contract. He has accepted in principle, though we've yet to draft the document."

"If it had been written," Harry chimed in, "I'd have already signed it, we'd be married and you lot wouldn't be here right now." He gave Snape a long look, his fingers tightening for a moment. Knowing McGonagall, Harry suspected that this was as alone as he'd be able to get with Snape until their wedding in two weeks. Fourteen days. Three hundred and some-odd hours, give or take. Pure frustration. He had no idea how he'd concentrate on end-of-term examinations when he had so many more blissful things to think about.

"Potter," said Draco, "who's negotiating on your behalf?"

"Mr and Mrs Weasley, I suppose," said Harry. "Why?"

Draco winced, but before Ron could snarl his objection, Ginny spoke up. "There hasn't been a marriage contract in the Weasley family since Auntie Muriel's grandmother got married. I know they mean well, Harry, but you should have someone who knows more about these things to guide you."

"Gran had a contract," said Neville, "though, really, you should have Draco go over it. No offence, Professor, but Slytherins are good at finding the loopholes."

"Harry needn't worry," sang out Luna. "But Draco should review it anyway. For Professor Snape's sake. He deserves much more than he'll ever ask for, and he's counting on Harry not to know what he's doing. I'll read it for Harry's side, since he doesn't know how to ask for what he needs."

"And I suppose you know what Harry needs?" asked Hermione, her voice doubtful.

Luna smiled. "Yes, I do."

~*~

The days flew by like a hawk after a hare. Harry and Snape were receiving three or four owls daily from Molly and journeying into Hogsmeade each evening to accomplish the next thing on her list. Harry worried that Errol and Pigwidgeon would wear themselves out flying between Ottery St Catchpole and Hogwarts every day, but the school owls bore their fare share of the load as well.

Invitations went out the moment a spot was settled for the ceremony. The Burrow was out simply because there wasn't enough time to make all the preparations Molly thought necessary, and hell would freeze before Harry married at Grimmauld Place. Draco offered Malfoy Manor, but even Snape put his foot down at that suggestion, though he did manage to thank him all the same. Spinner's End was discounted as too small to accommodate more than half a dozen people, and Harry was about to suggest the Three Broomsticks when Hermione suggested that Professor McGonagall might not mind if the wedding were held at Hogwarts.

The guest list itself sparked a small argument when Ron pointed out that fully half of those invited refused on principle to speak to the other half. "Look," said Harry firmly, "I'm not going to tell Draco he can't invite his mum and dad, even if no one else wants them there. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Narcissa, and Draco wouldn't be here if it weren't for us. Don't think the Malfoys don't know that."

"I'm just saying—"

"I know what you're saying," replied Harry. "But it doesn't matter. The guests don't have to get along; Snape and I do." Still, he had to force himself to ignore the possible consequences of having the Malfoys in the same room with Andromeda Tonks and Teddy Lupin.

As they were Snape's colleagues, most of the staff was invited, but of the students only those who'd been there to hear the announcement about the wedding and the baby were included in the guest list. All of the Weasleys would be there except Charlie, who was coming home for Christmas but couldn't leave the dragon preserve until the day before.

One of the first tasks on their own to-do list was selecting robes to wear for their wedding, as Molly had been appalled by the thought of either of them wearing anything they had hanging in their wardrobes. Snape would have put up a fuss, but as he recognised that Harry was in dire need of clothing that would see him through the latter half of his pregnancy, he suffered the excursion to Diagon Alley reasonably well.

For himself, Snape selected robes cut in his usual style, though trimmed with deep red brocade cuffs and collar, whilst Harry chose formal dress robes similar to those he'd worn at the Yule Ball, though more generously cut. He also purchased half a dozen pair of trousers charmed to fit no matter how he grew, as well as a couple of shirts and three new sets of school robes. They arranged for their formal robes to be delivered to the castle by the end of the week; everything else was boxed and shrunken down to fit in Harry's pocket.

The pair made a quick stop in Tomes and Scrolls so Snape could pick up the latest Potions journal, and whilst he was waiting, Harry's attention was drawn to a placard for Customs and Traditions. He wandered over to the section, discovering volumes on naming ceremonies and funeral rites and everything in between. A genealogy book caught his eye and he skimmed through it, a few familiar names jumping off the page at him as he looked. With a quick glance around to see if Snape was nearby, Harry managed to purchase it without him noticing.

A few days after beginning work on Molly's list, Harry had a chance to sit down with Draco and Luna to work out his bits of the marriage contract. He met them in the same Room of Rewards where he'd told Hermione his secret, since it was one of the few places he knew of where they'd have some privacy.

"Is Draco supposed to be here?" he asked as the three of them sat down. "Am I supposed to be there when you speak with Snape?" Harry really had no idea how the process was supposed to work, but he suspected that if there was negotiating to be done, someone was supposed to come out on top.

"No and no," said Draco with a scowl, "but as Longbottom is up to his elbows in dragon dung, I'd rather be here with Luna pretending not to listen than blistering my hands on a shovel." He shuddered as though the mere idea of manual labour was too revolting for words. He fished around in his schoolbag for his Arithmancy text and opened it to a random page.

"I don't really mind if you help, to be honest," said Harry. "As far as I'm concerned, Snape can have whatever he wants."

Draco rolled his eyes. "That is precisely the reason I'm staying out of it. You've no idea how to negotiate, Potter. He's all yours, Luna. Good luck with that." He went back to his book, flipped through a few more pages and settled in to read.

Harry turned his attention to Luna, who had chosen a rather high chair to sit in and was swinging her feet to and fro. "How does this work? Am I supposed to tell you what I want?"

Luna gave him her usual airy smile. "Tell me about your parents," she said lightly.

Harry blinked and glanced over at Draco, who waved his hand around in a vague manner that Harry didn't find helpful at all. "Well, they're dead," he said. "I don't know what I can tell you past that."

Luna's eyebrows drifted up, but other than that her expression didn't change a whit. She continued to sit, the palms of her hands on the edge of the seat, her feet still swinging.

"I know they loved me, but that's hardly a great secret," replied Harry in bemusement. "They're proud of me, but they would be, wouldn't they. They're my mum and dad and that's what parents do. My aunt and uncle were always proud of Dudley, even though his greatest accomplishment was either weighing as much as a hippogriff or being the neighbourhood bully."

There was a snort from Draco, and Harry gazed at him quizzically. "Not all parents are proud," scoffed Draco.

"Yeah," said Harry as his brow furrowed. "Sirius' mum wasn't. Burnt his name right off the family tapestry." He gave Luna a long, searching look. "And Snape's parents made my relatives look like saints. Don't tell anyone about that, all right?" he pleaded. "It's not my place to say anything."

"Oh, no," Luna assured him. "We won't say a word. Why didn't Sirius' mum like him?"

Harry stared at her. Luna knew almost as much about him as Ron and Hermione. Then it occurred to him that it was Luna, and no matter how mad he thought her, there was a method to it. "Sirius was the only Black to be Sorted into Gryffindor. I don't know much about his dad, but his mum, Walburga, was vile. There's a portrait of her in Grimmauld Place, and she and Sirius fought all the time. She thought him a blood traitor, you see, and he left home when he was sixteen to go and live with my dad. She probably thought he deserved to go to Azkaban," he said bitterly.

"Sirius and my dad were friends before they even started at Hogwarts, and that can't have made her happy." Harry's face grew pensive. "I wonder how they met," he mused. "I don't think they could have met on the Hogwarts Express, not judging from the things Sirius said." His face darkened. "I hate to admit it, but my dad could be an arrogant swine. And Sirius as well."

Harry gave Luna a searching look. "I don't want my kids growing up thinking they can bully people. I don't want them to be the sorts who go around picking on someone because he's different, because he's guarded." His eyes slid over to Draco. "Or because they're poor."

He gnawed at his lip for a moment. "I want them to grow up knowing they're loved and knowing right from wrong, but I don't know if I can teach them that. I know they won't be locked in a cupboard or beaten." He glared fiercely for a moment. "You put that in there. No hitting. Not me, not the children. Not for any reason."

Draco shot to his feet as Luna blinked. "That's beyond the pale, Potter. Why do you think Snape would ever take a hand to you? Or your children?"

"He threw a jar of cockroaches at my head," said Harry, his eyes hard as stone. "In fifth year, when I was trying to learn Occlumency from him, only he told everybody it was remedial Potions, remember? He has a temper. So do I." He sighed, releasing his building anger. "Look, it goes both ways. I won't hit him either, or the kids. That's not what I want for us."

"What do you want, Harry?" asked Luna, her head tilting to the side in curiosity.

"This goes no further," warned Harry before his brows knitted together. "I mean, you know what I mean."

"Brilliant, Potter. Clear as mud," replied Draco, his hands still on his hips as he glared down at Harry.

"Look, I don't know how this whole contract thing works, okay?" said Harry in frustration. "I just don't want the things I say in here to end up spread all over the school. Not," he amended quickly, "that I think you would." He shot Draco a particularly keen glance, "but things I'd rather have kept private have a way of slipping out."

To his credit, Draco's fair skin turned slightly pink and he returned to the low sofa to sprawl out on it in a rather undignified heap.

"Snape's life's not been easy," said Harry slowly, as if still uncertain whether he wanted to confide something so personal. "Other than my mum, I'm not sure anyone loved him at all. Perhaps Dumbledore did, but I don't know. I do, though, more than anyone else has ever done.

"I want him to know what it's like to be loved. I want him to learn how to love someone back. I want his kids to grow up to be proud of having him as their father, to never once have been afraid of him, or of me, come to that. I want him to be happy, to want for nothing, to be respected for who he is and not for what he's done. I want him to be certain of it, instead of being afraid of being hurt or humiliated again.

"He's the best person I know, even if he's not easy. He's got loads of pride, and he's got this peculiar notion in his head that he's the one who supposed to shoulder all the responsibility, and that's just not on. I want him to know that everything that belongs to me is his as well, except Grimmauld Place. I wouldn't wish that house on my worst enemy." Harry thought for a moment. "The ones who are alive, anyway."

"Would the sun, moon and stars be enough?" asked Draco dryly.

Harry chuckled. "Only if he can use them in his potions." He gazed beseechingly at Luna. "I love him so much, and I know he doesn't feel the same way about me, but maybe he will someday. When he knows how. Is that too much to ask?"

Draco snorted as Luna gave Harry a smile that made him feel like he was about five years old. "Someday, Potter," he said, "you might consider investing in a dictionary and looking up the word 'devotion', as I'm fairly certain you're missing the point."

"If Snape ever decides he is in love with me," said Harry stiffly, "I would rather hear it from him, if it's all the same to you."

Draco rolled his eyes. "He's not just going to come right out and say it. He's a Slytherin, for Merlin's sake. We leave it to Gryffindor to wear their hearts on their sleeves. We're more subtle than that."

Harry opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again and gave Draco a thoughtful look. Just because he hadn't been reading the signs didn't mean they weren't there. But was there a chance he could read too much into them? Loving Snape wholeheartedly was easy, but he admitted to himself that he too frequently leapt without looking, and he didn't want to be hurt any more than he wanted to hurt Snape. "Snape knows how I feel," he said finally. "I did come out and tell him."

"What will you call him after you sign the contract?" asked Luna from out of nowhere, making Harry wonder if she'd been paying any attention at all to what he'd said.

"What?" asked Harry in confusion. "Do you mean like 'dearest' or 'darling' or something revolting like that?" He pictured the expression on Snape's face if he said anything like that out loud and shuddered. He would save that for someone more courageous.

Luna shrugged as she went back to swinging her feet again. "You do call him Snape, you know. Except he'll be Prince, same as you."

The thought of hearing his name again from those lips, in that voice, sent low heat bubbling deliciously through his veins. Harry. A whisper in his ear. A low moan in the dark. A knowing look exchanged between them as Snape spoke his name. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply through the rush of arousal.

"Earth to Potter," said Draco.

"Prince," replied Harry before opening his eyes. "Or you could try saying Harry, Malfoy, which reminds me, there is something I'd like in the contract, in case this isn't some sort of odd fluke." He gestured at his stomach. "I'm the last of the Potters, the same way Snape is the last of the Princes." He dropped his head to give himself a moment away from their eyes. When he looked up again, it was at Draco.

"I don't know if this weird, or unusual, or if it can be done at all," he said with growing apprehension. "But I want my names to continue. My lines, I mean. If we have children beyond this one, I want them to be Princes, but I want them to have the names Potter, Peverell, and Black. I know I'm not a Black by blood, but Sirius was my godfather and there should be something of him left to continue."

Draco blew out a noisy breath. "Remember what I said about the sun, moon and stars? Forget it. You're not giving them to him; you're asking him to give them to you."

"Don't listen to Draco, Harry," urged Luna. "He's for Professor Snape, remember? I'm for you. I've no idea why he wants to take back his family's name, but I'd much rather be a Prince than a Snape. Besides, Professor Snape isn't one to refuse a gift like that."

"You're putting the kneazles in the pixies if you do that," warned Draco with a hard glare at Luna. "Don't forget that marriage contacts were used to create alliances between houses in the first place. If you paid any attention at all in History of Magic, then you'd know that allocation of the seats on the Wizengamot is determined by those old alliances. You need to consider the political question before you start saying things like that."

"What political question?" asked Harry, bristling a bit. Whilst part of him wanted to know who Malfoy thought he was to lecture him like that, the rest of him knew that, to Malfoy, this was as natural as breathing. He knew Snape was going to apply to the Wizengamot for the Prince seat, but he didn't have the first clue why his own lineage mattered.

"You'll be bringing the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black"—something in the way Draco pronounced the full name with a bit of a sneer spoke volumes—"under the aegis of the head of the Prince family, and the Princes were disgraced centuries ago. Their seats remain unfilled to this day. You'll call into question a lot of the old alliances if you give him Potter and Black. I don't know the Peverell name well enough to speak about it."

The smile that came to Harry's face was not pretty. To say that he carried a bit of a grudge against the Ministry—and by extension the Wizengamot—would be putting it lightly. Whilst he was exceedingly grateful that Kingsley Shacklebolt was serving as interim Minister of Magic, he knew full well that that was only temporary. He'd already heard rumours that Cornelius Fudge wanted his old job back, a thought that Harry deplored, so the idea he could raise some havoc by tying his lineage to Snape's appealed to him.

"Wouldn't Snape get those seats anyway?" demanded Harry. "We are getting married, you know." Harry's eyes shot over to Luna and he watched in some surprise as she cocked her head as though listening to a faint sound coming from far away. Automatically, his hand came up to silence Draco and he started to listen as well before questioning whether he was losing his mind.

"Bye," chirped Luna unexpectedly as she hopped off the chair and headed for the door.

"Aren't we supposed to work on the contract?" asked Harry, clearly confused.

"Oh, we did that," replied Luna cheerfully as she cancelled her Silencing charm. "But the moon frogs have something important to tell me and I mustn't keep them waiting. They'll freeze to death you know." She skipped through the door with a merry wave.

Draco stared after Luna as she left. "What just happened here?" A question for which Harry had no answer.

Chapter Text

Ch 9: Good News Travels Fast; Weird News Travels Faster

 

Harry set down his quill and massaged his hand after dumping the contents of his brain onto parchment for his Defence Against the Dark Arts test. It was his last examination before the holidays and he was relieved to put it behind him. He and Williamson didn't so much as clash as have diverging theories about defence, and Harry thought he'd be fortunate to scrape an Acceptable for the term. Other than his sense of being a disappointment to Snape, Harry really didn't set much store in his mid-year marks. His achievements on his N.E.W.T.s were all that mattered.

He leaned back and worked the stiffness out from between his shoulder blades before slipping a finger under the lens of his spectacles and rubbing his eyes whilst he waited for his essay to be collected. He gave Ron a weary nod and shrugged at Hermione. He refused to write an answer he knew from experience was ill-conceived, no matter how many experts said it was the thing to do.

A chime rang, his classmates stopped writing and Williamson Summoned their answers. Harry came to his feet and waited for Draco to finish packing his schoolbag. "Is it—?"

"If you ask me that one more time, you'll be puking slugs all through your wedding," snapped Draco with the air of one whose last nerve was being trodden upon. "We're going through it tonight," he said a trifle slowly, and with each word edged so sharply they'd slice through skin if Harry stood but a step closer. "Line by line. You know this. What's more, I know you know this since Luna's told you twice and Granger has asked Astoria at least three times a day since we found out about it."

"Wait," said Harry, his eyes narrowing. "Astoria knows?" He sighed inwardly. The last thing he wanted was to have words with Hermione, but this was coming very close to crossing the line. She knew how zealously he guarded his privacy, and he was not comfortable with her bandying about the intimate details of his life.

Draco gave him a scornful look. "Do you trust anybody, Potter?" he said as they left the classroom.

Harry flinched and blinked owlishly. "I—I, well…" He thought about it, a slight frown marring his features. "Snape and Hermione," he said as they walked. "So, Astoria doesn't know?" he ventured.

"Astoria knows I'm working on a project with Luna, which by itself pretty much defies comprehension, but there you are. Granger asked Astoria to let her know when we finish so she could do her part. The only saving grace is that Luna's my guardian." Draco still appeared perplexed by that, but waved it off. "And is weirdly proficient at Ancient Runes. Do not permit her to go near an Arithmancy table, though." For a moment he appeared decidedly ill. "I can't explain it, but it all goes to hell when she's about."

"That's Luna," remarked Harry with a knowing grin. "After dinner, then?"

"Merlin, you are so annoying. Yes, after dinner. No, you do not have to bring the Weasel or Ginny or anyone else, since the three of us," Draco stopped walking for a moment as he thought, "no, the four…five, no, four of us will be there."

"How many people will be at this bloody thing?"

Draco counted them off as they walked. "You and Snape, of course. Me, Longbottom and Luna. That's five."

"Why is Neville coming?" asked Harry. He didn't have any real objection to having Neville there, but he didn't want Ron and Hermione's noses out of joint on the eve of his wedding.

"Because it's Friday night," said Draco with a sigh. "Some people are fortunate enough to have a social life, even here, and since Luna has to be in the dungeons with the rest of us, Neville wanted to be there as well." There was something almost wistful in Draco's tone and Harry's curiosity was piqued, but he dismissed his nascent idea as entirely outside the realm of possibility. Still, he filed the thought away for when he could examine it at his leisure.

"All right," said Harry as he thought about everything he had yet to do. It felt like a never-ending list, but in actuality, most of it had been accomplished. "Should I walk you to the dungeons? I still need to pack." He slowed his pace as the soft heat of desire rolled through him like a bubble working its way to the surface of a simmering cauldron.

"You're pathetic," concluded Draco after a moment spent staring at Potter. "Just help me find Longbottom. Or Luna." He trotted down the stairs with Harry scrambling to keep up. "I want to read through the contract one more time before we show it to you."

Harry really couldn't make up his mind whether to be excited or nervous, so he grinned weakly instead. To his relief, Luna and Neville were waiting at foot of the Grand Staircase, so he handed Draco over to them and sprinted back up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower.

Harry was alone when he stepped into the dormitory he'd spent six years thinking of as home. His eyes fell on the window seat where he'd passed his very first night at Hogwarts staring out at the grounds, on Ron's bed where Sirius Black had tried to murder Wormtail when everyone thought the rat to be Scabbers. He glanced at his own bed, a place of comfort, of terror and sometimes of loneliness. He'd received his very first Christmas presents on that bed, suffered visions sent by Voldemort there. Tonight would be his last night in the dormitory, but his lack of sentimentality surprised him. Harry accepted it as a sign that he was ready to get on with the rest of his life.

He pulled his trunk out from under his bed and opened it. There was very little in it: an Order of Merlin that he really didn't want, the mokeskin bag he'd worn around his neck for the better part of the last year, Rita Skeeter's biography of Dumbledore, and the small bottle of memories Snape had bled out in the Shrieking Shack. Whilst he knew he should return them, he couldn't bring himself to part with them. Those memories had altered the course of his life, opened his eyes to some fundamental truths he'd steadfastly ignored. Snape would never have surrendered them if he hadn't believed himself to be dying, but Harry regarded them as his.

He set them back in the trunk, protected by the mokeskin bag, and opened his wardrobe. Shoes were first, his Quidditch boots and his trainers, a pair of slippers he couldn't remember ever having on his feet, the boots he'd tramped through England with. He glanced at his feet and thought he ought to polish his everyday shoes for tomorrow. He packed up everything except his sleepwear, his dress robes and clothes to wear for tomorrow whilst he was killing time before the wedding.

He was halfway through sorting through his school supplies when the door opened and Seamus stepped inside.

"Leaving for the holidays, then, Harry?" asked Seamus coolly as he watched Harry set a number of scrolls of unused parchment in the trunk. "I reckoned you'd stay here, what with your boyfriend being a teacher and all."

Harry closed his trunk and looked over the few things he had left. "No, I'm not leaving for the holidays," he said as he dropped to hands and knees to pull a quill out from under his cupboard. He knelt up and looked at Seamus. "I'm leaving. This is my last night here."

Seamus' eyes narrowed as he watched Harry open drawers to ensure they'd been emptied. "You're finished with Hogwarts then? What are you going to do? Be an Auror or something?"

"Or something," agreed Harry. "But no, I'll still be here at Hogwarts. I just won't be living here."

Something ugly flashed in Seamus' eyes as the dots connected. "Still bending over for the Slytherins, eh, Harry?" His face twisted in disgust. "You used to be somebody, the Boy-Who-Lived, the Chosen One, and now you're a bloody shirt-lifter who's nothing more than a plaything for the likes of them. I thought you were on our side." He turned away only to have The Standard Book of Spells, Grade Seven sail past his head and crash into the cupboard beside him.

"There are no sides," bellowed Harry. "The war is over, but there are a few people who've not got the message yet." He grabbed Seamus' arm and swung him around, his eyes blazing with fury. "My parents were murdered by Voldemort when I was a year old. Neville's parents were tortured into madness. We've moved on. Ron and Ginny's brother is dead, but they've moved on. Sirius is dead. Dumbledore is dead. Lupin. Tonks. Lavender. Cedric. Colin. Moody. How many more deaths do you need, Seamus? How many until you're satisfied?"

"But they're Slytherins!" shouted Seamus. "And they're despicable. We have to stamp them out before they find another Dark Lord, before we have that next war you keep harping on about."

Harry's lip curled in a sneer. "Maybe if I keep 'bending over for them', I can keep them happy enough to leave you alone." He pulled his wand and set the strongest protective enchantments on his trunk that he knew. "Why can't you let it go, Seamus? Voldemort's dead. The Death Eaters are in Azkaban. What else needs to happen?"

"You weren't here last year," snarled Seamus. "You don't know how bad it was. And Snape just let it happen." An expression of stark terror flashed over Seamus' face before outrage and disgust took over once again and Harry made a mental note to ask Neville if he knew of anything in particular that would explain this attitude.

"Actually, he didn't," said Harry much more calmly than he felt. "But as I wasn't here…" He shrugged. "Are you going home tomorrow?" he asked, but Seamus said nothing. With a last look at Seamus and his trunk, Harry went down to the common room to kill more time before dinner.

~*~

By the time dinner had concluded, Harry could barely keep a thought in his head, and the moment the house-elves cleared the dishes off the House tables in the Great Hall, Harry was on his feet and heading for the Slytherin Table with nothing more than a quick goodbye to Ron, Hermione and Ginny. He plopped down on the bench next to Draco, nervous excitement shining in the depths of his eyes. He watched Neville and Luna amble through the crowd and he sighed heavily, impatient to be getting on with it.

Snape had excused himself early, something Harry thought to be unfair, and disappeared into the dungeons in a swirl of black whilst Harry ate his dinner. Snape hadn't eaten much and Harry hoped he felt all right. It never entered his mind that Snape might be anxious about the contract, the wedding, their marriage or any of the other disruptions to his well-ordered life Harry was about to impose.

"You're worse than a crup," grumbled Draco as he rose to his feet. Demelza scampered over from the far end of the table and danced around Harry far too energetically for someone who had just completed a week's worth of examinations. "Let's get this over with."

"Are you signing it tonight, Harry?" chirped Demelza as Neville and Luna completed the ring of people around Harry. The five of them moved in a coordinated mass through the Entrance Hall and into the corridor that led to Snape's rooms. "Or are you doing it tomorrow? What's in it, do you know yet? When did you talk to Luna? Are you excited yet? I am. My mum said I could stay an extra day so I could watch, but I don't know how I'm getting home yet. Floo, I expect. I even have new robes!"

Draco whirled around and started walking backwards as he speared Demelza with a sharp look. "Slytherins," he pronounced, "do not chatter. Slytherins remain silent and make use of the information they've collected from the conversations of others."

"In other words," said Harry, "Slytherins spy on people and sell the story to the highest bidder. Or so I've been told," he added as Draco blanched. He held up a hand and grinned as Draco started to apologise.

"Harry and I met last week," said Luna. "With Draco. He's going to change the world, you know."

"Again," said Neville as Harry shook his head and tried hard to pretend he hadn't heard that.

"I do hope I got it all down properly. I've been plagued with Wrackspurts despite the radishes. Maybe I should change the colour of my string." Luna's brow furrowed as she wound her purple twine necklace around her finger. She studied Harry's back for a moment. "It should be magenta. I do hope that doesn't ruin things."

"It's in the same colour family," said Neville helpfully. "But I don't know why you have Wrackspurts. Maybe there's something else that has you muddled?"

A sunny smile broke across Luna's face. "Not really," she said, "unless…" Her voice trailed off for a moment before saying, "But, no, it wouldn't be that. Perhaps the crystals are out of alignment. We are nearing the solstice, you know."

"I can help you with that tonight," offered Neville as Demelza asked Harry what they were talking about.

"It's a bit hard to explain," admitted Harry, "but you can trust Luna." He stopped for a moment and turned to face her. "I'm afraid you can't come with us for this part, so I'll have to say good night here."

For a moment, Demelza appeared absolutely shattered, and Harry was afraid she was about to burst into tears, but she pulled herself together and gave him a reproachful look. "You think I'm too little, even though I know about the inside thing and the other thing." She shot Draco a scornful look, as if to tell him that she knew how to speak without revealing any secrets.

"I know what is to be told I'm too small or too young to hear things," said Harry, managing to be sympathetic without patronising her. "I've had secrets kept from me all my life. But this time, it's not because you're too young or too small. This time it's because the only people who are supposed to be there are Professor Snape, Luna, Draco and me."

"Why is he going to be there?" she asked furiously, pointing at Neville. "He's not working on it."

Harry's eyes swept over the three of them, Draco at Luna's right shoulder, Neville at her left. "Look at them, Demelza. See how they've learnt to fit together? I reckon the Sorting Hat was right about them. They're better together, I know that much, so let's call it magic.

"I know you're disappointed. I would be as well. How about I show it to you after the hols?" said Harry. He shot Draco a questioning look and breathed an inward sigh of relief when Draco gave a slight nod. "All signed and everything."

Demelza gave an unhappy sigh and Harry knew he'd appeased her. "Will you dance with me tomorrow?" she asked, gazing up at him plaintively.

"Dunno if there'll be any dancing," replied Harry. "But if there is, then yes. Of course. Come, I'll walk with you to the common room. You three go on ahead. Tell Snape I'll be there directly." He wrapped his arm loosely around her shoulder and escorted her to door and waited until she was safely inside before taking the back passage to Snape's quarters.

~*~

The five of them gathered around a small work table in a cramped room that served as Snape's study. In the middle of the table sat a stack of parchment and enough ink and quills for all of them. There was also a pitcher of something; Harry suspected it was water, but there were no goblets anywhere that Harry could see. Snape took his seat at one end, with Harry at the other. Neville and Luna crowded together on the third side with Draco on the fourth. As they settled in, Harry reached for parchment and quill and hoped no one noticed he was shaking. He watched as Draco selected a quill as well before unrolling a long length of parchment.

"After speaking with both of you," Draco began formally, "Ms Lovegood and I believe we have assembled a contract that will satisfy you both."

"It was a lot like writing a treaty between Umbridge and Trelawney, actually," said Luna, earning for herself a hard glare from Draco and a barely stifled snort from Harry. For his part, Neville tried not to laugh.

"There is no need to stand on ceremony," said Snape. "We are all well acquainted with each other. Nor will you be paid by the word so I do hope you've not included any inanities, such as spelling out domestic chores required of each of us."

In response to that, Draco picked up his quill and lined out several sections in the middle. "No," he said levelly. "We haven't."

"Read the opening, Draco, if you will," said Snape as he and Harry exchanged a long look.

Draco cleared his throat nervously and began to read. "In accordance with the laws and customs of Wizarding Britain, Severus Tobias Snape, being of sound mind, enters of his own free will into this Contract of Marriage with Harry James Potter on this, the nineteenth day of December, 1998 with the knowledge and understanding that it will govern the fundamental nature of their relationship. From this day forth, they shall take as their name Prince, and pledge their fidelity to that House."

A look of dismay appeared on Harry's face. If the preamble was this one-sided, he didn't stand a prayer and he wondered if Luna had been able to contribute anything or if Draco simply charged right past her. "Do you suppose you could make it sound a little less like Snape just purchased me from a shop on Diagon Alley?" he asked after a moment's reflection. "Right now, it sounds like he's the only one of us who has a choice, and all he has to do to have me is sign at the bottom."

"But it's the traditional language," protested Draco. "We added your names and your house."

"Potter is quite correct," said Snape unexpectedly. "Despite what others might believe, this is not a marriage arranged for political purposes. It is to create the foundations of a family, one which, like you, Draco, I wish to see continue."

"Very well." Draco scribbled for a moment and read aloud the revised paragraph that now stated they were both entering into the contract voluntarily. "Better?"

Harry breathed a sigh of relief. "Much," he said, and then settled back to listen as Draco read it in its entirety.

The contract was all he could have hoped for and more. Luna had included everything he wanted: his vaults would be theirs, their children would carry the names of his forebears, Grimmauld Place would remain with the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, and the contract could be dissolved should their relationship, or the relationship they developed with their children, turn abusive.

At the other end of the table, though, things were not looking promising. Snape's face was darkening with every word, and Harry braced himself for the eruption.

"Was everything I have not enough for you, Potter?" hissed Snape. "Did you feel it necessary to humiliate me by giving my child your wretched godfather's name? Do you believe me so loathsome that I would knowingly abuse you or our offspring?"

Neville scooted his chair back as if about to leave, and Draco cast a wary eye over Snape. Of all of them, only Luna remained unperturbed, and Harry admired her equanimity. "Is everything Harry has not enough for you, Professor?" asked Luna. "He didn't keep back much. Just Grimmauld Place, but since that was Sirius Black's house, I don't imagine you'd like it any."

"That's not the point," snarled Snape.

"Why isn't it the point?" asked Harry. "You said this contract was to build a family. All you're asking from me is kids to keep your name alive, and that's not enough. I want us to be a real family. I want to contribute to it every bit as much as you do. Besides, don't you think Sirius would be spinning in his grave if he knew you were spending his money?"

"And yet, knowing as you do that I believe your godfather to be a swine—"

"I thought that was my father," replied Harry coldly as his temper started to rise.

"—you want my children to carry their names," thundered Snape.

"And you want me to take yours. Not even yours! Your mother's," shouted Harry. "Which I agreed to do, but I want my name to live past me, same as you do. I want the Potter, Peverell and Black houses under your name. From what Draco says, that means something, though I've no idea what, except that Malfoy—I mean Lucius—is likely to go 'round the twist, assuming he has any votes left." He glanced at Draco.

"Who are the Peverells, Potter?" asked Draco, if for no other reason than to get Harry and Snape to stop shouting at each other for a moment.

"Don't you know?" asked Luna, blinking at him. "They're the Three Brothers, from Beedle's tales. They were given the Deathly Hallows: the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Invisibility Cloak."

"They're a myth, though, aren't they?" asked Neville. "We've heard the stories, certainly, but they're not true. A wizard's heart wouldn't get all hairy, and cauldrons don't sprout feet."

"But there were three brothers," said Harry. "Ignotus Peverell was given an Invisibility Cloak. It's mine now, through my father. I'm the last of the Peverell line, at least Ignotus'. Voldemort was the last of Cadmus' line. He's the one who was given the Resurrection Stone. The stone is lost now," he said uncomfortably, though Snape was looking at him very strangely. "And you very nearly died because of the Elder Wand.

"Harry Potter lived and when he finished what he was born to do, he fell in love with a man who wanted to move past the horrors of his life and leave his name behind him. I know you have your reasons, sir, and they're good ones. I'm happy to spend the remainder of my life as Harry Prince, but I don't want my past to disappear along with yours. Our first will be a Prince. It might be the only one we have. Is it so wrong of me to want the Potters to continue if we have another one? Or Sirius' name? Or the Peverells? Names are important. At least Binns and half the people around here seem to think so. They'll all be raised as Princes, with whatever values we teach them, no matter what their names are."

Snape's dark eyes glittered ominously and Harry's brow furrowed as a vague sense of danger came over him. "Ahh yes. Values," said Snape with a sneer. "Values which you are so confident of us teaching that you had Ms Lovegood include a clause that ends our marriage should we discipline our child."

"That's not what it says and you know it," replied Harry hotly. "I spent the first ten years with the Dursleys living in the cupboard under the stairs. They weren't all that keen on feeding me, and Uncle Vernon thought there was nothing better than giving me a sound thrashing whether I'd earned it or not. I was told every day that I should be grateful they took me in since no one else wanted to be stuck with someone like me." He squared his shoulders and looked levelly at Snape. "I know what it's like to cower in corners and hope today isn't the day you get beaten up again."

Harry glanced over at Draco, who was staring at him with a sort of horrified fascination. "You must have heard all this before." Draco shook his head, and Harry gave a tiny shrug of his shoulders. "It wasn't until my first time at the Burrow that I'd been around a real family. At least, a family that didn't mind having me around."

"Is there a point to this?" asked Snape icily, his expression giving Harry no guidance whatsoever.

"I don't know how to be a dad, all right?" snapped Harry. "Or a mum. I don't want our kid to grow up thinking he can't make a mistake or that he's not wanted or that his parents are going to turn on him next. We're neither of us cool-headed, though you're loads better than you used to be, and I've grown up some over the last couple of years, but when we're angry, bad things happen. I'll do anything to keep from turning into my aunt and uncle, and if there's a way to make sure that I can't hurt anyone, then I say where do I sign?"

There was a long silence where Harry and Snape regarded each other, Snape with curiosity and Harry with concern. "Does it mean that much to you, Potter? The names, the merging of assets, that godforsaken parenting clause?" demanded Snape.

"As much as the fidelity clause means to you," replied Harry evenly, though his heart was hammering and the blood pounding through his ears. He couldn't back down on this, especially not about the money or keeping his child safe. He knew, he knew Snape's past better, he would wager, than anyone else alive. He knew how vicious Snape could be when hurt or angry, knew how horrible his own temper could get, knew he'd fight back if necessary. It was not a recipe for happiness.

"You would walk away? Over this?" asked Snape, his voice brittle.

Harry swallowed heavily. "Yes," he croaked.

"Do you think so little of me, Harry?" asked Snape softly, and to Harry's eyes it appeared as if his sallow skin was growing yellower by the moment.

Harry glanced around the table, stricken. "Would you give us a moment?" he asked. Neville and Draco couldn't leave quickly enough, but Luna lingered for a moment.

"You don't have to sign the contract, Harry," she said lightly. "You can still get married tomorrow without it. Most people do, you know." She brushed a kiss against his cheek before disappearing through the doorway.

Snape got up and closed the door behind her, then put up the strongest Silencing charms Harry knew. "Why did you have that clause added, Potter? Tell me the truth."

"I was 'Harry' a moment ago," said Harry, his eyes focussed on the woodgrain of the table. Snape glared and Harry sighed. "I never cowered in a corner, all right? When my uncle was mad at me about something, he'd throw me in my cupboard and lock the door. I never had a birthday cake or presents. I watched Christmases through the slits in the door. That's what I grew up with. I know what you grew up with was worse. My Occlumency lessons. Don't tell me you've forgotten. I know you never forget a thing."

But Snape had. He sat down heavily and cast Harry a guarded look. "What do you know of my childhood?"

"That your parents fought, that it was physical. That you were terrified of your dad and your mum had given up. That you didn't have proper clothes when you were little. That neglect might have been kinder than what you dealt with," said Harry softly. "You and I are not good candidates for parenthood, but the Fates like fucking with us." He glanced up at Snape. "I won't apologise for my language. Not this time.

"We both know this should never have happened, that no matter how much I wanted a family, it shouldn't have happened like this. If I weren't 'Harry Potter,' and you actually loved me back, maybe somewhere down the road we would have considered adopting, if we both had decided that was what we wanted. I'm sorry I got you into this, but I still won't marry you if all you're concerned about is doing the right thing, whatever that is. I don't even know any more."

"I am not," said Snape frostily, "interested in doing the right thing. I am seeing to your well-being and that of our child, the one you believe me incapable of rearing without destroying."

"Severus," said Harry wearily, "I don't think either of us capable of rearing a child, not without loads of help. Is it so wrong to acknowledge that the worst of our natures is pretty bad and want to protect an innocent from them? That's all I want to do with this. I want a happy home, one with some love in it. If you won't love me, love the baby. I can live with that."

"Are you, then, still willing to marry me? Believing I do not love you?"

Harry sat up straight, stunned into speechlessness for a moment as he felt his way around the edges of what Snape had just said. He tilted his head and studied Snape, noting the tension in his posture, the slight tightness around his mouth and the infinitesimal deepening of the furrow between his eyebrows. It struck him suddenly that Snape was terribly afraid of being hurt. He remembered Snape's face the night before they went to the Burrow, the longing he saw there as Snape rested his hand where their baby nestled in his belly. "I know you care about me, and that's a start. I want the contract, Severus, and I'll marry you if you'll sign it."

Snape considered that for a moment. "I will sign the contract if you will allow me to rewrite the clause." There was a moment's hesitation and Harry had the sense that another painful memory had just been jarred loose. "I lost my best friend to an ill-chosen word unleashed in anger. I will not pay such a high price again for a momentary lapse of judgement. Do you object to incorporating a Fidelius section into the contract and placing it there?"

While Harry was familiar with the Fidelius Charm, he had only a vague understanding of how a Fidelius section would work as part of a contract. "Would it make a difference putting it there?"

"Placing it within the Fidelius section binds our behaviour to the contract," explained Snape. "The clause as Draco and Ms Lovegood have written it ends our marriage and destroys our family should either of us succumb to a moment of anger. The magic within the Fidelius section restricts us in the same way the Fidelius charm does. Magic sees the intent and stops our hand before the damage is done."

The choice, as Harry saw it, was to trust himself and Snape to govern their own behaviour or trust that magic would help them do so. "It's like a Protego for our actions?" he asked, wanting to make certain he understood.

"More or less," said Snape. "Just as you cannot divulge a secret learnt under Fidelius unless you are the Secret Keeper, you cannot strike me in anger unless you are the Keeper of the Fidelius clause."

"Who holds…" Harry stopped in confusion. "Someone else's magic will hold the charms?"

Snape nodded. "Yes, I expect Arthur will do so for you. I intend to ask Minerva to hold mine. She will be my witness to the signing."

Harry breathed out a sigh. "Sometimes magic is so complicated. Can we move the Fidelity clause there as well?"

"Why would you wish to do so?" asked Snape in surprise.

"Well," said Harry slowly. "I like the idea of being stopped before something gets started. I'd be gutted if you ever cheated on me, not that you would, but it would be horrible. Wouldn't you rest easier knowing something could never happen instead of trying to pick up the pieces and move on if it had? I know I would."

Snape smiled in a way that Harry had never seen before on his face, and whilst he didn't understand it, not completely, it filled him with warmth and melted the tension he'd been carrying since the others had left the room. They put their heads together and worked on the contract for another half an hour before calling the other three back in and starting over from the beginning.

~*~

Harry was rousted out of bed the next morning at an hour he felt was far too early for someone who had nowhere to be until that evening. "Go 'way and let me sleep," he mumbled into his pillow, refusing to open an eye to see who was shaking him awake.

"Can't, mate," said Ron. "Mum and Dad will be here in about an hour, and you need to clean up and have breakfast before they get here. Dad wants to go over the contract. Mum's got the wedding bloke with her and says you and Snape never sent her your vows, so she's going mental."

"She's been going mental since Snape proposed," grumbled Harry. He yawned and stretched, scratched his belly and sat up. "What time is it?" He ruffled his hair and reached for his spectacles.

"Almost nine," said Ron. "Everyone who's going home is already downstairs. The only ones left are the people you invited to the wedding." He sat on the edge of Harry's bed and leaned back onto his hand. "Are you sure about this, Harry? Marriage contracts are really hard to break and I don't want to see you get hurt."

"I love him, Ron. That's all there is to it. I can't picture myself with anyone but him." Harry crawled out of bed with obvious reluctance. He'd been warm and comfortable, and a single glance out the window told him that it was just another December morning with a feral sky threatening to bury the castle in as much snow as it could muster. "Meet me in the common room? I'm going to get cleaned up." Perhaps if he hurried, he'd still have time to grab a bite to eat.

Harry emerged from the dormitory stairs a short while later wearing a Weasley jumper and a pair of jeans that still fit him reasonably well now that Hermione had altered them. The jumper was large enough that it barely hinted at his changing shape underneath, something Harry was caring less about every day. He'd learned in fifth year that he couldn't control the opinions of others and no longer cared what the Wizarding world as a whole thought about him.

Ron and Ginny were both waiting for him, and when he saw them, the butterflies in his stomach began to flutter around the rest of his organs. He was getting married in a few hours, and he couldn't keep a giddy smile from breaking across his face.

"Someone's happy," remarked Ginny with a smile of her own. "I know Snape's hard to know, but you're so good for each other. He's loads better than Phlegm, at least I think so." She shot a hard look at Ron, who was busy trying to keep the disbelief off his face. "Dad's really pleased about it."

"And your mum?" asked Harry, though he already knew that whilst Molly had some misgivings, she was too caught up in the excitement of a grandchild on the horizon to give them voice.

"Remember how she was just before Bill and Fleur's wedding?" said Ron. "Double it. There's not enough chocolate in the world to calm her down, mate. Never thought I'd be so relieved not to be you."

"Lovely," said Harry as the number of butterflies seemed to double. "Where's Hermione?"

"She went to Hogsmeade with Draco," supplied Ron as he headed to the portrait hole. "Something about a book. I offered to go with her, but Draco had some Christmas shopping he wanted to do and I'm supposed to make sure you don't do a runner."

"Do a runner? Does Snape think I won't show up?" replied Harry, now wondering who was going to ensure Snape didn't skip out. He waited for Ginny to step through before following her out.

"It's tradition, Harry," said Ginny as they started down the stairs. "Charlie did the same thing for Bill the day of his wedding, though it was so crazy around there I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't notice. Plus it was just after your birthday, and then the Minister showed up with Dumbledore's Will. You had a bit on your mind."

"Dad's spending the day with Snape," added Ron. "I heard that McGonagall was going to, but Mum pressed her into wedding duty and, given a choice between putting up flowers or minding Snape, anyone who'd choose—" He gave Harry a weak smile.

"I've been Snape's minder," said Harry with an amused grin. "Trust me. I'd rather put up flowers. He can be a right bloody git when he wants to be."

They stepped into the Great Hall, and Harry was relieved to see that the house-elves hadn't cleared away breakfast yet. Whilst Ron and Ginny debated the last of the presents they had yet to purchase, Harry tucked into his food with a sense that he'd be fortunate to find time to eat again that day.

Just as he was taking his last bite, he heard his name ring off the enchanted ceiling and looked up to see Molly Weasley bearing down on him. "Incoming, mate," he said under his breath to Ron as Ginny took a deep breath. He came to his feet and suffered through a suffocating hug that nevertheless brought a smile to his lips.

"Well, let's have a look at you," said Molly as she held him at arm's length and eyed him critically. "There is no hope for your hair, is there, dear?" she sighed. "We'll try to get it sorted later. Ginny, please let Minerva know I've arrived. Ron, take your father and find Severus. Mr Galswell will be here any minute. Where is Neville? He promised to help decorate. He has such a good eye for that sort of thing."

That was news to Harry. "He does?" That Neville was remarkably talented with plants was common knowledge. That he had any particular eye for arranging them must have been the best kept secret at Hogwarts, and Harry suspected strongly that Neville, too, had been pressed into duty.

"Come with me, dear," said Molly as Harry looked around for Arthur. "We have so much to do. Ronald! Ginevra! Aren't the two of you supposed to be somewhere else? Quickly, we don't have all day." She took Harry by the arm and tugged him along after her as she consulted a long scroll of parchment that seemingly came from nowhere.

She led him up the Grand Staircase to the first landing and down the left hand corridor to the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. Laying her wand to a certain stone, she waited impatiently for the wall to rearrange itself into an archway. "Move along, Harry. We haven't got all day," she said briskly as Harry's eyes travelled over the arch and scanned the corridor in bewilderment.

He all but fell into an airy room that was much smaller than it felt. Unlike most of Hogwarts, the walls were sandstone and the floor was covered in thick, plush carpeting the colour of terracotta. In the west wall was set a series of tall, thin, stained glass windows, the pure reds and clear blues glowing despite the leaden skies outside. A dozen house-elves were rearranging the furniture, turning what appeared to be a formal lounge into something more closely resembling a chapel.

"Has this always been here?" he asked as he stared up at the arched ceiling. He moved slowly into the centre of the room, turning in a slow circle to take it all in. Clusters of wing chairs set in small groups around low tables were replaced with straight-backed wooden chairs set in prim rows. Multi-armed candelabra stood where low couches had resided. Sideboards served as understudies for bookcases, and Harry wondered if food for thought would be replaced with something to eat.

"Yes, Mr Potter, it has," said McGonagall as she stepped inside. "Welcome to the Rear Hall. It is used for guests of the Board of Governors, but I thought it a nice place for a private wedding. Molly," she said with a warm smile as she stepped forward to embrace the Weasley matriarch. Harry gave a weak smile and moved away as the conversation turned immediately to the upcoming wedding, a topic he thought best left to them.

Harry wandered to the front of the room and stared back at the portraits who were studying him with undisguised curiosity. He whirled suddenly at hearing a familiar voice and brightened when his eyes fell on Snape, who was but a footstep behind Arthur.

"Harry. Just the person I was hoping to see," said Arthur as he hastened forward. Clutched in his hand was a length of parchment, and Harry knew without having to ask that it was their contract. He glanced automatically at Snape, but there was no help coming from that quarter; Snape's face wore its usual impenetrable mask.

"Hello, Mr Weasley," said Harry as he stepped forward.

"Call me Arthur, son. I wanted to ask you about the contract," said Arthur in a tone that immediately put Harry on guard. "I have a question or two."

Harry gestured at a row of chairs before taking one by the back, turning it around and straddling it. "I'm happy with it, if that helps any," offered Harry as Arthur took a seat. Snape hovered, which was no less than Harry expected. "We spent time on it last night. Draco and Luna wrote most of it, but we made a few changes after we'd heard it."

"It's about one of the Fidelius clauses," said Arthur slowly. "I have spoken to Severus and he has given me leave to speak with you, if only to put my mind at ease. I hate to ask, Harry, I do, but I must know if you feel in any way threatened by him."

Harry's eyebrows vanished beneath his fringe. "I beg your pardon? Threatened by whom? Snape?" He exchanged a long, incredulous look with the man in question before shaking his head. "No. Not at all." He ran a hand through his hair and blew out a noisy breath. "Look, you've got it all wrong. Read the clause. Out loud."

After giving Harry a questioning glance, Arthur found the place in the contract and began to read. "In recognition that Severus and Harry are each in possession of a volatile nature, with the understanding that they each will react instinctively when threatened or provoked, with the acknowledgement that physical harm has no place in their relationship, Severus and Harry agree to bind their magic by this contract for the safety of each other and their line, whether of blood or marriage, unless demanded by circumstances for the protection of another."

"I don't see the problem,' said Harry." We've talked about this and we both agreed to it." He laced his fingers together, his forearms resting on the back of the chair, his chin propped up by his wrists. He knew he should feel grateful that Mr Weasley was watching out for him, but he was tired of every step forward feeling like a battle that needed to be fought. He knew Snape, he knew himself; should it matter that he wanted to ensure his family was safe and happy?

Arthur's lips pulled down into a frown. "I know better than you might suspect how difficult children can be. And no one who knows Molly would describe her as even-tempered. But I don't see the need for this, Harry, unless there is cause for concern." His blue eyes searched Harry's face. "Is there?"

There was a pronounced silence and Harry closed his eyes whilst he counted to ten. "A couple of years ago," he said finally, "I was banned from playing Quidditch because I tried to punch Draco Malfoy's lights out for making fun of my mum. The only reason I didn't was because George—I think it was George—held me back. I almost killed Draco once with a spell I knew nothing about when we were duelling in a bathroom.

"I know I've got a short fuse. I know Snape's got a temper as well." He lifted his head and sat up straight as he continued to speak. "I'm pretty sure that if our kids ruined something either Snape or I had spent months working on, I'd probably overreact and I don't want anything to happen to them." He held Arthur's gaze for a moment. "You've met my aunt and uncle. You know what they're like."

"Harry—"

"It's really great that you're worried about me," said Harry earnestly, "but it's not necessary. I love Snape and I trust him, but that doesn't mean I think he's perfect. He's got a bad side—we all do—but being in love with him means taking the bad with the good."

He got up from the chair and crossed over to Snape. "I know we discussed this last night, but I have to know if you're okay with it." Snape said nothing and Harry felt himself start to panic. "Say something, please."

"I agree that we are not good candidates for parenthood," admitted Snape. "Despite my hope that I would care for our children to the best of my abilities, I cannot help but fear that my history speaks against me." His expression softened as Harry felt his eyes widen with terror. "You were quite correct to insist, and I am more comfortable with the clause now than I was when we discussed it last night." He started to reach for Harry, but dropped his hand immediately as Molly and McGonagall hurried over.

"My goodness. Such grim faces," said Molly as she looked back and forth between the three of them. "Is there a problem here, gentlemen?" Her hands went to her hips as Arthur's hangdog expression deepened and she lifted an eyebrow as she took the scroll of parchment in her hand. "Is this the contract?" She started reading through it before Arthur had a chance to reply, with McGonagall reading along over her shoulder.

Harry stepped closer to Snape and braced himself for the questions he knew would follow, but McGonagall appeared satisfied and Molly patted him on the cheek as she handed the contract back to Arthur.

"It looks to me to be in order. I'm quite pleased to see you put some thought into this," said Molly with a keen glance at Snape, though to Harry's eyes it was a more accepting look than the others had been, and he felt a sudden loosening around his heart as it dawned on him that she had been just as concerned for his happiness as she had been for Bill's.

"Have the two of you selected your witnesses?" asked McGonagall in the sort of tone that always made Harry feel guilty about leaving his homework to the last minute. "You'll need them for the Fidelius section." Her face softened as she looked at them. "In the old days these contracts were witnessed by the closest friends of the parents. It was believed that they'd be somewhat less likely to hex the child of the other house."

Harry tried to stifle a laugh but it burst out in an enormous snort anyway. "Like Sirius would wait for the wedding. He'd have hexed Snape the moment he found out." He could only hope that his parents and Sirius understood that he was marrying for love and weren't too terribly disappointed in him. He stepped in front of Arthur and said, "You've always looked after me even when I didn't know I needed it. I'd thought to ask Hermione until Professor McGonagall said the bit about parents. Will you…are you willing to be my witness?"

Arthur's eyes grew misty and he smiled as he nodded. "It would be my honour, Harry. And you, Severus? Who have you asked?"

Snape came forward to stand in front of Minerva. "I had thought to ask you," he said before inexplicably finding himself in her embrace. Bewildered, he tentatively returned her hug before taking an alarmed step back. "I will accept that as confirmation," he said as he gazed at her warily.

"Oh, tosh, Severus," scolded Molly. "I know it might come as surprise, but there are a number of people who regard you with some small amount of affection. You and Harry will be on the receiving end of a number of hugs tonight. Relax and learn to enjoy it, or fortify yourself with some Calming Draught before the ceremony."

