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A Taste of Liberty

Chapter Text

~~ I ~~

"Come on, Harry!"

Harry Potter sighed as he climbed the wooden steps to the shop. It was the last Hogsmeade weekend before the NEWTs, and Neville and Ron had gotten it into their heads to Floo to Diagon Alley so that they could explore Muggle London. Harry and Hermione had been dragged along; while neither of them was terribly interested in the questionable delights of a world they knew all too well, they felt a certain responsibility to the young pureblood wizards. Without them, the boys would have ended up in six kinds of trouble before dinnertime.

Unfortunately, the effort involved in keeping them out of trouble was exhausting, and Hermione had been driven half-mad before she washed her hands of the lot of them and decided to visit the shops on her own. That left Harry alone to watch over Ron and Neville, and after a day filled with near disasters, he was ready to throttle them both.

"Look, just promise me one thing," Harry said.

The two of them turned and looked at him.

"Promise to keep your bloody mouths shut," he hissed.

Neville rolled his eyes. Ron gave him his well-I-like-that frown.

Harry wished he were anywhere but here.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Comic books. Sodding comic books.

"How old are you?" Harry demanded.

"Lighten up, mate," Ron told him. "You've forgotten how to get in touch with your inner child."

I never was a child, thought Harry sullenly, though even as it was formed he realised it wasn't exactly true. He remembered playing with toys, always Dudley's hand-me-downs, of course. The plastic horses were invariably missing an ear or a leg, and the soldiers had most of their paint chipped off before he ever saw them. Still, it was a childhood of sorts. But Harry never spent much time experiencing childhood, only wishing that it would be over so that he could go out in the world and leave the Dursleys behind forever. Being a boy paled before the tantalising prospect of manhood.

And then, when he'd arrived at Hogwarts, he'd fallen into this strange in-between world, where he was treated as both a man and a boy. He could risk his neck on the Quidditch pitch or in fighting Voldemort, and the next day be docked House points for failing to pay attention in Potions class. He was more of an adult than ever, but also had never so completely allowed himself to be a child. 

Which made him wonder what he'd been before. Very little of anything, apparently.

He remembered, too, that he was now officially done with childhood.  Even though it was only early May, he and his friends had celebrated his "birthday" last week, for by Hermione's careful calculations he'd seen the close of his eighteenth year more than three months early thanks to his Auror training.  In order to cram as many lessons as possible into his already busy sixth- and seventh-year schedule, he had used Dumbledore's Time-Turner to extend the duration of his lessons.  As a result, Harry had lived an extra day or so every week during the last couple of years, and Hermione had decided that he was entitled to an early birthday for that.  So as far as nearly everyone was concerned, Harry was now an adult.

Harry pulled his attention back to the here and now. The shop didn't look much different to those in Diagon Alley. It was piled to the rafters with comic books, mechanical toys, metal figurines, plastic models, and board games of various descriptions. At least here there were no electronic gadgets to tempt the eye and the hand; Harry hadn't brought enough Muggle money with him to pay for any more costly breakages such as resulted from the accident at the computer shop.

Leaving Ron and Neville to their own devices, he decided to have a boo at the merchandise. The figures and models were either designed along historical or fantasy themes. There were row upon row of miniature Roman legions alongside well-endowed superheroes, resplendent in their garish skintight garb. There were board games based on Star Trek and Lord of the Rings – that jammy Tolkien, giving away the secrets of the kingdom – and models of Churchill tanks poised alongside snap-together Batmobiles.

Neville walked up to him with a long, brightly coloured box in one hand. "What's this?"

He peered at it for a moment – damned contacts were drying up again. "Oh. That's a light saber."

"Like a wand?" the other boy whispered.

"No. It can only be used as a weapon. Well, not used exactly, not like this – "

"You mean it needs a spell to activate it?"

"No," Harry said, taking the box from Neville and turning it over, "it needs four 'D' cell batteries to make it bloody light up. It's useless. Only a toy."

Ron crept up behind him and poked him in the ribs, and Harry cursed as the box nearly flew out of his hands. "You're a black cloud today, you know that?"

"If that's true, then I've been a black cloud for months," Harry huffed.

Ron stepped around him and regarded him thoughtfully. "Maybe you have, at that. Wonder why that is?"

Harry handed the light saber back to Neville and walked as casually as possible over to the shelf of comic books.

"I haven't the faintest idea," he said.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"I'm in love with you."

If he lived as long as Nicholas Flamel, Harry would never forget the look which appeared in Snape's eyes then.

Complete, utter, total disgust. Though whether it was with himself or with Harry, he couldn't know for sure.

"You can't be serious."

Harry had to laugh at that one. "I wish I weren't, believe you me." He stared into the fire. "It just –  happened."

 – Happened over days, months, years – he supposed it started the summer before last, when Dumbledore had deemed it unsafe for Harry to return to the Dursleys. The day he turned sixteen, he'd begun training as an Auror, the youngest in living memory. Working closely with Snape as something approaching an equal, Harry received glimpses into a soul which bore a shocking resemblance to his own. And slowly, against his will, he'd been drawn to a man he never would have thought anyone, least of all Harry himself, could love.

Nevertheless, the feeling had crystallized one moment about three weeks previous to this one. They'd arrived at the scene of another attack – some of the rogue Giants had been in on it, but the unmistakable stench of Lucius Malfoy's sinister brain hung over it as well. The intelligence had been received too late to be of any use, and the house was a smouldering ruin by the time they Apparated in, wands drawn.

Susan Bones, Hufflepuff, home for the Christmas holiday. Her mother, Anne. Her father, Robert. Her sisters, Teresa and Lizzie, first- and fourth-years respectively, both Ravenclaws. All gone, and nothing to do now but hope it had happened quickly, and to all of them at once, so that neither parent nor child had been forced to witness – 

It struck Harry that even his hopes had become monstrous.

In what was left of the conservatory, Harry found the charred remains of a china doll, its crinolines and soft blond ringlets singed but mostly intact. Later, when he had forgotten it in the search for evidence, he'd seen Snape huddled by the back shed, one long finger stroking the doll's hair while silent tears cut pure, gaping wounds in his ash-smudged cheeks. His mouth was moving, repeating the same two words over and over.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. – 

The man standing at the mantel would be humiliated to know Harry had witnessed his moment of weakness.

He didn't yet know that none of it mattered any longer. NEWTs. House points. Stiff upper lips. Unwritten rules about what one was and was not allowed to have.

"I suggest," Snape intoned, "that you make every effort to expunge this – this ridiculous infatuation – at your earliest convenience."

Harry was young, but he suddenly felt decades older than the man before him. "Have you never been in love, then?"

The thin lips pursed. "The Death Eaters do not believe in love." He paused for a moment, as if fighting a minor battle within himself. "Only fucking."