"I would prefer to marry with a clear head," replied Snape, his words dripping with disdain.

Harry exchanged an amused look with Arthur. "Welcome to the next fifty family reunions. Do you think he's figured out yet that Molly's going to become his mother-in-law in a few hours?"

"If you paid even the least bit of attention," said Snape as Arthur hid his grin behind his hand, "you would recall I referred to her as such when we informed Minerva of our plans."

"Actually," replied Harry with a gleam in his eye, "you referred to them all as in-laws." The butterflies took that moment to decide to return and he sat down. "I'll be glad when this is over. What's next on the list?"

"Are you feeling all right, Harry?" asked Molly as her eyes filled with concern.

"Yeah, just nervous. It comes and goes." Harry rubbed his stomach and looked up in anticipation.

Molly's eyes narrowed, but she pulled her scroll from her pocket and read off a frighteningly long list of items yet to be accomplished, a number of which seemed to revolve around flowers, music and food. Fortunately, there were but two things on the list that required his attention: a brief meeting with Mr Galswell and asking Kreacher to move his things to the dungeons. "I do wish Mr Galswell would get here," she fretted. "He's late."

"I'll send him a Patronus," said McGonagall as she started towards the back of the hall. "We'll need at least fifteen tables," she instructed the house-elf who seemed to be in charge, "and a long table here." She gestured at a point about halfway along the outer wall and continued to head towards the archway, leaving the house-elf nodding frantically in her wake.

Harry chatted with Arthur and Snape for a moment, all the while wishing that Ron was with him, if for no other reason than to share his bewilderment over how his nice, quiet wedding was taking on a life of its own. He would have been happy with just his friends and the Weasleys there, but knew deep down that that could never have happened. Too many people had played a role in his life to pretend that his wedding would escape notice. And Snape deserved to have his friends and colleagues there as well.

He glanced towards the back of the hall and noticed a kindly old wizard in dark green robes tottering up the newly created centre aisle with McGonagall at his side, and Harry remembered him at once as the same wizard who had married Bill and Fleur. McGonagall beckoned to the couple as she escorted Mr Galswell to one of the few remaining clusters of comfortable chairs.

"Harry Potter and Severus Snape," said Galswell with a warm smile, his blue eyes twinkling almost as much as Dumbledore's once did. "I am Herman Galswell, and it is such a pleasure to make your acquaintance." He shook their hands in turn before taking a seat. "It's been, oh my, over thirty years since I've had the pleasure of bonding two young gentlemen. I understand from Minerva that this is to be a contract wedding, is that right?"

"Yes, it is," confirmed Snape as Harry sat down in the chair opposite Galswell. He took the seat to Harry's right.

"Do you wish to have the contract read during the ceremony?"

Harry and Snape exchanged a look and shook their heads at almost the same time. "No, I don't think so. I'd rather keep it between our advisors and our witnesses, if it's all the same to you," said Harry. "Too many people know about my life as it is."

"You are quite right about that," replied Mr Galswell. "Do you mind if I read through it? I understand from Molly that you've not written your vows and it would give me a better sense of the two of you if I had a chance to look it over."

Snape retrieved the contract from Arthur and surrendered it with only a moment's hesitation, his dark eyes fixed on Mr Galswell's face as the elderly wizard read. Apparently the contract passed muster as Mr Galswell rolled it back up and returned it without a word shortly thereafter.

"The family name is to be Prince, then? I say that only because I wish to introduce you properly." Mr Galswell tapped his chin as he gazed thoughtfully at Harry and Snape. "I believe the old vows would be best, from before the Statute of Secrecy."

"The old vows?" asked Harry. He had to admit he hadn't really paid attention to the ceremony when Bill and Fleur were married, even though it had been the only wedding he'd ever attended. At that time in his life, he hadn't expected to get married, hadn't even expected to see his eighteenth birthday, so his mind had drifted to other things.

"To have and to hold from this day forward," recited Mr Galswell, his face wreathed in joy. "The references to the Church that has done so much harm to our kind have been removed, of course, but they are such lovely words."

Harry's brow wrinkled in confusion, and he shot Snape a quick glance for clarification, thinking that at some point it might not be a bad idea to revisit his History of Magic texts. Judging from Snape's expression, there must have been more to the Statute of Secrecy than simply keeping quiet around Muggles.

"Suffer ye not a witch to live," said Snape. "Does that sound at all familiar to you, Potter? Amongst other things, the Statute of Secrecy severed our ties to the Church of England—and Rome as well, given the difficulties inherent in maintaining a relationship with an organisation that wishes to see you dead."

"Oh," replied Harry. "So what are the vows?"

Galswell's jaw dropped as Snape groaned. "Forgive my intended, Mr Galswell. His upbringing was more sheltered than I realised."

Recovering quickly, Galswell brushed aside the apology. "It is of no consequence. The vows are thus: 'to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish, till death us do part; and thereto I plight thee my troth.' They have endured for centuries."

"People actually say that?" exclaimed Harry.

"What's more astonishing is that they mean it," said Galswell, leaning forward as though confiding a secret. "However, if the words of princes are insufficient, I can devise others. I have overseen hundreds of weddings, young Harry. I am confident I will find something you like."

"No, no," Harry hastened to assure him. "They're fine with me. Really." He had no difficulty promising to love Snape for his whole life and with his whole heart through all the vagaries of life. He'd walked back from Death's door with Snape; he'd lived with nothing for long enough that he knew he could do it again. No, Harry was comfortable with the vows; he just didn't know if Snape was.

~*~

The wedding went off without a hitch. Harry managed to recite his vows without stumbling over the words, and his heart actually skipped beats when Snape slid the ring onto his finger. Snape's voice was so rich, so smooth, and when Snape promised to worship him with his body, Harry momentarily forgot how to breathe.

"I now pronounce you bonded for life. You may kiss to seal your vows," said Mr Galswell, and Harry turned to Snape, tilting his face up as Snape claimed his mouth in a kiss that was far more chaste than Harry would have liked. Still, his lips parted under Snape's and, unless he missed his guess, there was a promise in that kiss of so much more to come.

Hand in hand, they turned to face their family and friends, and Harry blushed as they clapped and cheered. In the blink of an eye, the couple found themselves at the back of the hall, and Harry sagged against Snape as his newly wedded husband pulled him into his arms. "When do we sign the contract?" he murmured against Snape's shoulder.

"We've been married for two minutes and already you're on to the next thing. Can I not enjoy the moment?" asked Snape in a despairing tone as his arms tightened around Harry. "Against all odds, you are mine and I wish to savour that."

"You won't get a complaint from me," replied Harry as Ron and Hermione came up to congratulate them. Neville, Luna and Draco were right behind, and despite their wishes to the contrary, Harry and Snape found themselves being pulled in different directions by people wanting a moment of their time. Demelza tugged on his sleeve as Harry spoke with his friends. "Are you and Professor Snape married now?" she asked.

"Almost," replied Harry as he smiled at her. "We still have a couple of things yet to do."
"What's left?" she asked as Ron let out a strangled cough. Hermione elbowed him hard in the ribs as Draco gave him a knowing grin.

"Harry."

"Hold that thought," said Harry to Demelza as he looked over to see Snape beckoning to him. "It looks like I'm needed elsewhere." He walked over to where Snape was speaking with Galswell and McGonagall, and he slipped his arm around Snape's waist and looked up expectantly. They were married now, more or less, and from this moment forward Harry planned to take advantage of every opportunity to bestow some much-needed affection on Snape. "You called?"

There was a moment's hesitation, but Snape wrapped his arm around Harry's shoulder. "It's time, Potter. If you have any doubts—"

"Stop that right now," interrupted Harry firmly. He drew Snape aside and lifted his hands to Snape's face. "Would you like to see our wedding? When I came out? The Quidditch match? Is there any memory I can show you that will convince you that I love you?" He closed the distance between them and kissed Snape deeply, giving his hunger for the man full rein. It took a moment before Snape gave in, and Harry couldn't suppress the needy moan that built in the back of his throat.

"Come with me, Potter," said Snape thickly, "and let's finish this." He laid his hand on the small of Harry's back and guided him out of the hall and into the Defence classroom, where their contract lay across Williamson's desk anchored with a silver knife. Arthur, McGonagall and Mr Galswell were waiting for them with expectant smiles on their faces.

"This won't take long," Mr Galswell reassured Harry and Snape as they approached. "Then the two of you will be able to rejoin the party. There are three spells to cast and a blood vow is required from each of you." He shot Harry a quick glance. "Not to worry, Mr Prince. The contract requires but three drops. Surely you can manage that."

Mr Prince? Harry was confused for a moment before he realised that Mr Galswell was speaking to him. The smile that emerged was nearly as wide as the castle.

"Absolutely," he replied, allowing himself to be moved into position beside Snape. He linked hands with his husband, which turned out to be a good thing since they were required to hold hands anyway. Arthur took his place beside him as McGonagall came up next to Snape.

Harry didn't understand enough Latin or French to follow completely the words of the charms, but he knew enough to recognize that they were binding. If he had interpreted them correctly, love played into it somehow, a thought that pleased him inordinately. He had enough love for both of them, and he believed the baby would only deepen those feelings.

He watched intently as Snape pulled the knife across the pad of his finger and pressed his fingertip to the contract next to each Fidelius clause, then repeated the action himself. He stood quietly as Mr Galswell read the contract, and then watched as Snape extended his hand to Arthur.

"I so swear," said Snape as Galswell touched his wand to their joined hands. There was another incantation, and then Snape picked up a quill and signed his name.

Harry stepped forward and with a slight blush spreading across his cheeks, took McGonagall's hand. "I so swear," he said as the tip of Galswell's wand pressed against the base of his thumb. A tingle of magic swept through him, and the butterflies returned with a vengeance. His left hand dropped automatically to the side of his stomach, and he pressed down hard as he gazed into McGonagall's worried face. "I'm fine," he assured her, thinking that maybe he ought to talk about this with Madam Pomfrey.

He tucked himself against Snape and watched as Arthur and McGonagall stepped forward to affix their signatures and their magic to the contract. Once the ink had a chance to dry, Mr Galswell rolled it up and presented it to him. "Congratulations to you both," the elderly wizard said. "You are now officially married." Then his smile faded, and he regarded them both with sudden solemnity. "I understand that a rather miraculous event has transpired. If at all possible, might I suggest having someone you trust file this with the Ministry?"

"What for?" asked Harry. The war was over, Voldemort was dead. What more was required?

"Mr Prince. Harry," said Galswell. "Records filed with the Ministry are public. I might be an old man, but I can read between the lines with the best of them." He glanced at McGonagall out of the corner of his eye. "Ravenclaw. You were a few years behind me." He turned his attention back to Harry and Severus. "It doesn't require a genius to know you're expecting." His smile deepened. "I love magic."

Harry couldn't keep the alarm from his face and took an instinctive step back as McGonagall and Severus closed ranks in front of him. "What do you know and how do you know it?" demanded Snape as his wand came up.

"Th—the contract," sputtered Galswell. "It refers to your lines, by blood and marriage. It refers to children. And then there's Harry. It must be getting difficult to hide."

"Harry. Severus," Arthur interjected in a soft voice. "You can trust Mr Galswell. You can also trust me to file it without the Prophet getting wind of it. Go back to the reception and enjoy yourselves. The house-elves won't serve dinner until you're seated and I don't know about you, but I'm starved."

"I'm sorry," Harry said quietly to Galswell. "They're protective of me. I can't say that I blame them any. Sssss—" He blinked in surprise, then turned and threw himself into Severus' arms. "It worked! We're married!" he shouted exuberantly. "Go ahead. Try it!"

"Of course we're married, P—" A strange look came over Severus' face. "P—. P—. Prince." Molten heat flashed in the depths of Snape's eyes. "Harry," he said in long ribbon of silk that wound around Harry's heart and wrapped his cock in a pretty bow. Severus crushed Harry to his chest and kissed him hungrily, oblivious to the eyes that looked on.

"Ahem." McGonagall cleared her throat noisily and gazed sternly at them as they broke apart. "There will be time for such frivolity later. You have guests, most of whom would appreciate having their supper."

They followed her back into the Rear Hall like a pair of errant schoolboys and took their place at the long table that demarcated the reception area. There they were joined by Ron and Hermione on Harry's right, and McGonagall, Arthur and Molly on Snape's left. Scattered around the dozen tables were the Weasley clan, the Hogwarts staff, the Order of the Phoenix, Andromeda Tonks with Harry's godson Teddy, and select members of Dumbledore's Army. To Harry's surprise, Luna and Neville were sitting with Draco, as well as Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy

After dining on a meal every bit as lavish as any served at the Welcoming Feasts, Harry and Severus mingled with everyone present. Teddy immediately took a fancy to his godfather, and Harry spent a long time entertaining the child whilst catching up with Bill, Fleur, George, Angelina Johnson and Lee Jordan.

At eight months, Teddy wasn't walking on his own yet, but loved to toddle along whilst holding the fingers of anyone willing to indulge him. A sweet-natured child who strongly favoured his mother, he was happy to be passed from person to person, sobering only when he found himself in Severus' arms. They regarded each other solemnly for a long moment, and the sloppy grin re-emerged on Teddy's face only when Luna collected him from Severus.

Once the cake had been cut, Harry kept his promises to Demelza, giving her two turns on the dance floor before taking her aside and showing her the contract. "You approve, then?" he asked.

"Why did you say in there that you can't call him Professor Snape?" she asked, her eyebrows dancing up and down as if she couldn't decide whether to be curious or concerned.

"Because that's not his name now," explained Harry. "Just like my name is no longer Potter. People who are married to each other ought to call each other by their given names, don't you think?"

Demelza thought about that for a minute. "Will I have to call him Professor Prince now?"

"I expect so," said Harry. "Though I reckon it will be up to him. I know I do, since I can't say his old name any more. At least, not to him." That seemed to satisfy her since she bounded away to find someone to coax into dancing with her again.

The party, for party it most certainly was, began to wind down well after midnight. While most of their guests were staying overnight at Hogwarts, a few had decided to Floo home, and after Harry had made certain to say goodbye and thank them for coming, he leaned up against Severus and watched the few remaining dancers move around the floor. "Is Draco dancing with Neville or Luna? I can't tell," he asked with a yawn.

"Both of them, I think," said Severus after a moment's observation. "This bears watching, but not tonight. Shall we make our farewells?"

Harry nodded and came heavily to his feet. They found Arthur and Molly chatting with McGonagall and Kingsley Shacklebolt and said their good-nights before circling through the room to enjoy—or endure—hugs, handshakes and kisses from everyone. Finally, with a sigh of relief, they slipped out of the room and made their way to the dungeon, enjoying the silence of the corridors after the raucous revelry of their reception.

Harry waited patiently behind Severus as he gave the password that would allow them into their quarters. He stepped inside at Severus' insistence, only to stutter to a halt.

"P—Harry," Severus demanded when he all but fell over Harry. "What is the meaning of—" His wand was out before Harry could say a word, eyes sweeping slowly over the room before lighting upon a note propped on the mantelpiece.

My Dear Severus,

As headmistress, it is my happy duty to inform the castle when there is a change of circumstance concerning one of our professors. As such, Hogwarts bestows upon you and Harry rooms fit for a growing family. I do trust you will enjoy them.

My fondest wishes to you both.

Warmest Regards,

Minerva McGonagall

Severus thrust the note into Harry's hand and stormed through the archway that lay in the opposite direction of the bedroom.

Harry's alarm lasted as long it took to read the note, knowing as soon as he read the words that Severus had gone to check his laboratory. He wandered through the living room, easily twice the size it had been that morning, and pushed through a doorway to find a study holding two desks and a dozen bookcases. He backed out of that room and investigated the next room over, concluding at a glance that it would make a lovely nursery.

Even the bedroom was bigger, with room enough for a second wardrobe and a closet Harry knew to be much larger than it once was. There was, he was happy to note, ample space for his own belongings without crowding Severus in the least. He removed his shoes and set them in the closet before sitting on the far edge of the bed and untying his tie. A glint of gold caught his eye and he paused to study his ring, the metal shining brightly around his finger.

"They're charmed."

Harry's head snapped up at the sound of Snape's voice, and he gave him a long look before turning his attention back to his ring. "Protective enchantments?" he asked. He tugged at the ring, remembering that he'd seen something etched on the inside of Severus'. It didn't come off.

"You can't remove it," said Severus as he stepped into the room. "I apologise. I should have mentioned it earlier, but I had forgotten you would not know."

"Know what?"

"That you cannot remove the ring unless you wish to end the marriage," explained Snape. "The enchantments are not protective spells, not technically. They're within the classification of bonding spells."

Harry returned his attention to his hand and examined the ring again. It spun easily and fit perfectly, but when he gave it another experimental pull, it refused to slide past his knuckle. "What's on the inside?" he asked. "That's why I was taking it off, to see what it says."

To Harry's surprise, Severus flushed. "Runes. Odal. Wynn. Gyfu."

Harry came to his feet and padded over to where Severus stood, looping his arms around Severus' neck. The fingers of his right hand slid into the hair at the nape and tangled there. "I never studied Ancient Runes," he murmured. "So you'll have to tell me what they mean." He tilted his head, pulled Severus' head down and kissed him.

It was as explosive as a firework in a cauldron, and Harry's lips parted under the insistent prodding of Severus' tongue. A soft purr whispered out and was embraced by Severus' low moan, and the sounds tangled together to serve as the introit to their wedding night. The butterflies in his stomach turned into Atlas moths as big as his hand, and they were multiplying by the moment as they fluttered about, but Harry attributed it to the natural excitement that came with finally, finally being able to make love with Severus.

As their kisses grew hungrier and more desperate, Harry felt Severus' hand move into his hair, holding his head in place whilst his mouth was plundered. He shivered, the spark of arousal igniting a hot glow that spread throughout his body. Severus' fingers tightened in his hair and Harry's head was pulled back. Severus laved over the pulse point before latching onto the soft skin under Harry's jaw. His cock throbbed and he clutched at his husband's arm. "Severus," he whispered.

Severus pulled away with a soft nip, kissed Harry again and escorted him to the bed. "Sit, P—Harry."

Harry sat as directed, his stockinged feet resting on the floor. He gazed at Severus and leaned back, resting his weight on his hands and spreading his legs, his breath coming in increasingly ragged gulps of air.

Harry looked on with undisguised interest as Severus' pale skin was revealed and admired the lean lines of his back. Everything about Severus was hard, wiry, uncompromising. His arse was not perfect, but in the scheme of things it didn't matter to him. It wasn't only the packaging Harry was attracted to; it was the man himself. His breath caught as Severus turned, eyes focussed on Severus' erect prick, and he licked his lips in anticipation of tasting it again.

"Hold still, Harry. Let me look at you." Severus' deep voice filled the room, wrapped around Harry's body and burrowed under his skin, and Harry moaned. "I have dreamt of this moment, having you back in my bed, writhing under me, calling my name in that breathless voice of yours. I have burned for you, Harry, until I thought I would go mad from wanting you."

Blood pounded in Harry's ears and he sat up, extending a trembling hand to Severus. "But you never said anything," he said in a hoarse whisper. "Not even a hint."

"Lean back the way you were," said Snape, his voice roughening as he took a slow step forward, and Harry complied, pulling off his spectacles and tossing them onto a pillow. "If I'd told you, would you have been able to stay away? It was excruciating to see you in here almost every day, knowing that the slightest hint of impropriety on my part would see me sacked. And without the protection that Hogwarts affords me, I would have had to leave England, leave you—"

He abruptly knelt on the floor and lifted one of Harry's feet, sliding his fingers up his leg and rolling down his sock. "You are mine, Harry Prince, 'til death us do part." He removed Harry's other sock and lifted his foot to kiss the high arch. He slid his hands along the insides of Harry's legs, his fingers fanning out as they reached the tops of Harry's thighs.

Harry's eyes fluttered closed as Severus nosed over his bollocks, his trousers almost unbearably tight. He bent his knees and slid his bare feet along Severus' back and shoulders before rubbing them lightly against Severus' arms, the skin warm and soft against his feet. His mind raced as he tried to understand what Severus had admitted, though his thoughts were too disjointed, interrupted by more instinctual needs. He groaned as Severus moved his hands away and began to unbutton his robes. His first thought was to help, but he sensed that Severus wanted to savour this particular task.

By the time Severus had finished undressing him, Harry was little more than a mass of quivering desire. His cock twitched, the head already wet and glistening, and his breath caught in his throat. "Lie back, Harry," instructed Snape, and Harry moved quickly to the centre of the bed to recline against the pillows. His spectacles slid into the indentation made by his head, so he moved them as far as he could reach.

"I can see those will be an inconvenience," said Snape as he crawled across Harry's body and collected them from the corner of the mattress, folding them properly and setting them next to his wand. "Do you remember our first time together?" he murmured as he returned to hover over Harry, braced on his arms. Then Severus slowly leaned in to kiss him, his tongue delving into Harry's mouth and tasting the sweetness there.

"Oh god," moaned Harry. "I can't…god, Severus, just fuck me. It's been so long—"

Severus settled between Harry's legs and framed his young husband's expanding stomach with his hands, transfixed. He dropped light kisses over the bulge and followed the trail of hair from Harry's navel to the top of his pubic bone. "I will not apologise for my fascination with this," he said. "It is truly extraordinary." He covered Harry's abdomen with his hands and looked up at his husband. "Magic," he whispered, his wonder written on his face.

To Harry's surprise, his erection grew harder as Severus kissed and caressed his belly; instead of its making him feel freakish or unusual, he felt wanted, almost desirable, and in his experience that was a rare sensation. His legs fell open in invitation, and he moved his left hand to stroke Severus' hair.

"It's so much bigger now than the last time you saw it," he murmured.

"And it will grow larger still. You're only halfway through, but you are not alone, Harry. I'm with you now." Severus turned his attention to Harry's cock, licking over the head and around the crown, rolling the foreskin back and feasting on the velvety flesh. He wrapped long fingers around the base, sucking the head deep in his mouth as Harry let out a strangled cry.

Harry's fingers tightened reflexively in the bedding and in Severus' hair as Severus licked and kissed and suckled and nipped. His head thrashed on the pillow. "Severus, please, I'm…please," Harry gasped desperately. "I want you in me."

He nearly cried out in relief as Severus pulled off and whispered a spell, only to inhale sharply when two fingers breached his arse. He drew a knee up and pushed against the intrusion, hissing as they moved inside him.

"Relax, Harry," said Severus. "You already know this will not hurt." He slowly moved his fingers in and out, rotating them, stretching the muscle gently. He pressed down, sliding his fingers forward until he felt the hard nub inside and massaged it, his eyes darkening as Harry arched blindly into his touch. A whispered lubrication spell later, Severus took his own hard prick in hand and guided it to Harry's opening.

"I won't break," Harry panted. "Go ahead." As Severus sheathed himself, Harry exhaled a deep sigh of relief. Severus stilled, giving Harry time to adjust to his girth, and Harry reached up to touch Severus' face. "You feel so good there," he murmured, pulling Severus down in a hungry kiss.

As their lips met, Severus began to move in long, slow thrusts. Harry braced his foot on the bed as his hips came up to meet him. Severus brushed against his prostate, and sparks burst behind his eyes, the pleasure almost overwhelming. Tension built, spiralling higher and higher, and if there were words in Severus' guttural moans, Harry couldn't tell. He moved his hand to his prick, gripping it hard enough to provide the sort of friction he preferred, and pulled twice. His entire body constricted, then clenched hard around Severus as he spilt a stream between the press of their bodies.

As Harry soared in the afterglow, Severus thrust hard and fast, over and over until he drove in deep and froze, his entire body tensing as his bollocks tightened and he came, head thrown back, mouth open and eyes hot on his newly wedded husband. "Harry," he breathed, collapsing against Harry's chest. "My Harry."

After a moment they eased apart, their still-ragged breath the only thing breaking the silence. Severus whispered cleaning spells and waited for Harry to settle into a position he found comfortable, then covered them both with a pair of thick duvets. "Don't worry about waking me. It is immaterial to me if you snort, drool, or fart in your sleep, as I will undoubtedly do the same. This is your home and our bed. We will learn to share this space without killing each other."

"Thank god for the Fidelius clauses," yawned Harry as he snuggled against Severus. "I love you," he murmured as Severus put out the lights.

"So you've said," Severus replied softly. "Good night, Harry."

When Harry walked with Severus into the Great Hall for breakfast the next morning, it was to thirty howlers and a blazing headline in the Daily Prophet:

HARRY POTTER PREGNANT

MARRIES DUMBLEDORE'S MURDERER

Chapter Text

Ch 10: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

 

The Howlers were taken care of first. With wands drawn, Severus and Harry set their jaws and opened them all at once. The Great Hall was filled with a cacophony of raised voices, and with all the noise it was impossible to distinguish each message. The gist of it was fairly self-explanatory though—most of the senders wanted Severus dead and were helpful enough to include various suggestions about how best to accomplish it.

Once that unappetising task was dispatched, Harry's eyes swept over the people now staring at him with varying degrees of pity, all of whom had been guests at his wedding and had chosen to remain overnight at the castle. He didn't want it, had never wanted it, and he refused to accept it from any of them now. But when he saw the tears in Hermione's eyes, he knew that she wasn't feeling sorry for him; she was enraged, as always, on his behalf.

His eyes moved on, seeking out something that he discovered in the silvery gaze of Draco Malfoy: guilt, remorse, and not a small degree of shame. Harry strode over, wand out, his face darkening with anger and betrayal. It wasn't enough to slice him to ribbons with curses; he wanted to tear Malfoy to pieces.

"Tell me why, Malfoy," demanded Harry as he transferred his wand to his other hand and curled his right into a fist. Just as he was about to launch himself at Malfoy, Neville stepped in front of him.

"Talk to him first, Harry," said Neville as Luna closed ranks with him. "I know you're pissed off—I would be too, but you really need to hear what he has to say."

Harry felt a presence at his shoulder and didn't need to turn to know it was Severus. He placed his wand back in his pocket and stepped back to close the small distance between them, rewarded for his restraint when he felt Severus' hand coming to rest on his shoulder. "Why are you siding with him?" he asked Neville.

Draco winced at hearing the contempt in Harry's voice.

"Because I like him," replied Neville honestly, his expression open, his eyes guileless. "So does Luna. Rather amazing, that, but he's our friend, too. Talk to him. Both of you."

A hushed murmur swept through the Hall as Severus pulled Draco aside and marched him over to the unoccupied Slytherin tables. Movement in the corner of his eye caught Harry's attention, and he frowned as Hermione came to her feet. He gave Ron a puzzled look, and then hurried forward a few steps to catch up with Severus.

Harry leaned across the Slytherin table to size Draco up, but saw at once that Draco was nearly as upset about the headline as he was. He glanced up at Severus and shrugged. They were not replaying scenes of fourth year when Draco gleefully passed information to Rita Skeeter. His confusion only deepened when Hermione sat down next to him, her eyes red-rimmed, her face pale.

"I apologise, Potter. Harry. Prince." Draco stared up at Harry. "What the fuck do I call you now? And would the two of you please sit down? You're looming, and this is difficult enough as it is."

As soon as Severus and Harry had taken a seat, Draco began to speak.

"We went to Hogsmeade yesterday. Granger wanted a book and I needed to find a gift for my parents, so we went to Tomes and Scrolls, amongst other places. She's been researching some Spanish alchemist, Sandovian or something like that, but there's nothing in the library." His brow furrowed in a manner Harry found familiar. "There should be, though. He's mentioned in most of the major Alchemy texts, and most of his work is fundamental to the understanding of the field, but the library's collection is meagre at best."

"I was trying to find a biography of Michael Sendigovius," interjected Hermione as she turned beseeching eyes on Harry. "He's the one the portrait mentioned, but I've not found a single thing. It's my fault," she said in a hushed voice. "I cast Muffliato so I could explain to Draco what I was searching for. We—we spoke about you and Professor Snape and the baby. We thought we'd be protected by the spell. It's our fault, Harry."

"The spell should have worked," Draco continued. "I saw her cast it and she's powerful. No one should have heard us. The shop was nearly empty since most everyone was at the train station. I saw four, maybe five other people in there, excluding the clerk. They shouldn't have heard us." He turned his head towards Hermione and bit his lip. "We talked about the wedding after we left the shop, debated whether we should each get you a gift anyway." His eyes shot past Harry to study his aunt Andromeda for a moment. "I thought perhaps naming-day robes, but Granger thought it was over-reaching." He huffed out a slight sigh. "She doesn't understand."

"Were you followed?" asked Severus sharply.

Hermione straightened. "I don't know. We've not had any real trouble since the War ended, except for the Slytherin thing. We were cautious, surely, but Draco's not been attacked in weeks."

Harry slumped, his shoulders hunched. "It doesn't matter. By the time school starts again it'll be too big to keep secret anyway. I wish we could have done it ourselves, told the people we wanted to know in person and let everyone else find out as they would have done without the Prophet's help." He rested his chin on the surface of the table. "I wonder how long the Howlers will last."

Severus ran his hand along Harry's spine and let it rest at the small of his back. "I would like to know more about the spell you cast. Muffliato is meant to cover a room-sized area and would easily have extended out several rows from where you and Draco were standing."

Hermione coloured slightly. "That's one of the spells we used whilst we were hunting Horcruxes to ward off Death Eaters and Muggles. It worked, too. We were nearly caught several times, but they never found us. Not," she amended hastily at a sharp glance from Draco, "until we used Voldemort's name."

"There was no one that close to us," said Draco.

"Could he or she not have knelt down to read a lower shelf? You were in a bookshop, Draco. The view is not unobstructed."

"It doesn't matter," sighed Harry. "The word is out. I won't deny it; there's no reason to." His expression hardened and his head came up to give Severus a pointed look. "I want them to issue a correction and an apology, though. You did not murder Dumbledore. That's a matter of fact—and record. They don't get to slander you. Not anymore."

"Libel," said Draco. "It's libel, Potter." He raised a hand as Harry arched his brow. "Harry. I'll work on it. It's just—"

"Yeah, I know. It's hard to remember to call you Draco, too."

Severus' eyes flickered from Hermione to Draco and back again. "You've found nothing on Sendigovius? What sources have you consulted?"

"Alchemy: Ancient Art and Science, of course," said Hermione. "A Guide to Medieval Sorcery. Notable Magical Names of Our Time." She rattled off another dozen books and journals, including her stand-by source: Hogwarts: A History. Harry was positive she'd started her research there. "The portrait said Sendigovius left with his lo—partner, Finnoc Ollivander, so I've been researching in that direction as well, and he, Finnoc, is mentioned in a number of articles on wandlore, but there's not a word on his life beyond crafting wands. The odd part is that Sendigovius turns up as well in every single work on Alchemy I've consulted, but he's not mentioned outside the field at all. It's almost as though they've both been erased, but their children weren't."

"Their children are on the family tree? But how?" As he spoke, Harry looked around before tapping his wand to the tabletop. "Breakfast for eight, please." He turned and beckoned to Neville and Luna and was unsurprised when Ron tagged along with them. By the time he turned back, his nose was twitching, his mouth was watering and Severus was pouring tea into a cup as though he was on the verge of expiring without it.

"Why did you get food enough for eight?" asked Draco as he counted again. He scooted over to make room for Neville and Luna, and Harry couldn't help but notice how right they looked together.

"Ron eats enough for two people," remarked Hermione as he sat down and immediately began to fill a plate. "Honestly, and you were halfway through breakfast when Harry came in."

"But I hadn't finished," protested Ron as he spooned a henhouse's worth of scrambled eggs onto his plate.

"Anyway," said Hermione as she filled a cup with tea for herself. "Finnoc is listed with a question mark, as if the researchers weren't certain where to place him on the chart. Same with his children. His grandchildren are well-established, though. Also, there is no one listed as the maternal parent. It is assumed Finnoc is the paternal parent as the name is typically given to masculine children."

"You can say it's a boy's name," said Harry after finishing off a goblet of pumpkin juice. "I don't think any of us would be offended by that. I know I'm not." He filled a plate with a little bit of everything and tucked in.

"Yeah, you're such a typical bloke," muttered Ron.

Severus snarled but Harry, who caught the amusement in Ron's eyes, merely laughed. He set his hand on Severus' leg and squeezed gently. "That's me, the envy of every house except Hufflepuff. I'm more of a nightmare there." He scooped up some egg with a forkful of kippers and popped it into his mouth.

Severus fastidiously prepared a bowl of porridge and sank his spoon into it. He lifted the bite to his mouth, but froze halfway there. "Have you checked the bound collection of the Annals of the Alchemy Society? I believe they might go back as far as you require." His dark eyes settled on Hermione for a moment before his attention shifted to Draco and his guardians. Luna was staring back. "Yes, Ms Lovegood?"

"The Ministry's here," said Luna simply.

"What?" Harry ignored the sharp spike of anger that accompanied any mention of that body, though the candles floating overhead flickered wildly for a moment. He turned to look at the newly arrived pair, an officious stick insect of a woman who was being followed by a fellow so bland he nearly disappeared into the stonework of the Great Hall.

They made a beeline for Kingsley Shacklebolt without as much as a glance at anyone else. The woman's shoes clipped sharply against the floor, but Harry couldn't hear the slightest footfall from the man. "What could be so important that it couldn't wait until tomorrow?" he asked in a hush.

"You, P—Harry," replied Severus succinctly. "Stay here." As the pair approached the Minister of Magic, Severus stood up, pushed his bowl of porridge in front of Neville and melted into the shadows. Ron immediately scooted over to fill the hole left by Severus.

"Minister, you must not allow this marriage to take place," declared the woman in a strong, clear voice that had the misfortune of sounding remarkably like Bellatrix Lestrange's, less the madness.

Harry couldn't see Kingsley's face, but he could see the incredulity on Arthur's and the building anger on Molly's, both of whom had been chatting amiably with Kingsley until they'd been interrupted. He suspected that McGonagall's face had hardened to flint—granite, if either of them had been in Gryffindor. "You have interrupted my breakfast to tell me to put a halt to something that took place yesterday? Let me guess, you're with Public Information Services."

The woman drew herself up and looked down her too-short nose at the Minister. "I am Amanda Pendergast. I am Chief of the Wizengamot Administrative Services, and this marriage must not stand. It must not, Minister."

"Uh-hunh." Kingsley came to his feet, and Harry had the sense he was peering down at her. Kingsley turned slowly, spotted Harry sitting with his friends and crooked a finger to beckon him over. "Mr Prince, would you join me for a moment?"

Harry exchanged a look with his friends but did not so much as glance in Severus' direction. He walked over, his head held high, and smiled at the Weasleys. "Good morning, Minister. How can I help you?"

"Harry, how many times must I ask you to call me Kingsley?"

"Please let me know when you find out," said Arthur. "I've not had any success with having him call me 'Arthur,' though I continue to hope."

Harry felt himself blush, but he deepened his smile nonetheless. "I suppose I can't complain when people call me Potter. What's up?"

"This woman is Amanda Pendergast. Her companion is—" Kingsley arched a brow. "And you are?"

The man wisped forward, and Harry couldn't help but wonder if he was fully human. He moved eerily like a ghost, despite being flesh and blood. "I am Simon Undermarsh, the Administrative Liaison to the Wizengamot." The words seemed to float to Harry's ears and materialise inside his head.

"Uh-hunh. Harry, are you married to either one of these people?" asked Kingsley.

"What?!" Harry stared so hard he thought his eyeballs might have bumped up against the lenses of his spectacles.

"Are you currently married to anyone else?" Kingsley continued in a slow voice that rumbled at a lower register than Severus'.

"You know I am. You were there," exclaimed Harry.

"What about on Friday? Were you married to anyone then?"

"No, unhappily single on Friday. Might I know what this is about, Min—Kingsley?" Harry barely spared a glance for the people from the Wizengamot.

"I have no idea, but these two want me to dissolve your marriage," said Kingsley. "I wanted to make certain there was no reason to do so. I apologise for interrupting your breakfast for such an inane thing, but it won't do to have the Departments thinking I am not responsive to their requests."

"Demands more like," muttered Harry under his breath. "No reason that I can think of, sir," he said more clearly. "Will that be all?"

"You cannot, Minister," the woman exclaimed. "You absolutely cannot give your imprimatur to this marriage. Severus Snape is a Death Eater. He murdered Albus Dumbledore in cold blood. He permitted Death Eaters to hold teaching posts at Hogwarts and is a known corrupter of children. He has served as Head of Slytherin House for nearly twenty years and to a person they went Dark."

"You came all the way to Hogwarts from London to spout nonsense at Kingsley Shacklebolt?" demanded Molly, coming to her feet and appearing as though she was about to breathe fire. "To harass my son the day after his wedding? Have you no shame?"

The woman took a step back as her jaw dropped with incredulity. For a moment, she appeared on the verge of berating Molly for her presumption, but then seemed to think better of it. She composed herself with visible effort and attempted a new tack. "Minister," she said in a honeyed voice, "I'm afraid you don't quite grasp the seriousness of the situation."

"Uh-hunh." Kingsley sounded a bit less impressed every time the sound came out of his mouth. "It may be that I don't have an understanding of the situation, Ms Pendergast, because you've yet to inform me why Harry's marriage to Severus Snape is a situation at all."

"It's Prince now," said Harry as Draco stalked over, filled with the sort of righteous indignation only a pure-blood Slytherin could manage.

"I'll tell you why, Minister," said Draco in the most scathing tone in his repertoire. His silvery eyes grew icy as he stared at Ms Pendergast and thawed to haughty as he regarded Mr Undermarsh with the same disdain he once reserved for Hagrid. "Severus Snape notified the Wizengamot that he was claiming his status of head of the house of Prince and now their precious voting blocs are disintegrating right before their eyes. The Princes were disgraced generations ago, but Snape's actions during the War have redeemed them."

Kingsley's eyes sharpened and narrowed as he listened to Draco. "You are a Malfoy, are you not? Son of Lucius and Narcissa?" A thin veil of contempt lowered over Kingsley's face, and Harry saw Draco falter for a moment. He stepped a bit closer to Draco, if only to lend him a bit of support and perhaps elevate him some small amount in Kingsley's eyes.

"I am, yes," replied Draco as his expression closed off and became neutral, almost bored. Harry could have kicked him.

"The Malfoys hold a number of seats on the Wizengamot, do they not?" asked Kingsley coolly. "Unless I am mistaken, their bloc was dissolved as part of their sentence, correct? Yet they still managed to retain their votes. In light of the circumstances, one cannot help but wonder what act of malice warranted the Prince's disgrace, if Lucius' perfidy wasn't able to manage that."

"My father lost his seat in the Wizengamot for being a traitor," Draco replied stiffly. "It will pass to me once I leave Hogwarts and the Wizengamot reinstates my family. That was part of his sentence. Because of that, the Malfoy votes are suspended until I can claim them for myself."

Harry spoke up unexpectedly. "It's true that Draco was a great bloody git and managed to cause a lot of damage whilst he was here, but he and his family have been punished for their part in the War. He's still a bit of a prat, but he deserves some credit for trying to do the right thing now. And he's really good at this political stuff. I'd listen to him."

Some of the disdain left Kingsley's face and his brow furrowed a bit as he regarded Harry. His head turned towards Draco, but his eyes lingered for a moment on Harry's face. "You said Severus had stated his intention to claim the seat the Princes once held," he said to Draco, his tone much more civil than it had been a moment ago. "How do you know this?"

Draco still appeared a bit leery of Shacklebolt's volte face, but gave him a conciliatory nod. "I researched the proper form required for the letter. It wouldn't do for the Wizengamot to refuse the request on a technicality, but it would come as no surprise if they did. They are somewhat," he paused as he considered his next word, "hostile to matters put before them from the Dark Lord's former associates. Understandably so."

"Minister," said Mr Undermarsh in a tone so oily Harry felt it slithering against his skin. "While it is indeed true that the former Severus Snape has made a claim for the old Prince seat, that has nothing at all to do with our objection to this marriage. As my colleague so ably stated but a moment ago—"

"Unless you have something more profound than 'Severus Snape was a Death Eater'," interrupted Kingsley, "and that something is a threat to the whole of Great Britain and the Ministry itself, then your objection is duly noted and your request denied. Mr Malfoy," he continued, looking sharply at Draco.

"Yes, Minister?"

"I would like to read your analysis of the effect Harry's marriage to Severus will have on the Wizengamot. Are you willing to write up a report that spells it out for me? Curiously enough," he said as his eyes cut over to Pendergast and Undermarsh, "I would rather hear it from you. I strongly suspect it will be more objective than anything the Administrative Services Department would prepare for me.

"As for you two," he said to the representatives from the Wizengamot, "I trust you will apologise to Mr Prince and his family before you take your leave of us?"

"Minister, you are making a dreadful mistake," insisted Pendergast. "This, this marriage," she sputtered, "is nothing more than a breeding ground for the next Dark Lord. Mark my words, sir. This will end badly for you and for Britain."

Harry and Draco exchanged a look as Arthur placed a restraining hand on Molly's arm. "Now see here," said Arthur. "If you are suggesting that Harry Potter is intending to take Vol-Voldemort's place, why, you couldn't be more wrong about that."

"Leave it, Arthur." Harry had a little trouble getting the name out, but he vowed to try to make a habit of using it, if only to make the man happy with him. "There's no point. Oh," he added as he glanced at the pair from the Ministry and shook his head, "don't bother apologising. I won't accept it." He turned and stalked back to the Slytherin table, determined to eat something if only to settle the strange roiling in his stomach.

"The next time I get married," declared Harry savagely as he cast a warming charm over his breakfast, "I'm walking straight out of the room and leaving on my honeymoon the moment I've said my vows." He sat back down at the table and glowered at his food, glancing up only as the pair from the Wizengamot left the Great Hall.

"There will be no next time," stated Severus firmly as he emerged from a nearby alcove and strode swiftly to the Slytherin table to stand opposite Harry. "You agreed to a life contract. It's been signed and witnessed."

"And consummated," Harry pointed out. He pushed aside the kippers and noshed on a rasher of bacon instead.

"It is irrevocable."

"You know," said Harry lightly as Severus freshened his tea, "you might want to consider making it a New Year's resolution to develop a sense of humour."

Severus' expression changed, but not in the manner Harry was anticipating. Instead of a scathing comment directed at his intellect, an opening thrust in a verbal sparring match, Severus' eyes glinted dangerously. Harry's brow furrowed. "You know something. Do you want to speak with Kingsley?"

"Yes, as well as Arthur, Molly and Minerva," replied Severus. "Where will I be able to find you?"

"Find me? Why would you have to find me? I plan to be there."

"No, and before you get your back up, permit me to explain." Severus glanced around the table and seemed vaguely disconcerted that they were all paying rapt attention. "I have suspicions, nothing more. All is not as it seems, yet I do not have enough to assemble more than the vaguest outline of the possible reasons for the Ministry's interest in our marriage. It is not merely political."

"I don't like being left out, especially if it concerns me," grumbled Harry. He felt so lost, weary of having the weight of the Ministry continually bearing down on him for reasons not of his own making. "Will you at least tell me what you talk about? It won't go any further." He gave Ron an apologetic glance. "I promise."

Severus opened his mouth to reply, but got no farther than "We will" before Luna spoke.

"Professor? I know you mean well, but Harry is much better when he's with people he trusts. And the four of us…well, six if you want to include Draco and Ginny, we all know how we fit together. You will need all of us before this is over."

"Before what is over, Ms Lovegood? The War has ended. The Death Eaters are in Azkaban. Why should I take a group of Gryffindors, and students at that, into my confidence?"

"Do you remember what I said back when school started?" asked Harry quietly, his eyes searching Severus' face. "When we were talking about who the Head of Gryffindor House should be? The War was fought by children, by me and the people sitting here. You can't allow yourself to forget that, not for a minute." Harry's head turned slowly as his eyes swept over this small band of friends who meant so much to him. "There's not a person here who's not lost someone because of Voldemort. I won't let them lose anyone to the Ministry. I don't know what's going on. I don't know what you're thinking, but we have to learn to trust each other, you and me, or we're going to be miserable together. Oh, and Luna's in Ravenclaw."

"Harry's right, Professor," said Ron. "There's none better than Hermione at research. Draco gets that whole Wizengamot thing. Luna can spot danger from miles away, and there's none better in a fight than Neville Longbottom."

Severus was silent for a moment as he studied them each in turn. Instead of foolish hope and optimism, he found a firm resolve bordering on grim determination in their eyes. "And you Mr Weasley? What particular talents do you bring to the table?"

Ron regarded Severus steadily and took a deep breath, as if he understood that he needed to earn Severus' respect if he hoped to be redeemed in Harry's eyes. "I reckon you remember our chess match. I'm still waiting for another chance." They'd played three games that took an entire afternoon and the outcome was inconclusive, though Ron considered his lose-win-draw a victory.

Severus regarded him for a long moment. "Very well. What do you believe is happening?"

"Well," he said as he trained his focus on his parents. "For an opening move, it was a right stupid one. A bit of a blunder, really. If they'd waited until the contract had been filed with the Records department, they'd have learnt there was more to it than the Prince seats. Harry, have Dad file the contract himself, and have Mr Galswell do the other paperwork as usual. There's a good chance the Wizengamot's not expecting it."

Severus nodded. "I will see to it. I believe the reason for their ham-handed approach is two-fold: they want us to know they're keenly interested, and they wanted to see Harry for themselves."

Harry glanced down at his thickening middle. He'd eschewed robes in favour of jeans, trainers and a thick jumper over a button-down shirt, and he felt confident that though he appeared a bit heavier than usual, he wasn't obviously expecting. He'd not anticipated the headline in the Sunday Prophet announcing his marriage and pregnancy, having intended to say nothing and let others draw their own conclusions. It wasn't as though anyone listened to him anyway.

"Go speak with Kingsley," said Harry in resignation. "I guess we can talk about it when it's over."

"This is nowhere near over, P—Harry," warned Severus. "This is merely the beginning."

~*~

Severus was meeting with Minerva, the guests left the castle shortly before noon, and Harry promised to let Neville know if anything important happened before everybody returned for the spring term. "We'll be at the Burrow for Christmas and Boxing Day. Maybe we can meet up in Diagon Alley?"

Neville exchanged long looks with Draco and Luna before giving Harry a weak grin. "We, uh, might have plans. Sorry, Harry. We'll—I'll owl you, though, if we hear anything." Draco regarded him coolly, though his cheeks flushed a pale pink, and Harry was convinced that if they weren't a triad yet, they would be by the time classes started again.

Harry returned to their quarters after saying goodbye to everybody and set about finding where Kreacher had put everything. After arranging the contents of the wardrobe to his liking, he moved into the study and began filling an empty bookcase with the schoolbooks he had collected over the years. Once Harry had his books put away, he went through the stacks of parchment on Severus' desk, found the second year examinations and set to work marking. Some honeymoon.

"Harry?"

"I'm back here," he called out, setting his quill down and digging his knuckles into the small of his back.

A moment later Severus paused in the doorway, his arms folded across his chest as he took in the changes to his study. There was more light by half and the room was distressingly organised, not his usual jumble of half-read journals, stacks of parchment and quills in need of sharpening. "What are you doing?"

"Marking essays. I started on the second years and was going to start on the first years when I finished with these. Why?" He smiled as he gave Severus an appraising look. "Did you have something else in mind?" Snape's scowl cooled the atmosphere considerably, and Harry gave a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry. I've not been in a relationship with another bloke before and thought there'd be more shagging. Or at least more snogging."

"I have responsibilities, P—Harry, as do you," said Severus stiffly. "Nor am I twenty. I wished to know if you would agree to accompany me to Hogsmeade. It appears I am expected to present gifts to Arthur and Molly."

"And Bill and Fleur, Charlie, Percy, George, Ron, and Ginny. They're your in-laws too, sort of," said Harry, amused by Severus' discomfiture until he realised that he would be pointed out and stared at, thanks to the Prophet. Grim determination chased the warm humour from his eyes, and he capped the inkwell before coming to his feet. "Sure, I'll go."

"Am I to understand that this will be a reciprocal exchange?" asked Severus sharply, his numerous insecurities leaking out from behind his ever-present mask.

"If you're asking if they'll have presents for you, then yes," replied Harry. "I know Ron and Ginny do, and Mrs—Molly will. Arthur, too. I can't speak for the others, though." He came to his feet and crossed over to where Severus stood, resting a hand on Severus' shoulder and kissing him lightly. "Don't worry about it, alright? You know they think of me as family, so now you're family too. Let me put on robes and we'll go."

They spent a splendid afternoon travelling from shop to shop and debating what to purchase for the members of their new extended family, and thanks to Severus' insatiable curiosity and innate talent for espionage, Harry learnt things about the Weasleys he never knew. He found out that Bill collected coins from around the world, that Charlie devoured Muggle true-crime stories like they were chocolate and that Percy would rather be put under the Cruciatus Curse than admit to a fondness for knitting.

While they were out, Harry took every advantage to touch Severus that presented itself, refusing to allow the other man to retreat into his usual shell. He wanted more from their marriage, needed more, and he had a vague suspicion that the next few weeks would ingrain habits that would later be difficult to break.

They had dinner at the Three Broomsticks after Harry voiced his strong objection to returning to the castle. Other than shopping for the wedding, this was his first trip to Hogsmeade since school had started, and for as much as he was singled out, he found that the hushed whispers that followed behind him didn't bother him nearly as much as he thought they would. He attributed part of that to being with Severus; it was the rare witch or wizard who would speculate about him within hearing range of his husband, known for a tongue that was every bit as dangerous as his wand. Once that thought had a chance to settle, Harry was able to relax and enjoy being back in the village.

They returned to the castle in near silence, their booted feet crunching old snow as they walked. Stars glittered overhead like ice, their edges sharp against the inky black sky, the hard chill drawing lines in fine detail. Small wisps of condensation puffed from their mouths like baby dragons trying to breathe fire, but managing only smoke. Harry's cheeks were pink and his nose bright red, but he refused Snape's offer of a warming charm, preferring the bite of the light breeze on his face to the artificiality of a bubble of warmth on such a winter's night.

When they reached the gates, Harry stood aside quietly as Severus cast the charm to open them, but reached out before he could take a step through. "Wait," he said, his voice cutting through the silence like the crack of a branch weighted with snow. "Before we go in…" He stepped forward and pressed his lips against Severus', kissing him softly, sweetly, until finally Severus began to respond. His lips parted under the insistent pressure, and so they stood for a moment before Severus pulled back.

"What was the reason for that?" he asked, gazing down at Harry through narrowed eyes.

"Because I wanted to," said Harry. "Because there's no one here, and we're married, and I love you." He smiled softly and stepped through the gates. "And to say thank you. I wasn't certain I'd enjoy it—being away from Hogwarts, what with that stupid article in the paper and all."

Severus fell into step with Harry as they strolled up the path to the castle doors. "As I told Arthur, I am uncomfortable showing affection in public settings, but as you said, we're married. I ask you to give me time to understand my role. I am unaccustomed to having a partner."

Harry nodded. "I never had a boyfriend, so I don't really know how it's supposed to work, either," he admitted. "But I know I'm happy, and I'm hoping that someday you will be, too."

"I am not as altruistic as you seem to believe," said Severus as he escorted Harry inside. "I would not have insisted on a life contract with you had I expected to be miserable. All I'm saying is to give us time. We will find our way. Now, come. It's getting late and I still have work to do."

"Work to do?" Work hadn't figured into Harry's plans at all. "Brewing? There's hardly anybody here," he exclaimed.

"Marking, P—Harry. I have hundreds of examinations to read and I'm behind." The lines at the corners of Snape's eyes deepened as though a headache was building, and he quickly ushered Harry down the corridor to the dungeons. The wedding had taken more time out of his schedule than he'd anticipated, even with Molly Weasley attending to the lion's share of preparations.

"Guess that means no sex tonight," said Harry dejectedly.

Severus said nothing until they were safely inside their quarters, and he closed the door softly before setting the protective enchantments that would ensure that no one could enter without their permission. He removed his cloak and stood waiting for Harry's, then hung them up on hooks near the door. He gestured to the sofa and waited until Harry was settled before joining him there.