Harry rose from the chair and walked over to where Snape was standing. With more bravery than he knew he possessed, he reached up with one hand and brushed the raven-black hair back, exposing the line of one high, proud cheekbone. The owner of it flinched, but didn't move away.

"You're not a Death Eater any longer."

Snape snorted. "I will be a Death Eater until the day I die. And probably beyond that, if I am so unfortunate as to be cursed with an afterlife."

Harry's fingers glided over pale skin, surprisingly warm to the touch, although he supposed that could merely be the fire. Snape turned to him slowly, as though he were under Imperius but fighting it, fighting.

Snape was always fighting.

That was one of the reasons Harry loved him.

But paradoxically, it was also one of the reasons Snape would probably never be able to love him in return.

The boy moved closer, his lean, Quidditch-hard body giving off heat to rival the flames flickering in the grate. Snape's eyes became even more impenetrable, though there was a fine tremor in the jaw muscle under Harry's fingers.

Leaning in to brush his lips against Snape's, Harry murmured:

"Then fuck me, if that's all you think you have in you."

There was a brief flicker in Snape's coal-black eyes then, one Harry would hold against his heart in the lonely nights which followed. Before it died, Harry read lust, and shock, and passion, and most surprisingly...hope.

But it was all gone in an instant, and in its place was the old, frosty disdain.

"Ten points from Gryffindor for language, Mister Potter. Now get out of my sight."

Harry drew back from him slowly, allowing himself the childish indulgence of imagining the unforgiving pressure of Snape's mouth on his, instead of the barest whisper of contact which had been the reality.

"I had to try," he said quietly. His mouth curved in spite of the growing hole in his chest cavity. "After all, I was taught to fight by the best."

He left without looking back.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Rage.

Appropriate, that.

Harry had never been a fan of comic books, but something in the defiant stance of the hero on the front cover called to him. His face was hidden by the typical mask, but Harry fancied he saw something of Snape's sneer in the superhero's haughty mien.

God. Who would have suspected he'd become a romantic in his old age?

He headed to the counter and paid for it, then walked out the door and sat on the steps to read.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"There you are! We hunted all over the shop for you!"

"Hmm?" Harry squinted up into the dying spring sunlight to see Neville and Ron standing over him, their faces cast in shadow.

"Are you on the bollicky planet at all?" Ron demanded.

"Not sure yet," Harry replied. He stood abruptly, then clambered up the steps to re-enter the shop while the two boys stared after him.

Once inside, he made a beeline for the shelves and searched the R's. There were four more issues, including the first ever published. On the cover, Rage howled his pain at the heavens as he cradled a broken young body in his arms.

The man behind the counter was tall and gangly and had a ponytail reaching halfway down his back.

"Have you any more of these?"

Raising an eyebrow, the man inspected Harry's haul. "That's all I've had in so far, but there's a new one coming in a month or so. Get them from across the pond so they take longer."

Harry tried to suppress his disappointment but wasn't entirely successful. "I may not be here in another month," he grumbled.

"Oh. Leaving the country, are you?"

Harry's mouth twitched. "Something like that."

"Well, we've another shop in Somerset if you're down that way." He paused momentarily in the midst of ringing Harry's purchases. "You, ah, like this stuff, do you?"

Hackles he didn't know he possessed rose abruptly. Something of his defensiveness must have translated to his posture or expression, because the man hastily added, "Naw, naw, don't worry, mate, I'm not askin' for a knee trembler back of the shop. I just thought – " He reached under the counter and pulled out a magazine, placing it on the counter. "There's an article in here about the artist and the writer. I don't imagine you'll find a copy – next issue's out tomorrow."

"How much?"

"No charge, mate." He gave Harry a toothy grin. "Monetary or otherwise. We got to stick together, don't we?"

Harry couldn't quite keep the blush from rising to his cheeks as he thanked the man.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Hermione peered at the magazine laying on the table at the Leaky Cauldron. "I didn't know you read The Advocate."

"I don't," Harry said around a mouthful of Irish stew. "And how would you know about it?"

The young woman rolled her eyes. "Heterosexuals have heard of The Advocate."

Harry cast a glance at Ron and Neville, who were thankfully oblivious to the conversation. Since neither alternating nor direct electrical current would operate properly in the magical world, the two were working feverishly to devise ways to make their Light Sabers function without batteries.

Pathetic, really. But then, Harry had just bought twenty quid worth of comic books, so he wasn't in a position to cast stones.

"Well, I hadn't heard of it, and I'm bent as a – "

"Harry!" Hermione lowered her voice to a stage whisper. "For all we know that Rita Skeeter cow's hiding under the table."

"'M not ashamed of it," Harry persisted stubbornly.

"Nor should you be. But the sordid details of Harry Potter's sex life, whatever his preference may be, would be hot copy. Why give them more filth to print?"

"'Sex life'," snorted Harry. "I like that. 'Boy Who Lived Wanks in the Shower''ll make a lively front cover for Witches' Weekly, won't it?"

Hermione's cheeks pinkened slightly, but her inner curiosity burst forth. Leaning across the table, she murmured, "You mean you've never – "

Harry stuck another spoonful of stew in his gob. "Haven't had much time, have I?"

"No, but you certainly would have had the opportunity."

Harry shook his head. "I don't – " want a fuck.

But I did. I would have.

"I understand," Hermione said, laying her small, fine-boned hand over his where it lay on top of the magazine. "You want it to be special."

"I suppose," he conceded. "But it's – well, you know I have a hard time – making connections with people. It's never been easy for me. I can't just pick someone off the street and do...that."

An image of Snape flashed before him, so vivid he fancied the man was sitting at the next table, and had to fight to keep from turning his head to survey the room.

Harry cleared his throat. "When I find someone I care about, it's something I know instinctually, something I feel deep inside – and it's strong, almost frighteningly so. Like with you and Ron. Even if the both of you got tired of me, decided you hated me, never wanted to see me again, I'd stick fast." He shrugged. "Wouldn't be able to help myself."

Hermione's eyes were bright; she squeezed his hand hard. "Don't worry. You're stuck with us, too, you git."

Harry grinned. "You've been spending too much time with Ron."

"I know," she murmured, dashing the moisture from her eyes with the back of her other hand. After a moment, she released Harry's hand and tapped the magazine with one finger. "What's so fascinating, anyway?"

"This? Silly, really," he said, attempting an airy tone. "I picked up a comic book at one of the shops Ron and Neville dragged me to, and it turned out to be about a gay superhero. It was created by a couple of blokes in America."

Hermione cocked her head. "The blonde one's quite the looker. But I suppose I'd be wasting my time."

Harry chuckled. "Afraid so, m'dear. Apparently Rage – that's the hero – is based on a friend of theirs. They all live in Pittsburgh."