"Listen to me carefully," said Severus, his body turned towards Harry. "Do not think for an instant that placing my responsibilities before the sexual side of our relationship means that I do not desire you. It means nothing more than I am more than twice your age and have duties I cannot ignore, no matter how much I might prefer to be engaged in other activities.

"If you thought marriage to me meant more time in my bed than out, then I must beg your pardon for misleading you. I cannot disregard my work, Harry, no matter how much I might wish it otherwise. I have very little time before I must submit the end of term marks, and Minerva has been very indulgent with the two of us. I cannot impose on her good nature much longer."

Harry observed Severus closely as he spoke, understanding in a different way how deep Severus' sense of responsibility ran. It was more of a comfort than he thought it would be. "I know I'm young, and I'll bet I know to the day how much older than me you are. It doesn't matter, Severus. Really, it doesn't, so don't take my disappointment as thinking I didn't know exactly what I was getting into. All I'm going to ask is that you let me kiss you or touch you or hug you whenever I want when we're alone in here."

"I shall attempt to return it," replied Severus and to his obvious discomfort, Harry laughed.

"That's not how it works," said Harry with a smile. "Even I know that. Just follow your heart, Severus, and maybe try trusting me for a change." He came to his feet and held out his hand. "Now you take it," he instructed with a smile, "and we go together into the study and read essays. Do you want tea? Firewhisky? Hot chocolate?"

Severus stared at Harry's outstretched hand for a moment before taking it and allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. As he stood, his gaze dropped to Harry's lips and he followed it with a soft brush of lips. "Tea, and whatever you want for yourself. Harry…" He pulled Harry close and wrapped strong arms around him, and Harry was uncertain which was more surprised at the impetuous gesture.

"Yeah," he said. "Like that." Harry returned Severus' kiss then disappeared into the small kitchen to put the kettle on for tea.

~*~

Christmas morning brought with it a snowstorm, and when Harry finally untangled himself from both the covers and Severus, he was willing to forgo the festivities in favour of burrowing back into the warmth of their bed. Two things had become glaringly obvious during the first week of their marriage: Harry was not a morning person, and Severus was.

"Alright, alright, I'm up," Harry grumbled as he cracked an eye open and reached for his spectacles. "What time is it?"

"Nearly eight o'clock," replied Severus, who climbed out of bed and started moving about the room, "and we are expected at the Burrow no later than nine. I will have your potion and some pumpkin juice ready for you once you've finished getting ready." That was another difference between them: Harry preferred to shower in the mornings and Severus sometimes took a bath before he came to bed. Harry was determined to change that somehow, especially since he strongly suspected that was why Severus' hair always looked horrible.

"You know, you could join me in the shower," said Harry, as casually as he could manage. "I could scrub that hard-to-reach spot in the middle of your back, maybe some other places?" He sat up and put his glasses on, blinking slowly as he came to full awareness.

"Why? I bathed last night." Still, Severus pulled his nightshirt off and stood naked in the middle of the room as though needing a push in one direction or the other in order to fully make up his mind.

"I know, but we got a little messy last night," replied Harry as he ruffled his hair with both hands, then ran a hand over it to smooth it into some semblance of order. "And cleaning charms aren't as good as soap and water. Please, Severus?"

A thin veil of confusion dropped over Severus' face as he stared into Harry's hope-filled eyes. "Very well." He headed toward the bathroom, not even pausing when Harry squeaked out a "Really?"

Harry scrambled out of bed, pulling his nightshirt over his head and carelessly tossing it aside. He looked up as he hurled himself through the doorway to find Severus turning on the water. Grinning widely, Harry hung a pair of towels on the rail and quickly used the toilet, blushing furiously as he did so.

Wisely, Severus said nothing, crossing behind Harry to use the toilet himself whilst Harry was brushing his teeth. From the sink, Harry moved into the shower after tossing his spectacles onto the counter. He stood under the stream, warm water cascading over him and waking him up. When Severus entered, he stepped aside and took the soap and a flannel in his hand to work up a fistful of lather.

Harry reached out and gently turned Severus so that he could, as promised, scrub his back. His eyes travelled slowly over the lean form, noting the flaws and imperfections he seldom had the opportunity to study. There was a scar that skirted the line of Severus' ribs and ran to his right hip and Harry wondered about the story behind it. There was a roadmap of small moles that started at his left shoulder, wove around his spine and finished with a subtle flourish at the small of his back, and Harry started there.

"Can you step back a little?" asked Harry in a low voice that was barely audible over the rush of water. When Severus complied, Harry started washing his back, using long, firm strokes. Arms were next and Harry was determined to be quick and efficient no matter how much his prick was throbbing. He enfolded Severus in his arms, hands roaming over his husband's chest, and pressed himself against the length of his body, the curve of Harry's gently protruding stomach fitting neatly into the small of Severus' back.

Harry rested his cheek against Severus' shoulder and hummed out an appreciative sigh when Severus rubbed his cheek against the top of his head, wistfully wishing that Severus understood how much these simple signs of affection meant to him. He reached for the container of shampoo, but before his fingers made contact, he drew in a sharp breath as his belly rolled and shifted against Severus' back.

Severus turned swiftly, his eyes wide, and Harry's hand dropped down to his side as he stared down at the gentle curve underneath it. "Merlin," he breathed as he guided Snape's hand to where he felt movement. "Can you feel it, too?" His laugh was shaky, and he understood instantly the astonished confusion and guarded joy he saw in Severus' eyes.

"It was to be expected, of course," said Severus as nonchalantly as he could manage, though Harry wasn't fooled in the least. "But…" His voice broke off and he spun Harry around and pulled him back against his chest so that they were spooned together under the stream of warm water. His long fingers spread over Harry's stomach and moved to where the movement was strongest. "It's nothing like I envisioned."

"Every time I think I'm used to it, something new happens. All those crazy attacks of nerves I was having whilst we were working on the contract and working through Molly's list? Madam Pomfrey told me it was the baby. I'd been feeling it move and didn't even know it. But this…" Harry couldn't complete the thought, bewildered yet again by how little he and the rest of the world knew about pregnant wizards.

Severus remained silent, apparently content to continue holding Harry close, as he showed no signs of letting go. The baby continued to do whatever it was that babies did, as if sensing the presence of its sire, and Harry was reminded of one of Severus' scarab beetles when flipped on its back. "This is truly extraordinary," murmured Severus, his words so soft they were in danger of being washed away.

"Then you really are okay with all this?" asked Harry uncertainly.

"Idiot child," scolded Snape lightly. "More than okay and simultaneously out of my depth. Come, we must get ready to leave." He made a move to shut off the water, but Harry stopped him.

"You need to wash your hair, and I still need to get clean."

Severus' expression turned hard. "There's nothing wrong with my hair."

Harry stepped between Severus and the shower door. "I'll put this bluntly. It stinks. Wash it yourself or I'll do it for you." He saw the flash of outrage in Severus' eyes and for a moment wondered what he'd just unleashed, but he remembered that Severus literally could not lay a finger on him in anger and held his ground.

Severus must have remembered as well. He spat something that had words in it and reached for the shampoo as Harry soaped the flannel and began washing himself, keeping half an eye on what Severus was doing and wishing his eyesight was better. "If I were you," he said, "I'd wash it twice."

"Happy Christmas," snarled Severus as he ducked his head under the stream and rinsed the shampoo out. Once finished, he pushed past Harry and slammed the door behind him, towelling off furiously as Harry finished his with own hair.

Severus' sulk lasted until the Portkey dropped them unceremoniously in front of the Burrow and Harry stumbled out of it into weather that was far more hospitable than what they'd just left.

"Thanks," said Harry as he clutched the arm that was steadying him. He glanced into Severus' shuttered face and sighed. "I'm not going to apologise, and I'm not trying to change you, either. You don't like it when my things end up on your desk; I don't like it when you let your hair go so long it starts to smell bad. It doesn't mean I'm criticising you or that I don't love you. It just means I have my limits, too."

Ever so slowly, the mask fell away and Severus' eyes softened a bit. "I am not accustomed to having anyone care about my appearance. It did not occur to me that you might be affected by it for reasons other than aesthetics."

"You're not used to having anyone care for you at all. Come on, they're waiting for us." Harry waved at Ginny, who was peering through the window at them. He took a step forward, stopped and rubbed a spot just above his hip bone. "This is going to take some getting used to," he said. He shot Severus a worried glance. "They're all going to want to touch it."

"I understand," replied Severus as he set his jaw and prepared to do battle on Harry's behalf.

They entered the Burrow to raucous cries of "Happy Christmas" and "Welcome home" and collected handshakes and hugs from nearly everyone present. Their cloaks were taken and they emptied their pockets of all the gifts they had brought. Severus unshrank them and then handed them to Harry to put under the tree.

Harry was collected up almost immediately by Ginny, Ron, and Hermione and he headed to the kitchen for a glass of pumpkin juice, chattering endlessly about what he'd been doing in their absence. Molly and Arthur handed Severus a cup of tea, the steam spilling over the rim of the cup in a lazy cloud as he greeted Bill, Fleur and Percy. Only Charlie and George hung back, their expressions cool.

"Percy, take their things up to Charlie's room," ordered Molly briskly. "Ron can stay with George tonight and Charlie can have Ron's room. Hermione's in with Ginny, and of course Bill and Fleur have Bill's room, so I think we're set. Arthur, we're going to need to add more rooms at some point." She kept a sharp eye on Percy as he collected the valise Severus had carried in, but she was on to the next thing as soon as he disappeared up the stairs.

"We've a couple of years yet before that has to happen," replied Arthur as he cast his eyes at the ceiling as though trying to figure out where in the warren of existing rooms a new one would fit. "Everybody come eat and then we'll have presents. Who wants to be Father Christmas this year?"

"Maybe you should have Snape do it," growled George, his flinty eyes issuing a challenge that raised Harry's hackles. Just then, Percy bounded out of the stairwell and paused, puffing up his chest and staring officiously at his younger brother.

"I'll do the honours, Father," announced Percy as he headed Harry off and nudged him lightly towards the long trestle table.

Harry went to stand beside Severus, unnerved by the unfamiliar undercurrents running through the room. "Maybe we should go back to the castle," he said under his breath as George's eyes narrowed. "I don't think they want us here."

Severus drew himself up to his full height, and the skills he'd honed in front of a classroom drew all eyes to him now. "Do you or do you not regard the Weasleys as family, P—Harry? If you do not, then we will take our leave of them. If you do, however, then we remain." He regarded Charlie with mild curiosity before turning the weight of his attention on George.

As if a flock of birds wheeled in flight, the entire Weasley clan rounded on George, except for Ginny. She slipped between Bill and Ron and gave Harry a hug. "It's not you, Professor," she said as she stepped back. "It was hard getting George to talk about it, but Bill and I sat down with him after we got back from Hogwarts." She glanced over her shoulder and sighed at the sound of someone trying very hard not to cry. "It's the baby, but it doesn't matter that you're the one having it, Harry. It—somehow it reminds him of Fred. He'd be just as broken up if it were Fleur. But you and Professor Snape…" She tilted her head and regarded Severus in frustrated confusion. "Prince? You bring it back to him in a way that no one else can. Mum and George have had noisy rows all week. That's how they let it out."

"It's the first Christmas without him," murmured Severus. "I will attempt to speak with him—if he is willing."

"My mum?" Harry ventured quietly, and Severus gave a tight nod. "What about Charlie?" he then asked Ginny.

Ginny frowned. "That I don't know. He laughs it off, but I know something's very wrong there." She sighed. "Maybe Ron said something stupid to him again. He can be a right git when he wants to be. Ron, that is, though I know you don't need me to tell you that."

"He's loads better than he was this summer," argued Harry. "He's not said anything really horrible in almost a month. Not since that night in Sn—Severus' rooms. You know, when he nearly got tossed out on his arse."

To Harry's surprise, Ginny chuckled. "I see now why you added that bit about your names to the contract. I thought you were both barking, but I'm having enough trouble remembering you're both Princes now, and he," she nodded towards Severus, "never manages to say 'Harry' without a 'P' in front of it."

"You have my leave to call me Severus, especially at gatherings such as this." Severus' brow furrowed. "I believe we've had this conversation once before." His head swivelled in time to see Molly pull George into an embrace and the rest of the family huddle around them. "Go. Both of you."

"Only if you'll stop calling me Ginevra," she returned with a grin. Ginny joined the group, but Harry remained where he was, slipping his hand inside of Severus'. "He's not the only one hurting right now," he said. "And my place is here with you." His reward was a soft squeeze of Severus' hand.

A moment later, George stood before them, his cheeks still wet with tears. Whether he'd come of his own volition or at someone's urging Harry couldn't say, but he met George's eyes with a healthy amount of caution.

"So, Gin said she'd spoken with you," George began hesitantly before blurting, "I just miss him, Harry. And the baby…" Fat tears cascaded down and he started to turn away, but Harry grabbed his arm and whispered, "I do, too." Harry pulled George into a fierce hug as grief tore at his soul. He blinked away the sharp sting of tears, sniffled and drew a deep shuddering breath before stepping back.

"I'm sorry, sir," said George stiffly. "It's not your fault."

Severus regarded him gravely. "Perhaps not, but I do accept responsibility for my failings. Nonetheless, I will not have P—Harry made to feel unwelcome here."

George's jaw dropped a bit and he gazed wonderingly at Harry before turning his attention back to Severus. "Blimey," he said in a rough voice. "Ginny said you did but I didn't believe her. I wish Fre-ed," his voice broke in the middle, "were here to see it. Reckon he'd have loved having a Potions Master in the family."

"Breakfast. Now," ordered Molly in her Field Marshal voice, and to a person they obeyed, though Charlie skirted around the edge of the room and took a seat as far from Harry as he could manage.

Before George could take his place at the table, Severus tapped him on the shoulder and said quietly, "I invite you to speak with me before Harry and I return to Hogwarts. It is entirely your choice, and I will take no offense should you decline."

George's eyes clouded for a moment, but he nodded. "This afternoon. It's quiet then." He swung his long legs over the bench seat and watched intently as Severus joined Harry. His eyebrows skyrocketed as Severus reached into his robes and set a phial of potion in front of each of them. "Bet if you gave me a week, I could reformulate it so that Harry's hair turns green when he drinks it."

"Umm, do I get a say in this?" asked Harry as Severus sneered in the most Snape-like fashion Harry had seen in months. Ginny and Hermione giggled whilst knowing glances were exchanged at the far end of the table.

"Can you make it so it matches his eyes?" asked Ginny in a tone that was far too innocent for Harry's liking.

"Easy peasy," said George with a grin before he paused as though waiting for Fred to chime in with the next bit. Some of his amusement fled. "What's the potion for, mate?"

"Some nutrient Pomfrey's got me on," said Harry with a shrug. "Pass the bacon, please." With that, serving dishes began flying around the table, conversation erupted and tensions eased as the family got on with the business of enjoying a holiday breakfast.

"Oh, I got an owl from Draco," said Hermione as she slathered butter on a hot biscuit. "He's been through the library at Malfoy Manor and hasn't found a single reference to Sendigovius outside of the volumes on Alchemy. He said we should check the library at Grimmauld Place and let him know if we want his help."

"Why didn't we think of that sooner?" said Ron in disgust. "You'd think after the work we did on Horcruxes we'd actually remember to search there."

"Does anyone know what became of the house after the thing at the Ministry?" asked Harry.

There was a long pause as nearly every head turned to look at Severus, who appeared to be busy attempting to dismantle a sausage into its component parts. "The charms that Moody cast to keep Sna—Severus out extended to anyone bearing the Dark Mark," said Bill. "The Death Eater who nearly captured you couldn't tell anyone the secret, so as far as the Order know, no one has set foot in there since you lot left it. If you'd like, I'll come with you to get rid of the enchantments."

"As this matter concerns me as well, I will accompany you to Grimmauld Place," declared Severus.

Harry shook his head. "Not until after Bill has had a chance to go through it."

"Nonsense," scoffed Severus. "I am more than able to protect myself. I was your Defence Against the Dark Arts instructor, P—Harry. You, more than most, know what I am capable of."

"That's not it," said Harry and a note of sadness entered his voice. "I've seen the protections Moody set up, Severus. You haven't. It has nothing to do with how good a wizard you are. You don't want to be there. Moody knew you well."

"Harry's right, sir," said Hermione. "It's pretty horrible."

Ron's eyes narrowed. "Did Mad-Eye know? About the plans you and Dumbledore made, because it seems to me he must have done. Otherwise it wouldn't have worked."

Some of the colour leached from Severus' face and he nodded. "Ten points to Gryffindor," he said softly. "Moody was our fail-safe. The Dark Lord thought him utterly mad and discounted every word out his mouth. He believed that his imprisonment by Barty Crouch, Jr had driven Moody out of his mind. If I'd been found out, Moody was to deliver the sword to you as well as your instructions." Severus released a long, slow breath. "He was a good friend and played his part well."

There was a sudden silence as everyone busied themselves with their meals and Harry rested his head against Severus' shoulder for a moment, before setting to work on his own plate of food. All throughout the exchange, Charlie continued to keep his head down and his thoughts to himself.

Once their breakfast was eaten and the kitchen cleaned for the next round of cooking, they assembled around the tree where, true to his word, Percy began distributing the gifts. Harry started to make himself comfortable on the floor between Hermione and Severus and was roundly castigated—with reason, as it turned out, as he found it more difficult to get up off the floor than he expected.

"It's only the beginning," said Molly with an understanding smile. "Are you having any back pain? Swollen feet? Ankles? Find yourself making more trips to the loo?" Each time Harry shook his head in the negative, she looked more and more perplexed. "Are you quite certain you're expecting?" she asked.

Harry laughed as he worked his way into the small space on the sofa between Severus and Hermione. "Yes, and I'll have you know Madam Pomfrey asks me the same things. 'Disgustingly healthy' is how she put it. No cravings, no mood swings, no heartburn. She did say I should be careful who I say that to, though, since I guess I'm having an easy go of it." He looked over in surprise as Charlie suddenly busied himself behind the tree, but a package soared into Percy's arms, and Harry figured that Percy had missed one.

"Don't worry, dear," said Molly with an all-too-knowing glint in her eye. "If you're having an easy time of it, the baby will make up for it when it arrives. Go ahead and open your presents, everyone. If we do this one at a time, we'll still be here at New Year's."

Harry ferreted out a familiarly shaped package and unwrapped it eagerly, knowing it would be the jumper Molly had knitted for him. He pulled it out and laid it across his lap, then removed the jumper he was already wearing. He held the new jumper up, expecting to see an enormous H in the centre, but instead he saw SPH worked in dark green yarn on a dove grey background. The cuffs and collar had been banded with the same dark green, and Harry grinned as he pulled it over his head.

"You have one as well," crowed Harry. "Open up and see if they match."

Someone must have forewarned Severus, because he opened the package with no fuss whatsoever. He held up the jumper and showed it to Harry; it was the reverse of the one Harry wore, and Severus nodded his thanks. He stood without urging, calmly removed his usual teaching robes and pulled the jumper over his head. The soft wool made his freshly washed hair stand on end, and Harry bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. Had Severus been a handsome man, Harry would have thought that he looked like a fluffy black kitten, but there was no force on earth—not even the Imperius Curse—that would get him to admit that out loud.

"I 'ave somezing that will 'elp wiz your 'air, Professair," said Fleur with a sympathetic smile. "I use it on my own to keep it from flying about." She tossed her head to Hermione and Ginny's barely muffled snorts, but even Harry had to admit her hair shimmered like a wave of silk and looked just as smooth.

"That will not be necessary," replied Severus as two spots of colour rose in his cheeks.

"But it is!" exclaimed Fleur, springing lightly to her feet. "Come wiz me, 'Arry." Taking his hand, she pulled him towards the stairway, and Harry shot a look of panicked resignation over his shoulder. He knew that he'd come to no harm; Fleur rather liked him, though he was completely immune to her Veela charms. He heard Hermione speaking in sharp tones, but couldn't tell if she was telling Ron to put his tongue back in his mouth or complaining to Ginny that Ron was drooling over his sister-in-law.

Harry obediently followed Fleur into Bill's room and waited as she sorted through the jumble of vials and tubs crowding the surface of the chest of drawers, rather taken aback by the sheer quantity of things Fleur apparently thought essential for maintaining her beauty. "My Grandmere makes this for me and Gabrielle," she said in her musical voice. "I will owl her for ze recipe. It will help with your Severus' 'air. Just rub it on your fingairs and run it through his 'air. It will make ze huge difference. And 'Arry," she added, her eyes a little sad, though Harry couldn't figure out why, "he may have a liking if you are to do zis for him." She pressed a round jar into his hand and kissed him on both cheeks.

"Thanks," said Harry as he slipped it into his pocket. Whether he would find the courage to try it on Severus remained to be seen. He wouldn't mind Severus with a head of glossy black hair, but it wasn't his call to make.

Harry returned to the front room with Fleur and gave Severus a shy smile before reclaiming his seat, then reached for the next gift on his stack as Severus tore through the wrapping on a fairly substantial box. As Harry unwrapped a book from Hermione—it was almost always a book—he kept an eye on the present in Severus' lap.

"Err, thanks, Hermione," he said as he stared at the cover, which featured a heavily pregnant witch wearing a beatific smile and little else. Expecting the Unexpected When You're Expecting flashed between pink and blue, whilst in the background brooms burst into flame, flowers died and were reborn and the cover disintegrated, only to reform when he touched it. He flipped through it and turned beet red at some of the animated illustrations. "Hermione…" he said weakly.

"I know, Harry, but the only other book on magical pregnancies is an obstetrics text, and I already know you'd never open it."

"I'm not sure I'll open this one, either," he managed through his mortification, wishing that there had been an edition that wasn't illustrated. "Can you charm it so the pictures don't move?"

She took the book from him with a sigh. "I'll work on it."

"I do appreciate it, Hermione," insisted Harry, "but really, I don't need to know about fertilisation in quite that level of detail."

Ginny, Molly and Fleur snickered as Ron demanded to see what was so horrible that Harry turned as red as a beet. Harry chose not to explain and watched instead as Severus removed the cover from the box resting on his legs. Molly had knitted a warm, thick blanket of variegated green that was guaranteed to last, she said, through four babies. Severus blanched a colour that nearly matched the lightest shade of green as he listened to her words.

"Here, open this one," said Harry, pulling a package from the bottom of Severus' pile. "Not a baby thing, I promise."

"Is this from you?"

"Yes," Harry admitted.

"Then I prefer to save it."

As Harry opened Ron's gift of a pair of Quidditch gloves charmed to adjust to the outside temperature, Severus instead unwrapped a phial of thick, orange-red, viscous fluid set in a box packed tight with Venomous Tentacula seeds. The phial itself was almost pulsing with magic. Severus pulled his wand and was about to levitate it when Charlie spoke up for the first time since they had arrived.

"Don't use magic on it, and for Merlin's sake, don't open it anywhere near Harry," he said gruffly as he pushed away from the wall and stalked over to where Severus sat. "One of the Chinese Fireballs laid a clutch of eggs but chose a bad place to nest. A Horntail discovered it and tried to destroy it. Since we were already nearby trying to get a count of the eggs, I was able to collect the yolk from one of the ones that broke before it spoilt." He ran a scarred hand through his hair. "It's really weird stuff, highly magical, but I have no idea whether it's any use in Potions. If it is, you'd be the one to know. If it's not, well, it's the thought that counts, right?" His face twisted into a perverse caricature of a smile.

Before Severus could reply, Charlie shot Harry a look of such fury that Harry recoiled in alarm. He opened his mouth to speak, but Charlie had already stormed off to the kitchen, rummaging through the cupboards for something to drink.

"Ron, have you had a row with your brother?" asked Arthur quietly.

Ron shook his head. "I've not had a chance to say a word to him, not even hello. He's been ignoring us since he got here, 'cept for George. I heard them talking a bit last night."

"We were talking about Fred," George volunteered. "But he's been worse today than he was yesterday."

"I'll see if he'll speak with me," said Bill. "We used to share everything, and we're still deep in each other's pockets. But let's get the rest of these presents opened up first. It's Christmas, for Merlin's sake. Time to make merry."

There weren't many left and before long, the only gift still wrapped was Harry's present to Severus. Harry's heart was hammering and his stomach churned, wishing Severus had attached a lot less significance to it. Or that he'd put a lot more thought into it. "I really wish you hadn't waited. It's nothing special, just something I found that I thought you might like."

"I'll be the judge of that, P—Harry," said Severus as he removed the paper with as much care as he had every other present he'd opened.

"You know, people are going to start thinking my name is Perry," said Harry nervously.

"Relax. Even if I don't like it, do you believe me so crass as to say so?" Severus turned the book over and read the title whilst pretending not to notice Harry nodding. Outside the Covers: Stories of the Rest of the Wizarding Families of England. "What is this?" he asked, his voice filled with curiosity. He opened the volume and scanned through the table of contents.

"I'm not really sure," admitted Harry. "I saw it in the Genealogy section that night we were in Scrolls and Tomes and recognised a lot of the names in there. There's even a section on the Princes and what happened to them. I'd not seen anything like it before, and with the Wizengamot thing, I thought it would be useful."

"Mmm."

Severus' reply made little sense to Harry until he noticed that his husband was already engrossed in the chapter about the Bones family. He sank back against the back of the couch and exchanged a relieved smile with Hermione.

It took several tries for Arthur to get Severus' attention and once he did, he turned to smile at Harry. "I don't believe you have anything to worry about as far as your gift to Severus is concerned. But there is one more gift remaining. Harry, would you show Severus to Charlie's room?"

Severus swallowed heavily as Harry glanced around for Charlie. His eyebrows knitted together in confusion as he came to his feet, and his frown only deepened when Severus refused to meet his eyes. He glanced at Ron and Hermione, then Ginny, George, Bill, Fleur and Percy. Most of them were every bit as bewildered as he was, but Bill's smile was almost impossible to read. It was oddly sentimental, but Harry couldn't piece together why it might be so.

"Third landing, second door on the right?" he confirmed quietly and found himself at the head of a parade. He drew in a deep breath, seeing that the family fully intended to afford him no privacy when he discovered whatever was waiting for him upstairs. He mounted the steps with resolve, his shoulders drawn in and his chin tucked down against his chest.

As if sensing Harry's disquiet, Severus turned to Arthur and blocked the staircase. "Would you allow us a few minutes?" he asked quietly. "I believe Harry would be more comfortable if he wasn't the centre of attention."

"Very well," said Arthur with an easy smile. "I'll hold off this lot. You take Harry up." His smile changed a bit and became a touch more paternal, a bit warmer than it had been a moment ago. He seemed to understand better than anyone else present how Severus might be feeling. "Take all the time you need."

Harry was waiting at the second landing, visibly relieved to see Severus' head emerge in the stairwell with no one in pursuit. "Thanks," he murmured and turned to clamber up the steps to the third floor. A moment later he pushed open the door to the room that was occupied only when Charlie was back from Romania, Severus a step behind.

A wide bed sat in the middle of the room and posters of dragons guarded the sleep of anyone resting there. Volumes about Magical Creatures, Quidditch and, naturally, dragons filled a tall, narrow bookcase situated near a window that had clearly been installed by someone who'd had no concept of the word straight. An enormous wardrobe sat against the wall opposite the bed, and Harry was amused by the stuffed kneazle peering over its edge. Their valise sat in the centre of the mattress, and Harry turned to face Severus, his eyes filled with questions.

"It's here." Severus led him around the bed and stepped back.

It was carved of alder, the fine grain polished until it glowed. The spindles were turned and the headboard had Snitches carved into it. A golden peg shaped like a wand locked the basket of the cradle in place so it wouldn't swing. The bedding was a soft yellow, and unicorns meandered around the padding that protected the lower part of the railings. Harry gulped as he pictured a black haired baby sleeping soundly, its little round rump high up in the air.

"That was yours," Severus said as Harry took a step toward it, his hand outstretched to touch the foot board.

"What?" he said hoarsely, whirling to stare at Severus, eyes wide. "What do…? That's impossible. It can't be mine. The house at Godric's Hollow was nearly destroyed when Voldemort tried to kill me. I've seen it, with Hermione, when we were hunting."

"Filius and I went to Godric's Hollow," said Severus, his voice thick. "Not long after we learnt about your pregnancy. I wanted to see if anything that had belonged to your mother could be salvaged and passed on to you. You had outgrown this and your parents had stored it in a corner of the attic, no doubt in anticipation of giving you a brother or sister one day."

Harry's heart constricted and he fought to draw in air past the huge lump in his throat. Memories rose unbidden, as clear as his mother's eyes, and he was struck again with the realisation that he was only a very few years younger than they had been at the moment of their deaths. Had they known then, as he lay sleeping in that very cradle, that their days were marked? Had they vowed to continue the fight against Voldemort even after he'd been born, or had they stepped away from the front lines in favour of keeping their son safe?

"You—you don't think it's cursed? That it won't bring us bad luck?" he asked in a near-whisper as his fingers hovered above the smooth wood, afraid to touch it, lest he bring the wrath of the Fates down upon his head.

"I should think just the opposite," Severus said as he stepped forward to lay a comforting hand on Harry's shoulder. "And I asked Bill to check the cradle for curses, even after Filius and I had examined it. You are the Boy-Who-Lived, and I would think the cradle blessed to have held you. Any child who slumbers there should be loved as much. Don't you agree?"

Harry pulled off his spectacles, turned inside the circle of Severus' arm, buried his face in the side of Severus' neck and concentrated on breathing, just breathing. His emotions were running amok: grief, joy, nostalgia and remorse wrapped in a barbed-wire tangle of guilt. He shivered and, as Severus' arms held him close, released the breath he didn't know he'd been holding in a wet sigh.

"Have I done wrong by you?" asked Severus quietly, the only indication thus far that he was still terribly uncertain about the choice he had made.

Harry stepped back and gazed soberly at Severus, squinting a little to bring his face into clearer focus. He shook his head slowly. "It's a bit much to take in is all. I have almost nothing of my parents. My Invisibility Cloak, a few photographs, a letter to Sirius from my mother. I read the notes left for me at their house, I know they were loved, but I figured anything not nailed down had been stolen. You saw what happened when Gryffindor Tower was reopened. Mundungus isn't the only one with sticky fingers."

"I will take you inside once you've finished school, and we can see if there is anything left that you would like to keep. The house is yours, as are the contents." Severus cupped Harry's face with hands stained by years of brewing. "I will not allow you to come to harm there."

"Other than seeing it a year ago," said Harry in a rough, low voice, "my only memory of the house is a bright green flash and hearing my mother screaming. Sometimes I think I see her hair, but I don't know if that's my imagination."

Colour leached from Severus' face as he pulled Harry close. "You remember Lily's death?" he asked in a high tight voice very unlike his usual tone.

"It's what I hear when Dementors are near." The sudden scream of terror and the more horrifying silence. Brilliant green light the colour of death. A sharp burst of pain forever marked by a bolt of lightning. The throaty roar of a motor bike. The sense of flying. Harry's earliest memories.

"Do you wish to keep the cradle? It's understandable if you do not."

There was safety in Severus' arms, security in his warmth. The baby rolled then, and if Harry was still ambivalent about the cradle, the slow movement inside of him made up his mind. "It's perfect. I'm going to move it to the foot of the bed so we can show the others. And then I'm going to find Charlie."

Harry stepped out of Severus' embrace and picked up the cradle, finding it heavier than he expected. He managed no more than a step before a spell snatched it out of his hands and guided it into its new place.

"I despair of you ever remembering that you are a wizard," said Snape, pocketing his wand. "Why do you want to find Charlie?" he asked as Harry walked through the doorway to bellow down the stairs for the others to come up and see.

"Because he's been a good friend to me, especially when Ron was being an utter berk about us," he explained as everyone poured through the doorway. As expected, the women squealed and Harry rolled his eyes. Percy and George stared at the cradle as though trying to work out what the fuss was about, but Bill and Arthur spoke to Severus in tones too low for Harry to hear.

Something in his face must have given him away, though, as Ron and Hermione took him aside. "What is it, Harry?" asked Hermione, her eyes searching his face. Even Ron wore an expression of concern.

"That was mine when I was born," said Harry softly. "Severus and Flitwick found it at the house in Godric's Hollow. I've no idea why they even went looking for it."

"Oh, Harry," breathed Hermione as her eyes filled. She stepped forward and hugged him hard, whilst Ron awkwardly patted his back. Out of all of them, Hermione alone had been with him when they saw where it had happened, helped him find where his parents had been buried, knew how bittersweet this moment was for him. It was why Hermione would always be his closest friend.

He held her for a moment, thinking of snow falling, of a wreath of white roses, of Christmas songs sung in a nearby church, and he wished for five minutes with his parents so he could share his happiness and his fears with them. His stomach shifted and he closed his eyes, bracing himself for the squeal that was surely to follow.

She didn't disappoint.

Hermione clapped her hand over her mouth after her ear-piercing shriek and stared wide-eyed at him. "Was that the baby!" she exclaimed, drawing every eye in the room. Her hand shot out and gently prodded Harry's belly until she found the spot where a small bump could be felt rolling under her palm.

The next thing Harry knew, the rest of the women were mounting an invasion, determined to feel for themselves, and Harry felt hopelessly outnumbered. "I can't believe you didn't tell us," exclaimed Molly. "How long did you intend to keep this a secret, young man?"

"Until it was born?" asked Harry in desperation.

"It is so strange to see a man who is pregnant," said Fleur. "But it is 'Arry, so perhaps not so strange as all that," she added with a Gallic shrug. "I am so 'appy to be Tante Fleur. Bill and I will practise with yours until we have our own bebe."

"I'm a bit surprised Snape isn't playing knight in shining armour and rescuing you," said Ginny with a broad grin. "He seems the sort." She brushed a kiss over his cheek, and her grin shifted to a warm smile. "It's great to see you so happy." She looked over at Severus and was amused to find herself the recipient of a heated glare. "He looks jealous. Go calm him down."

It was the opening Harry needed, and he wondered if perhaps Ginny had engineered it. He excused himself from the small group and joined Severus. "I'm going to go find Charlie," he murmured, giving Severus' arm a light squeeze before he moved to leave. He turned back when Severus caught his arm and read a warning to tread lightly in the depths of his eyes. His own eyes softened and he nodded, giving the cradle a last glance before he left the room.

Harry found Charlie in the orchard, blasting away the few leaves that clung stubbornly to the branches. He stood quietly for a moment and observed as he tried to get a sense of Charlie's mood before he said anything. When Charlie finally glanced in his direction, his blue eyes were filled with so much pain that Harry nearly staggered from it. He took a slow step forward, then another and another until they were standing side by side.

Charlie blasted another dead leaf from a tree.

"I thought I was over it. Thought I'd put it all behind me. 'No kids for you, Charlie. You're queer.' I used to tell myself that a lot when I was your age." Another leaf exploded into smithereens. "I was up early this morning—time zones, you know?" he said wearily. "Mum and Dad had set aside the Sunday Prophet, the one with the article about you. 'Harry Potter Pregnant'." His hand moved in an arc, as if revealing a banner headline.

He turned and looked at Harry. "I was gutted. After all those letters, you couldn't even tell me yourself? I had to find out through the fucking Prophet? Mum and Dad never told me. Ginny never mentioned it, and she's pretty much the only person who tells me anything. Except for you.

"I was so damned happy when you came out. Dad wrote me and we talked a bit about Ronnie, the things he said, how we both hoped that having you as his best mate would make him see we're normal. Then this happens." He gestured at Harry and went back to destroying leaves.

"Ron's been really good about it," said Harry. "It's been a bit hard to wrap my head around, actually. He still gets weird about me and Sn—Severus. Pulls faces until he says something really stupid. But he's taken the rest in stride, unless someone asks about how it got made."

"How did you make it?" asked Charlie, his eyes filled with the kind of desperation Harry understood all too well. "Was it a potion? Dark magic? A ritual? It's something I can do as well, right?"

It killed Harry to deny him, but he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Charlie. No one knows how it happened. Hermione's been researching it to death, but she's not found anything yet. Pomfrey doesn't know. Severus doesn't know, and forget about asking me. It was the first time we'd had sex." He felt his cheeks flare with colour. "The second time was last week."

"You really don't know?" For a moment, Charlie sounded close to tears, but he shoved his disappointment back into the box where it lived with the rest of his regrets.

"I really don't. If I had the first clue, I'd tell you. I'm sorry."

"No, I'm sorry, Harry. I've treated you like shite all day." Charlie gave him a long look from under his lashes. "I envy you. That's it, really. It's my problem, and I'll deal with it." He blew out a frosty breath. "I can't say I'm happy for you. I'm not there yet, but I'll stop being a prat. You don't deserve that, especially not from me."

"Why you, especially?" asked Harry, weighted down by guilt that wasn't his to carry.

Charlie gave him a very crooked smile. "We queers need to stick together. There aren't that many of us, you know." Another leaf was put out of its misery—assuming dying leaves were miserable at all. "What did Snape give you?"

Harry smiled softly. "The cradle I slept in when I was little."

"He's a good man, Harry. You're quite fortunate."

"Yes," replied Harry as his smile deepened. "I am."

Chapter Text

Ch 11: The Curse of the Defence Professor

The rest of Christmas Day passed in a pleasant blur of food and quiet conversation. At one point, Severus and George sequestered themselves in Arthur's workshop for a long overdue conversation, and when they returned there appeared to be a mutual understanding between them, which Harry was grateful to see.

After that, Severus and Ron sat across a battered chessboard and waged a hotly contested war for hours. Arthur and Percy joined in at one point, and it made Harry smile to see Severus deep in consultation with Percy over the next move. A knot of tension he had been carrying eased when Severus actually laughed at some off-handed remark Ron made, and whilst he accepted the fact that Ron and Severus would never be friends, he was pleased that they at least were able to tolerate one another.

Harry blushed furiously when they finally excused themselves to go up to bed that evening. It was absurd; everyone knew that he and Severus were a married couple, but he suspected it was in response to the knowing gleam in George and Charlie's eyes. To his surprise, however, Charlie followed them up the stairs, halting them just before they walked into the room where they'd be spending the night.

"Two things," said Charlie as he grinned at Harry's discomfiture. "First, silencing charms cannot be overrated, especially in this house. Don't ask me how I know that. Second," he leaned in and glanced around in a conspiratorial fashion. "Ron's in the room above yours."

"I know that," replied Harry with a bit of a confused frown. "I've stayed here loads of times."

"Yes, but Severus hasn't," replied Charlie, his blue eyes twinkling. "And somehow Ron managed to work things so that he's sleeping alone. I just wanted to warn you that," his voice dropped to a whisper, "I've set a Caterwauling Charm on his room in case Hermione decides to sneak in. If you set your charms right, you should sleep through it. Mum says you need your rest."

Harry clapped a hand over his mouth as Severus stared up at the ceiling as though he might be able to see into the room above if he looked hard enough. "Who else knows?" whispered Harry.

"Mum, Dad, Bill, and Fleur. And me, of course, since I set the damn thing," replied Charlie. "Anyway, I couldn't really announce that downstairs, now could I?" He grinned. "Good night, and Harry…" His smile faltered.

"It's okay," said Harry softly. "I understand."

"Good night, Charlie," said Severus. He closed the door and found Harry standing beside the cradle again, looking down at it and running his fingers lightly over the top rail. "Are you certain you are comfortable with that? I can put it back, and we can find another."

"Do you have anything from when you were little?" asked Harry.

Severus hesitated. "Yes," he said flatly when Harry turned to look at him.

Harry knew not to push, though he did wonder what relics of childhood Severus had chosen to save. Probably something like his first cauldron. For all Harry knew, it was in Severus' personal laboratory back at Hogwarts.

He peeled off his new jumper and folded it carefully, running his hand over the soft wool before setting it aside. After fishing his nightshirt out of the valise, he padded barefoot down the hall to the bathroom, emerging a short time later ready for bed. Whilst Severus was off performing his own night time routine, Harry tidied the room, making certain the gifts they had received were properly stored. Once satisfied, he climbed in bed, tossed his spectacles onto the nearby stand and curled into his habitual loose ball.

Severus joined him a few minutes later, but when he failed to put out the lights, Harry rolled over to see what he was doing. In Severus' hand was the jar Fleur had given him and Severus was removing the top. Once it was opened, he gave the contents an experimental sniff before dipping a cautious finger inside. "Professional interest," said Severus dismissively.

"Of course," agreed Harry. "Fleur said her grandmother makes it for her. I didn't ask about it, but I reckon it works." When Severus scowled at him, Harry shrugged. "Even you have to admit she has nice hair."

"I admit to noticing nothing of the sort," said Severus.

"I can put it on your hair if you'd like, see what it does," offered Harry. "She told me how to use it."

"No," replied Severus.

"Yeah, she kind of told me you'd say that. Not in so many words, but I figured that's what she meant."

"And what did she say that led you to that conclusion?" asked Severus as he rubbed the gel between his fingers. He sniffed it again.

"Nothing, really," replied Harry. "It was more her expression. Like she knew it would be pointless trying to do something nice for you, though I could have told her that. She meant well, and she does have pretty hair." He turned back onto his side and left Severus to his investigation. He heard the lid screw back onto the jar and shifted around a bit as he tried to get comfortable.

The lights went out a moment later and to Harry's delight, Severus spooned up against him, his hand moving over his rounded stomach. The baby moved, and Harry was certain he felt the tingle of magic against his skin. He pressed back and lifted his head for a moment as Severus slid his arm underneath for Harry to use as a pillow.

"Why did you accept Fleur's potion if you knew I'd not use it?" murmured Severus, his hand moving in wide, slow circles.

Harry reached forward with his right hand and found Severus' left, then trailed his fingertips over his slightly roughened skin. "Well, maybe the baby will have your hair. I thought I'd put it under stasis and see. I already know nothing works on mine," he murmured back.

"Is my appearance so very important to you?" Severus pressed a kiss behind Harry's ear

Harry tensed for a moment, and he knew Severus was aware of it. "I prefer you clean. Do I wish you would take better care of yourself? Yes, but I'm not going to insist unless it becomes an issue. You're important to me. Haven't you figured that out yet?"

In reply, Severus' fingers slipped under the fabric of Harry's nightshirt to slide over bare skin and come to rest once again against the soft swelling. "I should think our understanding equal in that regard." His hand drifted higher and he coaxed Harry's nipple into a hardened nub before rolling it gently between his fingers.

"Ohh." Harry shivered, the tiny hairs on the back of his neck rising as Severus' hand moved over his flesh. He pressed his hips back against Severus' groin, feeling the hardness of Severus' prick against his arse, and moaned softly. "Don't toy with me, Severus, please," he whispered. "I want you so much."

"What do you want, my Harry?" murmured Severus before nipping lightly at Harry's ear. His fingers continued to pinch and tug lightly at Harry's chest, then he curved his hand and raked his nails lightly over Harry's skin, bringing another intense shiver to his young lover.

"You. In me. Touch me, Severus," whimpered Harry as he released his hold on Severus' hand and reached for his prick, now hard and throbbing deliciously. "I need—I need, please. Tell me what—How do you—? Oh god, yes, right there." Harry gasped as Severus touched his opening, not hearing the whispered spell, but feeling a sudden slickness there.

"Roll forward just a little and see if you can pull your knee up against your chest," instructed Severus as he pushed two fingers past the ring of muscle and scissored them lightly. "Are you comfortable enough?"

"Yeah," said Harry, exhaling explosively. "More. Need more." He tightened slightly around Severus' fingers before pushing against it, ready for the burn of being stretched by Severus' prick, wanting to feel full and connected, craving the intimacy that came with their joining.

Severus lined up and sank slowly into the tight heat of Harry's body, groaning softly as Harry keened. "Shhh. The others will hear you," he said quietly as he rocked his hips gently until he was fully sheathed. "Ronald is above us. Percy is in the room next door, and the walls are thin."

"What about the charms?" hissed Harry before he moaned again. He twisted so his shoulders lay flat and reached up to pull Severus' head down for a kiss. He cried out into it as Severus raked over the spot inside that sent fireworks exploding through his body and their kisses turned wet, sloppy, desperate.

"Will you—?" asked Severus as his mouth moved along Harry's jaw, "hands and knees?" He drew back as he prepared to withdraw for a moment, but Harry chased his mouth and sucked on his tongue before nodding. He rolled away for a moment and Harry scrambled into position, holding onto the headboard, his legs spread wide, the curve of his gravid belly edged in moonlight.

No sooner had Harry grasped the headboard than Severus thrust inside him, one hand clutching Harry's hip and the other splayed possessively over Harry's abdomen. He drew back, slammed back in and his hips began to piston in smooth, hard strokes that drew his prick over Harry's prostate again and again.

Head thrown back and eyes heavy lidded, Harry arched his back slightly, canting his hips as he welcomed each of Severus' powerful thrusts. Gooseflesh pebbled his skin as beads of sweat dotted his forehead. Merlin, how he loved this! His body was malleable, pliant, moulding and shaping itself to Severus' every whim. Ripples of pleasure coursed under his skin, his breath coming in explosive grunts, and as the sweet tension built higher and higher he turned his head and sank his teeth into his forearm to keep from crying out.

"Harry," gasped Severus as he spilt deep, painting Harry's passage with his seed. His hand followed the contour of Harry's body down to his prick and he wrapped long fingers around the hard column of velvety flesh, dragging his thumb across the head and pulling Harry's orgasm out of him.

When it was over, Harry removed one hand, and then the other, from the rails of the headboard and lowered his chest to the bed, breathing heavily as he clenched tightly around Severus' softening prick, still buried in his body. He was only vaguely aware when Severus finally separated from him, not moving until his heart stopped beating quite so hard. He crawled back to his side of the bed and collapsed onto his side, sighing contentedly as Severus curled around him again.

"I like it when you put your hand here," he murmured, interrupted halfway through by an enormous yawn. He guided Severus' hand back to his stomach. "Can't really tell you why."

"Go to sleep, Harry," mumbled Severus. "You can work it out another time."

They fell asleep almost immediately, their bodies entwined under the covers, and slept soundly until an ear-piercing shriek startled them awake. "Guess Hermione's in Ron's room," observed Harry sleepily. He yawned and rested his head on Severus's shoulder, nearly missing the softly muttered, "Indeed."

~*~

After their return to Hogwarts, Harry spent the intervening fortnight working on further repairs to the castle and attempting to update the Marauder's Map to conform to some of the changes reconstruction had wrought. He owled George for advice and learnt that the spell Hermione had used in the Department of Mysteries would also update the map if he activated both whilst walking through a corridor or climbing a flight of stairs.

To his pleasure, he discovered a staircase that started near the basement and went clear to the seventh floor. Because it was so seldom traversed, it was not guarded by any of McGonagall's enchanted suits of armour, so Harry felt no compunction about using it to access the parts of the castle that were still off-limits. It was also a convenient path between Gryffindor Tower and the dungeons, and he couldn't wait to show it to Ron and Hermione—and Neville and Luna and Draco and Demelza.

On one level, it amused him that he could now count Draco amongst his closest friends. On another, it still bothered him that Parvati and Seamus were still so determinedly anti-Slytherin. The ghastly things Seamus had said on the eve of his wedding still rankled; though he had pushed them to the back of his mind, they continued to surface from time to time.

One evening, he wandered up to the seventh floor by way of this passage and eventually ended up pacing in front of the portrait of Barnabas the Barmy, immersed in thought. When, during the course of his contemplations, a door appeared in the wall opposite, Harry opened it with more caution than he'd ever previously shown at Hogwarts.

Inside, the Room was neither a raging fire nor burnt out husk; what Harry found instead was a compact space that resembled a blend of Severus' and Lupin's offices. Books lined one wall and along another were jars, bottles and phials of ingredients Harry couldn't identify by sight. In the centre of the room, standing at a writing desk, was a youngish man dressed in clothing that would be considered old-fashioned, even by Wizarding standards.

Harry crept forward, not wanting to startle the man, but unwilling to take him by surprise either. "Hello?"

The man turned and lit up with delight. "Harry Prince. What a pleasant surprise. I cannot tell you how much I have wanted to meet you. I trust you're well?"

The man was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, his burgeoning belly heavy with child. The finer details—his dark brown hair, his olive skin, his breathtaking beauty—were utterly lost on Harry, whose eyes widened at the words. "Who are you? How do you know who I am?"

The man chuckled, a rich sound that reminded Harry vaguely of Severus—if the man would ever stoop so low as to show outward signs of amusement. "Hogwarts knows you, therefore I do as well. I am Sendigovius—at least, what remains of him." The man's dark eyes were warm, his smile understanding.

Harry reached out and clutched at the chair opposite the desk. "But…" he sputtered, utterly taken aback. He fell into a chair and studied Sendigovius carefully. "The Room doesn't work that way," he said after a long silence. "Trust me, I know."

"I do trust you, Mr Prince," replied Sendigovius. "But who are we to question magic?" When Harry said nothing, he continued. "I was a professor here for a time, until I met my Finnoc. Then this happened." He rested his hand lightly on his stomach and dropped his eyes to his protruding stomach. "In my time, the Wizarding world was a perplexing miasma of conflicting beliefs. There was no objection to my love for my Finnoc, but to conceive a child…" The light faded from his eyes. "We were unwed, my Prince. We were shunned."

Harry's skin crawled, and the baby chose that time to wake from its nap and squirm. "Call me Potter," he said. "Or Harry. I am no one's Prince."

Sendigovius offered a sympathetic smile. "As you say. Finnoc and I married in Gretna Green, relocated to Bristol for a brief period, and then moved to Bath where I bore him two more children. I adored him, dear Harry. That we have been erased…" For a moment, he appeared frustrated, as though he wanted to say more but was constrained from doing so. "It is of no consequence," he said dismissively.

"But it is," protested Harry. "Hermione's been searching for ages. We can't find anything. And we have so many questions."

"I cannot tell you all you wish to know, young Harry. But you may ask me anything you wish, and I will provide what answers I can," said Sendigovius, and Harry was inclined to believe him.

"No one knows anything," said Harry, balling his fists in frustration. "Not Madam Pomfrey, not Severus, and certainly not Hermione. Has this happened before?" he pleaded, gesturing at their abdomens.

Sendigovius started to speak, but before he could utter more than a syllable or two, his words turned to gibberish, as if the Room had imposed a Langlock spell on him. All Harry heard was "It was-" before the sounds became incomprehensible.

"Okay, bad question," said Harry. He suspected it would do no good to ask Sendigovius to indicate how often, if at all, with a display of fingers. The Room would likely place him in a full Body-Bind, and he didn't know how dangerous that might be given the advanced state of his pregnancy. "Did you know anyone else who was pregnant?"

To his dismay, Sendigovius started to laugh. "But of course, young Harry. Nearly every woman I knew during my time. It was not uncommon for women to bear seven, eight, nine, ten children before dying in childbirth." The lines on his face, such as they were, deepened. "If you meant men such as ourselves…" Once again, Sendigovius was frustrated by his inability to speak, though he nodded his head furiously before that, too, was stopped. "The Min…"

"Alright, I get it," said Harry, his frustration evident. "No more history questions." Perhaps he should speak with the ghosts. "You and Finnoc had three children?"

"Yes," replied Sendigovius, visibly relieved. "All survived into adulthood and had children of their own. Two boys and a girl, though that is not the order in which they arrived. Rosalind was sandwiched between her brothers."

"They're all listed as Ollivanders," said Harry.

"Naturally," said Sendigovius. "They were Finnoc's children. By the time our first, Magnus, was born we were married. Then Rosalind, then Forseti. They were beautiful children and so po—" Again he was silenced, his speech cut off by whatever spell had conjured him. "My scholarly works were published under the name Miguel Sendigovius. I took Finnoc's name as my own, but his family disavowed him when they learnt of my condition, so we adopted the name Wy—"

"Got it," said Harry. The enchantments in place were embedded in the stones of Hogwarts itself, and he felt a cold chill run through his body. "Can I ask you a personal question?" he inquired after racking his brain for a topic that wouldn't result in a dead end.