"Where's that? I was never much good at American geography."

Harry burst out laughing. "This is an historic occasion! A round of Butterbeers on me!"

"What is it?" Ron asked.

"Hermione finally admitted there's something she doesn't know."

The young woman in question stuck her tongue out at all of them.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

That night, Harry lay alone in his room at the Leaky Cauldron and tried not to think.

"Are you sure you don't want to come back tonight?" Hermione had asked him earlier. To her credit, her face had shown only a hint of the concern Harry knew she must have been feeling.

"No, you lot go on back," he'd said. "I just want to spend a bit of time – thinking."

"You can think just as well back at school," Ron had said stubbornly, his arms folded.

God. What had Harry ever done to deserve friends such as these?

"I'll be all right," he'd insisted. "If anything happens, I can Apparate back. I got my license last summer, remember?"

Yet another skill Snape had taught him. He remembered being pressed up against the length of his lean body, the physical contact being necessary to help Harry learn to control his direction and distance. If Snape had only known then how much effort it had taken Harry to focus on the task at hand, he would have perhaps been more forgiving of his frequent errors...

Harry smirked. Who the hell was he kidding?

"Harry?"

"Hermione. Go. Back. All of you." Stung, the girl had turned to leave then, but Harry had whirled her back round for a swift, hard kiss on the cheek. Then he'd given one to Ron and Neville for balance. Good lads – they didn't even flinch any longer when he did that.

And then they were gone, and Harry had a whole night to himself in which to consider his future. To ponder whether or not he had one, for starters.

Perhaps this hadn't been such a brilliant idea.

In an effort to distract himself from harsh realities, he immersed himself in the Rage comics, tearing through all five issues, then reading them all again more slowly and thoroughly. The artwork was standard comic fare, but the subject matter was not. Rage, Gay Crusader, with the help of his loyal sidekick Zephyr, protected the citizens of Gayopolis from harm, repelling gay-bashers and other criminals with ease.

Sometimes, it appeared, he also shagged men senseless. With considerable skill, at that.

He turned to the end of the first issue again.

Harry stared at the images of Rage and his young lover, J.T., and wondered if anyone would ever touch him that way.

Kiss him.

Caress him.

Invade him.

Oh, sod it, Harry thought, leaping from the bed and stripping off his clothes. He could do with a shower, and his now painfully evident erection could do with a little attention.

He emerged from the shower feeling a great deal cleaner and much more clear-headed. Standing in front of the mirror over the dresser, he finger-combed his damp, unruly hair until it resembled something more appealing than a rag mop.

Flopping back down on the feather bed, he set the comics aside and thumbed through the magazine. There were two articles connected with Rage, the first an interview with artist Justin Taylor and writer Michael Novotny. The second was an in-depth profile of the vibrant Pittsburgh gay community, of which the two were celebrated members, thanks to the international success of the comic. Although Harry knew it was silly, he still felt a bit of a shock at recalling there was a whole other world out there, a world which carried on spinning oblivious to wizards and Death Eater attacks and Voldemort's plots.

Perspective, that's what you need, my lad. Potions Masters aside, it's not inconceivable that there's a man on the planet who'll find you attractive. You don't need to meet the love of your life to get yourself buggered.

And you're not dead yet.

Harry Potter began thinking again.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"What do you mean he didn't come back last night?"

Ron gave Hermione a fish-eyed glare. "Well, you don't bloody see him here, do you?"

Hermione laid her fork on her plate, having suddenly lost all interest in her kippers. "We have to tell the Headmaster. Suppose something happened to him?"

"And suppose he was on a boozeup last night and is sleeping it off at the Leaky Cauldron?" Seamus Finnegan hissed. "Do you want him in even more shite than usual?"

"No, of course not," Hermione hissed back. "But Harry has borne a terrible burden this year, what with trying to carry on as normal while performing Auror duties at the same time. He hasn't been himself lately, not since..."

"Since Susan," Ron finished for her.

"I think that was just the last straw, really," mused Hermione. "Add to that the knowledge he's Voldemort's number one target, and I'm surprised this hasn't happened sooner. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes for all the world."

Ron frowned. "There's something you're not saying. Out with it."

Hermione speared a kipper and pushed it about on her plate. "I don't know for sure. But I have a theory."

"I would be very interested to hear any theories you may have, Miss Granger."

The small knot of seventh-year Gryffindors turned as one to look up into Professor McGonagall's unsmiling countenance.

It was Neville who said what they were all feeling most succinctly.

"Bugger," he muttered.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Pittsburgh? She thinks he's gone to bollicky Pittsburgh?"

"Have you anything against Pittsburgh, Severus?" Albus Dumbledore enquired calmly, as he stroked

Fawkes' feathers with a gentle hand.

Snape pinched his knife-sharp nose between thumb and forefinger. "Apart from the fact that it's located in America and brimming with Muggles, no, Albus, I'm sure it's rivalled only by Bermuda and Corfu as a prime tourist destination."

Minerva chose that moment to stick in her oar. "Hermione believes he had a motive for going there," she told him in her annoyingly lofty tones.

Snape crossed his arms. "And what, pray tell, might that be?"

McGonagall treated him to her frostiest stare. "She thinks he may be looking to lose his virginity."

Snape hadn't been entirely sure he still possessed a heart, but if he had it stopped beating in that moment.

"Well," amended McGonagall, "she didn't put it in exactly those terms, but they had been discussing the topic during their outing to London."

Snape kept his expression as calm as possible. London had been enough of a risk; now he was thousands of miles away, in an unfamiliar city?

And Snape knew exactly where to assign the blame for this one.

Stupid, stupid, stupid...

Albus set Fawkes back on his perch and regarded Snape levelly. "We know this much: Harry paid a visit to Gringott's yesterday and withdrew five hundred Galleons, which he then converted to a mixture of pounds sterling and US dollars. Since he would have paid in cash, we have no record of any purchases he may have made. And as for tracing him – "

Snape sighed. "Quite impossible, I know. Location charms bounce off the blasted boy."

"You assured that yourself by administering that potion to him in Fifth year. It wouldn't have done for him to be whisked away by Voldemort so easily."

No, thought Snape angrily, by all means let's make it more difficult, so that Potter has a bit longer to wait before the damned axe falls on his pretty neck.

McGonagall thinned her already thin lips. "Normally, I'd say wait for the boy to slip up and use a spot of magic; the Ministry would have him pinpointed in two seconds flat. But he could be casting spells as we speak and we'd never know it."

Snape rounded on her, the fury bubbling unexpectedly to the surface. "It was ridiculous to continue treating him as a child when he was acting as a fully fledged Auror. Would you have had him defenceless last summer when he took part on the raid against Crabbe?"

Minerva narrowed her eyes. "No, of course not," she bristled. "I'm merely – "

" – stating the obvious?"

"Well, it would seem we will have to resort to more mundane means to retrieve our Harry," Dumbledore said brightly. "But retrieve him we shall. Or rather," he added, turning to Snape, "you shall, Severus."

Perhaps if he pinched hard enough his nose might fall off altogether. He'd never been particularly fond of it. "Surely you jest."

"I'm afraid not. You and Minerva alone among the staff are best suited to perform this task, as young Harry feels a special – connection – to you both."

Oh, Albus, thought Snape. If you only knew, you'd have my guts for garters.

"But as I was an absolute peril in Transfiguration class back in my day, I'm afraid it will have to be Severus. My skill in Potions does not rival yours, of course, but I believe we can manage until your return."

"Albus," Snape began, wincing slightly at the pleading undertone which crept into his voice, "if I understand you correctly, you're charging me, on the questionable hunch of a student, to go to America, find a boy who in all likelihood does not wish to be found, and drag him, kicking and screaming, back to dear old Hogwarts."

Dumbledore assumed a pleased expression, as though Snape were a snot-nosed first year who had just performed his first successful spell. "That's essentially correct."

"Oh, well, that's all right then," Snape spat, turning to go.

"Severus."

Snape stopped, but did not turn back.

"I would ask one thing."

There was a brief silence. Finally, Snape muttered, "You may ask."

He could hear the smile in the old man's voice. "Thank you. I would ask that you be – kind – to the boy." He paused. "And to yourself."

Snape stiffened. "That's two things."

"They are not mutually exclusive," Dumbledore countered quietly.

Snape's reply was to exit the room as swiftly as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~~ II ~~

"Excuse me. May I try these on?"

The tall, sandy-haired man turned to Harry and smiled. "Let's see what you've got, sweetie." He made grasping motions with his hands, prompting Harry to pass them across the counter.

Odd. Perhaps in America, the staff was required to inspect your potential purchases first.

"Where are you going with these?" the man asked. There was a disdainful sniff in his tone.

Harry opened his mouth, then closed it. Finally, he said, "I – thought I'd visit some of the clubs tonight."

"My God," the other man gasped. "I hope you've got a damned good fake ID."

"An ID?"

The clerk nodded sagely. "Stating you're twenty-one." He gave Harry the once-over. "You don't look a day over sixteen."

Harry shifted defensively. It wasn't his fault those blasted Dursleys had stunted his growth. "I'm eighteen," he muttered. And I've been risking my life in the fight against evil for nearly seven bloody years, he amended silently.

"Don't get your shorts in a knot, darling," the older man cooed, holding up his hands in a pacifying gesture. "Back in the dark ages, I enjoyed a little underage mayhem myself. But there's no way I'm letting you leave here with these clothes."

Harry frowned. "I have the money – "

"No, no, no," the man soothed, "it's not the money. It's the clothes. They're not you. Or I should say, they're too you. If you're going clubbing, we'll need to age you up a little." Stepping around the counter, the man laid a familiar arm around Harry's shoulders and led him toward a rack of dark shirts and tight-fitting trousers. "No jeans. No t-shirts. Let Emmett Hunnicutt be your style guru."

Harry couldn't suppress a grin at the other man's infectious enthusiasm. "And you would be – Emmett Hunnicutt?"

Emmett grinned back. "In the flesh, doll. In the flesh."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

After the fifth head swivelled appreciatively in his direction as he walked down Liberty Avenue, Harry knew that Emmett was indeed a style guru of the first order. Once he'd finished with Harry, Emmett had pressed a card bearing the name and address of a nearby hairdresser, and told him to ask for Lars. Lars, as it turned out, was not a tall, well-muscled Swede, but a tall, extraordinarily skinny African-American man who added another couple of years to Harry's apparent age beyond those already conferred by the trendy clothes.

Oddly enough, seeing himself in the mirror brought a huge thrill, but also a pang of regret. For the first thought which popped into his head was, I wish Snape could see me like this.

He wondered if Hermione and Ron had had any luck covering up his disappearance. It was unlikely at best, which meant Harry probably had no more than a couple of days of freedom before someone came to take him back to Hogwarts. He wasn't quite sure what he planned to do at that point; he tried not to dwell on the inevitable 'we're so disappointed in you' lectures and loss of House points. Not that the damned Cup meant anything to him any longer, but he hated the thought of letting his fellow Gryffindors down. They deserved their enjoyment of childish things, for as long as they could. Some of his happiest memories were of Quidditch matches or foolish games in the Common Room. Simple things.

Harry stopped dead as shop sign across the street caught his eye.

Bloody hell. It was Michael Novotny's comic store. He'd read about it in the Advocate article.

Racing across the street, he tried to assume an air of practiced nonchalance before entering the shop. He remembered the day in Flourish and Blott's with Gilderoy Lockhart, when the man had dragged Harry into the spotlight without so much as a by-your-leave. The feeling of embarrassment and discomfort then, as at any time he was reminded of his unwanted celebrity, was intense.

But no-one knew him here. The man standing behind the counter was the celebrity in this world.

And he deserved the respect Harry would have liked to have been shown.

"Mister Novotny?"

The man looked up. He was about Harry's height, with a kind face and a youthful appearance. "Yes?"

"I – my name is Harry Potter, sir," Harry said, extending a hand which Novotny took without hesitation. "I just wanted to let you know I've read your work and I've enjoyed it immensely."

Novotny's eyes crinkled as he smiled. "Don't tell me you came all the way from England to tell me that, because I won't believe you," he said jovially.

"Well, no, not exactly, though one might say you and Rage had a hand in my choosing Pittsburgh as a destination."

Novotny's eyes widened. "God, what a terrific sentence. You should be reading Homer, not queer comic books."

Harry laughed. "Well, I am familiar with quite a bit of Latin and other – obscure languages," he said. "But your work was a revelation in a different way. Suffice it to say it was what I needed right at this moment in time."

"Well," Novotny said thoughtfully. "That's got to be one of the nicest compliments I've ever had. Thank you."

"Have you any copies of the sixth issue?" Harry asked.

"I'm officially sold out," Novotny said, leaning forward a little and lowering his voice, "until the next printing. But I always keep a couple stashed away." He retrieved one from under the counter and slid it across to Harry. "Don't tell anybody."

"Thanks," Harry said, grinning. "You don't have to worry about me. I'm damned good at keeping secrets."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"The special today is the Jolly Roger. That's three jumbo fish sticks with a side salad and fries."

Snape looked up at the waitress standing over him and was unpleasantly reminded of Molly Weasley.