Sendigovius' eyes were more understanding than Harry was prepared for. "The Room summoned me for you. There are forces at work I do not understand, but I will answer what I can. Ask away, young Harry."

Harry fidgeted for a moment before screwing up his courage. "How does it come out?"

~*~

"He couldn't tell me anything important," murmured Harry later that night as Severus curled around him, a cool hand resting on his stomach. "He couldn't tell me if this was common, but if it didn't happen, if we were the only ones, wouldn't the Room let him say so?"

"Possibly, though the portrait appears to indicate otherwise," said Severus into the darkness. "Go on."

"He and Finnoc adopted another name like we did, but the Room wouldn't let him say it. It started with an 'H' or a 'W'. Maybe a 'Ch' that sounds like someone clearing their throat. I couldn't tell. That's why Hermione can't find anything, because we don't know their name." Harry thought for a moment as he ran his fingers lightly over Severus' forearm. "I do know that Magnus Ollivander was born in Bristol, though, and that the Ollivanders cut off contact with Finnoc because they weren't married when Magnus was conceived. Were records kept back then?"

"There are records," replied Severus slowly, "but it is unlikely we will find any. Bear in mind that the Ministry was not formed until after the Statute of Secrecy was enacted and the Church kept records of when children were born before then. In those days, relations between wizards and priests were strained, which is one of the reasons the Statute was enacted. Those were dangerous times for our kind and a pregnant wizard would have gone to great lengths to remain undiscovered by Muggles. Still, it might be worth a second look at the Ollivander family tree."

"There was one other thing he said before the Room silenced him," said Harry. "He said, 'Keep an eye on the Min,' but I don't know if he was going to say Ministry or Minister. I reckon he was going to say Ministry as we have Kingsley's support."

"Do not be too quick to jump to conclusions," said Severus. "Arthur believes that Kingsley will call an election soon. There are those expecting Fudge to run for office."

"Ugh." Harry grimaced, and gave serious thought to lending his name to an 'Anyone But Fudge' campaign. "When?"

"If Kingsley announces when Arthur suspects he will, then possibly as soon as mid-February."
"Are the Wizengamot involved in elections?"

"Not in the least. Surprisingly, it is the most democratic thing we do, possibly the only democratic thing we do. Any witch or wizard who has come of age or left Hogwarts is eligible to cast a vote."

"What about the ghosts?" asked Harry lightly as he settled against Severus' chest.

"There are very few ghosts who can manipulate matter that exist in the corporeal world, but if a ghost can cast a ballot, it may vote," replied Severus.

"You're joking!" exclaimed Harry, rolling back a bit and craning his head around to peer through the darkness at Severus.

Severus kissed him lightly. "Ask the Grey Lady. Or the Fat Friar. I believe both of them have the ability, but they've lost interest in worldly affairs. You need not worry they will amass enough of the vote to affect the outcome. New ghosts have not the ability; old ghosts have not the interest. Get some sleep, Harry. The students return tomorrow, and it will be a busy day."

"Yeah, I know," muttered Harry as he pummelled his pillow into shape and then flung himself down on it with a sigh.

"You sound less enthusiastic than I would have thought," said Severus. "Don't you want to see your friends?"

"Would you if you were me?" asked Harry.

"Hmm," replied Severus as he, in turn, shifted around to get comfortable. "Probably not."

~*~

It was with some trepidation that Harry loitered in the Entrance Hall to greet Ron, Hermione and the rest. In some ways, this reminded him of the beginning of his fifth year, when the Prophet thought him barking and demonstrated no reluctance in saying so. This time, though, they'd managed to get it right, more or less, and Harry had decided early on that he would admit the truth if anyone was clever enough to put it all together.

The Entrance Hall was filled with smiling faces and chattering voices moments after the first carriage arrived, everyone eager to sit down and enjoy the feast that was awaiting them. Harry hung back in the shadows and waited for his friends, knowing they'd be among the last to arrive. He scanned the crowd, searching for Ron's red hair, and pushed his way through the throng when he spotted it coming through the doors.

"Harry!" Ron called and Harry worked his way to the tight knot of familiar faces, greeting them with brief hugs and handshakes. He lifted an eyebrow as Luna, Neville and Draco walked in together, Luna's arm around Draco's waist, Neville's arm around Luna's shoulder. There was a story there, or his name wasn't Harry Potter.

"Harry!" Demelza pushed her way through and threw her arms around him. "You're bigger!" she exclaimed. "My mum and dad were so chuffed I was at your wedding. They told everyone, even Granddad, but he said that the Prophet were a bunch of cheats and he'd not believe a word of it, even if you told him yourself. Mum says he's gone a bit mental, though, so there's that. What did Professor Snape give you for Christmas?"

She was off before Harry could answer, and he shook his head as Ginny coughed behind her hand. "I'd say she's a bit lovestruck," she said, "but that's not quite right, is it? You're her hero, though."

"Yeah? I thought Ron had that honour," replied Harry, amused when Ron blushed.

"She found her way to our compartment. Cuddled up against me nearly the whole way here," said Ron. "Hermione wasn't any help at all. She thought it was cute." Ron looked as though he was about to choke on the word.

"We went to Grimmauld Place a few days ago," said Hermione as they walked into the Great Hall. "Draco even helped us catalogue the books, but we've not found anything to help us. He's been really helpful, even going through some of the old Black family records to see if he could find anything unusual. I wish you could have been there."

"It was the Blacks, Hermione," replied Harry. "There isn't much in that family tree that isn't unusual. And hello to you, too." He threw an arm around her shoulder and squeezed lightly. They walked in a cluster to the Gryffindor table, with Draco, Luna and Neville speaking together in low voices for a moment before they separated to head to their respective House tables. "What's going on there?" he asked in a low voice, nodding towards the three of them.

Hermione sighed and rolled her eyes. "It's not exactly new, Harry. Ask them, why don't you?"

"I will," replied Harry with a grin. If Draco Malfoy could forge an alliance with Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom, then there was hope for a better tomorrow, even if that was still years in the future.

He took his customary seat at the Gryffindor table, sandwiched between Ginny and Neville and across from Ron and Hermione, and leaned forward to speak in a hushed voice. "I need to speak with you when you've got time. I met Sendigovious. In the Room of Requirement." He straightened when McGonagall stepped up to the podium and waved off Hermione's hiss of indignation. "Later," he mouthed.

"Happy New Year," proclaimed McGonagall. "It is my pleasure to welcome you back to Hogwarts. I trust you have all had a pleasant holiday. A reminder to our fifth and seventh year students as we start the new term, O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s will be administered during the first week of June. Should any of you require Calming Draught, you need only request a phial from Madam Pomfrey. The use of Wit Sharpening potion will result in detention.

"On that note," she continued, "I wish to announce that Professor Snape married over the break and is now to be addressed as Professor Prince. Despite Professor Prince's wishes to the contrary, you will have a two week grace period before points will be docked for using the incorrect form of address. Enjoy your supper."

Severus stared out coldly at the students from his place at the Staff Table, and anyone who had once hoped that marriage might have mellowed him was sorely disappointed. Nearly every eye in the Great Hall then turned in Harry's direction, and he assumed that most of them had seen the headline. Most everyone wore expectant expressions, though a few were eyeing him with varying degrees of disgust.

Harry glanced across the table at Ron and Hermione and shrugged. What the school as a whole thought of him was of little concern. He'd survived far worse than this and knew without having to be told that people would think whatever they chose. But when he reached for the bowl of turnips, he saw the loathing in Seamus' eyes and drew back in surprise.

"You really are a cunt, Potter," hissed Seamus, his eyes blazing. "Did you trade your bollocks for a place in that fucker's bed?" The dishes on the table rattled ominously, and Hermione snatched up a pitcher of pumpkin juice that appeared to be on the verge of toppling over.

"Shut it, Seamus," growled Ron as he turned to stare down his roommate, his face hard. "Say another word and you'll be in the Hospital Wing for a month." Seamus reached for his wand and scrambled to his feet, only to be yanked back down by Dean, who snarled a few choice words of his own at him.

"Leave it, Ron." Harry gave a firm shake of his head. "It's not worth losing points over this," he said, though he was long past the day where losing house points mattered. He glanced at the Staff Table and noticed they were drawing attention. "Everyone settle down, unless you want Sn—Severus and McGonagall over here."

"'Severus'? You make me sick, Potter," sneered Seamus and Harry turned cool eyes on someone he'd once regarded as a friend.

"That's Prince to you," said Harry dismissively as he helped himself to a leg of roast chicken. He and Ginny exchanged a quick look, and he caught a small nod from her. At that, an unspoken signal passed from person to person and an air of watchfulness settled over Harry's end of the table as platters of food continued to circulate.

Seamus had always been hot-headed, Harry knew, and whilst he carried grudges a bit longer than Ron, he tended to see reason fairly quickly. Still, he couldn't reconcile Seamus' animosity with the boy he'd grown up with. He reached past Neville for the dish of creamed spinach and whispered, "What's with Seamus anyway?"

Neville helped himself to some glazed carrots and whispered back. "Alecto Carrow. Blames Snape for it."

"Prince," corrected Harry under his breath.

"Right," said Neville in a low voice. "Bugger all if that's not going to take some getting used to."

"Tell me about it," said Harry. "He keeps calling me Perry." He directed a warm glance in the direction of the subject of their conversation, inwardly relieved Seamus hadn't seen him do so. "Can you lot come down to the dungeons after dinner? I want to hear about what went on."

"And you still have to tell us about the alchemist," reminded Hermione. "This could be important, you know. I can't believe you didn't you owl me. Honestly, Harry, one would think you've learnt nothing."

"Hermione, there are four months 'til it's due, there are no Dark wizards trying to kill me, no one is planning to take over the world—though Severus thinks Kingsley's about to call elections—and what difference does it make if we learn anything anyway? It won't change anything."

"Don't you find it odd that the one wizard in all of history who bore children of his own is the one wizard we can find no information about?" said Hermione, undeterred. "It's like tracking down Nicholas Flamel all over again."

"Yes, but we found loads of stuff about him," objected Ron. "Once we figured out what we were looking for. Harry's right. What's the hurry?"

"Perhaps you've forgotten about those people from the Ministry," huffed Hermione, "but I haven't. There's something suspicious about all this. Did Prince…" She gave Harry an odd look and shook her head. "Did Professor Prince hear back from the Wizengamot?"

Harry shook his head slowly. "I don't remember seeing anything from the Ministry. Come to think of it, I don't remember him receiving any owls at all." He gave Hermione a pointed look. "Neither did I for that matter."

"I told you," she replied primly, "we didn't find anything—even with Draco's help."

"Speaking of Draco," said Harry as he turned to Neville. "Where does he fit with you and Luna?"

"On her left," replied Neville cryptically, giving Harry an enigmatic smile. He tucked into his meal, and the conversation quickly turned to the classes that would start the next morning.

"Has Snape said anything to you about Defence?" asked Ron as an entire meatball vanished into his mouth. Hermione rolled her eyes, though Harry, far too accustomed to Ron's table manners, barely noticed.

"No, and before you ask, I forgot to ask him about it. I've had rather a lot on my mind."

"I've no idea how you're going to sit your exams," said Ginny. "O.W.L.s were tough enough, but you'll have a newborn on your hands as well. But why would Severus have anything to do with Defence Against the Dark Arts?"

"He wants us to start working on reciprocal pair bonds," said Hermione. "We studied defensive webs first term—"

"And he's completely wrong," declared Harry, giving Ginny a smile for referring to Severus by name. "Can you think of a single moment when using the techniques he taught us wouldn't have gotten us all killed? The only time you can use spells like those is when you're already on the offensive, which makes them great if you're an Auror, but if you're in a purely defensive position from the outset, you'd best hope they've not attacked until you have the web set up."

"I dunno, mate," said Ron thoughtfully. "We could have used that in the Department of Mysteries."

"Which is my point exactly," said Harry. "We were breaking into the Department to rescue Sirius, and if we'd known about these spells back then, we would have set them up when we were trying to find the right door. Offensive tactic.

"Remus and Sirius and the other Aurors who came to rescue us didn't use them. Tonks and Lupin didn't use them at the final battle. I can't think of anyone who went in tied to someone else's spellcraft, except maybe some of the Death Eaters." Harry took a bite of his dinner. "I wrote all that in my essay."

"Oh, Harry," exclaimed Hermione. "You didn't."

"I did," confirmed Harry with a nod. "The worst part is that I can't even say Williamson is the worst Defence professor I've ever had. The only reason I don't think that he wants me dead is that the War is over, but he's fourth on the table, and I don't think he has a chance in hell of moving up."

"What would you teach the sixth and seventh years, Harry?" asked Ginny.

Harry pushed his glasses up as his brow furrowed thoughtfully. "I'd expand on what Severus tried to teach us in sixth year: work on nonverbal spells, start wandless magic for anyone showing some aptitude for it, advanced Patronuses, and how to work with a partner or in a small group. Face it, we had no idea what we were doing most of the time and could only hope we weren't walking into a trap. I think I'd add something on wandlore as well. I knew nothing about it until we spoke with Ollivander at Shell Cottage. It would have been helpful to know all that earlier, don't you think?" His eyes slid towards the Staff Table, and he recalled how very close Severus had come to death, all because Voldemort knew next to nothing about wands.

"Do you think the position is still cursed?" asked Neville.

"I hope so," said Harry, his dislike for Williamson evident. "Though I should ask Demelza what her year is studying. Quirrell wasn't horrible, except for the fact that he had Voldemort sticking out of the back of his head, but then, he wasn't nearly in Lupin's league, either." He picked at his food for a moment, not certain if he wanted more to eat or not.

"I wonder when we'll get our marks. They're late this year," said Hermione.

"It was all that testing at the beginning of the term. It threw everything out of whack," said Harry. "We spent the week after Christmas marking essays," he added glumly.

Ginny gave him a sympathetic smile. "Not quite how you envisioned starting married life?" she asked as Ron suddenly became very involved in his plate. Neville and Hermione exchanged an amused look.

"Okay, I admit it. I was hoping for loads more sex," said Harry as Ron blushed, "but Severus has ingredients to prepare, potions to brew, lessons to plan, term marks to work out, oh and don't forget we had a wedding and Christmas that took up loads of his time. We'll get it sorted." He glanced around at his friends. "I know I'm not the only one here who, err, celebrated."

"At least you and Severus were supposed to be in bed together," said Ginny as Hermione bent to bury her face in the crook of her arm. Ron's ears were beet red. "It's also why I didn't ask Michael to come to the Burrow."

"What about you, Neville?" asked Harry, determined to ferret out some small nugget of information.

"Ahh, but that would be telling—or not," replied Neville, leaving Harry no more enlightened than before.

As their empty plates vanished and pudding appeared, McGonagall once again took the podium. "Now that everyone has had an opportunity to eat, your Heads of House will distribute your marks from the autumn term. I will be speaking with several of you individually after you've been excused for the night. You will know who you are."

Williamson came down from the Staff Table and sat at the near end of the Gryffindor table with a thick stack of parchment in his hand, and Harry shot him an uninterested glance as he reached for a treacle tart. Mid-year marks weren't anything he worried about overmuch; at the N.E.W.T. level they were little more than an assessment of his readiness to sit the exams. Still, given the ups and downs of the term, he was more than a little curious about how he'd fared.

Harry and his friends waited until the rest of the House had collected their marks before seeing Williamson for theirs. As he stood waiting, he noticed Williamson staring at his stomach and his eyes narrowed. "Is there a problem, Professor?" he asked coolly.

Williamson's eyes were slow to reach Harry's face. "I…no, Mr Potter. No problem at all. The headmistress has informed me that you have moved out of Gryffindor Tower. I wish you all the best." He handed Harry a folded piece of parchment with his name printed carefully on the outside.

Thinking that was a curious thing to hear, Harry stepped away and waited for Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Neville to get their marks before they read them together. His eyes skimmed down the column, and then he blinked and looked again.

Charms: Exceeds Expectations
Defence Against the Dark Arts: Troll
Herbology: Acceptable
Potions: Exceeds Expectations
Transfiguration: Exceeds Expectations

At the bottom was a very brief note from McGonagall: See me.

"He failed me," growled Harry under his breath. "Williamson failed me."

"What did you expect, Harry?" asked Hermione as Ron peered over his shoulder to see for himself. "You told him he was wrong, you disagreed with all of the accepted theories, wouldn't even consider that there might be a better way."

"But the theories don't work, Hermione," said Harry. "If they did, don't you think we'd have seen signs of it?"

"It doesn't matter if they work or not," insisted Hermione. "The point is that you have to write out an answer that's acceptable, no matter what you think personally."

"And is that what we should have done with Umbridge? Just learn the theory and hope it all worked out right in the end?" Harry fired back.

"No, of course not, but that's not the same." Hermione gave him one of those smiles that made him feel like a first year again. "Go see what McGonagall has to say. We'll speak about the other tomorrow."

Harry nodded and turned to Ron. "How did you do?"

"Eh. Passed everything, but didn't cover myself with glory. I leave that to Hermione. Mum will be pleased, though." Ron passed his marks to Harry to show him a row of Acceptables. "First time I've ever done better in Defence than you."

"Yeah, well, Hermione reckons I gave it away." Harry shook his head in disgust. "Best be on my way." He collected hugs from Ginny and Hermione before walking through the Great Hall, drawing the stares of everyone still there.

~*~

When he reached the seventh floor, Harry found a tight knot of O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. students congregated around the gargoyle, each wearing similar expressions of gloom and doom. He paused for a moment to take stock before skirting around the group to alert the gargoyle to his presence.

"You can wait your turn with the rest," grumped the gargoyle, and Harry stepped aside to stand next to Anthony Goldstein and the handful of other seventh years queuing up to see the headmistress.

"What'd you fail, Harry?" asked Anthony as a fifth year Ravenclaw Harry recognised from Quidditch came up and felt his stomach.

"Hey!" Startled, Harry stepped back, nearly crushing the foot of a Hufflepuff who'd manage to work her way behind him. He turned suddenly and met another inquisitive hand wrapping around his waist to feel the bulge for herself. He pulled his wand and cast a mild Stinging Hex as he fought his way out of the throng, wishing the baby would worry less about Golden Snitches and more about Harry's personal safety. "If you're trying to figure out for yourself if the Prophet got it right," he said in a cold voice that cut through the din, "then yeah, mostly."

He stood against the balustrade, wand out and eyes wary. To his relief, Anthony came to stand next to him. "I failed Defence," said Harry, the irony not lost on him. "What about you?"

"Arithmancy," replied Anthony. "How could you fail Defence?" he asked as the gargoyle called out "Lucy Morgan." A look of fear flashed across the face of the Ravenclaw who'd demonstrated more cheek than common sense, and she quailed as she stepped onto the spiral staircase that carried her up to McGonagall's office.

Harry spent a moment explaining before falling into the same dismal silence that had plagued everybody up to his arrival. He maintained his guard, though, until he was the last one remaining, then relaxed and rested his wand hand on the narrow shelf formed by his protruding stomach, keeping a watchful eye on the entrance.

When Theo Nott stepped out, Harry gave him a brief nod, but halted before setting foot on the stairs. "Where's Michael?"

Nott shrugged. "Snape thought it'd be alright to come up alone. Everyone's in their common rooms so getting back to the dungeons should be fine."

Harry hesitated. "I expect he's right, but be careful going back all the same." At Nott's roll of the eyes he gave a wry grin. "Yeah, okay. See you." He trotted up the stairs and knocked on the door, entering upon McGonagall's invitation.

He walked into the office that was beginning to feel like a second home and sat unbidden in the chair opposite the desk. He rested his elbows on the arms and laced his fingers together and waited for her to begin. His eyes roamed over the portraits, noting who was awake and which portraits were asleep—or pretending to be. He nodded to Phineas Nigellus, smiled at Dumbledore and winked at a woman in a gown of pale gold who seemed to like him.

"You are the last student I expected to see," said McGonagall severely.

"I am the last student," said Harry. The door opened behind him and he turned to see Severus striding across the office. His stomach suddenly plummeted to his toes and his confidence vanished. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Severus took up his customary position beside the tall window that looked out over the lake.

"You have been one of the top students in Defence Against the Dark Arts since your first year," said McGonagall. "So you can imagine my surprise to see you'd been given the grade of Troll. I know you've had a difficult term, Mr Potter—"

"Prince," interrupted Harry, amused that McGonagall, of all people, got it wrong. "Or Harry if you'd prefer."

"Harry," she said with a glint in her eye. "Explain, if you would be so kind."

Harry did. "He's wrong and I wrote why. I said why the theory wouldn't work except in maybe one or two circumstances, and the problem he set didn't include either of them. I answered the questions, Professor. I just didn't give him the answer he wanted."

"Why ever not, Harry?" growled Severus from his spot near the corner. "If you knew he wanted another answer, why didn't you write the one he was expecting to read?"

"Because the answer he wanted was wrong to begin with," said Harry. "Let's say you wrote an examination question that said something like, 'A dunderheaded Gryffindor used the incorrect solution for setting stones in a castle wall. You are walking under an archway he repaired when part of the ceiling falls on your head. Due to the quick actions of a Slytherin, you do not sustain a concussion, but you do have moderate injuries, including internal bleeding and several broken bones. Madam Pomfrey treats your injuries with Wiggenweld Solution and administers the correct dosage of Blood Replenisher. Provide the ingredients for each potion given and indicate whether she should give you Sleeping Draught or Dreamless Sleep. List the ingredients for both as well as any potential contra-indications for either.'"

McGonagall gave a slight cough as Severus' eyebrows drew to a fixed point. "Have you been writing Severus' examinations for him?"

Harry laughed. "No, but I've all but lived with him for six months. I'm beginning to know how his mind works." He looked up at Severus, his eyes fixed on his face. "The answer you would want, besides brewing instructions for all the potions named, is Sleeping Draught and how much to give, but with the way the question is phrased I would have to say Dreamless Sleep and you'd give me zero. Isn't that right?"

Severus exchanged a speaking look with McGonagall. "If you gave any answer other than 'Neither,' I would give you a zero, taking into account your current state."

"I'm saying if I were normal," said Harry, exasperated. "That's a fifth year level question, right? Or nearly? By then I was having nightmares almost every night. Sleeping Draught is the right answer, except for someone like me. I'd have had screaming nightmares and been in worse shape than if I'd been given nothing at all."

"Did you provide the theory he was seeking?" asked McGonagall as she unrolled a scroll of parchment Harry recognised as being his. Even upside down he knew his own writing.

"Yes, and I'd like Severus to review my examination, if that's all right."

McGonagall arched a brow at him. "Absolutely not. You are the last person I would expect to trade on your relationship with my deputy head. I am most disappointed, Harry."

"No," exclaimed Harry. "Severus is the only Defence professor I've had who is still alive, except for Lockhart but we can't really ask him anything. And Umbridge is in Azkaban." No one needed to say that was where she belonged, though the sentiment hung in the air. "It has nothing to do with us being married. If I'd been given a Dreadful in Transfiguration and it was because I disagreed with the book, I'd ask you to read it because you taught me, not because you're the Headmistress or my former Head of House."

McGonagall handed the parchment over without another word and Harry held his breath whilst Severus read it. "This is the standard theory, P—Harry," said Severus with a frown. "You've laid out the premise but chose not to apply it."

"Do you know anyone who's ever used it?" asked Harry, his voice tinged with desperation. "Has it ever been battle tested? Would you take the time to link up your magic with someone else when you've an army in front of you?"

Severus read through Harry's answer again, tapping his finger against his chin. "No," he said finally. "I will admit I've never seen the technique used, though I remember learning it for my own N.E.W.T." His gaze shifted to McGonagall. "I recommend allowing him to proceed. I would also like to suggest we forward this to the Ministry for review."

"Your mark stands," McGonagall said sharply when Harry slumped in his chair in relief. "You're given permission to continue in the class, and I suggest you provide the proper answers in the future, whether you agree with them or not. Do you understand?"

Harry nodded. "There is one more thing, though," he said cautiously, concerned about pressing his luck. "Williamson wants us to study bonding spells used in Defence, and I think there's supposed to be a potion involved. I'd like to be excused from that, if it's all right. Or should I get a note from Madam Pomfrey?"

"A potion?" McGonagall asked in alarm as Severus glowered. "The only other course that uses potions is Charms. I will speak to Professor Williamson, but given the circumstances, please have Madam Pomfrey provide you with a note."

"Will that be all, Minerva?" asked Severus as Harry came to his feet.

McGonagall's face softened. "Yes, I should think so. Goodnight Severus, Harry. I will see you both tomorrow."

~*~

The start of term proved to be the worst of Harry's seven years at Hogwarts, and by the end of the first week he would have cheered at the sight of a 'Potter Stinks' badge or at having the rest of the school avoid him like the plague for being the Heir of Slytherin. Even to be thought barking would have been a relief. Thanks to the Daily Prophet he had become a curiosity again, a thing to be stared at, mocked, reviled.

Harry couldn't decide which was worse: the elbows and hands that "accidentally" connected with his midriff, the sniggering jokes about him being a girl, or the caustic remarks made about Severus on a regular basis. "No chance it will lose its glasses if it has a nose like Snape's," he heard as he headed up the Grand Staircases for class one day.

"Bet it comes out looking like a Blast-Ended Skrewt."

"Could there be anything more disgusting than seeing Snape naked?"

"Yeah, Snape's kid naked." There was an ugly cackle, and by the time Harry reached Charms, his ears felt like they were about to burst into flame. He unpacked his schoolbag with hands shaking with rage and slid into the seat behind Ron and Hermione. It would be just his luck to have a burst of wild magic from the baby create an actual hole under his seat that he could sink into, and he made up his mind to shut out as much of it as possible.

The problem wasn't so much the remarks that were directed at him, but the whispers calling for the baby to be drowned at birth dug under his skin and festered there. Chief amongst those saying any child of Severus' was doomed to be Dark and needed to be destroyed was Seamus Finnigan, and Harry took to eating at the Slytherin table just to avoid having to hear him.

Harry sat down at breakfast Friday morning to find that Hermione had launched into her studies with more than her typical zeal. Rather than take just Ron and Harry under her wing, she had expanded the size of her nest to include Neville, Draco, Blaise, Michael Corner and Daphne Greengrass as well, creating detailed revision timetables for each.

"Uhh, thanks, I think," said Harry as he looked over his daunting schedule of classes, study and revision before leaning over to read Draco's over his shoulder. Draco was carrying almost as many subjects as Hermione, and it worried him a little that she had bracketed out time to sleep. He handed his timetable to Ron without comment as he turned his attention to his plate. When they'd prepared for their O.W.L.s, they'd had to negotiate for time for Quidditch and Harry figured Ron hadn't had to fight that battle twice.

"What are these green squares on Harry's?" asked Ron between bites. "Right here," he added as he pointed them out.

"They're for the baby," replied Hermione primly, colouring a little. "It's due on the first of May, so I've blocked out one day on either side, plus that day as well."

Harry choked out a laugh as Ron gave a slow blink. Even Draco appeared taken aback. "You know that's not how it works, right?" said Ron, his eyes wide with astonishment. They all knew Hermione set great store by following rules, but Harry thought the past year had cured her of that for good. "It will come when it comes, at least that's what Mum says, and after having seven of us, I should think she'd know."

"But all the books say that magical pregnancies are very predictable, and Harry knows exactly when conception took place." At this, Harry blushed. "But even still, he should be able to revise at least."

"But Madam Pomfrey doesn't know if that's the same for me," said Harry. "But she doesn't think there will be anything to worry about as far as N.E.W.T.s go, so let's not talk about it right now. Can we meet tonight? I've still not had a chance to tell you about the alchemist."

A guilty expression passed from person to person around the table, and Hermione's gaze became far too sympathetic for Harry's taste. "Well, you see, Harry, I promised Ron I'd spend time with him after I was done tutoring the O.W.L. Arithmancy students."

"It's been a week, Harry," continued Ron ruefully. "How about tomorrow after lunch?" he suggested brightly.

Harry nodded. He understood the appeal of spending time with one's boyfriend instead of a friend. "What about you, Draco? Are you busy tonight?" He grimaced at how that sounded before giving Draco an abashed half-smile. "Sorry."

"I've plans with Luna," said Draco, almost managing an apologetic expression. But his eyes took on that silvery hue that indicated he was inwardly very pleased. "We're harvesting flowering stinksap pods, or something like that. I said I'd help."

If Draco's plans involved plants, then it was a good bet that Neville was going to be included as well. "It's all right, you know," said Harry as the rest of his smile emerged. "I'm sure I can find something to do to keep busy. I'll see you after Potions. I have the first years this morning." His smile faded as he watched Seamus collect a small crowd of upper years, their faces hard, their eyes cold. He wondered how many of them would find an excuse to dig an elbow into his stomach under the guise of the normal bustle of moving from class to class.

"I'll walk with you down to the dungeons," said Ron in a clear voice that seemed to carry throughout the Great Hall. "I've got to go with Demelza to the common room to get her Charms book. Isn't that right?"

From the far end of the table, Demelza nodded as she quickly shoved a book onto the seat and sat on it. She flashed a smile, her eyes filling with relief, and Ron winked at her. By the time Harry was ready to leave, he had small army surrounding him—the first of many as it turned out.

~*~

January continued to fling itself at the castle walls in a fit of pique that brought with it great boulders of snow and the endless howls of an enraged wind that undertook to exploit every chink in the castle's armour. The dungeons, cool even at the height of summer, were positively chilly, which matched Harry's disposition almost perfectly.

It wasn't just the weather that contributed to Harry's growing sense of isolation. As Harry spent more time with Slytherin House, the contempt he saw in Seamus' eyes chilled his blood, and it struck Harry on a visceral level that Seamus was becoming dangerous. Even Dean was beginning to distance himself, and that intensified the vague alarm that ran through Harry.

Severus was adding to Harry's woes. It wasn't only that they didn't have much time to spend together, but that Severus spent what little time they did have making certain Harry was taking his potions, eating right and getting enough sleep. Harry was feeling more like an incubator and less like a person every single day.

The guardians were becoming busy again as well. Though there was nothing Harry could point to directly, there was an air of watchfulness that he couldn't escape, and Seamus was at the centre of it. The Head Boys and Girls were taking points by the score, but the only effect that had was to drive Seamus and his small band of malcontents further underground. Harry knew full well that Seamus cared as little about the House Cup as he did, and having spent a year skulking around Hogwarts, Seamus knew how to avoid detection. It was worth any number of points to get in another dig where they could.

Everywhere Harry turned he saw unfriendly eyes. Conversations would stop when he entered a hallway, and as the taunts and jibes grew more pointed and cruel, he started avoiding the more populated areas of the castle, seeking hidden corridors and forgotten stairways. The barbs tossed casually in his direction too closely mirrored his own thoughts, and as his shape grew more distorted, the questions he thought he'd laid to rest resurfaced. How had this happened? What was he? Why me?

Harry slung his schoolbag onto his desk in Defence on Friday afternoon, ready to be done with the latest horrible week, and waited for Draco to join him. As his classmates trickled into the room, he pulled out his copy of Practical Defensive Magic and Its Use Against the Dark Arts, Volume 3, and tossed it onto the desk before dropping heavily onto the bench, resting his chin in his hand and staring blankly ahead.

"Wake up, Potter," said Draco in his typical drawl, stepping over the bench to take his usual place beside Harry. Most of the class had already arrived, except for the guardians, who were late more often than not. He set out parchment, ink, quills and book in his fastidious manner, which Harry barely noticed anymore.

"'Bout time you got here," grumbled Harry. He sat up straight and pushed back against the elbow—he was pretty sure it was an elbow—poking him in the side. "Would you quit that?" he growled under his breath.

"I didn't touch you," protested Draco, earning a sigh from Harry in response.

"Not you," replied Harry, glancing over as Neville, Ron, Hermione and the other seventh year guardians streamed in. "I think someone's just finished a bit of a nap."

Draco gestured with his head, his eyebrows lifted in silent question. Harry nodded as he tried to encourage the baby to find a different position. For a moment, Draco's face went perfectly blank, and his eyes followed Williamson as the professor made his way to the front of the room. Then he turned back to Harry with a tentative, almost hesitant look on his face. "May I…?" he asked as he moved his hand about an inch.

Harry was quick to nod, given that Draco was one of the few people who made a point of keeping the curious away from him. He waited a moment, then took Draco's hand and planted it firmly against the spot the baby was elbowing. He pushed hard and was rewarded a moment later by a wholesale change in position. Harry let out a sigh of relief. "That's so much better."

That carefully blank expression was back as Draco pulled his hand away from Harry's side, and suddenly he appeared positively riveted by Williamson's instruction to turn to chapter fourteen in their texts. Harry couldn't have guessed what was going through Draco's mind if the contents of all his vaults at Gringotts had been at stake, but he suspected that what Draco had felt hadn't been what he was expecting.

As his classmates began to find the correct page, Harry used the noise from pages being turned to whisper, "Severus finally got a letter from the Wizengamot today."

"What's it say?" Draco hissed back.

Harry shrugged slightly as he flipped through the middle pages, keeping his head down as he felt Williamson's gaze pause on him for a moment before it moved to Draco, and looking up only after he'd read the chapter heading: Defensive Pair Bonds. "Dunno," he whispered back as soon as Williamson moved towards the front of the room. "He's not opened it."

"We have now completed our study of various formulations of cooperative defensive spells," declared Williamson as he stepped behind the podium in the front corner of the room. "And I am quite pleased to announce that most of you demonstrated an excellent understanding of the theories underpinning such spellwork and recognised the advantages of employing it against multiple adversaries."

Harry gazed coolly at Williamson, unsurprised when the professor rewarded him with a bit of a smarmy smile. "For this afternoon," Williamson continued, "we will read through chapter fourteen, and once that has been completed, we will complete the first two exercises at the back of the book that determine the person with whom we are most compatible." He displayed a conical flask filled with solution that was frothy and purple.

Harry frowned as he regarded the flask Williamson held aloft with a healthy mixture of curiosity and alarm. "I have been told," said Williamson, "that the Potions laboratory is available to students only and that Professor Prince did not have room in his incredibly busy schedule to take the time necessary to brew the potion we will be using in today's class." He managed to make that sound like a critical failing on Severus' part.

Wordless questions were flying about the classroom, many of them settling on Harry, but most of them coming to rest on Draco and Hermione, the top Potions students in their year. Harry gestured with his palms up as Hermione shot him an enquiring glance, and turned swiftly as Draco muttered, "I don't recognise that potion."

Harry flipped to the back of the book, which was used primarily by the Auror Corps for training up their members, and skimmed through the exercises. The book slammed shut. Startled, Harry looked up to find Williamson standing over him. "We are reading chapter fourteen, Mr Potter. We will begin the practical work once everyone has finished the assignment."

"Prince," said Harry coldly. "Sir," he tacked on.

"Ten points from Slytherin, Mr Prince." Williamson turned and stalked to the front of the room, his booted feet clapping sharply against the stone floor. He stood at the podium, watching intently as Harry opened his book to the middle.

Harry's eyes narrowed as he stared back, weighing the pros and cons of packing his things and leaving. There was, he knew, a small chance that if he left, he would not be permitted to return, and he needed to be able to sit the Defence Against the Dark Arts N.E.W.T. in June. Having decided to remain, he finally wrenched his gaze from Williamson and settled in to read.

An hour later he looked up to find a small glass on the desk in front of him. There was one in front of Draco as well, and Harry exchanged a look with him. At the front of the room, Williamson was holding the flask aloft again. "I will be dividing this amongst you. Once I have filled your wee glasses, you will need to add three drops of blood. I am certain most of you will be able to Transfigure your quills into a needle or pin." He began to move through the class, supervising the blood-letting and parcelling out potion.

Williamson poured a small measure into Harry's glass. "Now your blood, Mr Prince."

Harry shook his head. "No thank you, sir. I'll watch, if you don't mind."

"But I do mind. This is a class, Mr Prince, not private tuition. Your marks depend upon your cooperation."

"I've given you a note," said Harry as the colour rose in his cheeks. He did not relish discussing his condition in front of his classmates, but Williamson wasn't giving him a choice. "No potions, unless Severus or Madam Pomfrey are here."

"You will not be consuming it. You will be dipping your wand into it," replied Williamson sternly. "Now add the three drops of blood, and if you require assistance with something stiff enough to penetrate, I'm certain Mr Malfoy would be quite pleased to give you a poke." Innuendo dripped from Williamson's words, and even Draco flushed.

Harry turned the tip of his quill into a sharp blade and stabbed his finger with a little too much venom, not needing to squeeze his finger to get the amount required into the small cup. He sucked on his finger as he watched Draco manage with far more finesse, wishing he didn't sit across the room from Hermione. She'd know what to do.

"You will need to dunk the tip of your wands into the potion, then come together in the centre of the room and touch them all together," instructed Williamson after he'd measured out potion for everyone. "I will recite a spell, then everyone must take three steps back. Your wand will connect with the most compatible person, and that will be your partner for the rest of the month. Do not cast anything with your wands after you wet them."

"Draco, wait," whispered Harry. "Vanish mine after I've dunked my wand, will you?" To his relief, Draco nodded slightly. Standing up and moving just enough to block Williamson's view, Harry stuck his wand in the potion and breathed a sigh of relief when Draco managed to make the contents of the tiny glass disappear before wetting his own wand.

They pushed to the middle and got in close to Neville, Ron and Hermione. "Have you any idea what we're doing?" whispered Harry as he brought his wand up.

"No, and I don't like this either," Hermione whispered back. She looked like she wanted to deliver a lecture on the subject, and Harry felt a pang of something akin to homesickness as it occurred to him just how little time he had for his friends anymore. He'd not even had a chance to talk to her about the strange conversation he'd had with Sendigovius back before term started, and as days turned into weeks it weighed more heavily on his mind.

"You got rid of the potion, right, mate?" murmured Ron as he reached over Harry to bring his wand into contact with Hannah Abbott's on the other side of the circle. Terry Boot was pressed up against Michael Corner and Dean Thomas, and Blaise was squished between Neville and Theo Nott. Parvati was crouching below Seamus, their faces hard and their eyes glittering coldly, and Harry was filled with unease as he brought his wand up to touch the others.

Williamson spoke the incantation, there was a brilliant flash of searing yellow light, and they all took three steps back, many of them blinking their eyes. Harry, though, found himself in a back corner of the room, uncertain how he'd come to be there. His wand was still up, but unlike the others, no string of light was attached to it.

"Everyone, remain where you are," Williamson called out. "When I call your names, lower your wands and return to your seat." It took about five minutes, but Ron was paired with Hermione, Neville with Draco, and Terry with Hannah. To Harry's surprise, though, Dean was paired with Blaise and Seamus with Susan Bones. He remained in the corner until Williamson had finished making his lists and calculated how much longer it would take until the professor noticed he was nowhere near the centre of the room.

"Were my instructions unclear, Mr Prince?" said Williamson as he looked around for Harry.

"No, sir," he replied.

"Would you, then, explain why you are hiding in the corner? You were to remain where you were so we could see with whom the magic partnered you."

"I don't know how I got here." Harry's head swivelled slowly and he caught Hermione's speculative look. Something told him that one of the baby's earliest gifts would be a copy of Hogwarts: A History, so it would understand the impossibility of Apparating within the castle. "My wand wasn't connected to anybody's, though Voldemort might have cured it of that sort of behaviour."

There was a sharp intake of breath and a few shudders; even now, the Dark Lord's name had the power to terrorise. Williamson narrowed his eyes. "Very well, Mr Prince. You will partner with me. Leave your potions on your desk. I will see to them myself. Reread chapter fourteen for Tuesday, as well as pages 419 through 437 of the Appendix. Class is dismissed."

Harry seethed as he marched back to his desk, quickly gathering up his belongings and shoving them roughly into his schoolbag with hands that shook from fury. Partner with Williamson? Flobberworms would fly before he allowed that to happen. He wanted to speak with Severus, but he was still teaching and wouldn't be finished until close to dinner. "I'm going out to the pitch," he growled savagely. "I need to fly."

Draco and Ron exchanged a significant look as Neville came up behind Draco and wrapped an arm around him. Hermione was giving him the same look she gave an Ancient Runes translation that didn't come out quite right. "Mate, it's freezing out. And it will be dark soon," said Ron a bit nervously.

"Warming charms, and it's not dark yet," said Harry as he heaved his schoolbag onto his shoulder and stalked out of the classroom, missing the satisfied gleam in Williamson's eyes. He needed to scrub this week off his skin, put it in the past where it belonged. He took the stairs at a trot, ignoring the parade of friends behind him.

~*~

Harry was on the pitch fifteen minutes later, with only Ron and Draco foolhardy enough to join him, and he kicked off with a mighty push. As he soared into the grey sky, he lamented yet again that this Firebolt was not his Firebolt, and he cursed Voldemort at the top of his lungs, then cursed Sirius for dying, cursed Dumbledore for his gross manipulativeness, cursed Lupin for orphaning his son, and then just cursed.

The wind rushed past his ears, burned his cheeks and ripped through his hastily cast Warming Charms as though they didn't exist. It was not enough. Harry flew to the limits of the broom that carried him, arcing into tight curves to plunge out of clouds and skim over the dead grass waiting for spring. Ron and Draco, having no hope of keeping up, flew lazy circles over the pitch in case one of Harry's risky manoeuvres went terribly wrong.

Harry flew high enough to look down onto the Astronomy Tower before turning the rest of the towers into his own twisting slalom course, coming so close to the stone work that he could reach out with a gloved hand and touch the walls. He raced back to the pitch, his thoughts as out of control as his flying: furious, but unable to say why. After swooping down like a hawk, he pulled back sharply on the handle of his broom, snarling at the sky as he flew straight up, seeking the point at which gravity warred with magic to pull him back to earth.

The cold got to him before his anger burnt out and he tipped backwards, falling in an uncontrolled corkscrew back to earth. He spotted the pitch, the dull brown field as defeated as his mood. Just as he pulled up, he spotted first Draco's silvery hair, more brilliant against the flat colours of winter than Ron's ginger head, then an irate figure in black that gave Harry pause.

He flew slowly back to earth, stepping lightly off his broom and wiping his runny nose on his sleeve. "What are you doing out here?" he asked as he stepped between Ron and Draco, ignoring the signs that warned Severus was not in any mood to be trifled with.

"Attempting to ascertain whether it would be best to have a bucket or a stretcher to collect your remains," snarled Severus, his face as filled with fury as Harry had ever seen it.

"Oh, leave off, would you?" snapped Harry. "I know what I'm doing." He pushed between Draco and Severus and started for the broom shed when Severus grabbed his arm and spun him around.

"Do you?" growled Severus. "Have you any idea how dangerous that little stunt of yours was?"

Incensed, Harry shook off Severus' grip and pushed him back. "No," he snarled. "You keep your fucking hands off me. I'm tired of being treated as though I'm twelve or made of glass or need minding every minute of the day. You promised me this wasn't what we're about, and I believed you."

He spun back and headed up the path, only to be stopped again. To his surprise, it was Ron. The angry words died on his lips and he gazed inquiringly at his best friend. His eyes flickered over to where Severus and Draco stood arguing, but the wind was against him and he couldn't make out what they were saying.

"Look, mate, I know I'm the last one who should be giving you advice, but you have to fix this," said Ron earnestly. "What you said back there, you're acting like a bloody git. And that flying—not even Krum would be so stupid about it."

"Stupid, am I?" said Harry hotly. "What would you know about it? Being the last one to give me advice and all," he flung back. He pushed past Ron, still gripping his Firebolt tightly, but when Ron pulled him around again, Harry swung at him.

Ron blocked the blow easily, staring at Harry as if he'd gone completely around the twist. "You're mental," he exclaimed. "You're the one who fell in love with him, remember? Even told me you'd choose him over me. You got what you wanted and now that it's hard you're giving up on him? When has Snape ever been easy?"

"Look who's talking. You left Hermione and me when it got hard, when we didn't know what we were doing. This isn't like when you were with Lav Lav." Harry glanced past Ron to see Draco shaking his head vehemently and shouting something at an ashen Severus. His lip curled in disgust, knowing that whatever it was would remain a mystery. Severus never told him anything.

"More like Romilda, I should think," said Ron in a quieter tone. "Are you still in love with him?" Even now Ron still looked like he couldn't quite wrap his head around that.

The question caught Harry off guard. He watched Draco speak with Severus, the blond's expression sympathetic, and he sighed, feeling a sharp pang of jealousy that Severus would listen so intently to Draco, yet shut Harry out at every turn. His anger leached out into the cold and when he turned back to face Ron his eyes were bleak. "Yeah. I thought it'd be enough, me being in love with him, but it's not."

Ron gazed at Harry for a long time. "I honestly don't know if you're just a prat or really that thick." He glanced back at Severus, who was now wearing his familiar intractable expression. "You weren't down here, but I thought he was going to sick up watching you up there." He reached out and grabbed Harry's shoulders, giving him a little shake. "Fix this. I don't care how, but fix this, because if you don't, and today, you will never be happy."

"You don't understand," shouted Harry, his vision blurring. "He doesn't want me."

"Merlin, you really are that thick." Ron shook his head as he dropped his hands. "Go over there. Apologise. Talk to him. Or I owl Mum."

Given a choice between being brow-beaten by Molly Weasley and suffering through a tongue lashing by Severus, Harry would choose the latter every single time. He had far more experience yanking Severus' verbal barbs out of his skin than he did withstanding the sort of pressure Molly could bring to bear. Still, he'd rather avoid both Bludgers if he could. "Why do you even care?" he asked bitterly.

"I don't want to see you gutted." Ron said. "And you will be if you let it go on like this." He left Harry standing alone in the middle of the path and walked back to Draco, saying something as he gestured urgently towards Harry. For a moment Harry thought Ron was going to push Severus in his direction, but Ron and Draco started across the pitch, leaving Harry and Severus to stare at each other, separated by more than the empty space between them.

A feeling too much like despair bubbled in Harry's chest, and he felt around his finger the weight of the gold band Severus had slipped on him barely over a month ago. He'd been so happy then, confident that he knew what he was doing and would never have anything to worry about ever again. Now, it all tasted like ash.

Harry's head dropped and he took a step forward, his broom bumping and jostling over the frozen ground behind him. It was always left to him to make things right, always his responsibility to mend what was broken even when he had no part in destroying it. But if being single, eighteen and pregnant was bad, being divorced, eighteen and pregnant would stigmatise him for life. His head hurt, his soul ached, and by the time he reached Severus he felt dead inside.

Harry stared at Severus' boots, watched the hem of his robes flutter around his ankles, and when he finally looked up, it was into the saddest pair of eyes he'd ever seen. Severus was hurting, and he had put that pain there. Inexplicably, his eyes filled and when he pulled off his spectacles to wipe them, Severus pulled him close.

"Idiot child," whispered Severus gruffly. "Let's go home, Harry."

Harry quickly stored his broom whilst Severus looked on, and then they trudged up to the castle, each lost in thought. Harry paused when they reached the great oak doors, narrowing his eyes as if trying to see through them. He pulled them open slowly, conscious of Severus' gaze boring into his back, and slipped through them, waiting until Severus was fully inside before falling into step just behind him. The few students moving through the Entrance Hall on their way to the basement or dungeons might have lifted an eyebrow, but Severus' presence was enough to inhibit anything more overt.

By the time they reached their rooms, Harry felt nearly sick with guilt. So many things were wrong that he really didn't know where to start to put his mental house back in order, but he knew Ron was right. A headache bloomed right behind his eyes and threatened to squeeze his brain down to the size of a walnut. He stood uncertainly in the centre of the spacious room, still feeling like an outsider; Severus didn't appear terribly at home either, though that was of little comfort just then.

Severus disappeared into their small kitchen to make tea, and after auditioning several chairs, Harry curled up on one of the couches, resting his pounding head on the armrest. He removed his glasses, tossed them onto the low table, and tucked one hand under his cheek. The other he rested on his belly, feeling weary and heartsick.

He looked up when a cup of tea appeared in front of him, made the way he preferred it. It smelled good and his nose twitched in appreciation, but it took too much effort to sit up to drink it, so he focussed on the blurry outline of the cup instead.

"I expect you are able to provide me with some reasonable explanation for your need to risk life and limb to test the limits of your godforsaken Firebolt?"

Severus' words, though softly spoken, stung like a whip, and Harry flinched visibly. "Can we not do this now?" he asked plaintively. "I know you're angry at me. I might even figure out why if I could have some time to think about it. You know I can fly."

"I am well aware of your abilities," said Severus, his tone biting. "It is your reckless disregard for your own safety, and that of our child, that is cause for concern. Always the Gryffindor, acting without considering the consequences."

"Which is why Williamson docked points from Slytherin when I told him to use the right name," snapped Harry as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. "I don't want to do this. Not right now." He slumped back in the couch, his hand idly massaging his side. "Look, today's been crap. Yesterday was crap and so was the day before. The last good day I can remember having is the day before everyone came back from holiday. You've got detention tonight, and I have those third year essays I promised to read. Can we, I dunno, arrange a time to fight tomorrow?"

Had Harry been able to see clearly across the room, he would have caught the flicker of pain that crossed Severus' face. "I have no wish to fight with you about anything. Contrary to whatever outlandish notion you have lodged in your head, I do not seek out conflict for its own sake. I have promised to see to your well-being and I cannot do that if I have no idea what is troubling you."

"Still sounds like a stupid guardianship thing to me," muttered Harry. "I've been taking care of myself for years. I don't need a minder, and I know what you're going to say, so, just…" He blew out a breath, crushed at the moment by the sheer weight of being him. "We'll talk about it later."

"Were I to venture a guess," said Severus after a long silence, "I would say a stubborn insistence to be seen as independent is at the heart of our present difficulties." He came to his feet and took a step towards the laboratory. "I'll give you twenty-four hours, but we will discuss this, and we will come to some understanding about what our marriage should be. Make certain you eat something. I shall see you tonight."

Harry was filled, not with relief, as he thought he would be, but with a sense of regret, of allowing an opportunity slip through his fingers. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask Severus to wait, to tell him that now was the perfect time, but there were essays to mark, three chapters of reading to plough through, and he'd much rather have a sandwich down here than brave the Great Hall. Nothing would change between tonight and tomorrow. It could wait until then.

Chapter Text

Ch 12: Confession is Good For the Soul

After his unproductive talk with Harry the night before, Severus finally decided to bring his concerns to the Heads—all of them, including the Head Girls and Boys. He did not relish including students in matters of this sort, but he couldn't shake the persistent sense of unease that dogged him. Nor did he like leaving Harry to his own devices, but as he was neither guardian nor gaoler, he tamped down his concern.

They gathered in an antechamber off Minerva's office, and as Severus gazed around the table, he noted that the faces gathered here were much too young for the expressions they wore. He felt as though he'd suddenly fallen back into a time when the Order was meeting regularly to work out strategies and hear reports.

At a nod from McGonagall, he began. "As former headmaster, I am privy to some of the castle's magic. Since the beginning of the term, I have become aware of an element of discord, a sense that plans are being formulated and are about to be set in motion. As I suspect I am not alone in this, I have requested this meeting in order to augment my information." His dark eyes swept around the table, and he was answered with a general undercurrent of agreement.

"Has this anything to do with Harry?" asked Hannah Abbott.

Severus' eyes sharpened. "Not that I am aware of, Miss Abbott. Should it?"

"Have you not been keeping track of House points, Severus?" asked McGonagall, her eyes widening in surprise. "You are sent a summary every week of all points awarded, taken and detentions assigned. All of the Heads are." To her dismay, only Williamson nodded.

"It's always been Severus taking points and giving detentions," said Flitwick after a heavy silence. "I stopped reading the details and only give the summary a quick glance anymore." Beside him, Sprout nodded as well, her cheeks ruddier than usual. At a flick of McGonagall's wand, copies of that day's report appeared in front of everyone.

"I'll save you the trouble of reading," declared Terry Boot. "I've taken fifty points from Gryffindor, twenty from Hufflepuff and twenty from my own House this week. Most of those have been for language."

"I've taken forty-five from Gryffindor, ten from Slytherin, fifteen from Ravenclaw and twenty from Hufflepuff," added Hannah. "Twenty five of those were for using magic in the corridors, the rest for language." Draco and Hermione exchanged a glance, which only increased Severus' concern.

All told, Gryffindor had lost nearly three hundred points in the last seven days, though through the efforts of many, they had managed to earn back a sizable number of them. Only Slytherin had managed to pull ahead in points, but to a person they'd been careful not to give offence. Even with protectors, it simply had become too dangerous.

McGonagall looked sharply at Williamson. "What is happening in Gryffindor House?" she demanded. "Now that Severus is no longer attempting to single-handedly keep them out of the running for the House Cup, I can't imagine they've lost all sense of decency."

"It is nothing more than schoolboy pranks and high jinks brought on by being cooped up indoors," replied Williamson dismissively to a barely concealed roll of the eyes from the other professors. "Once Quidditch resumes we'll see a reduction in their misbehaviour."

"Misbehaviour, is it?" scoffed Terry. "Have you heard the things they've been saying? What Stretton said the night we were made guardians was almost kind in comparison."

"What have they been saying, Mr Boot?" asked Flitwick, sparing Severus from having to ask the question himself.

"Don't answer that, Terry," said Hermione. "Don't." She looked at Severus, and he was caught off guard by the fury and pain in her eyes. "Think back to being a seventh year and imagine being pregnant, like Harry. Everybody, including the Marauders, knows about it, so there's no hiding yourself away. Imagine the sorts of things James and Sirius would have said to your face, or to their friends where they knew you could hear them. Imagine, instead of there being four of them, there were forty and it never, ever stopped."

Twin spots of anger burned in Severus' cheeks, and his eyes flashed dangerously. It was far too easy to bring to mind dozens of revolting insults that would be positively tame by Black's standards, and his stomach churned at the thought of his Harry enduring them. "Why hasn't he said anything?" he growled, coming to his feet and prowling through the room.

"It's worse than that," said Draco. "Haven't you noticed how he goes nowhere alone? Not even to the toilet, for Merlin's sake," he said, his disgust with his fellow students evident. "The ones who aren't mocking him are trying to touch him, to see for themselves if it's real, or hurt him a bit if they can. The guardians and Slytherin have no problem with Potter. He's actually a decent bloke, but you'd never know it if you listened to what the others say about him."

"Harry's not one to complain," Hermione chimed in earnestly. "Not during the Triwizard Tournament, when everybody thought he'd cheated to get in. Not the year after when everybody, up to and including the Minister himself, was calling him a liar or thinking him mad. Not when he suspected Draco of being up to no good and no one would believe him." She flushed and shot Draco an apologetic look.

"Don't pity me, Granger," said Draco sharply. "I was—and everyone here knows it."

"Do you believe this centres around Harry, Severus?" asked McGonagall swiftly, before old arguments could be rehashed.

Severus started to shake his head, but Draco replied first. "Harry's a part of their plan, to be sure, but that's not the whole of it. I think he's being used as a diversion. Having guardians has kept us safer, and I'd like to thank the genius who came up with that idea, but it's driven the others underground."

"You believe Slytherin House is their target?" asked Sprout, her eyes growing steely. All four of the students nodded.

"Then we need to collect the instigators this moment and impress upon them the error of their ways." McGonagall Summoned parchment and quill and began to list the names of the students she intended to question, starting with Andrew Stretton. She got no further than writing out Seamus' first name when Ron's Patronus bounded through the wall, raced twice around the table and leapt upon it. "Slytherin Common Room. Hurry!" Following on its heels came Luna's hare, sprinting through the air as though a wolf was nipping at its heels. "We need help in the Library!"

As everyone scrambled to their feet, McGonagall barked out orders. "Filius, Pomona, see what needs to be done in the Library. Severus, Draco, come with me. The three of you return at once to your common rooms and see who is missing." She started out of the room, pausing when Williamson called out, "What about me?"

"Go to the Great Hall and keep anyone who's there inside," she barked as the others advanced on the doorway. She tossed a handful of Floo powder into the fire and ushered Draco and Severus in before stepping through herself.

Spellfire criss-crossed through the Slytherin common room and her nose twitched at the smell of ozone. In one corner, Ron was casting shield charms against three students in hoods whilst simultaneously trying to usher the younger students through the tunnels to the dormitories, and in another corner Draco was already duelling two other black-clad students half a head shorter than him. A half dozen other guardians and upper class Slytherins were defending against the invaders, and at quick glance it appeared that the numbers were even.

Severus pointed his wand. "Expelliarmus," he said in a strong, clear voice and two students flew against the wall where they were quickly bound by McGonagall. He turned swiftly and began an Impedimenta to corral a third, but stopped halfway through, a peculiar expression crossing his face. He spun quickly and dashed out the door without a word, leaving McGonagall, Ron and Draco to restore order.

He ran blindly through the corridors, taking passages he didn't recognize whilst in the grip of a panic so overwhelming he no longer remembered his name. He had no clear idea where he was going, but instinct called him. Fear rose in throat, nearly strangling him, and just when he thought he was losing his mind, he found himself at the bottom of a narrow staircase, thick clouds of dust billowing out of its entrance.

"Harry!" Severus shouted before hurling himself up the stairs. "Harry!" He flew around the third landing and found his passage blocked by a huge pile of rubble. As he pushed against the pile, several bits of stonework clattered down from what was left of the ceiling and he thought better of blasting away at it. "Harry!" He smacked at the wall and turned to find a way around it, then noticed a familiar holly wand laying several steps away.

Terror clutched at Severus' heart, and it took him three tries to cast a Patronus to summon aid. He knew—was positively certain—that Harry was under there and that his life hung in the balance. "When I get you out of here, we're having a long talk about trust," he snarled as he started Vanishing rocks and stones as quickly as he could, praying that the conversation wouldn't be one-sided.

To his surprise, Neville and Luna appeared moments later, wands out and breathing hard. Without a word they started in on the grim task. It took nearly ten heart-stopping minutes to dig their way to the bottom of the pile, stopping twice when more of the ceiling gave way. A large stone broke loose and nearly crushed Luna's skull, but Severus yanked her out of the way as Neville blasted it to bits.

When the pile was gone, they discovered a section of wall still largely intact and leaning precariously against the other wall. Luna dropped down onto her hands and knees. She peered underneath, encountering a head of messy hair caked with dust and blood. "He's under here!" she shouted, kneeling up quickly.

Working in tandem, Severus and Neville levitated the section of wall, straining to keep it aloft. "Pull him out, Luna," demanded Severus as the wall cracked and threatened to fall on Harry. "No, take the wall. I'll get him," cried Neville, edging closer to where Harry was sprawled over several steps.

Their magic was well matched, and rather than cast her own spell and upset the delicate balance, Luna took Neville's wand, the wall barely wobbling as she transferred her power to it. All in all it was an impressive bit of cooperative magic that Severus would have appreciated had he not convinced himself that Harry was dead.

Crawling on hands and knees, Neville grabbed Harry by the armpits and slid him as gently down the stairs as he could manage until he was clear of the stonework. Harry's face was covered with blood, and some still trickled out from a deep gash on the side of his head. His left arm seemed to have sported a second elbow. "Let it go," he called. "I've got him." He bent to pick Harry up but was moved aside by Severus, his face grey under the coating of grime.

"No," said Severus. "He's mine." He knelt and scooped Harry into his arms, cradling him against his chest as he moved swiftly down the stairs. The baby chose that moment to stretch and, feeling the movement, Severus broke into a run, turning left and going back towards the dungeons the way he came.

"This way," shouted Luna, taking the passage to the right. "It leads to the Entrance Hall. Harry showed it to us right after term started." She led them through a short maze of passageways and up a short flight of stairs that made Severus' heart clench. When they stepped out, they were at the head of the corridor that led straight to the Hospital Wing.

They walked into chaos. More than twenty students occupied beds, all of them conscious, all of them breathing. "Poppy," bellowed Severus. "Harry's hurt."

~*~

"How is he?" asked Arthur as Molly pushed past Severus to check on Harry with her own eyes. Severus heard her murmur softly to him and watched as she smoothed back a lock of hair before settling into the chair next to his bed and pulling out her knitting, leaving little doubt that she intended to remain there for the rest of the night.

The Hospital Wing was quiet now, unlike the bedlam of that afternoon. Only Harry remained in the infirmary, the rest of the hexes, jinxes and curses having been sorted out by Madam Pomfrey once he'd been stabilised. The lights had been dimmed, and the only sound was the hushed murmur of Harry's family.

"He will be fine," replied Severus in a low voice, his fingers wrapped tightly around the foot rail of Harry's bed, thinking that if he told himself that often enough, he would eventually begin to believe it. "Poppy thought it best to put him under a healing charm rather than administer any potions. It will take him longer to recover, but it's safer. She will bring him out of it tomorrow afternoon."

Arthur gave him a searching look. "And how are you?"

Severus blinked and tore his eyes away from the still form. "I beg your pardon?"

"Hmm. Yes, I thought as much." Arthur moved around Severus and bent to whisper to Molly, who looked up from her knitting, frowned and then nodded. Arthur then took a moment to gaze down at Harry and pat him lightly on his uninjured arm. "Come along, Severus," he said in a gentle voice, pausing after had walked several paces ahead.

"But…" Severus gave Harry a desperate look, but Molly made a little shooing motion with her hand and he found himself following Arthur out of the infirmary despite his intentions to the contrary. He wondered if he'd been Imperiused, but couldn't imagine Molly managing a curse that complex using a pair of knitting needles and a skein of pale yellow yarn.

"Where are we going?" he asked as the Hospital Wing doors closed silently behind him, lengthening his stride to catch up to his father-in-law. The thought struck him as surreal, but when, he reflected, had his life ever been normal? His kinship with Harry went deeper than he had realized.

"Excellent question," replied Arthur with far too much cheer. "Why don't we go to your rooms? I admit I'd like to see where you and Harry live." He headed toward the dungeons, remembering that much from conversations past.

Severus took over the lead from Arthur with a resigned sigh, walking past the Potions classroom and through the twisting passages to the place he thought of as home. He laid his hand on the door and murmured the password, releasing the protective charms that kept the rest of Hogwarts at bay, and invited Arthur inside.

It was a strange moment for Severus. Ever since Voldemort had fallen, his life had been invaded by a steady stream of people he was compelled to treat with some degree of respect, and it had all been Harry's doing. He should have been far more resentful, but those who had been allowed into his inner sanctum had treated him with kindness—even Ron Weasley after a fashion. He didn't know what to make of it.

Arthur, though, was the only visitor who could be thought of as a contemporary for all that his relationship with the man was filial in nature. Even that should have been odd, but Severus found that he was relieved to have someone in whom he could confide, knowing Arthur would never judge him for his shortcomings. It was to be expected, then, that it was only before Arthur that Severus might stand uncertainly in the middle of his front room, lost and not knowing quite what to do next.

"Would you care for some Firewhisky?" asked Arthur. "I know for a fact Minerva has some stashed away. We usually give her a bottle for Christmas. I always thought it a suitable recompense for keeping Fred and George in line all those years."

"I have some of my own," replied Severus stiffly. He gestured for Arthur to follow and led him through the door into the small kitchen, pulling two glasses out of a cupboard.

"Severus, go get cleaned up. You're covered in dust, blood and Merlin only knows what else. I can see to this." Arthur gave him an understanding smile. "Then we'll talk for a bit."

Severus nodded and wordlessly pulled a bottle of Old Ogden's down from the cupboard above the refrigerator, setting it next to the glasses. He walked into the bathroom he shared with Harry, shedding his robes and tossing them to the floor. He refused to look in the mirror as he washed his hands, scrubbing off the caked-on grime and watching blankly as the muddy water swirled down the drain. In the deafening silence, he was keenly aware of the hole Harry's absence created.

Once clean, he returned to the living room and found Arthur seated in one of the chairs by the fire. Severus gave him a nod as he sat, listening to the crackle of the flames dancing on the hearth, picking up his glass—neat, the way he liked it—and taking a sip, accepting the burn as some sort of divine retribution.

"How are you, Severus?" Arthur asked again into the easy silence.

It was a long time before Severus answered, and when he spoke, it had nothing to do with Arthur's question. "Poppy said it was the child, its magic. That's how I knew he was in danger. One minute Minerva and I were trying to gain control of the Slytherin common room and the next I was running to his rescue. Ronald comported himself well, by the way. You should be proud."

"I understand he kept the children safe," replied Arthur with a touch of fatherly pride.

"Do you know I never once thought of it?" Severus continued, almost as if confused by that. "The entire time Lovegood, Longbottom and I were trying to extricate him, I never once thought of the child. The only thing that mattered was digging him out from under that pile of rocks."

"What happened to him, do you know?"

Severus stared into the flames, swirling his whisky in his glass. "We believe he was in an argument with someone and they brought the staircase down on top of him. No one has said who did it or why, but it is my opinion that it is related to the wholesale attack on my House. It is no coincidence that the two outbreaks occurred at the same moment he was injured." His face darkened as he considered a number of methods of exacting retribution on the forty some-odd students who thought to take justice into their own hands.

"He has a concussion, and his scalp was sliced open by the sharp edge of a rock. His left arm was broken in three places and his ribs are bruised. It also appears that he sprained an ankle, but it's too soon to tell. St Mungo's cautioned against using potions. Poppy consulted with them not long after I brought him in. They don't know how or if they would affect the child."

Severus glanced around the spacious living area, nearly double the size it had been before he'd married. It sometimes felt too big, like brewing with the wrong sized cauldron, but now it was intolerable, as if his own skin didn't fit—a sensation he didn't recognise as loneliness because he'd never truly experienced it before.

Arthur watched as Severus kept his hands busy, knowing what it represented even if Severus did not. "You can trust Poppy to know what she's about," he said. "Harry is in good hands."

"I am well aware of that," said Severus sharply. "I have had the misfortune of assisting Poppy in keeping the br—Harry…." His voice trailed off. "Keeping Harry safe," he choked, blindsided by an unexpected rush of emotion. As long as he didn't say the name, he could remain distant from it, view it in the abstract. Referring to Harry by name made it real.

"It's not quite the same with him gone, is it?" said Arthur gently. "I trust the two of you are still getting along?"

"What is that supposed to mean?" Severus lashed out, suddenly afraid he had revealed too much of himself in front of this man.

"Have you thought about poisoning him yet?" There was a sage twinkle in Arthur's eyes, and Severus suspected that it was the result of some magic beyond his comprehension.

"No," he said flatly. "Yes. Sometimes. Not very often." Severus sighed. "We're not doing well, Arthur," he admitted, throwing away what little pride he had left to seek counsel from someone who had married when Severus was a child. "When Harry first moved in, he spoke almost constantly, nattering away whether I wanted to listen or not. Now, I can barely pry two words out of him. He's withdrawn, and I don't know what to say to him."

Arthur stroked his chin as he regarded Severus. "Harry knows how to be alone better than he knows how to be a partner. I would think you are much the same way. Natter away at him, Severus, even if you think you have nothing to say. Share your thoughts with him. Do you permit him to assist you?"

"Not with brewing. Absolutely not. I don't want him anywhere near the laboratory," said Severus sharply. "It is much too dangerous for him."

"Does he understand that's why you won't allow him to help you? I know how demanding an instructor you are, Severus. You've taught all seven of my children, and until Ginny, they did nothing but complain about how impossible it was to meet your standards."

"Harry is my husband," said Severus hotly. "Beyond that, he is having my child. There are ingredients stored in there that are lethal. He could die merely by opening the wrong jar. He knows that the lab is off-limits."

"I understand that, Severus," said Arthur with his usual imperturbable calm. "Does he?"

"Of course," he snapped, even as his brow furrowed and he thought back to the days when Harry had marshalled a team of talented students to do his brewing for him. He had thrown Harry out of the laboratory during the period when Harry couldn't keep his eyes open, too afraid that Harry's weariness could result in a catastrophic mistake. "No, I never explained my reasons," he amended.

Arthur sipped at his whisky, enjoying it with the air of one who considered it a rare treat. "If I may be so bold, and speaking as one who has managed to keep Molly happy for thirty years, Harry needs to hear how you feel about him. If nothing else, Severus, let him know he was missed."

He drained his glass and gave the fire a contented smile. "Go get some sleep. Molly will sit with Harry—wild thestrals can't keep her from his side when he's been hurt—and you'll be more use to him if you're rested. If it's all right with you, I'll just transfigure the couch and sleep there. It won't be the first time."

"I would rather return to the Hospital Wing. My family is—" A strange look twisted Severus' features and he sat up, gripping the arms of the chair tightly. "My family."

"Will need you," said Arthur firmly. "You said Poppy won't wake Harry until tomorrow. Best to sleep now if you can. You won't tomorrow, not if he's awake and in pain. He'll need you then, and I know you well enough to know that you'll bark and snarl and do everything in your power to help him."

"I won't deny that," said Severus, slumping down in the chair. "Very well, Arthur. My bedroom is through that door," he pointed to the door near the far end of the room. "First door on the left. Please wake me if Poppy should fire-call." He set his glass down and came wearily to his feet, not looking forward to sleeping in an empty bed. "Thank you, Arthur. I shall see you in the morning."

~*~

"Sleep as often as you need, avoid heavy foods for a few days, and if you have any headaches, come see me." Pomfrey gave Harry a warning glance before focusing her sharp eyes on Severus. "Not a single potion for him without my approval. I don't care that you are the youngest Potions Master in three generations, you are neither a mediwizard nor a Healer."

"If Harry requires potions, then he will—"

"It's all right," interrupted Harry tiredly as he buttoned his robes. "I won't take anything without checking with you first," he said to Pomfrey. "And nothing Severus didn't brew himself." He knelt and tied his shoes, glancing up as Severus offered him a hand.

Severus did not release his hold on Harry's hand once Harry came to his feet, thinking to himself that Harry was too pale by half to be out of bed. He was selfish enough to admit—inwardly anyway—that he preferred to have Harry home where he belonged rather than in the Hospital Wing under Poppy Pomfrey's care. "Headache Remedy will not harm the child," he said pointedly.

"Harry's had a concussion, Severus. His headaches will not be caused by tension," she replied sternly.

"Want to bet?" muttered Harry, just loud enough for Severus to hear him. "Can we go down to the dungeons now? Please?" He started for the door, leaving Severus to get the last of the instructions for Harry's care from Pomfrey.

Severus left Poppy whilst she was still going through the list of terribles—symptoms to watch for in case Harry should take a turn for the worse—and left the infirmary with long strides, his robes fluttering behind him. He caught up to Harry before they'd reached the end of the corridor and wrapped his arm around Harry's shoulders as he fell into step beside him.

They remained silent as they walked through the twisting passages of the dungeons, their footsteps slow, and by the time they reached their rooms, Harry was visibly flagging. "Would you prefer to remain here or lie down on our bed?" asked Severus neutrally as he escorted Harry through the door. He felt awkward, almost churlish, relieved to have Harry home where he belonged, but unable to breach the wall that separated them.

"Bed, I think," replied Harry. He paused and looked over his shoulder. "Come with me? Unless you're busy?" he added uncertainly.

Severus thought about the potions that needed brewing and the essays that needed correcting and shook his head. "No, not busy," he said and was rewarded, if he could call it that, with a wan smile. His hand went to the small of Harry's back and he helped him into their room. Minutes later he had Harry tucked into bed and surrounded by a half a dozen pillows.

He disappeared into his laboratory and returned a moment later with a squat fat jar filled with thick yellow paste. "This is topical," Severus explained as he sat in the middle of the bed next to Harry, "and therefore, technically not a potion. It will help you feel better. Roll over, please, as much as you are able."

"I miss sleeping on my stomach," Harry remarked quietly as he shifted, his back toward Severus. "Well, lying on it. Curling up. You know, that sort of thing. It's not as easy now. Is Pomfrey certain it's okay?" There was more than a trace of concern in Harry's voice, and Severus reached over and squeezed Harry's shoulder.

"There is nothing to worry about." Severus moved the covers and cringed at the sight of Harry's back. The healing charms Pomfrey had used were powerful, but she'd used them on the worst of Harry's injuries, leaving all the smaller bumps and bruises to heal on their own. It was a good thing, Severus decided, that Harry had been rendered unconscious for awhile; he never would have rested otherwise. He dipped his fingers into the lotion and began to rub it into a contusion the size of a grapefruit.

"After Poppy was certain you would recover," said Severus softly as he worked the paste in, "I told Molly and Arthur that you had been injured. I did not need to ask them to come here; they arrived not ten minutes after I contacted them."

"You called them?" asked Harry. "I thought Ron—ow—or Ginny must have done." He let out a whimpered moan as Severus found a tender spot.

"No. I used the Floo in the infirmary to do so." Severus scooped up more paste and began to smooth it into a livid mark on Harry's back. "I spoke with Arthur whilst Molly sat with you. He considers you one of his own, you know."

Harry craned his neck and peered over his shoulder at Severus. "I know. The Weasleys have treated me like family since first year. Why are you telling me this?" he asked, shifting under Severus' hand. "You know all this already. You even went to them to see if it was okay with them if we got married. Can't believe you wanted to," he added.

Anger flared in Severus' chest, but he inhaled slowly and set it aside. He had an agenda, and even if Harry had no idea that the moment had arrived for the conversation they'd been postponing for far too long, he was determined that Harry understand the nature of their marriage. "I wanted to marry you for the same reason I was compelled to rescue you."

"Because it was the right thing to do," replied Harry flatly. "I would have dug Lucius out from under there, too. Not Bellatrix, though. Or Tom," he added.

"Don't be an imbecile, P—Harry," snapped Severus. "I found my family buried beneath several tons of rock. My family—and for all I knew you both were dead!" He hurled the jar of paste against the far wall where it exploded with a loud splat. Pulling his knees up, Severus buried his face in his crossed arms.

"Madam Pomfrey says its fine," a stunned Harry said cautiously, reaching out to lay a tentative hand on Severus' arm.

Severus' head snapped up and his eyes blazed. "That is not the point," he snarled as Harry hastily withdrew his hand. He glanced at the yellow mess oozing down the wall and his lip curled, finding it an apt summation of his life to date. "It has never been the point." He flung himself off the bed and paced the room. "Exercise your brain for once and try to imagine if our positions were reversed."

Harry rolled onto his back and struggled up into a sitting position, the blankets pooled over his lap, his torso bare. "No," he snapped. "I lived with that thought all summer. I saw it in the common room when those Ravenclaws let the Boggarts in. I don't have to imagine it; I know already I'd be wrecked if anything happened to you. You've not been listening if you think I wouldn't."

"You've not been listening at all," Severus fired back as he continued to stalk through the room, his coal black eyes flashing. "I was afraid you were dead. You. Not the baby. You. It doesn't matter what I say, you're the one who continues to bring everything back to the child. I've told you I would have paid court to you. I've told you I would have married you, even if the child had never happened. You believed once that I would never lie to you, that I have never lied to you, but you will not believe me in this. Why?"

The room went completely still as Harry stared, mouth open, eyes wide. His bottle-green irises darkened as though the sun had vanished behind a thick wall of clouds, and he dropped his gaze to rounded belly. "It's easier not to," he admitted dully. "I panicked when I thought this was Voldemort," he poked himself in the stomach and grimaced when the baby stretched, "but when it wasn't…. It's hard not to feel like a freak, and then everything happened so fast." He turned pleading eyes on Severus.

Severus walked around the end of the bed and sat down on the edge of the mattress next to Harry. "It was painful to find out from Draco and Hermione that you are being set upon by your classmates. We both know the Prophet did you no favours, but why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't know it would be this bad," said Harry miserably. He tried to pull his legs up much the way Severus had done, but he couldn't any longer. He sighed and slid down into bed, turning onto his side and cautiously extending his hand to rest on Severus' knee. "I thought it would be like, I dunno, fifth year or something. Hardly anyone believed me even though I had Voldemort in my head half the time, Umbridge was a bloody nightmare, and I couldn't go to Dumbledore 'cause he was too busy.

"It hasn't been that much different, really. Mostly it's just them saying shite, and I can handle that. It's the poking and the touching that I really don't like." Harry's hand tightened for a moment on Severus' leg. "There've been a few that think the Ministry should kill it when it's born. Or think it's going to have two heads or turn out to be part salamander or something. That's harder to shut out. I don't care what people say about me, I really don't, but I can't ignore it when they're talking about the baby. Or about us. I guess I thought you shouldn't have to hear it, too."

As Harry spoke, Severus pulled off his boots and removed his robes, tossing them casually aside, leaving himself clad in his customary black trousers and white shirt. He climbed over Harry and curled up behind him, his hand settling protectively over Harry's stomach. As if knowing he was there, the baby moved as Harry pressed back against him, the heavy duvet all that separated them. "It is not a matter of whether or not I should," he murmured in a soothing voice. "It's a matter of trusting me enough to tell me when something is troubling you."

"And make things worse?" Harry sighed and shook his head. "Just because I don't like something doesn't mean I can't handle it. I've put up with loads worse than this."

There was little about Harry's years at Hogwarts Severus did not know. Every calamity that befell the boy had been dissected afterwards by Albus, with Severus providing his customary scathing commentary for the benefit of maintaining his distance. "How did that wall come to fall on you?" he asked, though his words now had an edge to them. "I heard what you told Poppy. I expect to hear the entire truth this time."

Severus felt Harry stiffen against him. "What does one have to do with the other?" he asked cautiously.

"In third year, Draco Malfoy and his band of cretins tried to scare you enough that you'd fall off your broom," said Severus tightly. "In fifth year, his little Inquisitorial Squad tried to get you expelled."

"It was Umbridge's Inquisitorial Squad," muttered Harry. He removed his glasses, tossed them onto the bedside table and yawned.

"The point is that most of your visits to the Hospital Wing were a direct result of the Dark Lord, Lockhart notwithstanding. Castle walls do not fall down. Stairwells do not collapse. Not on their own."

There was a weighty silence and when Harry tried to sit up, Severus held him down. "What happened to you, Harry?" He turned Harry's chin so he could gaze directly into those clear green eyes, so much like Harry's mother's.

Harry struggled to leave, but Severus held him fast, careful not to further damage Harry's sore ribs. "I can handle it myself," Harry bit out. "You don't need to worry about me. I know what I'm doing."

"Then you are aware that Slytherins were attacked in their own common room and in the Library at the same moment the stairwell gave way? That this was not a random event?" growled Severus softly, nose to nose with Harry.

Colour drained from Harry's already pale face and he sagged, whilst behind his eyes Severus could see his mind was racing. "Who was it? Have they said anything?" he asked in a near whisper.

"Harry…" said Severus, his warning clear. He knew Harry was in genuine pain; he saw it lurking in the background, giving itself away in his slightly narrowed eyes and furrows in his forehead that had nothing to do with worry. "Why are you protecting them?"

"Because no one is listening to them," said Harry fiercely. "Because if it's who I think it is, then they've all lost someone or were hurt badly here. We've just gone on, all of us. We've tried to make everything normal again, but it's not. Sir Nicholas says there are three or four new ghosts, did you know that? I told you this would happen, and it's loads better than it could have been, but we're not helping them.

"Are they going to be expelled, do you know?" continued Harry in a rough voice. "Because they shouldn't be. They don't know how to ask for help, don't you see? Ron and Ginny understand how they feel, but Ron and Ginny knew what I was doing. How many of the rest of them really knew what was going on? How many of them understand just how horrible it might have been if Voldemort had won?"

A heavy chill settled over them, and Severus' expression grew wintry. "I did the best I could to shield the students from the worst of the Carrows' abuses. Perhaps they would have preferred it if the Dark Lord had made his home here at Hogwarts rather than at Malfoy Manor. That very nearly became the truth of it, had Lucius not required further humiliation at the Dark Lord's hands."

"That's not what I'm saying," interrupted Harry. "It's not your fault. I know what you did to protect everybody. Ginny told me. So did Neville and Luna. But real people died here. Not just Fred and Lupin and Tonks. Lavender Brown is dead and Parvati still mourns her. Colin Creevey, Vincent Crabbe, both dead. We sent most of the students to Hogsmeade that night, but, Severus, almost everybody was touched by it."

"What does any of this have to do with the attacks on my students?" growled Severus. "You destroyed the Dark Lord and his Horcruxes. The war ended. We move on."

Harry turned in Severus' arms and lightly touched his face. "I know you dream of him. Dumbledore, I mean." He swallowed. "Sometimes I dream it has red eyes and no nose. Sev, what if the Sorting Hat is wrong?"

Horror flashed in the depths of Severus' eyes, but he regained his composure and shook his head. "No. The Sorting Hat is correct. The Dark Lord is gone and you carry my child." His gaze sharpened. "The Dark Lord would not have alerted me to your peril; the child did."

"And your dreams?" Harry persisted. "We've not moved on, any more than the others have. I'm not sure we ever will, not entirely. You have to speak with Prof. McGonagall. Tell her you know why it happened and that they shouldn't be expelled. Maybe they should have to move into Slytherin House, so they'll see it's just a House like the others."

"Let the little vipers into the nest?" sneered Severus. "Is that what you're saying? Minerva would like to restore the peace, not incite another war."

"Fifty Slytherins, fifty guardians, and how many people were making trouble?" countered Harry. "Talk to her. She was Dumbledore's Deputy for years, even during the first war. Maybe she's got some ideas from then."

"We don't know much at this point," Severus countered. "You have a theory, nothing more, and until they have been questioned, we won't know why they attacked my students. It might be an effort to discredit me or cast a pall over Hogwarts, but it does us no good to make assumptions." His eyes bored into Harry's. "Just as I will not make assumptions about the stairwell, but wait for you to tell me what happened."

"Are we back to that again? I'm fine, just a bit sore is all, and Madam Pomfrey says I should be better by the end of the week. What good is it going to do to tell you?" Harry's expression hardened, his lips pressed in a thin line, his eyes mutinous.

"It depends on why you are refusing to do so," replied Severus, more than willing to push Harry as much as necessary to get the answers he sought. His instincts warned him that the danger to Harry would worsen if he gave in on this, and he refused to permit Harry to be the final casualty of a war he thought had ended months ago. "Why will you not confide in me?" he asked softly.

"I don't want anyone to get in trouble because of me," Harry replied quietly. "You can't protect me from this any more than Dumbledore could keep everybody from wearing 'Potter Stinks' badges. You have to stay out of it."

"Do you not see the difference between childish pranks and an attempt on your life?" demanded Severus. "Albus knew that the badges—" He stopped speaking and sat up on the bed, his long legs folded in front of him, regarding Harry thoughtfully. "You believe I see this as a disciplinary matter, that I will leave here once I've gathered the information I require and present it to Minerva as a fait accompli," he said slowly.

He watched carefully as Harry shifted again and averted his eyes. They'd not discussed the consequences of a marriage between a professor and student in any meaningful fashion, taking it on faith that they'd both understand where the boundaries fell. Albus Dumbledore had erased many of those lines during Harry's sixth year, treating him more as a colleague than he did a student, and Severus supposed he had expected to reap the benefits of that relationship.

"In here," continued Severus after a moment's pause, "we are Harry and Severus. It is important you understand this. I am not Professor Snape, you are not Mr P—rince." He exhaled forcefully through his nose. "I trust you know what I meant."

"But you're not S—everus. Dumb contract," muttered Harry. "Just say what you mean." He rubbed his forehead and winced a bit.

Severus climbed off the bed and finished undressing before climbing back in and settling Harry between his legs. "Lie back against me," he instructed and began to massage Harry's scalp with long, soothing strokes. "I would give you Headache Remedy, but I would not put it past Poppy to have a monitoring charm on you.

"What I am about to say will sound painfully obvious," continued Severus, "but we are married, and if we want to make a success of it, we must establish some boundaries. You cannot think of me as a Hogwarts professor in these rooms, any more than I can regard you as one of my students. You mean so much more to me than that." It was easier to confess to such sentiment when he didn't have to meet Harry's eyes.

"I—what?" Harry tried to turn his head to glance up at Severus, but Severus dug his thumbs into the knot of tension at the base of Harry's neck and neatly forestalled him. "But you are my professor," he said as he dropped his chin to his chest. "Merlin, that feels good. And I'm your student. What's the point of pretending I'm not?"

"You've not told me you're being harassed. You've not told me what precipitated your reckless flight the other night. You've still not told me how you came to be buried beneath a mountain of rubble. There are two possible reasons for this: either you don't trust me enough to confide in me, or you are attempting to protect other students from me. If it is the latter, it's either because you fear I will seek retribution against those who have harmed my beloved, or you believe I will seek to issue detentions or attempt to have those responsible expelled." As he spoke, Severus' touch grew harder until Harry drew in a sharp breath and flinched. "I apologise. I did not intend to hurt you."

"No, it's not that," said Harry quickly. "What you just said, did you mean it?" he asked hesitantly.

Severus' heart began to thunder in his chest as he reviewed the words he'd chosen for his diatribe. His hands trembled as they moved through the thick mass of Harry's black hair and his mouth went dry. "I do not make a habit of saying things I do not mean," he replied, hoping, praying he would be able to divert Harry away from discussing matters of the heart. "But we are discussing boundaries, amongst other things. I cannot support you properly if you will not permit me to do so."

Harry reached up and guided Severus' hands down so they were wrapped around him. "Begin as you mean to go on, if I'm understanding you right." He burrowed in against Severus' chest, his fingers laced through Severus'. He was quiet for a long time, and Severus was loath to break the silence.

"It was Seamus," said Harry finally, his voice thick, and Severus knew how difficult this was for Harry. He brushed a kiss against Harry's head. "I was looking for Hermione, since I've not had a chance to tell her about that day in the Room of Requirement. I went up to the Gryffindor common room, and he followed me out.

"I tried to ignore him, really I did, but he wasn't having it, so I turned and told him to leave me alone and I'd do the same. He threw a curse, I blocked it, then I cast a body-bind and left. I released it at the top of the stairway and went on. Should have left him there, I reckon, but I didn't think he'd follow me to the dungeons.

"I was about halfway home when he threw another curse and blasted my wand out of my hand. He said something, but I don't know what he meant. He said that every time he looks at me, he sees the Carrows and he can still feel their hands on him. Then he told me I make him sick. He blasted the ceiling, hit me with a leg-locking spell and you know the rest.

"Seamus is hot-headed, yeah, but he's never been vicious, not like this. We didn't get on all that well in fifth year, mostly because I said his mum was wrong, but he joined the DA and did really well, and I thought everything was good—well, better. I know he blames me for not being here last year, but I couldn't have done the job Dumbledore gave me if I'd stayed."

"Remaining at Hogwarts would have been foolhardy at best," agreed Severus as his arms tightened perceptibly around Harry. "That Seamus said he can still feel the Carrows' hands on him is disturbing. I've not heard of any instances of physical abuse by them—they were partial to Cruciatus—but given their enjoyment of torturing those weaker than themselves, I cannot, in all conscience, say it is outside of the realm of possibility—though to be clear, I did not consider the students at risk from that particular monstrosity. What do you intend to do next?"

"Hunh?" Harry looked up, bewildered. "I'm still back where you called him 'Seamus'," he said in a daze. "You never call people by their first names."

"Draco, Neville, Luna, Hermione, Ginny, Ron," Severus ticked off. "I use their names when they're in our home. When the reason for them being here is social in nature. Should they wish to speak with me in my capacity of Professor, Head of House or Deputy Headmaster, they are welcome to visit my office during posted hours, where they will refer to me as Professor Prince and I to them by their surnames. But I am speaking with my husband about a problem he is having with a colleague who happens to be a student, though not one of mine."

Harry sat up and awkwardly turned himself around to straddle Severus' legs, and when he met Severus' eyes, Harry's were swimming. "This is the first time since the wedding I've felt like we're really married. Like I could put pictures on the mantel if I wanted. Or have friends over."

He gazed at Severus and his eyes were sombre. "Ron told me yesterday…" He shook his head and winced. "I mean Friday. I forgot which day it was. He said I had to fix this. I didn't know I was hurting you, but I'm not sure I even thought you cared enough about us to want to. I love you, but I don't think I've done much to show it. Not since the term started, anyway." He sniffled and muttered softly. "Sorry."

Severus reached up and smoothed away a lock of Harry's hair. "Don't be. It's difficult for us both. As Arthur reminded me, we're neither of us the sort who ask for help when it is so desperately needed, but we must learn to work together."

"It goes both ways, though, Severus," said Harry. "That means you tell me things as well. How can I learn to trust you if you won't trust me?"

Severus gave Harry a searching look as his hands roamed idly over Harry's back. His skin was cool and Severus' brow furrowed. "Are you warm enough?" Not waiting for an answer, he moved Harry back into bed, making certain he was comfortable and covered before stretching out next to him. "Better?"

Harry nodded and tugged a pillow under his head, grumbling about not being able to lie down the way he wanted. "Yeah, but I don't want to go to sleep. I like talking with you."

A rare smile appeared on Severus' face, and his countenance softened. He hoped Harry understood that he was finding this time together a pleasure as well. "Has it occurred to you that I do trust you? I simply have nothing of note to tell you." As if responding to instinct, he reached out again to touch Harry, feeling a yearning need to keep him close.

Harry smiled back. "Not even to complain about the O.W.L. class? Or whinge about staff meetings?"

"Not even then," replied Severus. "The fifth years are their usual dunderheaded selves. I have three this year who show genuine promise. The rest just want to sit their Potions examination and do well enough to scrape by with an Acceptable so they never have to brew again. And staff meetings are considerably quieter now that we needn't worry about the Dark Lord's next attempt on your life."

"What do you talk about now?" asked Harry, keenly interested, though Severus had no idea why he would be. The only positive thing he could say about them was that they weren't as achingly dull as the first year curriculum. What was it about mortars and pestles that eleven year-olds found so difficult?

"The topics for discussion for our last meeting included an assessment of the Sorting Hat plan, a conversation about finding an assistant for Argus Filch, another request by Sybill for a divining rod, and Minerva reminded Williamson and Wimple that she would be observing their classes soon." At the mention of Williamson, Severus saw Harry's face darken and his suspicions were aroused. "You mentioned your Defence course once before."

Harry's scowl deepened. "He's the reason I went flying." He told Severus about Friday's class, about the potion and his insistence that Draco Vanish it before Williamson could collect it. By the time he finished his saga, Severus was fuming. "I won't partner with him, Severus. I don't trust him." He released a deep sigh. "I've not had much luck with Defence instructors."

"Minerva explicitly told him not to use potions in class, and pair bonds are not on the Ministry's curriculum for Defence, not even at the N.E.W.T. level," growled Severus. "Do you mind if I ask Minerva to observe his seventh year classes next week? Or…" His dark eyes glinted dangerously. "Perhaps I should suggest that she observe Transfiguration and I observe the Defence classes." His grin was positively evil. "To each his own speciality."

"Are you speaking as Severus or as Professor Prince?" asked Harry dubiously. "Because if you're thinking about interfering, don't. Otherwise, everything you said about boundaries wasn't true."

Severus gave Harry a long look, lifting an eyebrow as he moved his hand to caress Harry's jaw. "If you will recall, I said 'Do you mind if I ask Minerva'. I will not involve myself in this until we've spoken about it and we're both satisfied with any plan we craft to counter whatever scheme Williamson appears to be hatching."

Relief flooded Harry's eyes and he covered Severus' hand with his own. "Thanks," he said softly. "I would love to see Williamson's face if we partnered for these exercises, but what about your own classes? My Defence class meets at the same time as your fourth year classes."

"Hmm, and Draco and Hermione both have Defence with you." Severus thought for a moment, and then gave Harry a speculative look. "Do you suppose George could be persuaded to leave the shop for a few hours? Is there anyone who can watch it if he's not there?"

Harry's eyes widened and he blinked. "You'd let George supervise your fourth year Potions students? George Weasley? That's completely mental. Are you sure you weren't hit on the head a few times rescuing me? Those rocks are heavy."

"The only injuries I sustained rescuing you were shattered nerves and torn fingernails," said Severus dryly. "Do you know if George can leave the shop or should I ask Molly?" He was careful to keep his simmering rage out of his voice, out of his touch. Williamson had been a competent instructor, if a little too enamoured with the Auror Corps procedures manual, but since the start of term he'd been attempting to insinuate himself into Severus' life in a fashion Severus found most off-putting.

Severus watched the quicksilver emotions that played across Harry's face. There was guilt, to be sure, and more disbelief than he thought warranted. And love. More love than he'd ever borne witness to, more than he'd ever been given without expectation of anything in return. It was very nearly painful to realise that despite Harry's doubts, despite how little affection he gave in return, Severus was still loved.

"Why?" asked Harry, his voice strained. "I don't understand. You? Leaving your fourth years with George? I didn't think you liked him."

"I had a chance to speak with him at Christmas," replied Severus, the lines on his face deepening as he concealed his thoughts behind carefully constructed barriers. "We talked for awhile about Fred, about Hogwarts, about the war and my part in it. We spoke quite a bit about his shop and the products he wants to develop. We spoke of you. He loves you, and his affection is not entirely brotherly."

Harry started and his eyes widened. "He's never…wait. What do you mean, not entirely brotherly?"

Severus smiled and caressed Harry gently. "There appears to be a distinct line between familial love and friendship within the Weasley clan, and the line seems to be drawn between the twins. From what I am given to understand, Fred seemed to think you needed minding. George did not agree. Even had your relationship with Ginny worked out—"

"Not bloody likely," interrupted Harry, "though she was really quick to accept me."

"As it should be. But as I was saying, George would, like Ron, see you as a close friend: 'best mates' as it were. Fred would have thought of you as a little brother, as Percy, Bill and Charlie do."

Harry's eyes narrowed. "You're really good at that, you know. Taking what I've said and making it so it's not about you. I still don't know if you like George or not."

'Like' was such an inadequate word to describe how Severus regarded those who mattered to him, and if the word ever escaped his lips he would accept that as a sign that he was not acting in accordance with his own free will. "I respect him and have a certain regard for him," he said slowly.

"You can say 'like', you know," said Harry with a disconcerting degree of prescience and a knowing grin.

"I would rather chaperone another Yule Ball," replied Severus with a small shudder. "I should think that you, of all people, would know that I hold a number of people in high esteem, that I am capable of being cordial when the occasion calls for it."

"Do you like Hermione?" asked Harry. "I know Ron hasn't exactly covered himself in glory, but Hermione's been great."

"Yes, she was delightful when she refused to speak to you for months because you'd not disclosed your sexuality to her before you were prepared to do so," replied Severus disdainfully. "Though, I will admit Hermione is a loyal and honest friend who will confront hard truths head on. In many ways, she reminds me of Albus." He grew silent for a moment. "I miss him terribly." Severus looked away for a moment, only to feel Harry's hand warm against his cheek. He turned back and met Harry's eyes, filled with an understanding that he was not certain he deserved.

"I do too," said Harry huskily. "I should have listened to him more, believed him when he said you could be trusted."

"Don't, Harry," said Severus. "Miss him without regret. Yes, you should have listened more, but then, so should I have done. We were fated to stand in opposition to one another, given our respective histories and my own formidable pettiness. Have we not forgiven each other all our many past misdeeds?"

"Completely. Once I knew everything…" Harry's breath caught in his throat and his eyes swam. "I remember when you were brought to the Hospital Wing and Pomfrey wouldn't let me see you. Everything was in chaos and everyone wanted a piece of me, when all I wanted was to sit with you and beg you to forgive me. I was positive you were dead." His expression grew fierce. "Don't you ever die on me."

"Harry…"

"No, I mean it. I want you to promise me you'll stay away from the dangerous stuff. No more espionage shite, no trying to infiltrate the Ministry or whoever the bad guys turn out to be. I'm not even all that keen on you working with that dragon yolk, to be honest."

"I'm a Potions Master, and I do know how to handle volatile ingredients, Harry. And I have good reasons to take more precautions than I would otherwise, so please do not worry on that score," Severus assured him. "Why do you believe I plan to infiltrate the Ministry?"

"Have you forgotten about those two from the Wizengamot? The ones who showed up the day after the wedding?"

"No, I've not forgotten about them. Nor have I learnt anything more about them, though I've not had an opportunity to speak with Arthur or Kingsley about them, either. Perhaps I should call on Kingsley at the Ministry this week."

"That's what I'm talking about," said Harry, his frustration evident. "We know there's something brewing there, but can't we just wait them out? Wouldn't that be easier? I mean, it's not like they're planning to assassinate either of us or anything."

"And you're certain of this?" said Severus archly. "You've been a political figure all your life, though, to your credit, you were not aware of it until Scrimgeour took over as Minister of Magic. Someone like Draco would have exploited that power as much as he could."

"Yeah, well, he didn't think the Ministry were all idiots, either," Harry pointed out. "Fudge and Scrimgeour were. Never managed to cross paths with Thicknesse, thank Merlin, but Kingsley's done all right. I just can't believe he's stepping down. It's not even been a year yet."

"Fudge is very likely to replace him" said Severus, thinking that if Cornelius Fudge managed to win re-election, Lucius Malfoy might manage to regain some of his influence despite the sentence handed down by the Wizengamot. "He did nothing so admirably for so many years that people are willing to have him back in charge so he can do nothing again."

"With you taking a seat on the Wizengamot and Fudge in charge," said Harry slowly, "it might not be a bad idea to make friends with an Auror or two. Do you know any?"

"Kingsley intends to go back to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement," replied Severus. "We should invite him to dine with us in the near future. He is not standing for re-election so there should be no conflict there."

"Conflict?"

"The Wizengamot has approved my request for the Prince house to be reinstated. I received the papers I must submit to formalise my application Friday morning, but I should be a full member by the beginning of March," replied Severus with a note of satisfaction. "As someone under consideration for membership, it would be seen as using undue influence were I to meet with a candidate for Minister. The rules must have been written by a Hufflepuff. A Slytherin would have left at least a few loopholes."

"How are you going to be a member of the Wizengamot and teach as well?" asked Harry.

"Albus was the Supreme Mugwump whilst he was Headmaster," replied Severus. "It can be done, though I will need to travel to the Ministry periodically."

"Where, no doubt, you'll make 'discreet enquiries' about the two who came here to complain about our marriage," grumbled Harry. He yawned and shifted uncomfortably, until he was nestled against Severus again. He reached out and guided Severus' hand to his stomach. "See, that's what I'm saying," he continued. "You're not the only one who can put two and two together. If they find out you're asking around about them, they might decide you shouldn't be lurking about."

"So I'm to wait until they've acted against you? Do nothing and permit them to control the centre of the board?" demanded Severus. "I will not have you in harm's way. We need to understand the game before we play it, and until we do, we're in no position to test them."

Harry was silent for a moment, and Severus opened his mouth to further his argument when Harry said, "Do you know if Draco ever wrote up that thing for Kingsley? You know, about the Wizengamot and what will happen when you take your seat?"

"I do not know," replied Severus slowly, "but it seems unlikely for a Malfoy to pass up an opportunity to perform a service for one wielding power, regardless of how menial the task. I think it would be a good idea to invite him to tell us what he discovered. As you've said, he is far more astute on matters of politics than either of us. I shall require his assistance with the formal application to the Wizengamot in any case."

"Why?" asked Harry. "What are they asking for?"

Severus gave Harry a soft smile. "That book you gave to me for Christmas is far more valuable than I knew. The application requires a listing of Wizarding bloodlines for myself and my spouse, going back at least four generations. Draco did not underestimate the potential upheaval to the Wizengamot that the restoration of the Prince house could cause."

A chill ran through Harry and he shivered, gooseflesh rising on his arms. "Have you ever had a ghost walk through you?" he asked in a near hush. "Feels like it just happened. This could be really dangerous, Severus. Are you sure you want to do this? Merlin, I sound like Hermione."

"You do not sound like Hermione," replied Severus, uncertain whether to be amused or horrified by the thought. "Though I must say I'm pleased that you are willing to exercise a degree of caution, even if not on your own behalf."

"I've already told you I'd be gutted if anything happened to you," said Harry with a tinge of anger. "Do you think I'm joking about that? I want you to be careful."

"I was gutted finding you buried alive," retorted Severus. "Have you so little understanding of the place you hold here? How empty I was without you? You speak to me of being careful, but you said nothing to me about someone trying to kill you."

The air around them grew charged, and Severus felt the weight of his words pressing down against his chest. His throat tightened as though the most important of them were still confined and struggling to get out. In his arms, Harry became very still.

"Careful, Severus," said Harry with a shaky laugh. "Someone might start to think you care about me."

Harry's smile faded as Severus captured his gaze, and Severus' heart ached as he saw the familiar doubts and fears enter Harry's eyes. How could the Sorting Hat ever have considered Harry for Slytherin? Subtleties were lost on him, and at times Severus despaired of Harry ever reading the writing on the wall that seemed plain enough to everyone else. "Foolish boy," he said gently. "Do you not know love when you see it?"

Harry said nothing, staring at his husband with wary green eyes, as though he'd just been tapped on the shoulder and was afraid to turn around to see what was waiting behind him. "Not from you, no," he said, his voice thick.

"Then open your mind and your eyes and know that you are loved completely," said Severus with the same unwavering conviction he'd demonstrated when stating the outcome if one were to add powered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood.

"Severus…" pleaded Harry.

Severus shook his head a bit and sighed. "Very well. Mark the date, Harry, for it is likely I will not utter these words again for many, many years, if ever." His heart fluttered wildly and his stomach tied itself into a complicated knot. Three words. How difficult could it be? But he was certain Harry had forgotten how to breathe, and it seemed unlikely that anything as simple as a kiss would remind him.

"It's alright," Harry choked out as he looked away. "I don't need to hear it."

"Look at me," said Severus as he grasped Harry's chin gently. "You believe me incapable of telling you I love you? You are the heart of me, Harry Prince, and the day we married was the best day of my life."

Chapter Text

Ch 13: Why Don't You Try For a Little Remorse?

After Harry had a light breakfast down in the dungeons, a house-elf gave him the message that his presence was required in the Great Hall. "Thanks," he said and made his way slowly upstairs, pausing just inside the doors to blink in bewilderment. Instead of the familiar House tables, Seamus and the students who'd infiltrated the Slytherin common room were seated in a long row along the front of the Staff Table. Immediately behind them sat the students who had skirmished in the Library; Harry was sorry to see Parvati and a handful of other Gryffindors amongst them.

The House tables had been moved, and it looked to Harry as though they'd been Transfigured into bleacher seats. He started towards them with a wave to Ron, but turned when he heard his name called.

"Over here, P—Harry," called Draco, gesturing with his arm towards a block of seats set perpendicular to the others. "This is bigger than House points or detentions," he explained as they walked through the Great Hall. Harry glanced over his shoulder at Ron and shrugged.

"We're having a trial of sorts. I think Prince—Professor Prince—is that ever not going to sound strange?—convinced McGonagall that it's because of the war, so she wants to hear from everybody who was involved."

Harry rubbed his back and looked in despair at the hard benches he would have to spend the better part of the day sitting on. His ribs still ached, and he knew he was going to have to get up a few times if only to stretch. "Everybody?" He glanced around and saw most of the Slytherins heading towards them. "What about the Guardians? Are they going to be up here, too?"

Draco shook his head. "They can watch if they want to, though. Ron told McGonagall that they were just doing what the Sorting Hat wanted them to do, and that he thought the vigilantes might not feel quite so defensive if the entire school weren't trying to get them expelled. Hermione, Hannah and Terry will be sitting at the Staff Table with the teachers, but since I'm Slytherin, they let me choose."

"Why am I up here?" asked Harry as he removed his school tie and Transfigured it into a softer chair with a back. He moved it to the far corner of what he supposed was a jury box of sorts and sat down.

Draco arched a brow as he took the seat next to Harry. "You were a target, as much as Slytherin House."

"I'm a Gryffindor," said Harry. "And Seamus' beef with me is personal."

Draco gave him a quizzical look. "Who said anything about Finnigan?"

"Severus didn't tell you what happened?"

"No," said Draco slowly, "but Neville and Luna did. They helped Severus dig you out." His eyes darkened as his fair skin went a few shades paler. "I've never seen Severus in a rage before, not like that. If Seamus is the one who did that to you, he's damned lucky Severus didn't know it at the time."