"Does this establishment have a teapot?" Snape asked coolly. He'd spent the entire day roaming about Pittsburgh's gay village sustained by nothing but his typical paltry breakfast. A couple of hours ago, he'd made the mistake of wandering into an infernal place known as "Starbucks" and been served the most ghastly excuse for tea he'd ever encountered. A paper bag immersed in a cup of tepid water was not tea, but one could hardly expect Americans to know the difference.

The woman's mouth quirked. Retrieving a pencil which was lodged behind her ear, she said, "I think we might be able to dust one off, Jeeves. Is that all you want?"

Snape treated her to one of his medium-strength sneers. "I would prefer if it were filled with tea leaves and boiling water when it arrives," he drawled.

"Well, you're gonna get a coupla Lipton bags, but I can manage the boiling water. I'll even throw in the cup for free." She paused. Snape noted idly that her violent pink t-shirt read I love fags. "You sure you don't want anything to eat? You look like you haven't had a decent meal since the '80s."

Snape bit back the urge to voice his doubts that this restaurant could in any way be connected with the provision of 'decent meals', but at the last moment he remembered his purpose for being there. "No, thank you," he said, in as polite a tone as he could manage. "But I would like to ask you a question, if I may."

The woman jutted one hip to the side, indicating she was willing to park herself for a few moments. "Ask anything you want, honey. I might even answer you."

Snape reached into his jacket pocket. The Granger girl had provided him with a recent snapshot of Potter, and he'd charmed it to remain motionless. Unfortunately, he couldn't charm away the blasted smile which defied the power of a mere photograph to contain it. Snape resisted the desire to run the pad of his thumb over the surface as he passed it to the waitress. "Have you seen this boy?"

She studied it for a moment. "Cute. He yours?"

Snape's throat closed over. "Pardon me?" he croaked.

"Your son."

"Oh. No." As though he needed a further reminder of his advanced age. "I'm his – professor." He had figured on sticking as close to the truth as possible. "He's a student at a rather exclusive boarding school in Scotland. We believe he – became separated from his friends, and is now somewhere in Pittsburgh."

"Ran away from school, huh?"

Snape pursed his lips, then nodded curtly. "In a manner of speaking."

"Well, I haven't seen him, but there's somebody who might've – hey, Sunshine!"

Her loud call pierced Snape's left temple and exited through his right. A handsome young man rose from a booth near the back of the restaurant and approached, then gave her a generous kiss on the cheek. "Hey, Deb. How're they hangin'?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing," the woman – Deborah, he assumed – said, her eyebrows wagging suggestively.

Good Lord. Not quite Molly Weasley after all.

"You seen this kid?" Deborah asked, handing over the photograph.

"Mmm," the blond man said appreciatively. "I'd certainly remember if I had."

Snape stopped his hand from yanking the snapshot out of the whelp's grasp.

The young man's gaze flickered from the waitress to Snape. "Who wants to know?"

Oh, bollocks. This was more conversation than he wanted to have with Muggles. Sliding from the booth and drawing himself up to his not-inconsiderable height, he extended a hand to each of them in turn. "Severus Snape."

"He's the boy's teacher," Deborah explained.

The man arched one blond eyebrow. "Oh yeah? And how do we know you're not a pimp out trolling for his runaway property?"

Bloody hell, Snape thought, and looked to Deborah for assistance. To his horror, the woman was also patiently waiting for an answer, her pudgy arms folded over her ample bosom.

"I have credentials," Snape said weakly, fumbling in the back pocket of his trousers for the wallet he'd created for himself. A drivers' license, birth certificate, letters of introduction, credit cards – all false, of course, but completely verifiable in the Muggle world. The wizarding community was not without its computer hackers.

"Okay, honey, okay," the woman soothed, patting Snape's arm. "Look, have you talked to the cops yet? The police?" she added, at Snape's blank expression. "I know somebody on the force – "

"No," Snape interrupted. "We – that is, the school doesn't want the police involved. This is a very – delicate – matter. It would be – imprudent to alert too many people to the fact he has – run away." No lies, but a messy web of half-truths. So be it.

"Oh yeah?" Deborah said, scowling. "And what does the boy's family have to say about it?"

"He has no family," Snape snarled, momentarily forgetting himself. "We are the closest thing to family he's ever known."

"Then why did he run?" Deborah persisted.

Because he doesn't want to die just yet, Snape thought.

Because instead of behaving as an adult, I turned him out on his ear.

Because when he finally decided to fall in love, he made the worst possible choice.

"It's complicated," Snape said aloud. "He's a very – gifted student, and he's taken on increased responsibilities in the past year and a half. This has put a great deal of strain on the boy. He faces many challenges in the near future, and we believe he just – "

"Decided to go get fucked," the young man supplied.

Snape tried not to display his shock, but he was certain it bled around the edges of his stoicism.

"I know how he feels," the other man said. "I've been there."

"I doubt it," Snape drawled, unable to help himself.

The lad's eyes actually danced with merriment. "God, you have to meet Brian. I'm sure he'd be thrilled to know what he's going to look like in another ten years." Shaking his head, he said, "All right. I'll keep an eye out for him. If I see him, I'll tell him you're here, and that you're looking for him. You have a hotel?"

"Yes," Snape said, handing over one of the Sheraton cards he'd brought along. "The room number is written on the back." The young man took the card and handed back the photo.

"Okay. But if he doesn't want to go with you, you're not going to see me trying to persuade him."

"Please," Snape said, hating that he had to beg. "You said that you understood his – motives. Do you have any idea where he might go?"

"One word," the young man told him. "Babylon." And with a wink, he left the diner.

Deborah studied him, a revolting sympathy in her eyes. "I'll get you that tea. And the special. You're gonna need it."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Hey."

Justin looked up at Brian, then followed the line of his gaze down the street.

"That pose look familiar to you?"

The dark-haired youth leaning casually against the lamppost was dressed to kill, his dark hair and clothing accentuating his otherworldly green eyes. He appeared to be about Justin's own age, maybe a little older. Must be new in town, because he sure as hell would have remembered him – 

"Oh, shit," Justin breathed. "That's the kid."

Brian raised an eyebrow. "What kid?"

"There was a guy in the diner this afternoon showing his picture around. He claimed he was the kid's professor, and that he'd run away from some British prep school."

"You don't sound convinced."

Justin shrugged. "There was something weird about his whole story. For instance, the kid's supposed to be eighteen, but he sure as hell doesn't look eighteen to me."

"There's only one way to find out." Striding forward, Brian approached the young man like a panther on the prowl. Justin watched the kid's eyes get bigger for an instant before the mask fell back into place.

Definitely hiding something, he thought. But what?

"Hey, kid," Brian said, one big hand landing on the lamppost right over the youth's head, "how old are you?"

The young man lifted his chin. "How old do I have to be?" he countered smoothly.