A chime sounded three times, deeper and more ominous than the school bell that announced the beginning of each class. The students who had been milling about took their seats, and in a very few minutes the Hall was silent. Harry scanned the seats in the back and found his friends in a tight cluster, all of them wearing grim expressions. The atmosphere was as tense as Harry had ever seen it.

A door near the front of the Great Hall opened and the teachers, accompanied by the Head Boys and Girls, filed out in a long line, taking seats at the Staff Table. McGonagall brought up the rear, taking her place at the podium set before the centre of the dais. Severus occupied his customary place at the end of the table nearest the Slytherin House table, his expression formidable.

"All of you have been informed why we are here today," McGonagall announced crisply, her firm voice filling the Great Hall. "Never in all my years at Hogwarts have I seen such a callous disregard for the rules, the war notwithstanding. One might hold a grievance against Slytherin House for any number of reasons," Harry was pleased to note that McGonagall did not turn to look at Severus, "but we do not settle scores, real or imagined, by fighting."

"You will each be given the opportunity to explain yourself," she continued. "Draco Malfoy, Head Boy for Slytherin House, is appointed spokesman. He will be given the chance to provide a rebuttal, but I remind you all that the students of Slytherin House are not their parents. They are not the Death Eaters. They are not," she paused and steeled herself, "Lord Voldemort."

A low murmur broke out as students shifted uneasily, shuddering at the mention of his name. Harry watched the faces of those who had taken part in the attack, feeling equal parts betrayal and regret. He would not take back anything he had done, but thought if perhaps he'd spent more time with them, he might have been able to abate their fury somehow. They wanted a scapegoat, someone to point to and blame for all their ills, but he would not give them Severus, nor the House he embodied.

"Now, who amongst you would like to go first?" McGonagall's wintry eyes swept over the two rows of students seated before her, lingering on Seamus, on Parvati, on a fourth year girl Harry knew by sight but whose name he couldn't recall.

"I'll go first," a Ravenclaw declared hotly as he sprang to his feet, and Harry recognised him as the one who had referred to him as a fucktoy. He gritted his teeth and steeled himself against further insults. He leaned over and whispered in Draco's ear. "Did anyone think to collect wands?"

Draco closed his eyes and shook his head.

"Keep yours at the ready and be prepared to cast a lot of stunning spells," whispered Harry as Andrew Stretton began to speak.

"We've no use for Slytherins," said Stretton. "It's all their fault there was a war, and now my uncle's dead because of them. He worked at the Ministry on the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee. Thicknesse had him killed and the rest of them as well. Then we had to put up with the fucking Death Eaters—"

"Language, Mr Stretton," barked McGonagall.

"No." To Harry's great surprise, Severus came to his feet. "I suggest we allow them to speak their minds," he said. "This is not a time for reasoned discourse. They are understandably angry, though," his expression hardened and his eyes glittered ominously as they swung back towards Stretton, "gratuitous insults will not be tolerated."

Stretton blinked as though startled and swallowed heavily. "I will mind what I say," he said simply. "But no one has come forward. No one has apologised. Seamus was right: it was hell being here, with the Carrows and the Slytherins torturing us every chance they had. Who was telling them to behave themselves?" he demanded, his voice rising. "Who was taking points from them for cursing and hexing us? Who was escorting us from place to place to ensure we weren't set upon? I'll tell you who. No one!" He crossed his arms and glared heatedly at McGonagall.

Thus began a long day of airing old grievances, and Harry's heart ached at the stories he heard. Even now, nearly nine months after the war had ended, there were students who avoided certain corridors that had been favourites of the more aggressive Slytherins, almost all children of Death Eaters. There were students who could not sleep, who startled at loud noises, who broke down completely at the mere thought of serving detention.

Harry heard about friends and family members crushed by giants and partially eaten by acromantulas. He glanced over to where Ron was sitting, his freckles standing out in stark relief at hearing his worst nightmare come true. Harry listened as those accused shouted and cried about the people in their lives who had been murdered for being half-bloods or Muggle-born, of people who vanished in the night, never to be heard from again, about how some of them wished they'd never been magical at all.

To someone who loved magic as much as Harry did, the thought of leaving it to return to the Muggle world was very nearly incomprehensible. No matter how hard his life had been, he wouldn't trade many moments of it to grow up under his uncle's thumb instead. He found himself wondering if Voldemort would have been able to steal the Philosopher's Stone if Harry had remained on Privet Drive. Would Ginny have succumbed to the diary? Would Wormtail have returned to Voldemort sooner? To which side would Severus have been loyal if he hadn't had Harry to protect?

He returned to the present with a jolt when Parvati stood up and pointed her finger at him. "It's all Harry's fault," she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. "You should never have returned to Hogwarts. You brought them here, You-Know-Who and the Death Eaters and that horrible Fenrir Greyback. Lavender would still be alive if you'd just stayed away! It's all your fault!" She turned away and wept noisily.

The Hall fell silent, except for Parvati and the person trying to comfort her, and as it lengthened, Harry wondered if he should stand up and say something in his own defence. He hadn't wanted to bring the war to Hogwarts, but it had ended up here all the same and he couldn't think of anything he could have done to change that. He gazed questioningly up at Hermione, but McGonagall spoke before he'd finished reading her expression.

"We've not yet heard from you, Mr Finnigan," prompted McGonagall. "Though I dare say we've heard quite a bit about you over the course of the morning. I would like to know why you believed it to be a good idea to attack Slytherin House."

Seamus' eyes flashed towards Harry for a split second before he stared back at McGonagall. "It's because of him," he snarled after an oppressive silence, pointing to Harry as he raged at McGonagall. "Harry. Bending over for Slytherins, wanting everyone to think they're like everybody else, but they're not. They're evil, every single one of them. They're not normal, any more than Potter is.

"He's a freak. A bloody freak. He's disgusting, and we're supposed to pretend he's normal, but he's not. He gets shagged by a fuckin' Slytherin, and now we have to look at him, have his bleedin' sex life shoved in our faces every single day." Seamus went quiet for a moment, his pale, sweaty face twisting in revulsion. "The Carrows…the Carr—" he said in horror, and then he vomited all over the floor.

Heads swivelled, no one quite certain where to look, though an uncomfortable number of them were turned in Harry's direction. A few students near Seamus gagged and even Harry's stomach turned over. McGonagall dashed over to Seamus and Vanished the sick before speaking quietly with him, his head down and cheeks burning. She gestured to Sprout, who bustled over to wrap an arm around him as she led him from the Great Hall. Seamus threw her arm off and strode angrily in front of her, leaving McGonagall to sigh and shake her head.

A low buzz of conversation filled the Great Hall and, as Harry met Hermione's eyes, he saw something that appeared suspiciously like pity in them. She shook her head slightly and glanced pointedly at where Seamus had been standing just moments before, and Harry understood her to mean that she was just as worried about their friend as he was.

"Mr Malfoy," said McGonagall as she resumed her place behind the podium. "Having heard the grievances lodged against Slytherin House, have you a rebuttal?"

Draco came to his feet, his chin up, and his cool, silvery eyes swept over everyone assembled there. "I do, Professor, but might I suggest we break for lunch?" He turned and gave Harry an enquiring look before turning back to respectfully await McGonagall's decision. If Draco was in need of career advice, Harry hoped that someone would steer him towards becoming a barrister.

A bell chimed, and McGonagall's face softened. "Excellent suggestion, Mr Malfoy." She tapped her wand against the podium and urged the students to their feet. Within a very few minutes, she, Flitwick and Wimple had the Great Hall set to rights, with another table placed very near the Staff Table for the students in disgrace.

While the teachers were busy, Harry spotted Severus across the Hall and nodded to him, waiting until Ron, Neville and Luna surrounded him before making his way through the crowd to stand next to him. "Where did Professor Sprout take Seamus?" he asked as Hermione pushed her way through to join them.

"To the Hospital Wing," said Severus, his brow furrowed in thought. "He did not appear well." He tipped his head as Draco joined them. "I see the family is all here. Draco, do you have your remarks prepared?"

Draco shook his head. "Somewhat, but I had intended to work them out during lunch. I heard a few things that were new. To me, at least." He glanced inquiringly in turn at Ron, Neville and Harry.

Ron shrugged. "I've not heard anything that wasn't said in the common room for years, except for the bits about Harry and the stuff about last year. It's not his fault the battle ended up being fought here. Believe me, he'd have chosen anywhere else."

"I think you should let Harry speak," suggested Neville, to Harry's dismay.

"No. They'll not listen to me," said Harry. "They blame me enough already. I can't do anything about being pregnant; that's me being a freak of nature—"

"Harry!" A chorus of voices broke out, and Severus' eyes flashed.

"Look, I said I'm okay with it, and I am, but let's not pretend this is normal," Harry explained. "It's not. Maybe it was five hundred years ago, but it should have died out by now. I wasn't supposed to survive the Killing Curse either, but I did, so I've already figured out I'm not like everybody else." He wasn't worried about his self-image, though he could do quite happily without the constant harassment, and he couldn't decide if he liked being pregnant or not. It was rather peculiar, all things considered. But Severus loved him and that was all that mattered.

"Anyway," continued Harry, "I didn't want the war to be fought at Hogwarts any more than anyone else did, but Voldemort chose the place. Not me." He'd done everything that was required of him, not that it made him sleep any better at night. It was a bit surprising that the castle wasn't awash in Sleeping Draught after all he'd heard.

"It would have been loads different if it had happened while we were breaking into the Lestrange vault," Ron remarked. "At least it wasn't at the Ministry."

"Or in Godric's Hollow," said Hermione a bit sharply. "Where we were nearly killed by the snake, not to mention You-Know-Who showing up in the flesh. What a wonderful Christmas that was." She flushed as four pairs of eyes turned to stare at her. "Never mind."

"You know," said Neville, "no one really has the whole story. Not you three. Not us. Maybe Professor Prince does," Severus quickly shook his head, his dark eyes inquisitive. "Okay, guess not. But if we don't know it, we can be certain they don't, either."

Luna stepped up to Draco, her pale blue eyes filled with understanding. "You'll need all of us. Don't mind the Wrackspurts, they're only trying to distract you." She reached up and took his face in her hands. "You're better than that, Draco Malfoy." She withdrew her hands and plopped down at the Slytherin table, seeming quite at home there. "I'm hungry. Will we have a long wait for lunch, do you think?"

~*~

An hour later, Draco stood before his classmates, his finely tailored robes open to reveal charcoal grey trousers, a pristine white shirt and his Slytherin tie, properly knotted and tucked neatly into his waistcoat. He looked every inch the Slytherin prince he was once thought to be, the trademark Malfoy sneer firmly in place.

Seeing Draco like that brought out all the old hostility Harry had thought long buried. Memories surfaced: Draco hurling curses at him in the Room of Requirement whilst Fiendfyre crackled and roared around them, Draco skulking around corridors with Crabbe and Goyle at his side, Draco strutting around with his Inquisitorial Squad badge pinned to his chest. He couldn't guess the game Draco was playing, and he did not see how this would improve their situation any.

Draco paced in front of the group of students, his boots tapping out a sharp tattoo against the stone floor as precise as drummers escorting a prisoner to the gallows. He came to a halt in front of Megan Jones, a Hufflepuff from his year, whose brother had had an arm torn off by one of the giants who attacked the castle. He stared down his nose at her, his eyes moving slowly over her as though deciding if she was in the same league as the dirt he wiped off his shoes.

"What do you want, Malfoy?" she spat. "Come to gloat, have you?"

They watched in amazement as Malfoy's arrogance melted away, leaving someone akin to the pale, frightened, uncertain boy Harry had seen at the Welcoming Feast. "I'm Draco," he said quietly and held out his hand to her. "It's my pleasure to meet you."

Megan stared up at him in wide-eyed confusion, her eyes shifting from his face to his outstretched hand and back. "What are you doing?" she growled suspiciously.

"Making your acquaintance," he replied in the same respectful tone. "I do not believe we've ever been properly introduced, even after all these years. You are Miriam Jones, yes?"

Whether she was embarrassed, angry or simply refused to stoop to Draco's level, Harry couldn't say, but the girl came to her feet and took his hand, removing it quickly and somehow managing not to wipe it on her robes. "Megan Jones. Megan. Not Miriam," she said coldly.

"Forgive me," replied Draco with a respectful nod of his head. "I knew it began with an 'M', but that was all I could remember." He took a step back and wrung his hands a bit, appearing uncertain. "Slytherin House is in disgrace. We all know it, and we accept that our House harboured the worst Dark wizard to arise in the past fifty years. But when you think of Slytherin, what comes to mind?"

He waited and when no one said anything, he offered a few ideas. "Evil? Self-serving? Conniving?"

"Arrogant," offered someone. "Petty," shouted another. "Cruel." "Manipulative." "Dark." "Pure-bloods."

"Who said that?" said Draco, his head snapping around, his eyes narrowing. A couple of hands went up in the back. "I would like to introduce you to some members of Slytherin House." He walked over to the area where Harry was sitting, studiously keeping his eyes off him. "Evan, Naima, Scott, Heather, would you stand, please?" Two of them came to their feet, but the others refused, despite whispered pleas to the contrary. "It's alright, you don't have to."

"We hear a lot about how Slytherin cling to the old ways, that we're the ones who insist that custom and tradition be followed. That we all believe that the only decent wizard is a pure-blood one. Yes, it's true that Salazar Slytherin chose pure-blood witches and wizards for his House, but the Sorting Hat places everybody in the best House for that person. The ones I named are Muggle-borns, and when the Dark Lord was in power they were afraid for their lives, but what seems to have been forgotten is that Slytherins are loyal, just as loyal as Hufflepuffs.

"Tracey. Graham. Nickie. Rachel." He rattled off another few names. "Would you stand, please?" The Slytherins he'd called by name came to their feet and gazed steadily at Draco.

"Meet Slytherin House's half-bloods." A look of pride came across Draco's face. "Stay there for a moment." He walked purposefully across the Hall and came to where Severus was sitting. "Severus Prince, would you do us the honour of standing, please?"

All eyes turned to watch Severus come to his feet, his expression neutral, impassive, and if he was the least bit resentful about becoming the centre of attention, Harry couldn't tell. "Professor Prince is our Head of House, and he is a half-blood. He is married to another half-blood, Harry Potter." At hearing his name, Harry came awkwardly to his feet, a tiny nervous smile playing around the corner of his lips. "Sorry," Draco said with a sly smile. "Harry Prince. There's some doubt I'll ever get that right. Not terribly self-serving, I know," he added wryly, then gestured for everyone to take their seats again.

He moved back to the centre of the room, and every trace of good humour fled from his eyes. "There is another half-blood associated with Slytherin House. His name was Tom Riddle. Harry and Professor Dumbledore called him…" He swallowed and his jaw worked. A vein in his temple pulsed. "Voldemort." For a moment, Draco froze and his attention was fixed on the doors to the Great Hall. He inhaled deeply and drew a shaky hand across his forehead. "One learnt quickly to refer to him as My Lord, or the Dark Lord, especially if he was living in your home."

The Hall went silent and everyone leaned forward a bit to hear what Draco had to say. "When I was young…" He paused and a distant expression came into his eyes, one with which Harry was all too familiar. "I was raised to believe that my father, Lucius Malfoy, could do no wrong. He'd been accused of being a Death Eater when Potter defeated the Dark Lord for the first time, but the halls of power were not unknown to him, and he was able to persuade those in charge of our world that he'd been under the Dark Lord's thrall.

"It wasn't entirely untrue, but it was entirely self-serving. Conniving. Ambitious. Maybe a bit cunning. My friends were the children of my father's friends. I grew up knowing all the right people, and I was assured that when the Dark Lord rose again, we would be the most powerful family in Britain." He smiled grimly. "Pretty heady stuff and it was true, for the most part.

"When Potter was kidnapped at the end of the Tournament and the Dark Lord resurrected, we celebrated, believing all our loyalty had paid off. But the Dark Lord was obsessed with destroying Potter, not with bringing back a sense of order, not with restoring the customs and traditions I was assured all proper witches and wizards followed.

"We didn't understand this bizarre fixation with a skinny, myopic, Gryffindor orphan. I mean, I knew Potter. Why was the Dark Lord paying attention to him and not to us, those who followed him? Greg, Vincent, Pansy, Theo, all children of Death Eaters. Our fathers and our mothers worshipped the ground the Dark Lord walked on, and they taught us to do the same.

"We started to win, we thought, when Umbridge was here, and there we were, a bunch of power-hungry teenagers running around, currying favour with those who held the upper hand. Umbridge allowed us to do anything that furthered her own ambitions. Snape was one of us, and we learnt quickly how easy it is to be cruel when no one stands up to you. But we weren't cruel because we were Slytherins. We were cruel because that's what the Dark Lord did best.

"Then my father was given an assignment at the Department of Mysteries. I knew very little about it, but it was the key to destroying Potter and winning the war. When he succeeded, I knew my family would become the Dark Lord's most trusted servants, above Bellatrix Lestrange. Above Severus Snape. The Malfoys would serve at the right hand of the Dark Lord as he took his rightful place as the ruler of Wizarding Britain."

Draco walked slowly back to the area where Harry and the Slytherins were sitting. "I played Quidditch against Potter for four years, and I should have learnt not to bet against him. The prophecy Lucius had been sent to collect was destroyed. My father failed and worse, was captured and sent to Azkaban. There was no denying that he bore the Dark Mark, that he was a Death Eater. And with my father in prison, I was tapped to take his place."

Draco paced slowly through the Great Hall, his eyes fixed on the flagstones in front of him. Despite knowing the tale, Harry's heart was pounding and his mouth was dry as he watched the solitary figure walking in isolation through a crowded space. "My task was simple," he said, his expression troubled. "Find a way to get Death Eaters into the castle and murder the headmaster. Simple, as I said. Right?" He smiled briefly, but it faded fast. "If I failed, though, my punishment wouldn't be anything as easy as Azkaban. No, if I failed my father and mother would be murdered in front of me. Merlin alone knows how long I'd be allowed to live after that."

"With my father gone, the Dark Lord claimed Malfoy Manor as his own. I was Marked," he rolled back his sleeves and displayed the pale scar where the skull and snake had been burned into his forearm. "It faded when he died, but it's there," he said, his voice tinged with anger. "I will carry that with me until the day I die. I was his, and as the year went by and I was no closer to figuring out how to carry out my orders, I thought I would go mental.

"Imagine your father in Azkaban, your mother at wandpoint and being here, not knowing from one minute to the next what was happening to her. Not so hard to do, is it?" he asked. "The half-bloods and Muggle-borns from Slytherin wondered every day if this was the day someone from their own House would betray them to the Carrows. To Parkinson. To me.

"My house, the house in which I grew up, was used as a prison. As a torture chamber. As a place of execution. 'You've got to mean it, Draco.' My crazy aunt Bellatrix used to say that whilst she taught me the Cruciatus curse under the Dark Lord's watchful eye."

At his words, a soft snarl broke from Harry's lips, attracting Draco's attention. He walked over to where Harry sat, and Harry inhaled sharply at the agony in Draco's eyes. "Hurts like hell, doesn't it?" said Draco quietly. "Even now. My mother used to sit and watch as Aunt Bellatrix used it on me so I'd grow angry enough to use it on someone the Death Eaters had brought home. What else could she do? In case you're wondering, you can't cast Unforgivables on yourself. I should know. I tried it often enough."

Harry blanched and shook his head in despair. Draco turned away and walked over to where the small army was sitting. "It wasn't much better to be in Slytherin last year than any other House, at least not from what I could see. We all knew Snape was the Dark Lord's man, and to a person we were all afraid that if we didn't do exactly what the Carrows wanted, our families would be murdered and Snape would turn us over to the Dark Lord.

"Every time one of you got detention, the Carrows would pull a few of us out to curse you or hex you or jinx you, and you all fought back. Every one of you fought back. We were terrified that if you won, our families would be killed, but you all fought back."

"But your families didn't die," shouted a Hufflepuff. "Ours did!"

A half a dozen Slytherins sprang to their feet. "My dad's dead," one shouted back. "The Dark Lord killed him himself because I let a Hufflepuff get away. The Carrows snitched on me and now he's dead. He wasn't even a Death Eater. He just wrote books about wands."

Harry thought he was going to be sick. Ginny had not said anything about any of this. Nor had Severus, but judging from the horrified look on Severus' face, he hadn't known about it either. Harry thought it highly unlikely that the bloke's father had been murdered because of a Hufflepuff, but judging by his own experiences with the Carrows, he found it believable that they'd cast blame on the boy for his father's death.

Draco wetted his lips and stepped forward. "Look at us. Last year there were well over a hundred of us here. This year we're nearly half that. We're the smallest House at Hogwarts. Some of us have parents in Azkaban—and yes, they deserve to be there. Some of us lost parents to the war. But some of us are Slytherin because that's where the Sorting Hat put us, and we had nothing to do with it. My House was sent off to Hogsmeade, not even given a chance to choose a side. Some of us chose poorly and we will carry our mistakes with us to the grave, knowing that no matter how remorseful we may be, we cannot ever atone.

"If you want someone to punish for the wrongs committed by Slytherin House," Draco swallowed and squared his shoulders, "I stand for all of them. I offer my life," a chorus of 'no's broke out, and several students came out of the gallery at a run, "but in exchange, the war ends. Slytherin House becomes part of Hogwarts again."

Harry came to his feet, as did Severus and Hermione, and they started to move towards the centre of the room. Ron, Ginny, Neville and Luna were already surrounding Draco, speaking to him in low urgent tones.

McGonagall was shocked and alarm registered in her eyes. "Though I have no doubt your gesture was heartfelt, Mr Malfoy, Hogwarts will never demand the blood of its students in atonement for anything."

"I was at Malfoy Manor," said Luna in a soft voice that nevertheless seemed to reach everyone in the Great Hall. "I was captured by Death Eaters so my father wouldn't publish stories in The Quibbler about Harry anymore. I was there with Mr Ollivander and Dean Thomas. There were others, but the Death Eaters killed them. The Sorting Hat made me Draco's Guardian, and it made Draco Neville's Guardian. Odd, isn't it, that the Sorting Hat would give a Gryffindor to a Slytherin for safe keeping?

"The Sorting Hat gave another Gryffindor to a Slytherin, too. That's why Harry Potter and Severus Snape got married." Harry didn't know what possessed Luna to say that; it was likely the only thing he would leave off any list of reasons to get married. "And now they're the Princes," she said in her usual dreamy voice.

"Draco didn't capture me. He didn't torture me. He fed me when his aunt would let him. He gave us water sometimes. I think he was more scared than I was. I was in the dungeons where it was easy to forget about me, but when he was home for holidays, he had to try to keep Lord Voldemort happy, and he was never happy about anything, but then, he didn't have a nose." A nervous titter swept through the Hall.

"Draco Malfoy is a good man," she declared. "Professor Dumbledore used to tell us that it is our choices that define us. Sometimes Draco chose wrong, but most of the time he didn't have a choice at all, except to let his family be murdered and maybe himself, too. I know you might be thinking 'good riddance', but could you do it? Could you trade your family for what you believe?"

Luna turned and faced Draco. "I love you, and I will take your place." She smiled. "I am your Guardian, after all." She gave Draco a brief hug before wandering off to stand with Neville, who wrapped his arms around her and shook his head.

"I don't think that's what the Sorting Hat had in mind," said Neville as he released his hold on her. "But I've got something to say," he announced as he stepped forward. "Some of you wanted to know who was protecting you when Professor Prince was Headmaster here. I'll tell you who—Dumbledore's Army.

"There were loads of us working to keep Hogwarts safe from the Carrows. People like Ginny Weasley, Seamus Finnigan, Padma and Parvati Patil, Terry Boot, Ernie Macmillan. There were dozens of us living in the Room of Requirement to keep from being 'arrested' by the Carrows, but we did what we could to make life impossible for the Headmaster and the other Death Eaters Voldemort put here.

"Every time you thought you made a lucky escape, it was one of us causing a bigger headache for someone. We took your detentions and we took your punishments because that what Harry would have wanted us to do. He believes in Hogwarts. He believes in magic, but mostly he believes in love and forgiveness.

"It's no secret that he hated Snape and Snape hated him. It's no secret that they love each other now, even if they don't say it much. Harry lectured me at the Welcoming Feast, did you know that? He already knew Slytherin House was going to bear the brunt of our anger, and he was right. Of all of us, Harry is a child of war. My parents are in St Mungo's, have been since I was a baby, but at least I have them. His died to save him.

"He told me that we have to forgive them if we want peace, and he's right. I hated the Slytherins when school started, and I was angry they were allowed back, but then the Sorting Hat gave me Draco." Neville paused and a light flush spread over his cheeks. "I guess it's not really a secret that I love him the same way I love Luna. Most of us who became Guardians, especially those of us who were in Dumbledore's Army, got to see the Slytherins as people, and they're just like us.

"We didn't want the war to come here, but are we going to be the ones who carry it from here? Or are we going to be the ones who carry peace? Who tell our families and our friends that we will get another Dark Lord in return for our hate?"

Wishing he'd stayed in his seat, Harry moved stealthily to the Staff Table and sat down next to Hermione. "Are you going to say anything?" he murmured.

"Do you want me to?" she asked. "The others are managing rather well, I thought. At least they're not making a hash of it. Oh, quiet. Ron's speaking." Her body went tense and Harry wondered if Ron would be able to complete a thought before she berated him for something.

"Harry didn't bring the war here, and I'll have words with anyone who says he did," said Ron bluntly. "He was given a task by Dumbledore that had to be done so he could defeat You-Know-Who. That's what we were doing last year."

"You expect us to believe that Professor Dumbledore told Harry Potter to break into the Ministry? To steal something from Gringotts?" snarled Parvati, tears still glistening in her lashes.

Ron stood over her and from his posture, Harry knew he was fuming. "Ever heard of a Horcrux?" he snapped. "You-Know-Who split his soul into seven pieces so he couldn't be killed.

"Remember second year and all those people getting petrified? Hermione was one of 'em. So was Justin. And Colin. Remember that, Parvati? That happened because You-Know-Who stored part of his soul in a diary that Malfoy—" He looked appraisingly at Draco. "Lucius Malfoy gave to my sister. She nearly died and so did Harry when that basilisk bit him." He sighed. "It's a long story.

"Anyway, we knew we had to find a locket, a cup, something of Ravenclaw's, and kill his snake. That's all we knew. The diary was destroyed in the Chamber of Secrets and Dumbledore destroyed the ring, but we didn't know how to destroy the rest of them. We didn't even know where they were." He looked up and his eyes swept over the crowd.

"I've been best mates with Harry since our first trip on the Hogwarts Express, and it's been a rough slog, mostly for him. He's the hero, but he never wanted to be one. I've been a right git to him over and over. I was hacked off because I thought he'd found a way to sneak into the Triwizard Tournament, but it turns out it was a trap to kidnap him. I left him when we were searching for Horcruxes, and Hermione too, because I was tired and scared and done with not having the first clue what we were doing, but I couldn't find them again when I wanted to go back."

Ron began to pace nervously and his words started to tumble over themselves. "He avoided me—me and my family—because he thought I wouldn't like him anymore for being gay. He was right," he admitted in a choked voice. "About me, anyway. How could Harry Potter be bent? He's got everything, right? Fame, fortune, glory.

"He's famous because his mum stepped in front of a Killing Curse. He's got a fortune because Bellatrix Lestrange killed his godfather. He's earned glory, but he had to be killed by Voldemort in order to defeat him. I don't know anyone else who could have done that. And he didn't even tell me he was going to do it, the prat." Ron's eyes glistened strangely as he glared at Harry.

"Don't even ask me why he fell in love with Snape, but he did. And I told him he was mental. Every horrible thing you've ever thought about Harry Potter, I've said to him. I told him we should have gone into hiding, kept our heads down, but he had a job to do and he was going to do it, even if it killed him.

"Harry couldn't have come here last year. Neither could Hermione. There was a price on their heads, and there were too many people willing to give him up, thinking it would mean an easier time for them. But Draco's told you what it was like living with You-Know-Who. Luna's told you what it was like to be captured by Death Eaters. We only came here in the end because You-Know-Who hid a part of his soul here. If you want to blame someone for the battle being fought here, blame the right person, not the person who gave up his life so You-Know-Who couldn't come back again."

Harry was scarlet by the time Ron had finished, not wanting any of this to be about him. He didn't want a rehashing of his deeds and misdeeds. All he wanted was for everyone to find their own way to forgiveness, to feel remorse so that redemption might take the place of rage and hate. He rose from his chair and spoke. "This is not about me. This is about knowing we all make bad choices sometimes; I mean, I got my godfather killed, but we've got to forgive ourselves and each other and move forward."

He took a moment and gathered his thoughts. "We're taught that Hufflepuff are an ordinary lot, but they gave us Cedric Diggory, who was anything but. Ravenclaw are bookish and brilliant, but then we have Luna." He shrugged his shoulders and she grinned. "Gryffindor are brave or reckless, depending on who's doing the telling, but Peter Pettigrew was the most cowardly man I knew and betrayed his best friends to Voldemort. And we've all said Slytherin look out for themselves, but the most courageous, selfless person I know is Severus. He's why we have a school to return to, and no one has ever thought him anything but a Slytherin." He sat back down and gazed out into the distance, wondering if any of this had helped or if they'd just managed to make things worse.

McGonagall stepped back behind the podium, her countenance stern. "You've been fortunate enough to hear from a number of people, many of whom have understandable reasons for holding Slytherin accountable for the horrors they've been forced to endure, but have chosen, chosen not to. Who have come to understand that revenge is not the way. It is our choices that define us."

"Ask him what choices he made," demanded a Ravenclaw who stood and pointed at Severus. "He murdered Dumbledore. He had Burbage sacked for teaching about Muggles—"

"She was murdered," interrupted Severus, setting off a low, angry buzz of conversation. "Draco witnessed it, as did I. My choices were thus: to save her and, in so doing, provoke the Dark Lord's wrath, thus ensuring he would triumph, or do nothing and survive to fulfil the mission Albus Dumbledore had entrusted to me. Which would you have had me do?" He stepped off the dais and approached the girl, a fifth year from the look of it.

"Severus," said Harry urgently in a low voice. "You don't have to do this. You don't have to explain anything."

Severus gave Harry a long, searching look. "No. It is time they learnt the truth." He stepped up to the podium and gripped it tightly, surveying the wide-eyed students sitting before him. "Only three people alive know the full truth of the past seven years: Harry, Minister of Magic Kingsley Shacklebolt and me. But those of you who feel wronged by my choices, who have decided that some deeds can never be forgiven: I will tell you my story and let you decide for yourselves what sort of man I am."

Harry's heart clenched. He had no desire to see Severus stripped of his dignity, all his innate pride laid bare for the judgement of people who could never fill his shoes. But he could not look away, nor would he. Even if he, Harry, was the last one standing, he would remain by Severus' side, steadfast in his support.

"If you believe that the actions you take here will not define you later in life, I assure you that you are wrong," Severus began, his rich, sonorous voice easily filling the Hall. Harry couldn't help but contrast it with the day they restored the ceiling, and he was inordinately pleased by how far Severus had come in the last six months. "When I was only slightly older than Mr Malfoy," he nodded toward Draco, "I took the Dark Mark of my own accord. My best friend, my only friend, had cut me out of her life when I called her a mudblood." For a moment Severus appeared haunted. "I could not earn her forgiveness, so I sought instead the approval of my housemates.

"Slytherin earned its reputation as a 'Dark' House," he continued. "Tom Riddle, Bellatrix Lestrange, Lucius Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle, Nott, the Carrows. Regulus Black." There was a pronounced silence. "Me. We have not covered ourselves in glory. We have not chosen well.

"I was hounded all throughout my days as a schoolboy here by a small gang of Gryffindors and wanted nothing more than revenge upon them for the pain they had caused me. What better way than to join up with a group who promised glory to its followers?" Severus spared no one, not even himself, as he spoke plainly about his days as a student, how the decisions he made then resonated years later.

"I loathed Harry P—," he sighed as the contract prevented him from saying the name, "despised the idea of him, hated him on first sight, but I had made a promise to Dumbledore, and to myself, to keep him safe. I had no idea, none, how onerous a task that would be." He then proceeded to explain in rising tones every instance where he had rescued Harry from danger or lent his talents to the effort, and how such incidents had ultimately led to the resurrection of Lord Voldemort.

If Harry had thought Severus capable of a good diatribe, he was of two minds by the time it was over. It was either a brilliant rant or the most thorough condemnation of his character he had ever witnessed, and he felt in his bones Severus' constant frustration with his impetuousness and callous disregard for his own safety. That they'd been able to find some common ground was nothing short of astonishing. Against all reason, he felt loved by the time all his wrongs had been recounted, listening with his elbow on the table, his chin propped in his hand, his eyes warm.

Those inside the Great Hall were spellbound. Most of them had heard by word of mouth about Harry's (mis)deeds during his years at Hogwarts, but never had they been privy to such a concise dissection by one who knew every detail of Harry's life.

"Presumably, you can comprehend the tightrope upon which I walked," said Severus, Summoning a glass of water and taking a sip. "My duty was understood—become the right hand of the Dark Lord whilst disseminating pertinent information to the Order of the Phoenix. Then Draco Malfoy received his orders."

Severus stepped back, his body tense, his eyes hooded. "Mr Weasley spoke to you about Horcruxes, created from the Darkest magic known. There was a ring upon which the Dark Lord had laid a powerful curse, a ring which housed a portion of his soul. Merlin alone knows what possessed the headmaster to pick the ring up without investigating it first. Those of you who were students here two years ago will remember his withered hand, black from above the wrist to the tips of his fingers. There was nothing to be done. The curse would kill him."

For the first time since he began his narration, Severus' voice grew tight, the velvety smoothness scraped down to the nap. "Professor Albus Dumbledore, my mentor and friend, asked me to take his life in order to preserve the soul of Draco Malfoy, upon whom had been laid a most onerous charge, and to further my own standing with the Dark Lord.

"You have heard from Draco himself, who spoke without knowing I would follow, that he was required to murder the Headmaster or see his family slain. Most of you know that Harry was on the Astronomy Tower that night and witnessed what he believed—what he was meant to believe—was the execution of Albus Dumbledore by my hand." His dark eyes swept over the assemblage. "What would you have done?"

No one said a word, but tears glistened in the eyes of a few students. Harry couldn't move an inch, couldn't turn his head to catch a glance of Hermione out of the corner of his eye. Draco was white. Even his silvery eyes appeared drained of colour, and Ron seemed to have aged a decade in the last few minutes.

"Before he died," said Severus, his voice suddenly hoarse, his sallow skin faded, "before I killed him, Albus gave me some last instructions: to give Harry the Sword of Gryffindor, and to relay a final message." Severus gripped the podium with whitened knuckles and heaved a breath more sob than sigh. "That, at the proper moment, Harry must die, and that it must be by the Dark Lord's hand." He coughed suddenly, an explosive sound in the silence of the Hall, and he dropped his head for a moment. "That was the charge laid upon me." His lips paled as he pressed them together.

"Imagine standing in Draco Malfoy's shoes. His mission is a success, though he failed to accomplish it himself. Death Eaters have invaded the school he loves, but to what end? The castle remained impregnable, Harry Potter still lived, the Order proved to be more capable a foe than first believed. I returned Draco to his parents, unable to mourn the one man who had stood between me and utter annihilation. In exchange for my loyalty to the Dark Lord," he spat, "I was given Hogwarts."

"Charity Burbage," he continued, "our Professor of Muggle Studies, submitted an ill-timed editorial about Wizard/Muggle relations and was taken into custody by Death Eaters. At a meeting to plot Harry's capture and demise, she was tortured and murdered whilst begging me to spare her life. A friend and colleague of fifteen years, and there was nothing I could do, unless I wished to see the Dark Lord prevail. What would you have done?"

Severus waited for someone to fill the silence, but no one spoke. "The Dark Lord appointed the Carrows to the Defence and Muggle Studies positions and I knew them for what they were—the eyes and ears of the Dark Lord. But amongst Dumbledore's staunchest allies were Professors McGonagall, Flitwick and Sprout, and I knew that they would act covertly to keep as many of you from harm's way as possible.

"It was inevitable that detentions would be assigned. It was inevitable that, once unfettered, Slytherin House would unleash the very worst of its nature after believing itself oppressed for so long. It was inevitable therefore, that Slytherin House would become the arm of justice. So I permitted those who had committed one infraction or another to defend themselves during their detentions. In short, I continued the training Dumbledore's Army had begun. What would you have done?"

Again, no one said a word. "Harry was not alone during his year on the run. He brought with him his two closest friends, Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger. This is common knowledge. But there was another, one who has largely been forgotten, and whilst it may seem his role was negligible, his contribution was not."

Harry and Hermione exchanged puzzled glances. "I speak of course," continued Severus, "of former headmaster Phineas Nigellus of Slytherin House, whose portrait kept me apprised of their progress, and who sent me to the Forest of Dean so that I might fulfil the first part of my mission, delivering the Sword of Gryffindor to Harry."

Severus stepped out from behind the podium and stood before his jury. "I carry with me many regrets," he said quietly. "I regret calling my friend, Lily Evans, a mudblood. I regret taking the Dark Mark. I regret delivering to the Dark Lord the information that led to her death and that of her husband, that led to the orphaning of their only child. I regret that Charity Burbage died believing I had betrayed her. I regret that all of you found yourselves pawns on a chessboard and were thought to be expendable. You are not.

"I do not regret the lessons you learnt last year, only the manner in which you were forced to learn them. I do not regret having caused Albus Dumbledore's death, only that it had to happen at all. I accept responsibility for the ills you suffered under my watch, and I will take my remorse to the grave, but I beg you all to remember that, at the end, Tom Riddle felt no remorse for anything."

Severus turned, walked back to the far end of the table and sat down, his face pale, his expression grim, his eyes focussed on the table in front of him. At the back of the room, Ginny Weasley came to her feet and swept her wand through the air before bringing it to her chest and bowing formally. Beside her Michael Corner rose and did the same, then Neville and Ernie Macmillan. In the Slytherin box, Demelza saw Ron make the same gesture and copied it and before long, nearly every head was bowed in silent tribute to a man who had taken so much upon his shoulders and expected nothing in return but to die at the end, unloved.

Harry sat quietly, his shining eyes widening slightly as he saw Severus receive the tribute he was due, his thoughts tangled, his emotions too many and too varied to fit in an ordinary teaspoon. "Ron?" he said in a voice just loud enough to be heard. "That's why."

Chapter Text

Harry woke hours later from a refreshing nap that went a long way to curing the ache in his back and the soreness in his ribs. He padded barefoot out from the bedroom to see if Severus had returned from the deliberations that took place after today's meeting, only to find the door to the laboratory slightly ajar, a clear sign of puttering. That was Harry's word for it; Severus called it "engaged in research."

He pushed the door open and remained carefully behind the threshold, waiting for Severus to look up. "Hungry?" he asked when Severus paused from measuring out some yellowish goo that smelled revolting.

"No, but you should request something from the house-elves," he replied as he added two more drops to the cylinder.

Harry was silent as he watched Severus work, curious, but not enough to ask. "You should eat something before you go to bed. Just…" He shrugged. "I know you've been skipping meals."

"Harry…" But whatever Severus was about to say died when he met Harry's eyes. "I will."

Severus went back to work and Harry turned away, looking back after a couple of steps even though he knew he couldn't see Severus from where he was. Just knowing he was there was enough. He brought his eyes forward and yelped when he nearly crashed head-on into Draco Malfoy.

"What are you doing here?" gasped Harry, his heart hammering. "And how did you get in?" He stared at the door to their quarters, as though trying to spot the magic that protected them.

"Password," remarked Draco casually, "and the enchantments are down." He strolled over to one of the overstuffed chairs and flopped down into it. "Severus was called away before everything was decided, and I reckoned you'd want to know before the story became something unrecognisable. Where is he?"

"Brewing," said Harry as he claimed his usual corner of the couch. "Don't ask me what he's working on, though. I've no idea."

"It doesn't matter what he's working on. You're not allowed in there at any rate," Draco pointed out. "And for good reason. You're a disaster at Potions." A light, teasing smile danced around the corners of his lips.

Harry scowled. "I don't know why everyone thinks that. I got an Exceeds Expectations on my O.W.L. I did really well in Slughorn's class, and I'd be fine in Severus' class if he'd let me anywhere near a cauldron."

"Something that will not happen until after the child is born," interjected Severus. "Hello, Draco. What brings you here?"

Some of Draco's good humour fled and he gazed soberly at Severus. "We finished, and I believe the outcome was as good as we could have expected. No one's wand will be snapped, the Ministry is not being notified, and St Mungo's is receiving three patients—"

"Four," interrupted Severus as he sat down at the far end of Harry's sofa. "Seamus Finnigan is being moved to the Janus Thickey Ward tonight, unless your count included him?"

Draco shook his head. "No. Andrew Stretton, Parvati Patil and Rebecca Alperton. She's in Ravenclaw, too."

"Which one is Rebecca?" asked Harry, eyeing the cushion next to Severus as he tried to decide whether it was worth shifting positions to curl up with him.

"She's in fifth year. Dark hair, dark eyes, about your height," said Severus. "Rather extraordinary at Astronomy. Aurora Sinistra was recommending she sit her N.E.W.T. this year, and then begin an apprenticeship next year."

"Do you reckon she and the others will be there long?" asked Harry worriedly. "What's wrong with them, anyway? Were they cursed?"

"No, nothing like that," said Severus. "They're—" His head snapped around as the door opened and Hermione stepped through. Harry glared at Draco, who gave him a smug smile back.

"Oh, Harry, have you heard? They're taking Parvati to St Mungo's," said Hermione in a burst. "Hello, Professor," she added before Harry had a chance to respond. She sat down in the comfy chair next to Severus, tucking her feet up under her. "I was looking for you afterwards," she said to Draco. "If I'd known you were here I'd have come straight away."

Draco looked quizzically at her. "Was there something you needed me for? I thought we'd finished."

"Oh, no," Hermione assured him. "I knew you'd want to tell Severus what had been decided, and I've been dying to speak with Harry, especially since we've not had any time and I still don't know about the Room of Requirement. I'm so far behind on everything," she said unhappily.

Harry started guiltily. "I'd nearly forgotten about that," he admitted. "But as you're both here, I'll tell you what I remember after you've told me what's going to happen with those Ravenclaws."

"They weren't all Ravenclaws," said Hermione sharply. "Don't you start thinking that way or we'll be right back in the same fix."

Harry stared at her, aghast, a low flush rising in his cheeks. After months spent trying to eliminate inter-House tensions and reduce the rivalries between them, to be thought biased against any House was beyond the pale. "I'm not," he protested. "But more than half of them were Ravenclaws, Hermione, and I can't really ignore that. I don't want them to have a name or an identity," he added sharply. "That gives them power, and they don't deserve that."

Three sets of eyes stared back at him. "I keep forgetting you're actually intelligent," said Draco, earning for himself a two-fingered salute from Harry, accompanied by a not-insignificant roll of the eyes.

"So what happened?" asked Harry. "The short version."

"The short version," huffed Hermione, "is that three are going to St Mungo's, Slytherin will be getting six new students, ten are on permanent detention, and the rest are losing a hundred points apiece. They didn't do much harm, rather got caught up in something a bit more exciting than Herbology."

"A hundred points?" exclaimed Harry. "Since when does anyone care about House points?"

"Those who lost points were second and third years, Harry," replied Severus. "They're old enough to remember the competition for the House Cup and having their banners up for the Leaving Feast. They're old enough to care about which House wins the Quidditch Cup. This is still a school, and whilst too many of the students have suffered adult experiences, they are still children. I would attempt to return some small part of their childhood to them."

"Ravenclaw is losing two hundred points, and Gryffindor and Hufflepuff one hundred points each," added Draco. "Nothing that can't be earned back by the end of term." His silvery eyes clouded. "They pretty much fell apart at that, though. Pomfrey had to give two of them Calming Draught."

The door burst open with a sharp bang and before Harry had finished leaping off the couch, wand in hand, Ron was climbing to his feet in the corridor outside their rooms and rubbing the back of his head. "What sort of charms have you put on the door?" he asked in a daze as he walked, peering at his fingers to see if there was any blood on them. Hermione dashed over and started combing through Ron's hair to see how badly he might have been hurt.

"As you can see," replied Severus, "the charms are not up or you would not have been able to enter, with or without the password."

Harry gave Ron an apologetic smile as he rubbed his rounded stomach. "Sorry, but maybe you should have knocked?" He sat back down, next to Severus this time, and reclined against him. "Have you heard already about …?" He gestured vaguely with his hand in the direction of the Great Hall.

Ron sat down in Hermione's chair, wincing as her fingers pressed against a lump forming on the back of his head. "Oi! That hurts. No," he continued, trying to answer Harry's question as he gave Hermione a sharp look. "Not yet. Leave off, Hermione. I'm fine. I was looking for Hermione to tell her that Seamus was taken to St Mungo's. That's why I'm here."

"St Mungo's? For sicking up in the Great Hall?" asked Hermione, perplexed. She rattled off half a dozen potions that could settle Seamus' stomach. "Surely Madam Pomfrey wouldn't need to send him to St Mungo's for that." She drew her wand and cast a mild Healing charm at Ron's head before claiming the chair next to him for herself.

"That is not why Seamus was transferred to St Mungo's," said Severus. "But I cannot reveal more than that." He would, though, to Harry. Harry knew that much.

"He's been an utter shite to Harry," growled Ron. "Best place for him, really. Maybe they can pull his head out from his arse."

"Wish I'd known about that department last summer," remarked Harry, amusement peering out from behind his eyes. "I'd have sent you there for the same treatment."

Hermione glared back as Draco laughed. But Ron merely nodded thoughtfully. "Might have saved you some grief if you had. You're still Harry, even if you are a Prince now. I used to hope that you and Ginny would get married so you'd really be part of the family, but I reckon Mum and Dad would kill me for thinking anything as daft as that. I get it now," he added quietly.

"Do you, Mr Weasley?" Severus' voice was hard as steel, and just as cold. "I heard what you said about forgiveness. Mine is much harder to earn."

"Leave off, you two," said Harry wearily, suspecting strongly that Severus had somehow managed to turn Ron's remark about Ginny into a critique about their marriage. Or perhaps it had something to do with the remark about family. Harry neither knew nor cared. "I'd rather you work it out without me, if it's all the same to you."

"As you wish," murmured Severus with a nod to Ron.

"The ones with permanent detention," said Harry, wanting to get the conversation back on track, "what does that mean? Not every single night and weekend?"

"It means they can't play Quidditch for one thing," said Draco. "No gobstones teams, no chess clubs or duelling clubs. No Hogsmeade weekends. Nights in the library or their common room. Saturdays spent in detention with Filch, Pomfrey or their Head of House."

"And lines," added Hermione. "Thousands and thousands of lines. McGonagall is working out what they'll be required to write."

The door opened again and Harry exchanged a long look with Severus. "And we didn't put up the charms, why?"

"Because I suspected our friends would wish to speak with us when everything had been decided." Severus waved Luna and Neville into the lounge, a pointless gesture as they were already commandeering the sofa opposite Harry and him. Draco moved out of his chair to sit on Luna's other side, his cheek stained with just enough colour to make Harry think of pale roses.

"Congratulations," said Harry, his tone heartfelt.

Draco's blush intensified. Neville tilted his head as Luna switched her earrings from one ear to the other, humming quietly to herself. There were times Luna was present in body only; this was one of them. "For what, Harry?" asked Neville.

Harry shifted and prodded his stomach. Why was it as soon as he was comfortable, the baby decided to shift positions so that he wasn't anymore? "I dunno. Being in love, maybe?"

"For giving them something else to talk about?" asked Luna cagily. She rested her head in the hollow of Draco's shoulder as she rested a hand on Neville's thigh. "If they'd just listen to the Heliopaths—"

"No such thing," muttered Hermione under her breath.

"They'd understand how important this is," continued Luna, undeterred.

"How important what is?" asked Severus, his brow arched in expectation. Anyone who had ever taken a class with Severus, and that was all of them, knew that he despised incomplete answers.

"You and Harry, of course. And the baby. You're going to change the world, you know." Luna then whispered something to Draco, who nodded and pulled a length of blue string from his pocket. He handed it to her without comment. Luna wrapped it around her finger and began to tie knots in it. For some reason, it made Harry smile to see it.

No one seemed to know what to say to that. Finally, Harry spoke. "I've done my bit, and when this one is born, I'll be done writing entries in the history books. It's time for someone else to step up. Is Ginny coming down, do you know?"

Neville shook his head. "She and Michael are sitting with Dean. He's a bit shaken by the whole thing. He knew Seamus was heading 'round the twist, but none of us knew it had gone as far as it had. We thought he didn't like queers." He reddened slightly. "Sorry, Harry, Severus, but you've heard Seamus all year. I know he's said loads about Slytherin, but it's always been about you fancying each other."

"It always felt personal," said Harry slowly, "but almost everything he's said has been about how vile Slytherin are, and how I'm not a true Gryffindor if I can like any of them. I don't think he cares I'm gay. He asked about that straight away and never mentioned it again. He doesn't like that I'm pregnant, though. He's made no secret of that." Harry's face shuttered as he fought off the doubts that still plagued him. "Mostly, though, he blames Severus for everything."

"He will not speak with me," said Severus as a knock sounded at the door. He rose to answer it.

"Imagine that," said Harry as his eyes fell on Draco. "Someone with manners."

"There you are," cried a dark blur that flung itself at Ron. "I've been looking all over the castle for you," huffed Demelza, plopping down next to Ron and giving him a baleful look. "I even went to the Library," she said, dragging out the last word, making it sound like a second Azkaban. She said a cheery hello to Hermione and gazed at Severus, her eyes dancing.

"Did you see me bow?" she asked excitedly. She hopped up and recreated it with a flourish, very nearly hitting her head on the coffee table as she swept into a low bow. "Wasn't it fab?" she bubbled as she straightened. "I thought it was brilliant, and I got to do it, too!"

Draco buried his face in his hand as the others tried very hard not to giggle. Severus was as nonplussed as Harry had ever seen him. "I must admit to having missed your tribute," said Severus solemnly. "But I do thank you for demonstrating so capably." He returned the bow as elegantly as he could with Harry half-sprawled across him, and Harry loved him all the more for it.

"Why are we getting new Slytherins?" asked Demelza as she scooted back up against Ron with practised ease. "No one wants them there. They already don't like us any, and we don't like them, either."

"Will you be calling a House meeting?" asked Draco. "I can't say I'm terribly pleased about having them be a part of Slytherin House."

"Shall I appoint Slytherin Guardians for them? Guarantors against their safety? I will, Draco, if I must. I am hopeful that the Prefects and the Head Boy will make that unnecessary."

"Remember all that stuff you said?" added Harry quietly. "It starts with you. And you, Demelza. You have to be the bigger person. Find out what they're good at, what they like and find them someone who likes the same thing. I mean, who would have thought you lot would fall in love? And look at Ron and Demelza." He smiled. "I keep expecting to hear Ron's adopting her and making her another Weasley. And Hermione has Astoria leading loads of study groups. Even Blaise and Ginny are getting along. There were only two guardians in that whole mess and one of them is at St Mungo's."

"I've rather enjoyed being a guardian," said Hermione. "I will admit I wasn't pleased when the Sorting Hat assigned Astoria to me, but she's quite nice. And I've gotten to know Daphne, too. She's in our year and she's not the stuck-up bi—snob I made her out to be."

"That's because Pansy and Millicent aren't here," replied Draco flatly. "Theo, Blaise and Daphne were smart enough to keep to the shadows, Theo especially. He didn't want to take the Mark, not after that debacle at the Ministry. He discovered what it meant to serve the Dark Lord and ran away. He wasn't here last year, either."

Draco dropped his eyes for a moment before continuing. "I won't deny we're a proud lot," his eyes cut over to Demelza, "most of us, at any rate, and we've learnt not to show weakness in front of others. We were supposed to have been defeated, but really, we're bloody well pleased you won."

"Most of us have got the message, Draco," said Neville. "The Sorting Hat made a difference. You made a difference. You let us get to know you, not as the Prince of Slytherin, but as Draco Malfoy. You're not who I thought you were."

"Your dungeon smells really horrible, though," said Luna. "The one here is ever so much better."

"That's because they don't keep people prisoner here anymore," said Hermione sharply.

"You mean they did?" asked Demelza, her eyes wide. "Is that why Filch has chains in his office? Did he chain you up when you were here?" she asked Severus. "I shouldn't think you'd have liked it much, but it must be loads better than polishing things until he can see his face. One would think he doesn't he have a mirror. I'll bet it says wretched things—"

Ron clapped his hand over her mouth. "I've told you a million times to give us a chance to answer before you ask the next ten questions." He removed it, and she glared at him. "First, a word of advice, never mention to Hermione anything that can be found in Hogwarts: A History or she'll make you read it. Second, when did you have detention with Filch?"

Demelza's face went florid. "Last week. I called Professor Sprout a daft old cow," she said in a hush. "And she took ten points for not saying 'Professor' and gave me detention for the daft bit. I asked Amanda to walk with me so I wouldn't have to tell you." Harry could not look at Severus; he was afraid he would start laughing if he did.

"Who is Amanda?" demanded Ron, whilst beside him Hermione was biting her lip and fighting to keep a straight face. Only Luna appeared genuinely interested and without any outward signs of distress.

"She's a Ravenclaw in my year. She's really nice," explained Demelza in a wheedling tone, turning big pleading eyes on Ron.

"You know the rules, Demelza," said Ron sternly. "I'm your guardian. You don't go wandering around outside the dungeons without me."

"Did I just hear you mention 'rules'?" asked Severus in amazement. "Weasleys and rules go together like stinksap and emrumpent horn."

"Percy never met a rule he didn't like," Harry pointed out. "You should have heard him go on and on about the thickness of cauldron bottoms. A man after your own heart, Percy is, or would have been if I hadn't gotten there first."

"Ugh. Too brown by half, Potter," said Draco as he rolled his eyes. "We'll never make a Slytherin out of you at this rate."

"Harry's all Gryffindor, mate," said Ron, then his eyes widened. "Bloody hell, I just called Malfoy 'mate'."

"Ronald!" scolded Hermione, whilst Draco moaned theatrically about his life being over now that he was considered the friend of a Muggle-born and a blood traitor, which then became a discussion about whether there was such a thing any longer.

"Did you ever write that analysis of the Wizengamot for Kingsley?" Harry asked Draco once he could work a question in edgewise.

"It was brilliant," answered Hermione before Draco could so much as get a syllable out. "The Wizengamot was formed in 1517, shortly after the May Day riots, which started when a Flemish witch foolishly threw a cauldron of potion at her married paramour. It flew through a window and it nearly landed on Cardinal Wolsey instead. They tried burning her at the stake, but you know how that went. The Council of Churches thought us a bit lawless, so the Council of Wizards became a law-making assembly organised much like the House of Lords."

Even Severus' eyebrows rose, though Harry and Ron both wore slightly glazed expressions. Hermione huffed. "It was part of History of Magic in fourth year."

"I didn't get an O.W.L. in History of Magic," said Harry, thinking to himself that a goblin insurrection would have made that story loads more interesting.

"It wasn't a Flemish witch; she was French. And it wasn't Cardinal Wolsey, it was Cardinal Warham," said Draco, "I did get an O.W.L. in History of Magic. I'm taking a N.E.W.T. in it as well."

"It was Sir Thomas More," said Severus. "Though Wolsey demanded that the Council of Wizards select its own leader, or he would give the pleasure of doing so to Thomas Boleyn, a warlock of dubious integrity. Be that as it may, what did you tell Minister Shacklebolt?"

Draco lectured for almost twenty solid minutes on the convoluted histories of the Great Houses of Magical Great Britain. House Malfoy, it seemed, was not the only family capable of smiling into one's eyes whilst stabbing one in the back. "Bear in mind that the original allegiances were geographical. Dynastic marriages over the course of the next three hundred years changed that. When the International Statute of Secrecy was enacted and our kind went into hiding, the magical communities were already fractured, politically speaking.

"Now, there are roughly ten to twelve parties, for lack of a better word, to which the members of the Wizengamot belong. By himself, Severus will command roughly seven percent of the votes. With the Peverell and Black Houses in alignment with Prince, he will hold fifteen, almost sixteen percent of the bloc. That fifteen percent comes largely from the Malfoy/Lestrange/Yaxley bloc, as well as Bones, Prewitt and Hopkirk."

Harry's eyes glazed over about halfway through Draco's speech and he didn't start to pay attention again until he heard Severus' name. "That doesn't make any sense. Why will the other members of the Wizengamot vote with Severus?"

"Weren't you listening at all?" moaned Draco with what seemed like new appreciation for what Severus dealt with on a daily basis. "Look, there are one hundred and fifteen members of the Wizengamot. When it was created almost five hundred years ago, the heads of the established houses were given proportional votes. The Malfoys, Princes, Selwyns, Wilkeses, and Urquarts were regarded as dukes in their day and possessed the greatest amount of influence, so they each commanded…" Draco thought for a moment and tapped on his fingertips whilst performing calculations in his head, "roughly two hundred votes per person. Something like that. But members weren't added to the Wizengamot as the Wizarding population grew, though votes were."

Draco sighed when Harry continued to look blankly at him. "Severus commands four thousand one hundred and twenty-five votes in his own right. If we add in the Black, Potter, and Peverell votes, he holds over twelve thousand votes and that's before any are reallocated when the affiliations change. By the time this entire mess has sorted itself out, Severus could control a full quarter of the Wizengamot, and that's without saying a word. This is how it all works when they're in legislative session, by the way. When the Wizengamot is sitting as a tribunal, each member has one vote," he added.

"A tribunal?" Harry's head was spinning and he wondered how the Wizengamot was able to accomplish anything at all. He would have been unsurprised to know that they hadn't written a single new law in decades. Instead, they had become a rubber stamp for the Ministry.

"Like at your hearing," said Ron, who'd understood far more of Draco's lecture than Harry had done. "When they were trying to decide whether or not to expel you."

"There weren't anywhere near one hundred and fifteen witches and wizards there," said Harry. "Maybe half that, at best."

"That," said Severus, "is because less than half of the members of the Wizengamot take their seats and fulfil their responsibilities to the Wizarding world."

"How many votes does the Wizengamot exercise altogether?" asked Neville, clearly attempting to work out the sums in his head.

"Nearly seventy-one thousand," replied Draco. "That will change after the next census, and the allocation blocs will be realigned after the election, provided Fudge doesn't win. If he does, nothing will change except for the number of available votes. Naturally, the Malfoy delegation will go to Severus." He gave Severus a long, steady look. "With Potter at your side, you could name yourself king," he said quietly, to Harry's dismay.

"There will be no talk of that here," said Severus sharply. "I have no designs on power and do not want thoughts of that nature ever spoken aloud in my presence again. I am a schoolteacher and Potions Master. That is all I aspire to be."

"Then why do you even want a seat on the Wizengamot?" blurted Harry, awkwardly shifting around to sit up straight. "Why are you doing this at all?"

"Because," said Severus as his eyes bored into Harry, "I will hold nearly a quarter of the votes and have a very narrow window of opportunity to affect a real and lasting change, such that the Wizengamot is no longer a dynastic body, but a representational one. Such that Muggle-borns and half-bloods have a chance to be heard. So that our child," he laid his hand on Harry's belly, "will never fear being sent to Azkaban because his father was once a very foolish seventeen-year-old boy."

"This would make a good article for The Quibbler," mused Luna, earning a horrified look from Severus. Harry's stomach gurgled, and Severus took that opportunity to remind him to eat. The next thing Harry knew, he was requesting food for a small army.

"We will eat at the table," said Severus when the house-elf asked where the food should be sent, and he ushered everyone to the dining area. He conjured two more chairs and took his place at the head of the table. Harry sat next to him.

No sooner had Ron's bottom made contact with the chair than he was on his feet again. He stepped aside and frowned as he pulled a worn copy of A Guide to Advanced Transfiguration off the seat. "You'll want this for class tomorrow," he said to Harry. "Where should I put it?"

"That's not mine," said Harry, gazing at it quizzically. "My book is in the study." He extended his hand and Ron started towards the head of the table when Luna shouted at him to stop. Ron froze.

"Don't touch it, Harry," she said loudly. "It's brimming with magic and I can't tell what sort of magic it is." For once, her eyes appeared sharply focussed and she clutched her necklace of mismatched quartz, worrying at the bits of rock threaded onto it. Even Neville was staring at her peculiarly.

"Do you mean to say, Ms Lovegood, that you can see magic?" asked Severus slowly, and Luna gave him a slow, owlish blink in reply. "Hand me the book, Ron," he said.

"Don't do it, Ron," ordered Harry as he glared hotly at Severus. "Set it down on the table and let Severus examine it before he touches it." He came swiftly to his feet and moved as far away from the table as he could, urging everyone else to do the same.

While Severus was casting charms to detect Dark magic, overflowing platters of steaming food started to appear on the table. A blink of an eye later, plates and silverware popped into being, though a goblet ended up perched on the edge of the book and tumbled off with a loud clatter. Harry must have looked a bit peaky, since Draco filled the goblet with pumpkin juice and thrust it into his hand with a terse order to drink.

"Sit down, everyone," said Severus after a few short minutes of spell work that revealed next to nothing. "There is no danger with the book." He resumed his place at the head of the table and began filling Harry's plate with a healthy assortment of food.

Draco sat on Severus' left and flipped through the book as the platters and serving dishes began floating around the table. "Are you certain this is cursed?" he asked Luna as she speared a sausage and put it on her plate.

"I didn't say it was cursed," said Luna. "I said that it's filled with magic." She plopped a spoonful of mashed potato next to the sausage and covered it all with brown gravy as she leaned over to peer into the book as Draco continued to leaf through it.

"It's nothing more than a Transfiguration book," said Draco, bewildered. He set it back by Severus' plate and began to eat as conversation began to swirl around the table. Half an hour later, after the events of the day had been thoroughly dissected, Severus picked up the book and began to turn the pages, eyeing them with curiosity. Suddenly, he slammed the book shut and dropped it on the table as he leapt to his feet, his wand out and his lips curled back in a snarl.

"Draco, open the book and turn to page 74," he ordered as he stretched his arm across Harry to keep him well away from the mysterious source of danger.

"Why page 74?" asked Draco, his hand trembling as he stretched his fingers out towards the book.

"It doesn't have to be page 74. Turn to a page in the middle and make note of the number," snapped Severus as Harry tried bat his arm away in order to get a closer look.

"Severus…" started Harry, only to be pulled from his seat by Hermione. "Hey!"

"Stay away from it, Harry," she ordered as Demelza, Ron and Neville backed away from the table as well. Only Luna remained unperturbed. She pulled the book over the smooth surface of gleaming wood and opened it at random. She held the book aloft, displaying a pair of pages filled with tiny writing and an illustration of a spell matrix. "Page one hundred and sixty-seven," said Luna as she stared at the others as if trying to understand why they were eyeing the book as though Neville had tried to brew a potion inside it. She closed the book and set it down.

Severus approached the book slowly and picked it up, cradling it in his left hand while turning to the page Luna had opened it to. His face was carefully blank as he turned the book and displayed for everyone a phial of potion embedded in the pages. "Luna, what page number is this book opened to?"

"Page one hundred and sixty-seven," she said in a hush. Draco and Harry exchanged a long look as Hermione craned forward to see.

"There's something written on the page," said Hermione, "but I can't make it out." She stood on tiptoes, still clinging to Harry's arm as she tried to read it from several feet away. Harry knew she was trembling, could feel her hand shaking as her fingers tightened on his arm, but whether it was from fear or excitement he couldn't say.

Severus turned the book around, his eyes sweeping over all of them as he began to read. "Severus, I read the article in the Prophet. Potter's pregnancy is no accident. The answer lies within." He extracted the phial of potion from the book and held it up to the light where it shone dark red. "It is signed Achilles Becker." His brow furrowed for a moment. "I know that name."

He set the book aside and examined the phial carefully. "Draco, Hermione, come with me." He turned and headed towards the laboratory without looking back.

"He's a bit single-minded," explained Harry apologetically, though if they hadn't learnt that about Severus by now, they never would. He tapped the table twice with his wand and said, "Finished." The dishes vanished instantly.

Ron stood and wrapped his arms around Hermione. "I'm going to take Demelza back to her common room and help her with her Herbology essay. Why don't you speak with Harry before you start on that potion? He's been trying to talk to you for ages."

"I can walk Demelza there," said Neville. "Why don't you stay with Harry while Severus is working on figuring out what that potion is? Besides, I'm better at Herbology than you are." He draped his arm around Luna's shoulders as she smiled up at him.

Harry smiled. "Thanks, but I just need a few minutes with Hermione, then I'm going to bed. Severus is worse than Pomfrey ever dreamt of being, and I'm supposed to be resting."

"Don't I get to say who helps me with Herbology?" demanded Demelza, her hands on her hips, her chin up. Her indignation was somewhat undermined, however, by the fact that she was quite happy with her tiny group of guardians, and they all knew it.

While Demelza was employing her rudimentary skills at manipulating events until she was happy with the outcome, Ron and Hermione were saying their farewells. Ron's hands rested at the top of Hermione's hips, her arms were looped around his neck. "I'll come to the common room before I go up to the Tower," she said before giving him a goodbye kiss.

Draco, Luna, and Neville were saying their goodbyes as well. Draco had his arms wrapped around Luna and nearly lifted her off the ground as he hugged her, nuzzling her hair as he held her close. He lifted his head and, as Harry looked on, Draco kissed Neville goodbye.

It was strange and weird and wonderful and wrong, and yet so very, very right. Harry stared despite himself, and he found himself looking anywhere but at Neville and Draco—except he couldn't look away, either. He felt his cheeks burn, and when his eyes met Ron's he felt ashamed, though he couldn't work out why.

Ron shifted uncomfortably and gave Harry a sickly, half-hearted grin as he released his hold on Hermione, who had missed the cause of Harry's unease. His hand dropped to Demelza's shoulder, and he gave her a light push toward the door as Draco disentangled himself from Neville and Luna to head towards the laboratory. "We've only a couple of hours until curfew, so let's get going."

Harry tolerated a pat on his stomach from Demelza and brushed a light kiss on Luna's cheek before showing the four of them to the door and saying his goodnights. As he closed the door he saw Severus cross the hall from the laboratory to the kitchen and quickly followed him in without a word to Hermione.

"Kiss me," he said without preamble as Severus filled the kettle for tea.

Severus shut off the water and looked at Harry in some confusion. "Pardon?" Harry was flushed and clearly uncomfortable, but Severus couldn't imagine what might have happened to upset him.

"Kiss me," repeated Harry with some desperation. "Please?"

After setting the kettle down on the fire, Severus complied, giving Harry a sweet, gentle kiss that was as loving as it was tender. "Better?" he asked, evaluating Harry's reaction carefully.

Harry nodded as he stared at his feet—or what he could see of them. "I saw Draco snog Neville," he volunteered after a moment where he couldn't look at Severus. "I'd never seen that before, two blokes kissing, and it was odd." He looked up and met Severus' eyes. "I think I owe Ron an apology."

"Perhaps," said Severus as he pulled Harry close. "But that is a subject for another day." He tilted Harry's face up and kissed him again. "Have your conversation with Hermione, and then send her to me. I do not want you anywhere near the laboratory until I understand more about that potion. Do I have your word?"

"I didn't take any potion. Severus, I really don't know what—"

"Shh. Shh. I am not assigning any blame, nor would I," soothed Severus. "I will say this again, but only because it appears you need to hear it. I want this child, Harry, and no matter how it happened, I am pleased it did."

Chapter Text

Harry skived off classes the next day, though he had no real reason to do so other than feeling listless and out of sorts. As it was a Tuesday, he was expected for his regular appointment with Madam Pomfrey, and whilst he was tempted to skive off that as well, he knew Severus would hear of it and there would be sixteen kinds of hell to pay.

After a long, if unsatisfying, nap, Harry shuffled into the study and flopped down into the chair at his desk, thinking long and hard about his conversation the previous night with Hermione. She had, as he had anticipated, interrogated him about his conversation in the Room of Requirement to the point where he was willing to write a letter to Kingsley recommending her to the hit wizard branch of the Auror Corps. Everything he knew had not been enough, and he offered to Pensieve his memory of the event if it would satisfy her.

For reasons that escaped him, she had found that suggestion insulting. He would never understand girls.

At least he hadn't been the only one to bear the brunt of her intellectual inquisitiveness. Once Hermione had finished carving Harry up into bite-sized bits of knowledge, she turned on Severus. From what Harry was given to understand, they had all demonstrated an appalling lack of curiosity at the manner in which the unknown potion had been delivered, and she had sorely tried his patience trying to piece together the charms that must have been used to conceal the potion within the book.

Still, Severus admitted that Hermione had a point. It had been an impressive piece of magic, spelling a book to reveal a potion only at his hands. For his part, Harry still wondered how it appeared in their quarters. That, to him, was far more important than the intricate spellwork that had kept its contents from falling into the wrong hands.

That thought stopped him cold. The wrong hands? Who would be at risk from learning of the book's contents? He shivered and rose from his desk to fix a pot of tea, his brain whirling with possibilities. Severus, obviously. The sender? Possibly, but why? Did this have anything to do with the Wizengamot? The politics of the situation were so far beyond him that Harry could not begin to sort the strands into their respective categories. It felt too much like the war against Voldemort, when he had had little more than instinct to guide him and never enough information to see the entire picture clearly, but this time he didn't know the identity of their enemy—or if they even had one at all.

Harry stood in the small kitchen, steaming cup of tea in one hand and the other moving in small circles against the underside of his rounded stomach as he wondered who could possibly feel threatened by a baby. Seconds later, he snorted. Voldemort had been; and in that instant, he understood much better his parents' sacrifice. He could do no less for this child.

Shortly after lunch, Harry wandered up to the infirmary for his weekly examination, still wearing little more than his sleep pants, a long-sleeved pullover shirt and a pair of house shoes on his feet. The corridors were empty; most of the students were in class, and Harry treasured the silence that descended on the castle. There were no snide comments, no searching hands, no attempts to make him feel less than he was by virtue of being pregnant, and as he neared the doors to the Hospital Wing, he wished fervently that Severus could be there to help him sort out his muddled thoughts.

"On the table, Harry," Pomfrey instructed as she reviewed his chart and Harry obeyed, well accustomed to the routine. She poked and prodded, measured and waved her wand, and once she had completed her usual battery of tests, frowned at him. "I thought we agreed you were not going to take any potions," she said.

"I haven't done," he replied, mystified by the censure in her tone. "Severus spread some Bruise Paste on the worst of it, but that's all." And then threw it against the wall in a spectacular fit of pique. "I'm feeling a bit off, but I'm not sore or anything."

Madam Pomfrey pulled her wand again and ran a different set of charms, her enchanted quill jotting everything down. "You're still a bit anaemic, but that is to be expected after being crushed the way you were. Your magical stores are depleted and you're a bit constipated. I'll have Severus adjust the recipe for your nutrient, perhaps more borage. That should help with elimination. Your concussion should not have healed yet, though, nor your ribs."

Harry's cheeks were florid, despite having been most thoroughly examined once a week since October. "I've not taken anything other than the nutrient." Though he tried, he could not meet her eyes. "You know Severus at least as well as I do. He has a bit of a thing about following rules."

"Have the baby's movements changed any since you were injured?" she asked. Had Harry glanced in her direction, he would not have seen the amusement he feared. Madam Pomfrey was too experienced a practitioner to be disconcerted by gastric upsets.

"It's been resting more," said Harry, "but Ron was thrown against a wall last night by a burst of magic. It's all right, though, yes?" he asked, his eyebrows arching high over worried eyes.

A genuine smile appeared on Pomfrey's face. "The baby is doing very well, growing like a weed. It's about half the length now that it will be when it's born, so you can expect to grow quite a bit bigger than you are now. I'd like to see you start gaining about a pound a week, perhaps a bit more."

The high colour fled Harry's cheeks. "This is going to double in size? But I already look like I've swallowed a Quaffle," he said, unable to imagine where all the extra space would be found. He'd seen the pictures in the book Hermione had given him at Christmas, but they were so unnerving that he hadn't had the heart to open it again. Perhaps he should have done.

"Double in length," said Pomfrey, "triple in weight, or more. Harry, we've been through this."

"I know we have." Harry struggled to sit, but once upright he stared at his stomach. "But I didn't think it would get this big. I thought it would stop growing and just develop or something. I dunno." The thought of his bulge being twice its present size was alarming.

"You'll be fine. Just exercise some caution on the stairs." Pomfrey closed his chart and wrote out a note. "Give this to Severus," she said as she handed it to him. "He'll know what to do." She left him to get dressed, her expression telling him she was certain that he'd be his usual self by next week.

Upon reaching the rooms he shared with Severus, Harry found the book Hermione had given him for Christmas and curled up with it on the couch. He was still reading, making notes in the margins and writing down questions for Madam Pomfrey, when Severus walked in hours later.

"Did you know the baby can see? And it knows your voice? Mine too, most likely. And it has its own magical signature already?" Harry set the book aside and came to his feet to greet Severus more properly, with a hug and a kiss and a set of enthusiastic somersaults from their exuberant child.

Severus cupped Harry's face, his thumbs resting along Harry's cheekbones, and kissed him again before wrapping his arms tight around Harry and holding him close. "You saw Poppy today, I trust?"

There was a deep sigh, and Harry tightened his arms around Severus. "She wants me to gain a pound a week. That's fifteen pounds! I'm going to be the size of a hippogriff," he said mournfully. He stepped out of Severus' arms and moved away from him, his keenness evaporating in a cloud of nagging self-doubt. "I don't think I can do this." He was twenty-six weeks pregnant and it felt like it had been forever. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't imagine three more months of this.

"Idiot child." Severus stepped behind Harry and wrapped strong arms around him. "You're allowed doubts, Harry. Just know that I am savouring this experience, both the good and the bad." He kissed the side of Harry's neck and murmured softly, "I will do whatever you require to make this easier for you."

Harry leaned back and folded his arms over Severus', confused by the display of affection, but happy to receive it nonetheless. Such moments were all too rare. "I don't mean to whinge, but it feels like there's still so far to go. Oh, I'm supposed to give you this." He broke the embrace and fished through his pockets for the note Pomfrey had given him.

He watched as Severus read the note, knowing that once he had finished, Severus would likely spend the rest of the night in the laboratory, but to his surprise, Severus merely folded the note and nodded. "I will have the new potion for you by the weekend." He kissed Harry on the forehead and headed into the small kitchen, removing his teaching robes as he went, tossing them onto a chair next to the fire as he passed by. "I understand you did not attend classes today," he said as he disappeared within.

For a moment Harry said nothing. Then he collected Severus' robes and folded them over his arm. "Is it Professor Prince saying that or the guy I'm married to?" he asked, leaning against the doorway.

Severus turned away from the sink and set the kettle on the stove. "In here you are speaking to your husband. I thought we had come to an understanding about that." He pointed his wand at the grate, and seconds later a warm flame was licking the bottom of the copper kettle.

"Just making certain. I skived off. Just…" He lifted his hand and waved it uncertainly. "I'm not sure why." Harry vanished for a moment, hanging Severus' teaching robes in his wardrobe before pulling a light dressing gown out and tossing it on, leaving it open and unbelted. It was one of Severus', and the slightly acrid medicinal odour that clung to it made Harry feel warm and protected.

"Do you have any marking that needs to be done?" asked Harry upon his return. He stepped around Severus to pull milk from the cold cabinet and set up the tea service as they waited for the water to boil. "I'm caught up with everything," he said, a statement that wasn't entirely true. He'd not reread chapter fourteen for Williamson, nor had he finished Flitwick's essay, neither of which concerned him overmuch.

"None until the weekend. The…" Severus frowned for a moment, "trial necessitated a change in plans for the week. I gave everyone until Friday to hand in their assignments." He reached past Harry for the sugar, brushing a kiss against his hair as he rested a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Will you be dining in the Great Hall tonight or having dinner here?"

"I thought I'd eat in the Great Hall," replied Harry, wearing both a look of confusion and a sappy grin. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you've not been hit with a Cheering Charm or anything like that, have you?"

Severus chuckled, a low, rich sound that wrapped itself neatly around Harry's heart. "No, nothing of the sort. But, something extraordinary happened today," he added, turning to face his very young spouse. "I have been forgiven." A note of wonder crept into his voice. "Minerva, Filius, Pomona, even the castle itself. I have been judged, and I withstood the test. You cannot know," he whispered. "Even the students…"

The thing of it was, Harry did know, though he was loath to bring up the name of his godfather and ruin the moment between them. He knew the release that came with absolution, with finally accepting that some things were not entirely his fault, despite abhorrent choices he had made that seemed so right at the time. "Even the students?" Harry prompted gently.

"They thanked me," whispered Severus, as though it was the most astonishing thing that had ever happened. "Gryffindor and Ravenclaw. Hufflepuff. Even that obnoxious Smith. Susan Bones…" His voice trailed off as a fierce humility entered his eyes. "She is nearly the last of her family, yet she forgave me the decisions I was forced to make." He turned away from Harry then. In that moment, Harry understood that some wounds cut deeper than others, that the regrets his husband carried would remain with him for the rest of his life—as would Harry's.

"Draco and Hermione will be joining us, which means we will likely be playing host to the others as well," said Severus thickly as he poured boiling water over the tea leaves. "Do not permit them to exhaust you," he added sharply.

Harry took a step closer to Severus and laid his hand in the centre of Severus' back and quickly found himself in another embrace. There was no desperation in it; it was comfortable, and Harry felt like they finally fit together, despite the mound of baby between them. "No one could have done better, Severus. I wish…" Harry exhaled through his nose. "It doesn't matter. It all worked out in the end."

"You wish what, Harry?" Severus gazed down at him, his eyes soft, the lines on his face not nearly as prominent as they had been the day before. Contentment was a good look for Severus, and Harry thought he wore it well.

"I wish I hadn't spent so many years hating you," said Harry in a burst of frustration. "I wish Dumbledore hadn't respected you enough to keep your secrets." He shook his head. "But it was all necessary, I know that, and I wouldn't trade what I have now for what I didn't have then." Giving Severus a light kiss, he added, "I've no regrets about us, except for maybe Occlumency. You were…well, it doesn't matter."

Severus pulled away and finished up making tea. "The task should never have fallen to me. Anyone would have been better suited, except Bellatrix, perhaps. Should you wish to learn the discipline—properly this time—I would be pleased to teach you."

"The only person I know who is skilled in Legilimency is you," said Harry with a bit of a come-hither grin. "And you are welcome to penetrate my mind any time you wish." He hoped that might be sufficient inducement to entice Severus out of his laboratory at a reasonable hour. "Or other parts if you'd rather. I mean, as long as you're doling out hugs and kisses."

He squeezed between Severus and the counter before looping his arms around Severus' neck. "Why is that? Not that I am complaining, mind you."

Colour stained Severus' cheeks, and he moved Harry aside to snatch his mug of tea off the counter and beat a hasty retreat to his favourite chair in front of the fire.

Undaunted, Harry followed in his wake, tucking one leg up under himself as he sat in the adjoining chair. "I told you once before that I would give you as much affection as you could manage," he said quietly as he stared into the flames Severus had just conjured. "I don't think I realised until now how little that's been. The bit with Seamus…" He blew out a breath. "I didn't mean to push you away."

"The world does not revolve around you, P—Harry," replied Snape, though the warmth in his voice painted his words as a lie. He reclined and rested an ankle on his knee as he, too, gazed into the fire. "I was stopped numerous times in the corridors today by students offering words of gratitude. Many of them spoke to me of you and congratulated us on our marriage, on your pregnancy, though several of them expressed a degree of scepticism about it.

"I am feared and always will be. You are rightfully adored. But together, we are appreciated and I remained woefully ignorant of that until yesterday. It was heartening to at last feel as though I belong here." He looked at Harry over the rim of his cup. "I wanted to give you that. You deserve that same sense of belonging, of belonging here. With me."

Harry studied Severus' profile, the hooked nose, the thin lips, the deep-set eyes, and loved every line. As Severus raised his cup to his mouth, the yellow flames of the fire flickered, danced and whirled within the slender gold band encircling his ring finger and Harry ran the pad of his thumb against his own wedding ring. "I meant every word of my vows, to love you completely until my death."

"Mmm. That's not what this is about. The lesson Albus tried so hard to impart to me was that help comes in many forms. 'Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.' It was one of his favourite sayings, but I did not truly understand what it meant until I chose to make a clean breast of things." Severus sipped his tea, resting a long finger on the brim as he held the cup with his fingertips.

"He spoke of your endless capacity to love, and in my obstinacy, I never understood why he would feel compelled to impart to me such worthless information. I have been too quick to judge and too blind to see what you truly need to thrive." He turned his head and Harry could not remember seeing such an open expression on Severus' face. "I am ready to be the husband you deserve," he said quietly.

Harry set his tea down and leaned over Severus, his hands curling around the arms of the chair in which Severus was now engulfed. "You already are." He reached forward and turned Severus' face to gaze directly into his husband's eyes. "You already are," he repeated. "You're the best man I know and the only man I want. You love me, and I'll never forget that."

Severus reached up and pulled Harry's head close, pressing his lips against Harry's and exploring his mouth with tender delicacy, as though mapping out a future and finding sweet spun promises within. Harry moaned softly, moving with Severus as he stood, the kiss deepening as Harry opened to him. The dressing gown slipped from his shoulders, and he pressed up close as Severus' fingers trailed over his shirt and down his spine.

The door opened with a bang and Harry groaned, his heart thudding a lonely beat in his chest as Severus whipped around to face the intruder. His body ached with need and he didn't care who had interrupted them—he loathed the person as much as he ever loathed Voldemort. "Once upon a time we had protective enchantments that Kept. People. Out. Hello, Draco. Goodbye, Draco."

"Interrupted, have I?" Draco smiled, a familiarly smug grin that Harry wanted to smack right off his face, though he accepted that there could possibly have been other reasons for wanting to punch him. "The Ministry is here," he said, the smile fading. "At least twenty or so. They appear to be from the Department of Magical Education. I recognised several of them from when we sat O.W.L.s.

"Anyway, since you were in the middle of something, I'll leave you to it," he added as he headed back to the doorway. "Charms, Severus. Charms. Keeps the riff-raff out."

It was hard to say who reached out first, but whilst Harry would later decide they walked sedately to the bedroom, he and Severus nearly raced each other through the doorway. Once inside their sanctuary, Harry fumbled with the endless buttons dotting Severus' waistcoat whilst Severus peeled Harry's shirt off, marvelling at the lovely rounded belly it had been hiding.

"Why must you wear so many layers?" growled Harry as he started in on the long line of buttons travelling from neck to groin. He pulled the shirt tails free of Severus' trousers, sorely tempted to yank firmly and send the buttons flying. They could be collected with a simple Summoning charm, though Severus might require some Calming Draught whilst Harry repaired the shirt.

"I often find myself wondering why you bother with clothing at all." Severus licked and bit at Harry's neck as Harry danced out of his sleep pants, clinging to Severus' shoulders to maintain his balance. He cast the charms, sending a tingling sensation through Harry's body, and buried a hand in Harry's messy black hair when Harry moaned. He pulled back Harry's head and plundered his mouth whilst Harry's fingers forgot all they ever knew about buckles and fastenings.

Dazed, Harry pressed his fingers to his kiss-bruised lips whilst Severus disrobed, his eyes darkening further as each article of clothing came off. Whether Severus was attractive or not was immaterial. Harry loved the whippet-thin body, the dark hair that covered his breastbone, the slight paunch his years had given him. Severus was not a lovely man, but Harry found him in him the same beauty one would see in a forest made desolate by winter. There was something pure, almost stark, in the clean lines of Severus' body, and Harry's craving for it went far beyond the physical.

"Please," whispered Harry with a slight catch in his voice. "Oh, Merlin, please," and when Severus bent him over the foot of their bed and entered him in one swift, smooth stroke, Harry nearly sobbed with pleasure.

~*~

Seated at the Ravenclaw table and surrounded by members of Dumbledore's Army, Ron glanced over at the doors to the Great Hall as he waited for Harry to come up from the dungeons. The day had been strange, even for Hogwarts, and Harry's absence had contributed significantly to Ron's unease. Then the Ministry had appeared in force, and no one knew quite what to make of it.

It was with a sense of relief that Ron waved his arm in the air when Harry finally appeared, though this time Harry was not alone. Severus was with him, and they were holding hands as they walked through the doors, their heads together in conversation.

Severus spotted Ron first, and his footsteps paused as he pointed Ron out to Harry. Time hung suspended and a hush settled over the Great Hall as Severus kissed Harry before ascending the dais to take his seat at the Staff Table. It was nothing special as kisses go, a brief brush of lips, but Harry's gaze followed Severus the length of the Hall before he turned towards the Ravenclaw table, and all Ron could do was stare along with everyone else.

Once Severus had taken his customary seat, Harry wandered up the aisle to greet Ron and the others. "I was going to eat with the new Slytherins," he said, looking past the Hufflepuff table to the students clustered at the far end of the Slytherin House table. "Severus thought they might need encouragement."

Ron waited impatiently as Harry sat down next to Michael Corner, and he kept his expression blank when Harry gave Severus a sappy look, but Harry's expression changed swiftly when he noticed the second table set at floor level in front of the dais. Judging from the wagging fingers, several older witches and wizards were busy chastising McGonagall, though for what was anybody's guess. Harry turned to Ron for explanation. "Are they all from the Ministry?" he asked in astonishment, turning wide eyes on Ron.

"You picked a hell of a day to skive off, mate," said Ron darkly, managing not to shudder at the memory of Harry being snogged by Severus. In public. He still couldn't fathom why it bothered him, but it did. "It's been bloody awful."

"Don't listen to him, Harry," advised Ginny. "A lot of things were said yesterday that have everyone thinking. They're all starting to figure out how much worse it could have been had Professor Prince given Hogwarts to the Death Eaters, but mostly they can't believe what an awful place he found himself in. He was strong and so very brave, and only the Slytherins are accustomed to thinking of him as anything other than a git."

"He told me people have been thanking him all day," said Harry, his eyes sliding back to meet Severus' gaze. He smiled softly before turning his attention back to Ron. "I'm a bit sorry I missed that, actually."

Ron looked up as Hermione slid into place next to him and smiled at her before turning back to Harry with a sigh. "They all want to know why I said you died," he said as he hung his head. "I know you wanted to keep that private. Reckon I've stepped in it again." Guilt pressed in on him from all sides and, at feeling Hermione's soft touch on his shoulder, he gave her a weak smile.

Harry frowned as he shook his head. "No, it's okay, Ron. I sort of told them all that during the duel, didn't I? It seems like such a long time ago. Other than the Ministry showing up and people finally seeing Severus for who he is, did anything else happen?"

"Williamson is furious you missed Defence," said Hermione, her concern for him evident.

"It was a disaster," added Ron. "Not so much you being gone, but the entire class was a nightmare. Since Seamus and Parvati are in St Mungo's, we had to be re-sorted. You know, matched up with our bonding partners again. Why he couldn't have put their partners together is beyond me, but he parcelled out the potion again."

Hermione leaned forward. "If I were to guess, I would say that Professor Williamson brewed that potion himself. It didn't look anything like it did the last time. Neville could have done better." She glanced at Neville and blushed as he laughed.

"It's all right," Neville assured her. "Severus and I have an agreement: he'll stay out of the greenhouses if I keep away from the cauldrons."

"But he harvests ingredients from the greenhouses regularly," said Harry.

"And now he'll provide me a list of what he needs," replied Neville.

"Anyway," interrupted Hermione, "the potion didn't work the way it did last time. I got paired with Justin Finch-Fletchley and Draco got Zacharias Smith. You can imagine how well that went over."

"Went down like warm sick," said Ron and Harry grimaced. "I ended up partnered with Padma instead of Hermione." He and Padma had barely spoken after the disastrous Yule Ball back in fourth year, and Ron knew then that the potion could not possibly have worked right. "So, we, well most of us, asked Williamson if we could have our old partners back, since these were just plain barking. What magic would ever pair up Draco with a berk like Smith? Not even Dark magic would make a blunder like that."

Hermione continued the story. "Then Draco said the potion was bad and wanted to know who brewed it. It all went a bit off at that point. Williamson has it in his head that you're the reason Severus won't brew for Defence."

"He reckons you have a delicate constitution." Ron rolled his eyes. "But he's pretty much decided to blame you for it going pear-shaped. 'If Mr Potter hadn't managed to get himself injured, we would not be repeating this exercise. If Mr Potter were made of sterner stuff, then perhaps Professor Prince would have been willing to assist with making the necessary potions.' Hermione reminded him that it's Prince, same as Severus, and he took twenty-five points."

Even Neville appeared grim for a moment. "I thought the class was about to hex him. After everything that happened yesterday, he's still finding reasons to take the piss out of you." His eyes hardened, and he exchanged a glance with Ron before speaking again. "The DA has your back, Harry."

"That's just bollocks," snarled Ginny, her eyes flashing. "I've half a mind to use Williamson's head as a Bludger. Maybe our Beaters can knock a bit of sense into him. You're the only married student at Hogwarts. Surely it's not impossible to remember that."

"Not many others who are pregnant, either," added Ron.

"Though not from lack of practise, right Ron?" said Ginny, far too innocently, laughing when Ron's blush threatened to overtake his freckles. Even Hermione was pink.

"Speaking of practise, when are we starting up with Quidditch?" asked Harry, earning a look of gratitude from Ron.

"Not until the beginning—" But Ginny never finished her statement as McGonagall rose to take her place at the podium. Ron was about to whisper across the table, but he sat up straight when he caught a glimpse of her hardened expression. His brow furrowed and, for one of the few times in his life, he listened to what she had to say.

"It is my pleasure," something in the way McGonagall pronounced the word made it very clear it wasn't, "to introduce to you Madam Charlotte Snaresbrook, the new head of the Department of Magical Education. She and the members of the Department, as well as the Wizarding Examinations Authority, are paying us a visit to ensure that Hogwarts remains up to scratch." The tone in her voice left Ron and the others with little doubt that the visitors were as welcome as Umbridge had been.

"I am also advised that it is against departmental regulations to allow the Houses to intermingle at mealtimes, so I am to instruct you to return to your proper tables at once."

A stunned silence filled the Hall until benches scraped against the floor in deafening cacophony of half-hearted compliance as students started coming to their feet. A strong voice rang out over the din. "Everyone sit back down and stay where you are."

"Everybody sit back down and stay where you are," repeated Neville as he stood and was joined quickly by Terry Boot and Hannah Abbott. Draco came to his feet a second later. "With all due respect, Madam Snaresbrook, we've worked hard to reach the point where everybody feels welcome at Hogwarts no matter which House they're in, so if it's all the same to you, we'll eat with our friends." Neville lifted his chin and arched a brow.

A proud gleam entered McGonagall's eye, and she straightened her shoulders. "Well said, Mr Longbottom. Let the meal begin." She tapped her wand against the podium, and within the blink of an eye the long tables were filled with steaming platters of food. Goblets and plates appeared alongside serviettes and silverware, and if Madam Snaresbrook voiced a protest, it was lost amidst the clatter of serving spoons digging into bowls.

Ron said very little through dinner, preferring to listen as Hermione and the others debated the true purpose behind the Ministry's visit. It struck him as peculiar that there was a new head of the Department this close to the election, but it occurred to him that Kingsley might be staffing some of the departments that tended to be overlooked with his own people.

Still, as he considered everything that had happened since the Daily Prophet ran their article about Harry's marriage and pregnancy, he had the sense that a trap was being laid, bit by painstaking bit. He couldn't yet see their endgame, though, and that frustrated him. The last time the Ministry interfered at Hogwarts, they'd been saddled with Dolores Umbridge, who had turned out to be every bit as cruel and sadistic as Bellatrix Lestrange, only without the wide streak of insanity.

"Hermione," he said, as conversation began to veer back to Williamson and the disaster that was Defence Against the Dark Arts, "do any of the Ministry officials seem familiar?"

Both Harry and Hermione's eyes swept along the long line of witches and wizards sitting below the Staff Table, studying each face for a moment. "Yes, of course," she replied. "Those three nearest the centre. The older wizard in the light blue robes, he proctored our Charms O.W.L. And the witch two down from him gave us our Transfiguration O.W.L. The one in the middle did Ancient Runes."

Harry nodded his head, but even as he did he stared at the wizard third from the end on the opposite wing of the table. Quiet and nondescript, he melted quite easily into the background, and Harry pointed him out to Ron. "The one in the black robes." He bit his lip as he squinted. "Are they black or grey? I can't tell. Isn't he the bloke who showed up with that witch from the Wizengamot?"

Ron took a harder look as Hermione said, "But why would a wizard from the Wizengamot show up here with the Department of Magical Education?"

"Maybe he's not with them," said Ron. "I think I'll owl Dad tomorrow. He might know something about that Wizengamot bloke. He knows loads of people who work for the Ministry, and the ones he doesn't know Percy does." He sopped up the gravy on his plate with a roll and popped it into his mouth.

Pudding appeared on the table and was quickly consumed, and Ron resigned himself to a night of nothing much to do. Draco and Hermione would be going to Harry's to help Severus analyse that potion. He supposed he could coerce Harry into a few games of chess, or actually start work on the Transfiguration homework that was due on Monday. Really, though, he just wished winter would come to a close so that Quidditch would start up again.

He was just about to ask Neville what he'd be doing after supper when Severus came down from the dais. He stood behind Harry and rested a hand on Harry's shoulder. "I regret we will be unable to begin work on the potion tonight. Snaresbrook 'suggested' to Minerva that the Heads of House meet informally with the Ministry officials before they begin their inspection tomorrow."

Ron noticed Severus' fingers tighten briefly on Harry's shoulder, and Harry craned his head back to look at Severus. "I would like you to attend the gathering as well."

"Me?" asked Harry, his eyes widening behind his spectacles. "Whatever for?"

Severus' smile was grim. "You are a teaching assistant, and you taught Defence Against the Dark Arts for a year. I believe you indicated an interest in taking that post after completing your studies, so it would serve you well to be there."

Ron's mind spun out a dozen different strategies and he gave Harry a sharp look. "He's right. You should go. And pay attention," he hissed in a whisper. He met Severus' eyes and knew they understood each other. Harry was Severus' teaching assistant only by virtue of being too stubborn (and too besotted) to leave off.

"Lovely. When do we have to be there?" Harry's shoulders drew in as he eyed their "guests" with distrust, and Ron was certain that spending an evening entertaining people puffed up with their own self-importance was the very last thing Harry wanted. He could only hope Harry saw the possibilities and acted accordingly.

"Minerva suggested half seven and it is nearly that now," replied Severus. "And the house-elves are preparing the Rear Hall as we speak. I am not expecting a late night, but I have been disappointed before."

"Just stay away from Williamson," Ron advised and then blew out a sigh. "I've got nothing to do now. I was going to see if you wanted to play some chess."

While they were speaking, Hermione consulted her diary, and her eyes lit up in a way that made Ron's insides twist in a hideous fashion. "You really should follow your revision schedule, Ron. Tonight is second year Herbology."

"We spent the entire year on mandrakes, Hermione. What could there be left to learn about them now?" groaned Ron.

"The fifteen most common diseases, diagnosing leaf drop, root causes of mandrake migration," Neville ticked off on his fingers, "no pun intended. Twenty uses other than Restorative Draught. Optimal soil conditions, feeding schedule and harvesting." He smiled in a way that made Ron feel like he'd never seen a mandrake before, much less raised one.

"That reception is sounding better all the time," said Harry with a grin. "If you'll excuse me, I think I'll change into something a bit nicer than school robes."

~*~

"What do you reckon is going on?" Ron placed his arm around Hermione's shoulder and scooted over a bit to make room for her on the couch in front of the large fireplace in the Gryffindor common room. He'd reviewed mandrakes with Neville, trounced Jimmy Peakes at chess, but declined a game of Exploding Snap with Gillian Mathews and a few other fourth years.
"How do you mean?" asked Hermione as she pulled out Spellman's Syllabary and opened to a marked page. She pulled her feet up and nestled in against Ron, turning the book over and setting it down over her thigh so she wouldn't lose her place.

"The Wizengamot, the Ministry, Williamson." Ron paused before adding softly. "Seamus. It can't be coincidence that all these things are happening right when Harry manages to get pregnant." His fingers tapped out an uneasy tattoo on Hermione's shoulder. "If ever a bloke was going to get himself knocked up, you know it'd have to be him."

"He seems to be coping with it," ventured Hermione. "Poor Harry. All he's ever wanted is to be normal, but it never works out for him, does it? I wonder if he's going to have a girl or a boy. Do you expect they've started working out names for it?"

Ron snorted. "Harry? No, I reckon he and Severus won't work that out 'til after it's been born. I expect he tries not to think about it much, actually. Do you suppose Madam Pomfrey has worked out how it will be born?" He was willing to admit to himself a morbid curiosity about it, but wasn't ready to discuss the subject yet, not even with Hermione. He wasn't sure he'd be able to talk about the birth of his own kids, assuming he and Hermione had any. Even now, he had no idea if she wanted to have children someday.

"I think he knows," she said in a hush. "When he told me about speaking with Sendigovius, he started to say something, but then he just stopped. He had the strangest expression on his face, but wouldn't tell me why. He said it wasn't important."

"It's the Forest all over again. He shuts us out of everything important."

"But he's married now. It's really none of our business, especially if it involves Severus." Hermione gazed earnestly at him. "Besides, it's different now. Your mum and dad are watching over them, even if they've not figured that out yet. And Severus loves Harry beyond measure, though I'm not certain he's aware of it."

"Who? Harry? Or Severus?"

"Either. Both." Hermione offered up a wry smile. "It does get a bit confusing; all those 'he's without a 'she' to balance them all out."

"I wouldn't let Harry hear you say that," grumbled Ron. "He gets a bit tetchy about things like that."

"No, he doesn't. Not at all," she replied sharply. "He gets tetchy about people finding his relationship with Severus odd or peculiar or wrong, especially as it's not. Harry adores Severus, and he fought almost as hard to be seen in Severus' eyes as just Harry as he did to defeat Voldemort, and it hurts him when you try to pretend that he's still Harry Potter and not Harry Prince. He would laugh about the pronouns if you'd let him."

Ron glowered at the fire roaring softly on the grate, knowing better than to glare at Hermione since she felt no compunction against smacking him upside the head. "Even Harry got weird when he saw Draco and Neville snog. Went off to find Severus, didn't he?"

Hermione sat up and thwacked Ron on the arm. "Do you even try to see things from Harry's perspective? Of course he was going to react oddly. Who else would Harry have seen? He has no role models, no one other than Severus to go to. I doubt he even knows another gay couple. And then he has you." Her eyes narrowed, and she huffed out a breath that expressed her disapprobation.

Ron hunkered down, his shoulders up around his ears, wishing fervently that the women in his life—Hermione, Ginny, his mum—weren't so determined to knock some sense into him with their hands. "I'm doing better," he said in his own defence. "Even Harry said so, so can we please talk about something important, like what Sendigovius had to say? Harry never told me."

That was how things worked: Harry told the complicated bits to Hermione, who would raise all the important questions, then present her theories to both Ron and Harry. Now that Harry was no longer living in Gryffindor Tower, he and Hermione were left to sort things out as best they could without the benefit of Harry's thoughts on the matter. It never occurred to them to include Severus in their discussions. He wasn't part of their past efforts.

A thoughtful expression came over Hermione's face and she curled up once again with Ron. "It was more what he didn't say. Harry said it was almost as if Sendigovius was under some sort of Fidelius charm, or the Room was. He couldn't tell Harry about other wizards like himself. He and Finnoc adopted a new family name, but he couldn't say what that was. He gave the names of their children, but we found that already.

"Why, though? Why wouldn't Sendigovius be allowed to tell Harry about other wizards?" Hermione bit her lip as her brow furrowed. "Why has that bit of history been erased?

"There was something about their children, too. 'They were all so…' something. Do you suppose their children have something to do with it?" she mused.

Ron's brain slotted that bit of information into the puzzle of Harry's pregnancy and didn't like the picture that was forming. "You know, it might be part of Hogwarts' enchantments. Hang on," he said before Hermione could object. "Have you ever heard of a student getting pregnant while they were here? The girls' dormitory has those spells on it to keep us out, so maybe it's a Hogwarts thing."

"If it were a Hogwarts thing," replied Hermione disdainfully, "then it would be in Hogwarts: A History, but there's nothing in there about students having babies, though it does mention that Headmistress Sakndenberg is the one who placed the spells on the dormitories. Of course, the students of that era were frequently married…" Her voice trailed off and Ron was positive he saw her make a mental note.

"And?" prompted Ron.

"You could be right," she admitted slowly. "Perhaps there is something at Hogwarts that prevents conception, only Harry didn't have it because he wasn't here last year."

"Except he was here all summer."

"I mean, something that's slipped into our pumpkin juice or our tea," said Hermione. "The house-elves could do it and no one would ever know. Maybe that's why Severus was sent that potion. We still don't know how it got into their rooms, but a house-elf would have no trouble placing it there. Maybe they think it's just vitamins or something."

"That would make it a Ministry thing," said Ron, "which might explain why they're here and what it has to do with Harry. But I don't know how the Wizengamot is involved and we can't forget about them. I didn't think the Wizengamot had anything to do with Hogwarts, but they showed up at Harry's hearing for breaking the restriction on underage magic.

"Do you reckon the Wizengamot's interest is just political, like Draco says?" he asked slowly as he considered different angles. "It was Fudge who arranged that hearing, but that was to make out that Harry was a nutter."

"What else could it be?" asked Hermione. "That's what the Wizengamot is. They make laws and rule on them when trials come up. And Harry's hearing was political. It was easier to get everyone to believe that Harry was making things up than to prepare us for war, so that's what Fudge did. But now, Draco thinks the factions are going to be stirred up by Severus taking his seat, mostly because no one knows his position on anything."

"What sort of issues could have anything to do with Harry being pregnant?" asked Ron. He paid little attention to the matters the Wizengamot took up and found himself wondering if he ought to start reading the Daily Prophet with the same sort of zeal Hermione did. It might help him understand the bigger picture.

The scathing look Hermione gave him was as familiar to Ron as air. "Blood issues for one. Creature rights for another. Anything that affects women's rights. If men can have babies as easily as women, what will they need us for?"

Ron squirmed uncomfortably as he imagined himself getting pregnant. "Trust me, Hermione, there's a lot more to it than that." He wasn't about to get into an argument with her over sexuality, though. He already knew how that would end. "The Wizengamot showed up the same day the article came out. That witch was right hacked off that Harry got married."

"No, that wasn't it," said Hermione. "She was angry that Harry and Severus married. I don't know that it would have made any difference to her if he'd married, oh, let's say Draco or Neville. They're both pure-bloods."

"Snape isn't," Ron pointed out. "He's a half-blood, same as Harry."

"True, but his House was once as powerful as the Malfoys, if not more so. Otherwise, why would anyone care who Harry married? It doesn't make sense, unless the Wizengamot know there is something coming up for vote that Severus will upset." Hermione reached into her schoolbag, never far from her side, and pulled out a notebook and quill. "I need to see what measures are on their agenda for this year, though with the election next week, it could all change." She growled. "I loathe politics. How Draco can enjoy this…this…" She sputtered for a moment whilst searching for the perfect word and took refuge by scribbling out some notes to herself. "It's blood sport."

"I suppose there's always a chance that Severus will keep Fudge in check," said Ron. "Everyone seems to think that Fudge will win. I guess they're happiest with someone who keeps his head up his arse whenever anything important happens." He would never forgive the man for spending a year branding Harry as a liar, an entire year they could have spent preparing for war instead of being blindsided by Voldemort and his Death Eaters.

"Do you reckon that's why the Ministry's here now? Because of the election?" It made a certain amount of sense that the Ministry would want to see how Hogwarts was faring, now the Ministry itself had been rebuilt and restructured under Kingsley Shacklebolt.