Brian's mouth curved in an appreciative smile. "Come here, Justin," he said. "We have ourselves a live one."

The boy's head turned in Justin's direction, and Justin was startled to see the look of recognition on the handsome face. "Justin Taylor?"

"Yeah," Justin answered warily.

The boy broke into a guileless grin which restored his youth. Holding out a hand, he said, "Harry Potter. I hoped I'd have a chance to meet you and compliment you on Rage."

Justin shook his hand warmly, then nodded toward Brian. "In that case, say 'hi' to Rage." He felt the heat of Brian's displeasure sear the top of his head. "Or rather his alter ego, Brian Kinney."

The kid – Harry – skewered Brian with his bottle-green gaze. "Merl – heavens. There is a resemblance, isn't there? Oh, I'm sorry. Pleased to meet you," he said, extending a hand.

Brian frowned at Harry's hand, but didn't take it. "Who the hell are you, Little Lord Fauntleroy?"

"No," the youth replied, "merely well-mannered."

"Two snaps," a voice behind them purred. Justin bit back a laugh.

"Emmett! Hello!" Harry exclaimed.

"Oh, you look edible. Spin for me," Emmett ordered. Harry spun obediently, the lamplight bringing out the chestnut highlights in his hair. "Very nice, very nice. Did I tell you Lars was a genius?"

"Harry!"

Brian rolled his eyes as Michael approached with Ben in tow. "Jesus Christ, does everyone know this fucking twink?"

Justin watched Harry's face fall at Brian's words.

"Leave him alone," Justin said, giving Brian a slap on the arm. "You like twinks, remember?"

"Only certain ones," Brian returned, his gaze feral.

"You're the only people who know me here," Harry said, his voice so low Justin had to strain to hear it.

"Not the only one," Justin corrected. "There's somebody looking for you. Somebody from your school."

Harry closed his eyes briefly, and for an instant Justin thought the young man appeared to be older than all of them put together.

"Bollocks," the kid breathed. "I was hoping for a day or two, at least."

Justin dug in his pocket and fished out the hotel card, then handed it to Harry. "I met him today at the diner. He seemed pretty eager to get you back home."

"He?" Harry asked. Then he turned the card over, and his breath caught. "My God. This is Snape's writing. Snape is – here?" Those piercing green eyes lifted to Justin, searching for something. Justin had seen that look before.

In the mirror.

Hopeful. Desperate. Madly in love.

Shit. The guy had to be at least forty.

Not that he was one to talk.

"Yeah," Justin said, nodding. "That was his name. He really your professor?"

Harry's lips curved enigmatically. "Among other things."

Justin tried not to think about the implications of that statement. "Listen, I told him I'd just pass on the message to you, not that I'd help him drag you back to England. I did tell him he might find you at Babylon, though, so you might want to steer clear of it."

"But I heard it was the best place to go," the kid said, unable to hide his disappointment.

"It is," Brian confirmed. Justin was tempted to hit him again.

"Where are you all going?" Harry asked. Nobody answered. "Oh. Well, then – "

"Come with us," Justin blurted.

"What?" Brian spat.

"If he's there, we'll – help you." Justin searched the faces around him for allies. "Right, guys?"

"And how the hell are we supposed to do that?" Brian demanded. "I came out tonight for a little fun, not to cause an international fucking incident."

"There won't be an incident," Justin persisted. "Snape said he doesn't want the police involved."

"Great," Brian said, his voice dripping sarcasm. "That makes me feel so much better. And don't tell me – " he turned to Harry " – your professor just happens to be six-four, weighs in at two-eighty and is a professional wrestler during the summer holidays."

"He's pretty tall," Justin admitted, "but he's pale and skinny, about fortyish. Looks like he's been living in a dungeon his whole life." He laid a hand on Brian's arm. "I bet you could take him easy."

"Blow me," Brian snapped, though there was a definite sparkle in his eye.

"Maybe later," Justin whispered.

"Oh, dear," Harry was saying, his expression serious. "I hadn't thought of that." Justin raised questioning eyebrows at him. "Well, it's only that – he's tougher than he looks. I wouldn't want any of you to get hurt."

"Why?" Emmett asked. "He know kung fu?"

Harry's eyes took on a faraway cast. "Worse. Much worse."

"What the fuck is worse than kung fu?" Michael demanded. "What is he, some kind of superhero?"

Harry barked a laugh. "I suppose you could say that, yes. But then, I'm not without my – powers – either."

"Well, we don't have to worry about him, then," Justin said, hooking his left arm around Harry's waist and the right around Brian's, then steering them both toward the entrance to Babylon. "After all, what hope does one lousy Snape have against Rage, Zephyr, J.T. and Harry Potter?"

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"So," Justin said conversationally, "how long have you been fucking Snape?"

The mouthful of beer Harry was swallowing went down the wrong way, and he began coughing uncontrollably. Justin helpfully whacked him on the back.

"You haven't, have you?"

Harry struggled to regain his voice. "I'm sorry, but I don't see how that's any of your business."

The blond man leaned back against the bar. "Then why did you make it sound like you two were lovers?"

Harry frowned. "I didn't – "

"'He's my teacher, among other things'?"

"Oh. Well." He'd honestly been referring to their work against Voldemort, but he couldn't exactly tell this man that. "I didn't mean it quite that way."

"Let me guess. You've got a crush on him, and he doesn't know you're alive."

"Oh, he knows I'm alive," Harry said, chuckling at Justin's choice of words. "He just doesn't want to shag me."

"I know it's none of my business, but I've been there." He nodded down the bar, where Brian and Michael were engaged in conversation.

"Brian?"

"You got it. He fucked me when I was seventeen and told me I'd never forget him."

"And you haven't," Harry ventured.

"Nope," Justin said brightly. "It's a blessing and a curse, believe me. We're together, we're apart – " he grinned " – sometimes we're apart when we're together and together when we're apart. It's not healthy – fuck, he's not healthy. Men like Brian Kinney should come with a Surgeon General's warning."

"But you love him."

"Yeah. I even believe he loves me, though I might be deluding myself."

Harry took another sip of his beer. "If you could go back, would you do anything differently?"

"You mean, about Brian being my first?" Justin gazed into the crowd of writhing bodies on the dance floor while the music pounded around them. "No. Every time I try to imagine my life without him – Christ." The blond shook his head. "I can't. It's like asking me what I'd be without my art." He grinned evilly. "Or my cock."

He leaned in closer to Harry. "You probably don't want my advice, but I'll give it to you anyway. Don't go after this Snape, at least not until you've had a few experiences. Grope a few guys your own age. Get fucked. Have fun. Then, if you ever do get what you want, you won't be tied to him for the rest of your life."

Harry managed a thin smile. "You've obviously never heard of practicing what you preach."