Hermione blinked and then gave a small laugh. "Perhaps it has nothing to do with Harry at all. Wouldn't it be something if all they were doing is their jobs? Horses, not zebras. Do you suppose we'll ever stop being suspicious?" she said with a sigh.

"I hope not!" The thought burst out of Ron like an explosion from a Blast-Ended Skrewt. "I mean, I want to be an Auror someday. It's a bit helpful to be able to figure out what the motive is. Take Williamson, for example. He was really good last term, but this term he's completely different. Why is that? The only thing that's different is Harry. But we can't say the same thing about the Ministry, can we?"

"I certainly hope the Ministry do something about the unauthorised potions Williamson is using," said Hermione tightly. "I'm surprised McGonagall is permitting it, especially since Severus refused to brew it."

"I'm not drinking anything that looks like Goyle brewed it," declared Ron.

"You ought to be more concerned about which potion Williamson plans to use and less about the quality of it. I did some checking in Most Potente Potions. There are dozens of potions that create bonds between wizards and most of them are permanent."

Ron gaped at her. "He wouldn't dare. Williamson wants Harry to be his partner and—"

"And Harry's the first pregnant wizard in five hundred years."

"But, Hermione," argued Ron, "Harry has a partner already. I can't see Williamson standing up to Snape, can you? Besides, what's in it for him? I reckon he's just curious like the rest of us. Maybe he just wants to figure out how it happened, same as everyone else, and thinks that if he can form some sort of bond with Harry, he'll get the answer."

Hermione's brow furrowed as she worked that out. "I don't know, Ron. Yes, everybody wants to know how Harry wound up pregnant—or if he's pregnant at all—but why go to such effort to find out? I can't imagine there's a reward; we'd have heard. Besides, it's not like Harry knows. He's been saying all along that he has no idea how it happened, and I believe him."

Another hour of conversation brought them no further along than they'd been at the start, and rather than have the time go to waste, they spent it on more…leisurely pursuits.

~*~

The Ministry officials were far less obtrusive than Severus had feared. Since the moment of their arrival, he had suffered visions of Umbridge's pink, mewling kittens, and that godforsaken clipboard she had always carried with her. He half expected to step out of the archway from the dungeons to find Filch nailing another Educational Decree to the castle walls.

Such had not been the case. A witch by the name of Magdalena McCourt, who was a member in good standing in the Potions Guild, had been assigned to observe and evaluate his curriculum, lesson plans and teaching methods. She oozed competence from every pore and, after answering a few of her questions, he found himself respecting her wisdom.

In light of the inspection by the Department of Magical Education, Severus had banned Harry from assisting with the lower forms, and although he had been prepared to do battle over Harry's temporary absence from his classes, Harry agreed so readily that Severus grew suspicious.

"The less contact I have with the Ministry, the happier I am," said Harry flatly, then pulled out his Charms text and began to outline the essay he needed to submit to Flitwick by week's end. Severus could have kissed Harry in relief, then acted on the impulse and earned a heart-warming smile for his efforts.

With that problem solved, Severus turned his undivided attention to the most immediate problem facing him: Harry's Defence Against the Dark Arts class. From the bits of conversation he'd overheard, it appeared that Williamson was still planning to use a bonding potion on his N.E.W.T. students, despite Minerva's admonition against it. Knowing this, he leafed through his copy of Most Potente Potions whilst Harry did his homework, using it, as he so often did, as a launching point for further inquiry.

Severus reached for his journal as his left index finger trailed down the page of the book, the fingers of his right hand seeking automatically for the old quill that served as a bookmark. He opened his journal and dipped a fresh quill into a pot of ink and began jotting down notes as he read. Twenty minutes later, he came to his feet and pulled several more volumes off the shelves. He turned to the index of Potency Redux: A Guide to Petals and Pistils in Potions and started adjusting the recipe.

Thanks to some judiciously selected lessons, by Thursday night Severus had everything he needed to brew enough Induciae Paciscor for thirty people. Not only that, McCourt had put enough of the picture together to offer to cover for him should his presence be required elsewhere.

"It wasn't complicated, Severus," said McCourt after a brief meeting with Minerva to lay the ghosts of his suspicions to rest. "Your Professor Williamson has been dropping broad hints for two days now. I've no idea what this is about, nor will I speculate. My concern is that the Potions instruction at Hogwarts adequately prepares students for O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s and that the potions used in the Hospital Wing are brewed to Ministry specifications." She raised a hand before he could snarl a proper protest. "It does, and they are."

~*~

Rather than head to the dungeons after lunch on Friday, Severus moved from shadow to shadow to follow the seventh years to their Defence lesson. It was child's play to place a listening charm within the classroom, which would allow him to hear every word said. Despite Minerva's scathing lecture, Severus had a hunch that Williamson was bound and determined to go forward with his plan to use a bonding potion on his students. If Williamson thought to use a potion on Harry, he was in for a rude awakening.

"I'm so pleased you decided to join us today, Mr Potter." Williamson's voice oozed through the solid oak door, and Severus snarled under his breath. "As you know, we will spend this afternoon exploring the bond created with the assistance of the Cohors Fratres potion.

Severus' heart stopped for a moment.

"We will spend today's lesson acclimating you to its effects. Yes, Ms Granger?" Poised to interrupt, Severus paused for a moment to listen to Hermione's question.

"I've done some research on bonding potions," said Hermione hesitantly, "and isn't it true the bond created by the 'Band of Brothers' potion can only be dissolved by duelling?"

"Not quite, Ms Granger," replied Williamson. "You will find that this potion—"

"Is unsuitable for the task at hand," interrupted Severus as he burst through the door. The students jumped, but he ignored it as he strode up the centre aisle to the head of the class, a large flask of clear, ruby red potion clutched firmly in his hand. "Professor Williamson," he said in a silky smooth voice. "I believe you requested a potion to explore the capabilities of bonded pairs in defensive situations." He did not look at Harry, keeping his eyes focussed instead on the wide-eyed professor in front of him.

"Ah, Severus," said Williamson nervously. "I…thank you, but I have managed to secure a potion for use today." He gestured towards a sweating carafe filled with some neon yellow brew that wanted desperately to appear green, but didn't have the wherewithal to fully shift to that colour. Unlike Severus' potion, the contents of the container were gelatinous, and Severus wondered if they'd be drinking it or eating it with a spoon.

"That," replied Severus, "isn't worth feeding to swine. This," he said to the class, "is Induciae Paciscor, a potion commonly used before the Statute of Secrecy went into effect. As you are undoubtedly waiting for me to ask a question, Ms Granger, please share with your classmates your inexhaustible knowledge of all things discoverable within five minutes of setting foot in the Library, so I need not waste everyone's time."

Hermione started to speak as Harry buried his face in his hands. Unlike in years past, this time she flashed him a knowing grin. "Induciae Paciscor, or Flag of Truce, is a potion that was used to facilitate the negotiation of truces or treaties. The potion allowed each side to know if the other was dealing in good faith. It fell out of favour when it was discovered that stronger wizards could manipulate the emotional states of Muggles and Squibs, thus negotiating terms strongly in their favour."

"Very good, Ms Granger," said Severus. "How would a potion such as this serve in a defensive situation?"

To his surprise, Neville raised his hand and Severus called on him. "Well, sir," said Neville uncertainly, "when we broke into the Department of Mysteries, it would have been helpful to know if someone was in trouble. You see, we got separated a lot. Same thing when we were fighting here. I would have been able to concentrate better on what I had to do if I had known where the fighting was worst."

"It extends your reach," said Harry. "If you're linked up with someone, you can almost be in two places at once." His clear green eyes focussed keenly on Severus. "But you have to trust your partner. It won't work if you don't know how they'll react." His gaze shifted to the liquid in the flask Severus was holding. "How do you confine it?"

"What do you mean?" asked Severus, knowing the answer, but wondering if anyone else had come to the same conclusion as Harry.

"Well," replied Harry slowly, "if we all have some potion, what's to keep all of us from bonding? Or what will allow any of us to bond? Is it charmed? Or is it blood?"

"Harry raises an important point about bonding potions," said Severus, whilst Williamson stood in the corner glowering, clearly unhappy about having his class taken over. "What is to prevent the class from bonding as a whole?"

"Now see here," said Williamson angrily as he stepped forward. "We have the Cohors Fratres all ready to be administered. Mr Macmillan, please distribute the phials and we'll get started. That will be all, Professor Snape."

Severus ignored him and took one step towards Ernie, his hawk-like eyes boring into him. Ernie sat back down without comment. "Cohors Fratres" said Severus, "should be a uniform, deep chartreuse. It should have the consistency of syrup and should smell of gentian. This is swill." He sniffed deeply. "Nor is it prepared as necessary. After being decocted, Cohors Fratres requires three full days in a dark, cool place. I would not be surprised to learn this was blended this morning."

"This is my Defence class, Severus, not yours," snarled Williamson, though his chin was quivering and a line of sweat had broken out across his forehead. "It for me to decide what potion we'll be using."

"I am Potions Master here, Wendell," replied Severus, taking one step closer to Williamson. "It is for me to determine whether any potion is both safe and appropriate to use. You have a student in your class whose condition requires certain precautions be taken—"

"You can't pull rank in my classroom because you're buggering one of them," hissed Williamson, heedless of the danger he was in until he met Severus' eyes. His face grew pale.

The room fell silent as Severus closed the small distance between them. "Tread lightly, Wendell." Severus' rage was cold and dark, a tangible thing with long, terrible claws, and Severus took rare pleasure in the shiver that wracked Williamson's frame. He whipped around, his robes slapping against Williamson and reducing the former Auror to the significance of a housefly.

"Pair up," ordered Severus. "Choose someone you know well and would trust with your innermost secrets." Knowing full well he had his back to Williamson, Severus nevertheless stood with arms folded, watching as the class began to organise itself. He was unsurprised when Ron suddenly leapt to his feet, wand in hand, at the same time Susan Bones' hand went up. Williamson must be behaving stupidly.

"Yes, Ms Bones?" he asked, his gaze flickering to his right when Terry Boot rose as well.

Susan shifted nervously, her eyes darting from Ron to Terry before she looked back up at Severus. "Professor Williamson put us in pairs twice, but I've no idea which one I'm supposed to work with. I had Seamus first, and then the potion matched me with Anthony Goldstein, but you said to choose someone we trust and I barely know him."

Williamson moved out from behind Severus and stood along the wall nearest Harry, his remaining hand obviously empty. "Pair up with the person you were most recently—"

"With the person you trust most," said Severus over Williamson's instructions to the contrary. "All of you. Would you rather trust your instincts or a potion about which you know nothing?" He drew himself up to his full height. "I have instructed you all in the preparation and use of potions. Have you learnt nothing?" His gaze settled on Neville, who was struggling not to grin. Severus knew a glare would be wasted on him; Neville, it seemed, had grown up.

As the students paired themselves up, Severus began divvying the potion into the small dram glasses set on a circular tray on Williamson's desk. "Harry," he said without diverting his attention away from his task. "Come up here." He finished pouring out the ruby red liquid, and then looked up to find Williamson standing at Harry's side. "I wish to demonstrate with you," he said quietly. "It works on the same principle as Polyjuice Potion, therefore blood is not necessary, though it will result in the most effective bond."

"Hair's easiest," said Harry. "Nothing to transfigure. Will it dissolve in the potion, though? I don't want to leave any bits of myself lying about." He gave Williamson a contemptuous glance, making no secret of his reason for not wanting to leave a trace of himself behind.

"You've nothing to worry about, Potter," snapped Williamson. "You will be working with me for this exercise, or have you forgotten?"

Harry lanced Williamson with a cold look and Severus speared him with one as well. "I'm afraid that's out of the question," said Harry dismissively before turning his attention back to Severus.

Williamson plucked out one of his remaining strands of hair, shouldered past Harry and dropped it into one of the tiny glasses filled with potion. It frothed and bubbled, turned purple and hiccupped out a wisp of steam. He thrust the glass at Harry. "Drink," he snapped.

Before Harry could take so much as a step back, before Severus could string Williamson up by his entrails, the glass exploded in Williamson's hand, and the man flew to the back of the room tumbling arse over tit. A small crowd of students rushed over, hands outstretched to help the professor to his feet. Severus exchanged a telling glance with Harry.

"Sorry," offered Harry in a strong voice, though he didn't appear in the least bit repentant.

Severus gave the class a moment to come to order, and after assuring himself that Williamson had suffered no lasting damage, he called them back to attention. "Determine with your partner whether you wish to use blood or hair to activate the potion. If you choose to use blood, transfigure something into a needle if you do not have a knife with you." He had a number of these students in Potions, where such tools were used regularly. "After Harry and I have taken it, please come up in pairs so that I might administer the draught to you."

He removed a small silver knife from an interior pocket and opened it. A muttered charm later and it was clean enough to suit him. "Blood or hair?" he asked Harry again.

"Blood," replied Harry. He extended his hand and watched Severus' face as the point of the blade pricked the pad of his middle finger. "How much?"

"Three drops is sufficient," replied Severus as he nicked his own finger with the fine edge. "There is an incantation." It took three repetitions before he was satisfied with Harry's pronunciation. "We hold hands," he said, extending his own. Harry placed his hand within it, as a lover would. "We add the blood, we say the words together, and we drink."

They added their drops of blood and, like Williamson's had, the potion bubbled and frothed, but turned clear lilac rather than the darker purple of Williamson's, their colours matching almost exactly. "Meum scis cor," they said as their eyes locked. Know my heart. They drank.

Severus staggered. He reached out blindly and clutched the desk as he struggled to pull himself upright. His eyes were wet and his breath came in short gasps. Harry's emotions, raw and unfiltered, were agonising, and he thought for one frantic moment that he was drowning. For the first time, he understood why the Dark Lord could not long withstand his possession of Harry's body.

Harry did not appear to be faring much better. Like Severus, his breathing was laboured and his skin was blanched, almost colourless. He clutched Severus' hand so hard it was a wonder bones didn't break under the strain. That Severus was a man of strong emotions should have come as a surprise to no one, but Harry appeared blindsided all the same.

"This, Williamson," said Severus harshly as he wrapped a protective arm around Harry and pulled him close, "is why you cannot teach this course and bond with a student. There would be no one left in charge." His judgement was clouded, his fierce love for Harry, for their child, bringing his most protective instincts to bear.

He dimly recalled the purpose for which the potion was created and nearly erupted in a mirthless laugh. It was devised for those who did not trust; those who did…. Suffice it to say, the afternoon was about to become very interesting.

Several long minutes later, Severus had unwoven the tangle of Harry's emotions enough to make sense of them and understand which required his attention and which he could safely ignore. Questions were filling his mind even as blood was racing to his cock; Harry's healthy libido was, at best, a mixed blessing. Still, in this state he knew he would never be able to prevaricate. He dared not make eye contact with Harry, which Harry repaid by nibbling lightly on his neck.

"I need you to not do that," Severus murmured. "I have students to oversee." To his amazement, and profound disappointment, Harry stopped at once. His heart twisted as Harry stepped out of his embrace, and for one terrifying moment he was afraid Harry was going to release his hold on his hand.

His panic must have communicated itself to Harry, who whispered an urgent, "Are you okay?" to him. Severus nodded, but tightened his grip on Harry's hand.

"This potion," he announced thickly, "will create a bond that permits you to sense the emotions of your partner. For some of you, this might prove to be a distraction." He couldn't help it; his eyes drifted toward Harry. "The purpose of today's exercise is to allow you to become accustomed to this. I am told that next week you will begin duelling whilst bonded to your partner. Draco, Neville, to the front."

Nearly an hour later, everyone except Williamson was under the influence of Induciae Paciscor and, rather than the chaos he had been expecting, Severus noticed that all the couples had found a place somewhere within the large Defence classroom to call their own. Many had transfigured desks and chairs into couches and pillows, as Hermione had done, and were curled up, engaging in conversation with their partner.

Several couples—Ron and Hermione, Draco and Neville, Terry Boot and Lisa Turpin—were snogging, but that, Severus determined, was Williamson's problem. Nearer the centre, Hannah Abbott was speaking in low, soothing tones to Justin Finch-Fletchley, who appeared on the verge of tears. Susan Bones was staring at Zacharias Smith in bewilderment and Stephen Cornfoot appeared to be talking Quidditch with Michael Corner if his hand gestures were to be believed.

Severus guided Harry to a spot at the front of the room, satisfied that no one appeared to be on the verge of inciting a riot or starting another battle in the endless war between Slytherin House and everyone else. He conjured a fainting couch for Harry and settled him on it before Summoning Williamson's chair for himself. "Thank you," he said as he sat down next to Harry.

"I wish you'd believe me when I tell you I'm fine," grumbled Harry, stretching out. He flopped around for a bit before finding a comfortable position, but once he did, he guided their linked hands to his rounded stomach.

"I was thanking you for assisting me, but that is of no consequence. Today's lesson is an exploration of the bond created by the potion." Severus sat up and surveyed the students before gazing pointedly at Williamson, who appeared more concerned that Severus had taken his chair than with the few amorous couples displaying a bit too much affection.

"So, what are we supposed to do?" asked Harry, gazing at Severus through lowered lashes.

The sudden spike of desire had to be coming from Harry, Severus thought as he felt himself respond to the unvoiced invitation. He arched a brow and was met with a wry grin. "That will have to wait," he said as Williamson circled around them. "It would seem to me that we discuss the impressions we are receiving from each other to ensure we are interpreting them correctly. Do you wish to start? Or would you rather I go first?"

"I will," said Harry. He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. "Merlin, you're complicated." It was the last thing Harry said for the rest of the class. Their eyes met and words were no longer necessary. They communicated entirely with soft touches, a brush of a thumb on bare skin. Fingertips sliding through dark hair. Pupils expanding as the connection grew deeper.

Severus' inner demons were silenced, his intellectual curiosity stilled. Never before had he experienced such peace, such intimacy with another person. Even extended sessions of Legilimency with Albus had never led to the sense of completion he was experiencing with Harry. He moved closer, tracing over Harry's hand, his palm, the sensitive skin on inside of his wrist, gazing steadily into eyes green as glass, darker than Lily's emerald green had been.

Harry's touch was as delicate as his own, and he barely breathed as Harry slid a finger down the slope of his nose, exploring the shape of it. For one of the few times in his life he was not ashamed of it, not embarrassed by his crooked teeth or the sallowness of his skin. He was not an attractive man, but in that moment he felt beautiful. His heart sang with unaccustomed joy and he caught a glimmer of why Harry's capacity to love was his greatest strength. Though they had married weeks before, Severus felt their vows take hold and bind them fully together. He leaned forward, his lips barely brushing against Harry's.

"A bit of decorum, if you please," hissed Williamson in his ear.

It was like being plunged into the icy Black Lake and Severus acted on instinct as he and Harry nearly jumped out of their skins. His wand was out and the curse flying before he'd had time to form the words. Williamson's body slid the length of the room. Several students shrieked. His heart pounding, Severus took a couple of deep breaths as Harry gazed around wildly.

Severus stalked the length of the room, gazing coldly at the still form of the Defence Against the Dark Arts professor lying in a crumpled heap near the door. "Rennervate," he said crisply as a jet of pale spell light shot forth, feeling keenly the sharp pang of separation from his bondmate.

"How dare you—" Williamson struggled awkwardly to his feet, humiliation painting his cheeks fiery red.

"How dare you?" snapped Severus. His heart was still racing and Harry's panic was just beginning to abate. "Have you any notion of the danger you were in?" He shook his head as Williamson's jaw dropped. "No, of course not," he answered with a sneer. "This is a game to you." He whirled and strode back to Harry, unsurprised to see his husband pale and trembling.

"I want twelve inches on your bonding experience for Tuesday." Williamson pushed past Severus on his way to the front of the room as he made the announcement. "I expect you to decide for yourselves the advantages and disadvantages of having a bonded partner in a duelling situation and enumerate them as well as discussing how today's experience differed from your expectations of it." His eyes hardened as they met Severus'. "Mr Pott—Prince may submit yours with his.

"Next Friday, we will use the potion I plan to prepare and engage in limited duels. You will be expected to pair up with the same person until we have finished this unit. I will, of course, substitute for anyone unable to attend." His smile was an ugly thing, but Severus nodded.

Williamson, Snape decided, was delusional. He helped Harry to his feet as his mind kicked into high gear. Once the Ministry left Hogwarts, he would pull together a third Order of the Phoenix and charge them with keeping Harry safe once again. This time, though, Harry would be in the thick of things. He wouldn't risk having Harry rush off on a wild goose chase, heedless of the danger to life and limb.

They would begin tomorrow night.

Chapter Text

"I think we ought to remain Dumbledore's Army," said Harry thoughtfully, idly stirring his tea as he stared into the milky liquid. Whilst he appreciated Severus' concern, he believed it misplaced. He was the only one who did, though, and he was finding himself out-shouted and outvoted at every turn.

It wasn't anything like the meetings of the past, no life-or-death sense of urgency. No keeping Sirius and Severus from killing each other in the parlour of Grimmauld Place. Molly wasn't screeching about him being too young to know what the Order were up to. This was a (mostly) quiet conversation in their overcrowded lounge, though Harry considered it all to be much ado about nothing.

"Hermione and Severus are right, Harry," said George. "Let the Order remain and do their job. Potions don't appear in the middle of Transfiguration books without a reason, fine bit of magic though it was." His eyes sparkled a bit and for a moment, he looked like the George of old; then the sadness returned. "I reckon Lee will have some ideas about how we can improve on it."

"I think we ought to leave the Wizengamot out of our calculations for the time being," Draco interjected. "Severus will be sworn in after the election, and we can see how it all fits together once we've learnt more about the Ministry's objective."

"Severus, you should divide up your forces," said Kingsley, his deep voice adding a touch of gravitas to his statement. "Arthur, Percy, and I will make inquiries at the Ministry. I am about to commence my farewell tour before I take over as chief of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, so I will have the chance to speak with most of the division heads before the new Minister is installed."

"But what will you be asking, Minister?" Harry enquired. "You can't very well ask them what they think about the baby." The revelation that Wizarding Britain was still chattering on about it unnerved him. So had the knowledge that Hogwarts was still receiving up to a dozen Howlers a day demanding that Minerva do something to separate him from Severus.

"Kingsley, Harry. Kingsley."

"Honestly, Harry, Kingsley's not as naive as that," said Hermione over Kingsley's weary plea, as Draco groaned in dismay.

"Even Fudge would work his way out of that one," said Draco. "I thank you for your support and efforts in rebuilding after the war," he continued in a poor imitation of Kingsley's baritone as he pantomimed shaking an invisible hand. "'Thank Merlin for Potter, eh?' The next thing you know, you're being considered for Witch Weekly's Wizard of the Century award as the Minister brings up your blighted past, which leads quite naturally to the Tragic State of Affairs that Is Your Life."

"I don't think Witch Weekly has a Wizard of the Century Award," mused Luna as Kingsley chuckled. "But Harry does have a lovely smile." She beamed at him, and he coloured.

There were moments Harry thought his life was too much like a Saturday morning cartoon programme, constantly being chased by a gang of characters who couldn't shoot straight whilst he ran in place as fast as he could, with only the scenery changing behind him. "It's duck season," he muttered under his breath, earning a puzzled glance from Severus.

Molly frowned at Severus. "I know you're worried about Harry, but is all this truly necessary? That Finnigan boy is in St Mungo's, and from what everyone has said, he was half out of his head with grief. It's nothing short of a miracle that this hasn't happened more, to be honest, but what would the Ministry want with Harry now? It appears to me that you're seeing danger where none exists. It's curiosity, Severus. Nothing more."

Harry's eyes met Severus' for a moment, and he fervently wished he didn't know why Seamus was in St Mungo's. It seemed that the Carrows had been more perverse than anyone had suspected, and they had taken an inappropriate liking to Seamus. Seamus was suffering from trauma, and it would be months before he would be able to resume his place in Wizarding society.

"How can you say that, Mum? Remember that witch the day after the wedding?" Ron raked his hands through his hair and took a swig from his bottle of Butterbeer. "Dad, Percy, and Kingsley need to investigate the Ministry, like Kingsley said. They'll know who to talk to and who to avoid. Draco, Hermione, and Severus need to find out what's in that potion. Bill should see if the goblins have any information on Sendigovius. Luna and Neville should owl Auntie Muriel, Luna's dad, and Neville's grandmother to see if they know anything about how Harry ended up in this state. I'll go to Grimmauld Place and see what I can find in Sirius' library."

"Someone needs to watch this Williamson fellow," said Arthur. "There's no point in turning the Ministry inside out if the worst danger is right under your noses. Ron, it seems to me that your time would be better spent learning what you can about him."

"How'm I to do that?" asked Ron. "I can't very well follow him about the castle."

"No," said Severus, "but there are seven years' worth of Gryffindors who can. Not to mention Ravenclaws and Slytherins. We're lacking in Hufflepuffs, though it is likely that Hannah Abbott might be willing to assist in this endeavour. She appears to be no more impressed with him than do the rest of us."

Harry rolled his eyes as Ron and Severus plotted and schemed. He exchanged a long-suffering look with Hermione and dove into the conversation the moment an opening presented itself. "Kreacher," he said. "Or Winky, if she's willing. Or one of the other house-elves. I had Kreacher and Dobby follow Draco for months, and I don't think he noticed."

Draco's jaw dropped, and Neville took Draco's hand in a manner Harry thought to be mildly constraining. "You set my own house-elf on me?" His silver eyes narrowed even as they signalled his indignation. "How you weren't Sorted into Slytherin surpasses my comprehension."

Harry smiled.

"You can't just order house-elves to follow professors around," said Hermione.

"I said if they're willing," Harry pointed out. "But it wouldn't hurt to ask them. Just remind them to sleep. Dobby was dead on his feet. I miss him," he added glumly.

"He was a good friend," said Luna into the silence.

It was a signal to end the meeting. Severus brought out a bottle of Firewhisky, and though Molly's disapprobation spoke volumes, it didn't keep Minerva, Kingsley, Arthur, and George from partaking.

Harry was a bit distressed to find himself cocooned by women, especially since Molly had no compunction about asking the sorts of questions everyone else tended to shy away from. He unequivocally refused to discuss haemorrhoids with anyone, regardless of whether he had any or not, and he let his weight gain remain a secret between himself and Madam Pomfrey. Ron bailed him out, though, with a well-timed invitation to play chess. Neville suggested Exploding Snap, and since there were four of them, Harry disappeared into the study to find a deck of cards, leaving Luna, Hermione and Molly to dissect and discuss the minutiae of his pregnancy.

~*~

Ron put "Operation: Quaffle" in place the next day.

"Your mum is a nightmare," said Harry as Ron tickled the pear to gain access to the kitchens. "She actually asked me if my nipples are getting tender."

Ron gave a low, long whistle. "I swear if Hermione ever turns up pregnant, I'm going into hiding. I did not need to know that, mate. What did you tell her?"

"Nothing. I was too busy trying to scrub the question out of my head. Another conversation like that one and I'm going to ask Hermione to Obliviate me. Can you believe she actually said she'd ask Severus? I do not want to think about her asking about my sex life." Some thoughts were simply too awful for words.

"Eww." Ron shuddered and for once, Harry didn't blame him. "You don't suppose this is what women talk about all the time, is it?"

"No idea. I reckon I'm just going to have to tell her I'd really rather not talk about it."

Ron snorted. "Better you than me, mate. She might listen to you, but the rest of us don't stand a chance in hell."

They were swarmed upon their arrival in the kitchens. The house-elves dropped their spoons and knives with a loud clatter and surrounded Harry and Ron, chirping their hellos and offering to bring them all the food and drink they could possibly consume. Everywhere Harry looked was evidence of an enormous feast being prepared. Meats were being minced and vegetables cleaned. Clouds of flour and sugar wafted from huge sacks, whilst sifters of spices floated through the air.

Upon learning that Harry was asking for him, Kreacher brought plates piled high with cakes and biscuits and ushered him and Ron to a small wooden table set with four ladder-backed chairs. He returned a moment later with two mugs brimming with hot chocolate and bowed low to Harry after setting them on the table.

"What is my Master wanting from his poor, neglected Kreacher?" said the house-elf in his bullfrog voice. "Never comes to the kitchens now, oh no. Kreacher hears from the other house-elves that his Master is expecting, but does Master come to tell Kreacher? No, he does not." Kreacher gazed up at Harry with naked longing. "Will Master being returning to the house of Black to bear his young?"

Harry selected a wedge of shortbread and dunked it into his hot chocolate as Kreacher's guilt-tinged barbs burrowed under his skin. "No, Kreacher. I'm staying at Hogwarts with Severus." He took a bite of shortbread and watched as Ron gulped down half of his hot chocolate and dragged the back of his hand across his mouth.

"Kreacher, we were wondering if you might help us out with something," said Harry.

Kreacher eyed him suspiciously. "What is Master wanting from Kreacher? Is Master moving back to Gryffindor Tower? Or rearranging the furniture in the dungeons?"

Harry and Ron both shook their heads. "Nothing like that," assured Harry. "I need to know what Professor Williamson is doing when he's not in class. Find out who he's talking to, what he's reading, if he's leaving Hogwarts. You'll need to have another house-elf or two—Winky possibly, and another one you trust—to help you." He smiled at the wizened old elf. "You will need to rest sometime, Kreacher. I don't want you to go without sleep or anything."

"You are wanting Kreacher to spy on a professor like he did with the Malfoy boy," said the house-elf uneasily. "It will not be easy, Master, no, it will not, but Kreacher will find a way. When does Master wish Kreacher to make his reports?"

"You should tell me what you find out," said Ron. "Not Harry. There'll be others watching Williamson as well, and we don't want him to know we're spying on him. I can come to the kitchens, if you like, say on Saturdays. But if you hear him mention Harry's name, come and tell me straight away."

"But find out what he's talking about first," said Harry. "He's trying to get inside my head, Kreacher, but we don't know why."

Kreacher drew himself to his full height, and all two and a half feet of him glared at Harry in dogged determination. "No one is harming my Master," he declared. "Kreacher was beside himself when Master didn't come back. That is how Kreacher ended up at Hogwarts. If Master is wanting to know about the professor, Kreacher will find out everything."

Harry and Ron started to leave, but Ron came to an abrupt halt and turned back. "Do you know anything about Williamson?" he asked suddenly. "We know he's been acting strangely since the term began. What we don't know is why."

Kreacher wiped his palms on his messy tea towel. "Professor Williamson is sending many owls, but Kreacher does not know where the owls is going. The others say he is receiving many parcels, but Kreacher does not know what is inside of them."

Harry and Ron exchanged a long look. "Potions ingredients, most likely."

"Kreacher will find out and…" He gave Ron a long searching look before turning to Harry with questions in his eyes.

"Yes, let Ron know what you find out." Ron was good at seeing the details emerge from the bigger picture, better than Harry, who was far more likely to make intuitive leaps of logic and then act on the results before he could start second-guessing himself. "I really do appreciate this," Harry added. He grabbed a couple of crème cakes for later and followed Ron up the stairs.

"So Williamson is sending off loads of owls, is he?" asked Ron, once they were safely away from the kitchens. "Maybe I should speak with Severus about him. He's Deputy Head. Maybe he knows if Williamson has family tucked away somewhere."

"Wouldn't he just bring them here though?" asked Harry. "Odd how none of the other professors are married or have kids of their own. Do you think there's a reason for that or if it just worked out that way?"

"Never really thought about it, to be honest," said Ron. "It is kind of strange, though. It's not like there's no room here and the Floos can't be secured." He flashed a grin at Harry. "Bet Hermione'd know."

"Yeah, but she wouldn't tell us 'til after she finished lecturing to us about not reading Hogwarts: A History," they finished together. "She's a bit predictable that way," said Harry with a laugh. "I'll bet it has something to do with not being able to Apparate in or out of Hogwarts."

"Who knows?" Ron's smile faded, and he slowed his steps. "Harry, what's it like?" he asked, his brow furrowing.

Harry stopped and blinked, not expecting the question. "What's what like?" He had a feeling he knew and was a bit surprised Ron had waited until now to ask.

"You know," said Ron a bit uncomfortably. "Being pregnant. I figure it's got to be a bit strange, having this thing moving around inside you." He glanced at Harry out of the corner of his eye as they started towards the Grand Staircase. "And it keeps getting bigger, too."

"Don't remind me," moaned Harry. "Pomfrey reckons it'll be twice this size by the time it's due." He ran his hand over his abdomen and shook his head as he glanced down. "Most days it feels normal, though it's sort of hard to forget it's there, especially when it kicks, and I miss being able to lie on my stomach. But when I go to bed and it's just Severus and me, he'll rest his hand there and it'll move, and I'm really, really happy it happened, even if it wasn't supposed to.

"I guess I don't care as much why or how any more. I know it's making Hermione crazy to have something happen that she can't explain, though you'd think she'd be used to it by now. And Severus is jumping at shadows. He doesn't say much, but I know he's a bit worried about the Wizengamot, though I've not worked out yet why he thinks it has anything to do with the baby."

"You'd have to ask Draco about the Wizengamot," said Ron as they reached the landing. He turned to go up to the common room, but paused when Harry started down towards the dungeons. "Which way?"

"Let's go to my place. Draco and Hermione should be there, and there are too many people in the common room anymore." Harry grimaced. "It gets a bit quiet down in the dungeons, but I'm done with being gawked at." He took the stairs at a clip, Ron right beside him. It was heartening to know that Ron accepted it as a given that Harry's life was an exception to nearly every rule ever written. Ron was even getting better about seeing Harry and Severus exhibit a bit of affection now and then, which relieved Harry no end. Ron was bound to grow up sometime.

Once inside, Harry flopped down on the couch and put his feet up on the low table in front of him. "Is it my imagination, or has this been the longest week ever?"

"Your imagination, mate. That week we camped outside Little Peebleston was pure hell. Rained for a solid week, it did, and there wasn't a market for miles. Hermione thought we should make ourselves useful and forage, and all we managed to do was wade around in mud up to our knees." Ron wandered off to the kitchen for a couple of bottles of Butterbeer and poked his head inside the laboratory on his way back to let Hermione know he was there.

Draco emerged from the laboratory a few minutes later, his platinum hair lank and sweaty. He pulled off his dragonhide gloves and swiped at his forehead. "This potion is really weird stuff. We've identified most of the ingredients, but Sev has never heard of a single potion that contains everything we've found. You should come look at this."

"Severus doesn't like me anywhere near the laboratory," said Harry as his eyes swept over Draco, trying to remember the last time he'd seen him so dishevelled. "But I'll stand in the doorway if you'll explain what you've found."

He and Ron crowded into the doorway and Harry lit up at seeing Severus hard at work. Glass cylinders rose from a tangle of supports, and most of them had fires dancing under them. Bright, shiny jewels of liquid dripped slowly through a maze of tubing, whilst Severus measured out grains of some silvery powder Harry thought might be lionfish and sprinkled them into a bubbling cauldron.

"Turn the middle flame down and let it simmer until it's been reduced by half," instructed Severus. He glanced up and met Harry's eyes. "Not one step further, P—Harry."

"I won't," promised Harry. It amused him that, in moments of duress, Severus still defaulted to calling him "Potter," but he recognised it as a sign of the seriousness of the situation. "Draco says you're making progress."

"That is not what I said at all," scoffed Draco. "I said it's weird. Doesn't make sense."

"You really shouldn't be in here, Harry," said Hermione without looking up. She was adding white chips of something to the centre column and jotting notes. Her bushy hair was tied back, though a few strands straggled out of the clip and fell in her eyes. Her arm came up and she tried without success to push the strands back.

"What have you found out?" asked Harry as he took a step back, bumping into Ron. They spent a few seconds rearranging themselves so that Harry could see into the laboratory without having to jostle Ron out of the way and still remain behind Severus' invisible line.

"I am beginning to believe that we need to add St Mungo's to the list of organisations under suspicion. I have discovered that this potion contains quantities of pennyroyal, blue cohosh, ergot and rue, all of which are inconsistent with the baseline ingredients."

Harry hoped he didn't appear as stupid as he felt, but he couldn't remember ever using any of those ingredients before. "What do you mean, baseline ingredients?"

"Most potions have bases, Potter, depending on which class they belong to," said Draco. "If Severus said we were going to brew for the Hospital Wing, what would you grab from the storeroom?"

"Nettles, bicorn horn, scarab shells, and either essence of Dittany or murtlap depending what it was supposed to do. Why?"

"It's like baking a cake," added Hermione. "They'll almost always have flour, sugar and eggs. It's everything else that makes them different from each other." She puffed out a breath of air, but the lock of hair remained stubbornly in place.

"So, what's the base?" asked Ron. "And what does any of this have to do with St Mungo's?"

Severus held up a hand for a moment whilst he sprinkled and stirred. "Harry, please put on the kettle. I would like a cup of tea. Draco, reduce your flame, and add some boiling chips to the cylinder. Hermione, cast a stasis charm, and then join me in the lounge."

Ten minutes later, Harry had a tea tray assembled and levitated it out, proud of himself for actually remembering to use magic. He poured out and passed around a plate of tiny savoury pies before settling himself on the sofa with a tall glass of pumpkin juice.

They busied themselves with eating and drinking. Ron quaffed down a tumbler of pumpkin juice and chomped his way through three of the little pies, though he had consumed his weight in biscuits not thirty minutes earlier.

"You asked why I believe we need to investigate St Mungo's," began Severus, after everyone had blunted their hunger. "The potion is a vaccine of some sort, though I do not yet know which of the dozen or so it could be. But, as I mentioned, there exists a number of elements which have no place in a potion of that sort. I can't explain their presence, nor how it fits with what we've already learnt."

"You mean the pennyroyal and the rest of it," said Harry. His eyes cut over to Hermione, but she was frowning thoughtfully into her teacup instead of leaping into the void to display her prodigious knowledge of all things arcane and mysterious. Even Draco scowled, and that was not like him in the least, insofar as potions were concerned.

"So I'm not the only one who hasn't a clue about those things?" asked Harry, astonished.

"There is a potion," Severus began slowly, his expression troubled, "that is part of the Hospital Wing's stores, but is never brewed here at Hogwarts. I do not maintain the several necessary ingredients, either in the student storeroom or in my private inventory. It is unsurprising you are not familiar with them, Harry. They are not part of the approved curriculum, nor will I lecture about them. I am speaking, of course, of contraceptives."

Harry stared, as did the others. "But there are charms," said Hermione. "We had to learn them in sixth year. Both sets."

"And yet there are sixth year students who cannot manage a simple Disarming charm," replied Severus. "The Ministry thought it best not to leave the matters of procreation completely in the hands of hormonal adolescents—one of the few intelligent decisions they have ever made. The potions kept on hand act as a contraceptive and, if tincture of pennyroyal is added, can be used as an abortifacient. One of the benefits of the potion is that it need not be ingested more than once a month. Female students who find it necessary are required to report to Poppy on a regularly scheduled basis."

"There's a potion?" exclaimed Hermione. "Why has this been kept a secret?" she demanded. "I've half a mind to go up to the Hospital Wing right now and ask for some. It would be so much better than fumbling around trying to remember where I set my wand and hoping I've pointed it at the right bits."

Ron's face turned florid, and Harry wished he were anywhere else as Hermione continued her tirade.

"Ms Granger," said Severus. "This is a society that uses parchment and quills. We wear robes and use candles for lighting. We rely on fireplaces for warmth when magic will not suffice, and our most reliable method of communication is a message sent by owl. Is it so surprising that the Wizarding world continues to have a Victorian attitude about sexual relations?"

"No, of course not," Hermione replied, abashed. "Though I find a bit odd that it's so accepting of relationships like yours and Harry's, and so backwards on so many other things."

"Backwards?" scoffed Draco. "Muggles will never be better at things than wizards."

"The Wizarding world could take a lesson from Arthur Weasley," Hermione shot back. "We might then have the use of fountain pens and lined paper. Gas lamps where electricity can't be used. I love being able to use magic, but we've fallen behind on all sorts of things, not least of which is practical clothes. I suspect even you would be comfortable in a pair of decent trousers and a dinner jacket."

Harry snickered as Ron eyed Draco with a certain amount of caution, but Severus was frowning and Harry had no idea why. There were loads of things Muggles did better than wizards and he wasn't too proud to admit it. Surely Severus, who had grown up in the Muggle world the same way he and Hermione had done, must know that.

"Why do you find it odd?" asked Severus before Draco could enquire about dinner jackets.

"Well, for one thing, you and Harry wouldn't be allowed to marry," said Hermione gently. "There is no Muggle government on earth that recognises a marriage between two men, and given how out of step we appear to be, it seems peculiar that the Ministry is so far ahead of Parliament on this."

"I am well aware of the Muggle world's discrimination against homosexuality. I am asking why you find it odd." Severus' expression softened. "I am not angry with you, Hermione, nor do I particularly care. I am married, and my husband carries my child. I am more fortunate than the Fates should have allowed."

"I think I'm going to sick up," muttered Draco.

Hermione's eyes narrowed and, as Harry turned expectant eyes on her, he wondered how she managed to appear both distant and focussed. He recognised the expression; the gears were turning as she weighed and evaluated what she knew whilst discarding anything that didn't fit. "The Victorian era is regarded as one in which propriety mattered more than substance," she said, "where men were sent to prison for daring to form liaisons with other men. That those same cultural norms are not present in the Wizarding world indicates that other forces were at work.

"Hagrid is a half-giant," she continued. "Fleur is part Veela. That vampire, Sanguini, was accompanied by his donor-partner, Wimple."

"Worple," corrected Severus. "Though I do not believe their relationship is sexual."

"But he's a vampire," exclaimed Hermione.

"Yes, he is," agreed Severus. "But despite what you might have heard in the common room, there is seldom a sexual component to donation. But we'll save that for another time.

"The International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy was signed into law during the reign of William and Mary. Wizarding kind were marginalised then, and steps were taken to ensure that relationships between equals would always be seen as valid in the eyes of the Ministry. Without the Church to impose its own set of morals, those of us inclined towards our own gender were never seen as a scourge. Only those of us with the misfortune of growing up Muggle thought we had anything to be ashamed of."

Harry couldn't help it. His eyes met Ron's, but for the first time ever, Ron didn't drop his gaze. It had taken nearly seven months, but Harry finally felt fully human in the eyes of his best friend. He gave a slight nod of acknowledgement and kept his relief to himself. "I'm sure this is fascinating stuff for those of you taking a N.E.W.T. in History of Magic," said Harry as he glanced at Severus, "or for those of you who have one, but can we talk about the potion instead? Why would anyone send a contraceptive to someone who's already pregnant?"

"Maybe it's the potions equivalent of a Howler," suggested Draco. "I'll admit it's a bit like closing the stable doors after the thestrals have flown off, but I can't come up with anything else."

Ron frowned. "I dunno," he said thoughtfully. "Someone went to a lot of trouble smuggling that potion in here. The book was charmed so that Severus was the only one who would find the potion, and the book itself was slipped past a dozen protective spells."

"The ones that let every one of you inside without so much as a knock on the door?" said Harry. "Those enchantments?"

"It's not our fault if you can't be bothered to take the simplest of precautions," said Draco. "You've grown complacent. But if it's not a Howler, what's the message?"

"Has everyone forgotten there was a note?" asked Hermione in exasperation. "It was with the potion. It said that Harry's pregnancy was no accident, remember?"

"We have a contraceptive element in a vaccine," said Severus. "We have a note, as Hermione has reminded us. We need to determine what the vaccine is supposed to prevent before we can draw any conclusions."

Harry scrunched up his nose as he pushed his spectacles up. "Can we back up a bit? What are wizards vaccinated against? And when? I mean, you all know I grew up with the Dursleys. I don't imagine I was given any of those things, so I can't understand why we were sent that potion."

Severus' expression changed, his eyes sharpening, becoming hawk-like even as Harry looked on. "You were fifteen months old when you were left with your aunt and uncle," he said intently. "Ask Poppy for a schedule of inoculations when you see her next."

"Of course," said Harry in confusion. "But why?"

"There's no need to wait, Severus," said Hermione. "It's in the book I gave Harry for Christmas."

Harry took a moment to fetch the book, flipping through the pages and appearing a bit panicked as he returned. "I'd no idea babies were this complicated," he said as he resumed his place next to Severus. "There are loads of things that need minding. 'Is it too hot or too cold? Is it eating enough? Is it growing fast enough? Is it crying too much or not enough?' There's such a thing as not crying enough?" He handed the open book to Severus and tipped his head against the back of the sofa.

Severus skimmed over the page. "If your parents were as diligent about your care as I suspect they were, you would have been inoculated against Banshee Breath, Transylvanian Measles and Gobliniasis. You would have received a series of potions to safeguard you against Mesopotamian Mumps, Harpy Throat and Ptolemy's Disease starting when you were two. There exists now a vaccine to prevent Dragon Pox, but it hadn't been introduced yet when you were a toddler."

"Why aren't Muggle-borns—?"

"I think we should assume—"

Hermione and Draco began speaking simultaneously, but as if realising her question had little to do with the matter at hand, Hermione deferred to him. "I think we should assume," he repeated, "that Potter's not had any, rather than assume he has and miss something."

Harry's head came up sharply, and Draco lifted a conciliatory hand. "I'm not trying to infer your parents were neglectful, but they were being hunted—and they knew it. They might have chosen to wait until the Dark Lord had been defeated before risking a trip here or to St Mungo's."

"They wouldn't have brought Harry to Hogwarts," said Severus, shaking his head. "We do not use vaccinations here unless there is an outbreak of something contagious, such as a particularly virulent strain of wizard flu. I can't even brew them. They have to be done in the laboratories at St Mungo's."

"Why can't you brew them?" asked Harry, wide-eyed. The thought there was a potion in the world Severus couldn't make was anathema to him. "You're a Potions Master. You can do anything."

Severus' eyes lost their piercing intensity, and his entire demeanour softened. "Thank you for your vote of confidence, Harry. Yes, I am capable of brewing any potion in use at St Mungo's, but I cannot acquire the live strains of the disease necessary for the vaccines. They are controlled more strictly than even dragon's blood."

Ron looked blankly at Severus. "I've no idea what you've just said."

"He's talking about germs, Ron," said Hermione crisply, and then her expression changed. "You do know what germs are, right?"

Surprisingly, it was Draco who leapt to Ron's defence. "I know you think that most pure-bloods are ignorant of how the world works, but we're not. If you'll recall, the full name of St Mungo's is St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. The Department of Magical Bugs and Diseases is on the second floor. So, yes, we do know what germs are."

He turned to Ron and continued. "Live strains of germs are held under a confinement spell at St Mungo's and the charms are keyed to only a handful of witches or wizards to keep them safe." His face grew troubled. "Imagine if the Dark Lord had been able to infect Gryffindor with spattergroit. Or introduce Vanishing Sickness into, I dunno, Fortescue's ice cream."

Ron frowned. "How do you know all this?"

"My father," replied Draco with a weary sigh. "He used to donate huge sums of money to St Mungo's to maintain his image. We were given tours on a regular basis. When I was little, I wanted to be a Healer when I grew up, but I was a Malfoy," he continued bitterly.

"What are you going to do after you finish school?" asked Harry.

Draco's expression grew wintery. "I have no idea." He came quickly to his feet. "I'm going to work on that potion some more," he said abruptly and stalked back to the laboratory, closing the door quietly behind him.

Harry exchanged worried glances with the others. "I'll go," said Severus after a long moment's silence. "He may be willing to talk to me. I'll send him to Neville after he's had a bit of time. I'll see the rest of you at dinner."

~*~

After dinner, Harry and Severus spent several quiet hours preparing for the week ahead. Severus wrote out lesson plans and marked up the essays he had assigned. Harry completed his reading for the week and wrote out his essay for Williamson, twelve inches about bonding with Severus.

His first attempt was vulgar: a pointed narrative filled to the brim with lurid descriptions of sexual acts Harry had wished he'd had the courage to perform in class whilst under the potion's influence. Perhaps Williamson would be a bit less inclined to want to pair up with him if he knew Harry's mind was filled with thoughts of sodomy and fellatio.

Once finished, Harry tore it to bits and then burnt the pieces, not wholly trusting to luck that Williamson would never see it. He pulled out a fresh sheet of parchment and wrote out a dry treatise on the advantages and disadvantages of having an emotional connection to someone who was engaged in battle at the same time one was facing enemies of his own. He fully expected to receive a 'Dreadful' once he got it back, but only because it said by Harry Prince at the top.

"Please be certain to give this to Wendell when you submit your own essay," said Severus, placing a roll of parchment on Harry's desk.

Harry paused from packing his schoolbag to look up. "You did the assignment?"

"Naturally," said Severus, and if his voice was a touch smug, Harry couldn't blame him. "It's worth it, don't you think, to keep him off-balance?"

"Definitely," replied Harry with a grin. "Can I read it?"

"May I, and yes, you may."

Harry rolled his eyes at Severus before unrolling the parchment. As he read, he glanced repeatedly at Severus, his smile fading more and more with every word. When he finished, he sat quietly, seemingly lost in thought. "I had no idea," he said finally. "Even after everything that happened in class."

"Truly?" asked Severus, his voice gently. "You truly did not know?"

"That you trust me that much?" Harry shook his head. "No. I wish I could say otherwise. Perhaps if I'd thought about it more…" His voice trailed off, and he blew out a sigh.

Severus walked around their desks and extended his hand. "Come to bed, Harry. It's late and you're tired."

"Not too tired." Harry placed Severus' essay carefully in his satchel and then took Severus' hand as he came to his feet. Standing on tiptoes, he brushed a kiss over Severus' lips before following him out of their study, whispering a quiet, "Nox," as he left the room.

Their rooms were quiet, filled with the hush that comes at the end of a long day. The embers in the fireplace glowed a peaceful red as they, too, prepared for slumber. Once in their bedroom, Severus closed the door with a gentle snick and murmured the spell that unfastened his buttons whilst Harry looked on with hunger. Severus met his gaze and sparks flew.

"Give me a moment," said Harry, his voice husky. He trailed his fingers over bare skin before disappearing into the bathroom. He emerged a scant few minutes later, his fringe damp, his robes unbuttoned. As Severus vanished to perform his own ablutions, Harry undressed, kneeling down to untie his boots. To his chagrin, it was getting more difficult to reach his feet—not because he was particularly big, but because he simply didn't bend in the middle.

Once naked, he crawled to the centre of their bed and stretched out on his back, his fingers sliding over his bare skin, exploring the curves of his body as if they were brand new. In a way, they were. There were days when Harry was convinced he could see the baby growing, and other times when he was certain it had managed to shrink a bit.

As usual, as soon as Harry had settled down, the baby decided it was time to play, or whatever it was that foetuses did to amuse themselves in there. He groaned softly as it rolled from one side to the other and rubbed until the elbow (or knee) was no longer jabbing him in the side.

"It still fascinates me," said Severus as he curled around Harry. He replaced Harry's hand with his own and moved it slowly over Harry's stomach, following the ever-shifting contours. Whether by magical means or because a bond had already formed between them, the baby seemed to follow in its wake, turning and shifting as the hand skated over Harry's skin.

"I'm surprised you don't talk to it," said Harry as he tucked his hand under his head. "Pomfrey says it can hear us."

"I wouldn't know what to say," Severus admitted. He toyed with the dark trail of fine hair that led from Harry's navel to the thick thatch of wiry hair below, threading his fingers through it, yet never quite touching Harry's cock. "It's easier to speak to you. Besides, it only knows the sound of my voice, not the words I'm saying."

It was anybody's guess whether Harry knew the words coming out of Severus' mouth either. He moaned softly, splaying his legs apart and searching for Severus' head with his free hand. Goosebumps rose as Severus dotted his stomach with wet, open mouthed kisses and Harry fought to keep from tangling his fist in Severus' hair.

Severus' tongue laved over Harry's nipples and Harry caught a quizzical look from him before Severus went back to kissing a line from his sternum to the base of his throat. Harry arched, dragging the sole of his foot over the duvet, the soft skritch of the fabric a perfect counterpoint to the tingles jetting from head to toe. Whimpering softly, he tilted his hips up as Severus' hand once again