"It's too late for me," Justin sighed, watching as Brian approached them. "I'm hooked." He didn't sound entirely unhappy about it, but Harry refrained from pointing this out.

Nor did Harry bother to mention that 'the rest of his life' might end up being considerably shorter than Justin might predict. That said, it followed logically that the fun and groping and fucking had best begin as soon as possible.

"Come on, Harry," Justin called, as Brian tugged him toward the dance floor. "Time to get your ass in gear."

Draining the last of his beer, Harry set the bottle down on the bar and moved to follow them.

He managed two steps before an iron vise gripped his arm and hauled him backwards. Stumbling, he collided with a hard, solid body. A body he'd memorized during hour upon endless hour of Apparition practice.

"Not so fast, Mister Potter," Snape growled in his ear. "What is the correct American expression? 'Your ass is mine,' I believe?"

 

 

 

 

 

~~ III ~~

Shit, shit, shit!

"Brian, wait. Harry's in trouble."

"That's his problem," Brian grumbled, still holding fast to Justin's arm.

Justin dug in his heels and pulled back, breaking Brian's grip. "I promised him I'd look out for him. You go ahead if you want."

Brian muttered an oath. Then he muttered a few more.

And then he followed.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

When the time came, Harry thought he'd crumble like a stale biscuit under the force of Snape's personality.

He surprised two people when he heard himself retort, "I offered you my ass four months ago, and you didn't want it. Now, as the Americans say, 'it's up for grabs'."

Snape's hold on him tightened convulsively. "Idiot boy. What are you hoping to accomplish here in this Muggle backwater?"

"I thought that was patently obvious," Harry bit out. "There's a back room in this place that makes the late-night sessions in the Astronomy Tower look like a kindergarten class."

Without breaking contact, Snape whirled him around so that they were face to face. "If it's a casual buggering you're looking for, there are doubtless several dozen Hogwarts students who would be all too willing to perform the noble service for the Boy Who Lived. Choose one of them and get to it."

"That's the last thing I want: 'I Deflowered Harry Potter' on the cover of the Prophet. At least no one knows me here."

Snape sneered. "Yes, I'm sure the near-certainty of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease is a fair price to pay for anonymity."

Harry leaned in close, close enough to detect Snape's spicy scent. "I've got a pocketful of condoms. Don't worry about me." He chuckled at the expression of discomfort on his professor's face. "Besides, what the bloody hell does it matter? I could be dead by the summer. What's a dose of the clap or even AIDS on top of that?"

"Don't say that," Snape snapped. Harry frowned, startled by the heat in his tone. But when Snape spoke again, his voice had returned to his typical derisive lilt.

"Is that what this is all about, Potter? A childish display of self-pity?" Harry's jaw tightened, and Snape smirked. "The weight of responsibility pressing too heavily on those thin shoulders?" He jerked Harry closer and laid his mouth against the boy's ear.

"I knew you didn't have it in you," he crooned.

To Harry's horror, he felt his eyes filling with moisture. After all he'd done, for Snape to say that, even as a tactic, was unexpectedly painful. "You bastard," he hissed.

"Agreed," Snape said coolly.

"Leave him alone."

Harry twisted round in Snape's grasp, surprised to see both Brian and Justin standing directly behind him.

Snape straightened. "I suggest you refrain from interfering in matters of which you know nothing," he warned.

Brian stared at Snape for a split second, then burst out laughing. "It's like I've fallen between the pages of a fucking Dickens novel." His gaze swivelled to Harry. "You want to go with this guy?"

Fear of the sort of spells Snape might cast on his newfound friends rose up in him. "Brian, it's all – "

"I'm only going to ask one more time," Brian interrupted. "Do. You. Want. To. Go. With. This. Guy."

Harry took a deep breath. "Not particularly, no."

Brian cocked his head at Snape. "Then I suggest you tell him to take his hands off you before he regrets it."

"Mister Potter," Snape said smoothly, ignoring Brian, "I am sure you do not wish to be the cause of an –  unpleasant incident."

"Merlin's balls," Harry swore under his breath. Yanking himself out of Snape's clutches, he hissed, "Let's not get into a pissing contest. You know as well as I that any obvious – activity – could bring about some unwanted attention from the wrong people."

Snape scowled, but finally inclined his head in acknowledgment.

"I'm only asking for a couple of bloody days. A week, at the most. Just a week to forget what's ahead and to forget who I am. Then I promise I'll come back, quiet as you please, and do whatever needs to be done." He glared at Snape pointedly. "As I've done since you've known me."

Snape pursed his lips. His coal-black eyes bored into Harry, then flickered over the two men standing behind him. "And you expect me to leave you in their tender care?"

Harry felt like wrapping his hands around the man's neck. Did he ever listen at all? "I can take care of myself. If you haven't figured that much out by now, I suppose you don't really know anything about me."

Snape's scowl did not abate, but finally he said, "Bear in mind that I detest ultimata nearly as much as I detest Americans, and you are forcing me to suffer both." He huffed out a breath. "Where are you staying?"

"I – haven't found a hotel yet," Harry stammered, completely stunned by Snape's apparent retreat.

"He'll be staying with me," Justin piped up. "You got something to write down the address?"

"No need," Snape said frostily. "I shall remember it."

Too surprised to comment, Harry's gaze bounced back and forth between the two men while Justin gave Snape the information.

Turning to Harry, Snape growled, "This discussion is not finished. I'll be waiting for you at the Liberty Diner. Tomorrow at nine a.m. sharp. Don't be late."

Harry frowned. "But – I thought you said – "

"If you insist on this course of action, I have no choice but to stay in this blasted city as well. Because whether or not either of us believes in your ability to 'take care of yourself', I have been appointed your nursemaid. And a good nursemaid cannot leave without her charge."

Turning on his heel, Snape swept out of the club. How he was able to accomplish such a grand gesture in Muggle clothing, Harry didn't know for sure.

After he was gone, Harry smiled at Justin and Brian. "Thank you. You really are superheroes, aren't you?"

Brian rolled his eyes, but Harry could tell he was pleased. To Justin, Harry said, "And I truly appreciate the offer, but I'm certain I can find a hotel."

Justin shook his blond head. "Nah. Save your money; you're going to need it to party."

"Honestly, I don't want to be any trouble to you."

"It's no trouble," Justin insisted, smiling suggestively at Brian. "I don't spend a lot of time at my place anyway. You'll like it – it's close to Liberty Avenue, and right around the corner from the diner, so you can sleep in." His smile grew wider. "Besides, I think I made your professor jealous."

"You're too generous," Harry murmured, blushing slightly in spite of himself. "Thank you."

Justin waved a hand and laughed. "Forget it. If you want to thank us, get out on the dance floor and show us what you've got."

Harry laughed. "I believe I can manage that."

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Snape watched Harry from the catwalk high above the dance floor until the damned Muggle boots caused him to lose all feeling in his right foot.

The squirming mass of mostly-male flesh did nothing to excite his long-dormant sexual impulses. Despite the uptempo music and bright, flashing lights, there was a taint of desperation about the proceedings which reminded Snape unpleasantly of earlier times. Certainly, there were those who were simply out to enjoy and be enjoyed, but woven amongst them were the predators and the prey, constantly measuring themselves against invisible yardsticks and readjusting their status accordingly, almost moment by moment. It was the hideous uncertainty of it all which kept one constantly on edge, looking over one's shoulder.

He shivered involuntarily. Once, he had competed for Voldemort's affections in exactly that way.

He'd sensed that same uncertainty in the older of the two Americans – Brian, Harry had called him. Obviously, he and the young blond whom Snape had met at the diner were an item of sorts, though they both were equipped with a roving eye, so it was by no means an exclusive arrangement. This Brian was clearly a cock-of-the-walk, used to command and control; Snape could spot his kind in a heartbeat. But oddly enough, he and Harry traded off power easily, seemingly without even being aware of it. Despite their annoying interference, Snape had to admire the way the two men worked in concert to protect Harry from a perceived threat.

Snape was still not entirely convinced they had Harry's best interests at heart, but at least their questionable guardianship was an improvement over nothing at all. As much as Snape wanted to clandestinely watch over him every moment, he knew that any monitoring spell he might cast would be worse than painting a target on the infernal boy. This loose arrangement would have to do.

But while he danced, Snape would watch.

He had never spent any amount of time observing the gangly, pimple-faced dunderheads who dragged their partners around the Great Hall at the various Balls. No matter what might be whispered behind his back, he was no pedophile to hide behind a potted plant and toss off to visions of adolescent mating rituals. Besides, the pathetic excuse for dancing most of them practiced upon one another was about as graceful- -and as sexy – as a herd of elephants stampeding through the undergrowth.

The arse-pounding rhythm of the music in this fleshpot was not conducive to displays of grace, either, but after a few minutes Snape was unpleasantly aware that he was no longer observing his charge with complete disinterest. Whether Snape cared to admit it or not, Harry had matured since his sixteenth birthday, when the pace of the war had accelerated and he'd started down an even more difficult path than the one carved out for him as an infant. Discarding his place on the Quidditch team for intensive Defense Against the Dark Arts training, Harry had nevertheless maintained the muscle memory and flexibility of a Seeker; Snape had noted it on random occasions as the boy spun and dived, easily navigating the maelstrom of spells the older wizard would launch at him.

And if Snape had thought about that almost achingly beautiful fluidity, he'd thought of it only in terms of increasing Potter's chances of survival. At least that's what he told himself on the cold nights he wandered out to the Quidditch pitch to watch Potter pierce the sky with his body and his Firebolt, watch the boy with the burdens of a man loose his bonds for a brief span of time and remember what it was to soar.

But now, as he saw the boy utilise that liquid musculature to entice his fellow dancers, Snape could not help but be aware that Harry Potter was looking to get fucked.

It was maddening that the sodding Boy Who Lived – much as Snape reviled that term, he had to admit it had been well earned since the brat's birth – would choose to lavish that fine, supple body on an unworthy recipient. It was bad enough he had fixated on Snape as a perverse sort of love object; now he was seemingly determined to shag the first creature who showed him any interest. For a brief moment, Snape pictured the probable outcome in his head, in full colour and stereo sound.

Merlin. It was too hideous to even contemplate.

But if Potter wished to give himself to some vapid Muggle body-builder with a thin brain and a thick cock, who was Snape to tell him no? After all, in the wizarding world, as in the wider one, such matters were the sole concern of the participants once said participants reached the age of sixteen. And furthermore, as much as Snape wanted to deny Harry's despairing comment earlier, he knew it was all too likely that there would be a final reckoning with Voldemort soon. Whether or not Harry survived, did he not deserve this chance to escape responsibility, to experience pleasure and a simple connection with another human being for a short while?

And don't you? some long-dormant voice in his head asked him.

No. I don't.

"Hey. You're new around here."

With the manic beat sending fresh, new pulses sliding against his skin, making it jump and creep over his bones, Snape at first did not realize the man was speaking to him. It was only when he was nudged none-too-gently with a finger and the man smiled up at his scowling face that he clued in to the first chat-up line he'd received in over a decade.

Too bad it was such a poor excuse for one.

"Bugger off," Snape growled.

"Ooh, you're English," purred the man who, undaunted, moved closer. Snape gave him his iciest stare, but the idiot grin splitting the other's bland features widened even further at this.

One square hand reached up and trailed a finger down the lapel of Snape's black jacket. At this distance, Snape could smell the alcohol on his breath. Lovely.

"You, ah, want to run your Union Jack up my flagpole?"

Hecate's handmaidens. "I. Am. Not. Interested," Snape enunciated, pulling himself up to his full height and trying to appear as forbidding as possible.

"Your voice says no, but your obsidian eyes say yes," cooed the man.

That's not for you, you Muggle dimwit.

Abruptly, Snape spun back around.

Harry was gone.

"Shit!" Snape began to plow through the layers of gyrating men, but was stopped by a hand on his arm.

"Hold on, lover. We were just getting – "

"Cancerus brevis."

The hand on Snape's arm became a claw. He picked the creature off his sleeve and carried it to the bar, where he dropped it surreptitiously in a bowl of pretzels.

"You'll be back searching for fresh prey in a few minutes. In the meantime," Snape said, a cruel twist of his lips mimicking a smile, "have a snack."

The crab snapped a pretzel in half, scattering salty shards in all directions.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

"The kitchen isn't much, but it's got everything you might need. Instant coffee's up here, with the mugs. Utensils are in this drawer. Anything you don't find, just go ahead and hunt for it."

Harry stood quietly at the entrance to the galley kitchen. "Thanks." He paused. "Well, I know you want to be getting back to Brian, so..."

The blond man shook his head. "Don't worry about it. Does him good to wait now and then."

Harry looked away. "I, ah, I wish I could adequately thank you for – "

"Hey," Justin murmured, laying a hand on Harry's shoulder, "don't start with that again." He searched Harry's face. "Listen, you're not mad at me, are you?"

Harry kept his gaze averted. "Why would I be mad?"

Justin rolled his eyes. "God, you remind me of me. Come here and sit down." Tugging on Harry's sleeve, he directed him toward the couch.

As they sat, the blond turned sympathetic eyes on Harry. "We could've stayed there all night, but you weren't going to go for any of those guys. I could tell."

"I hadn't seen anyone attractive enough yet."

Justin chuckled. "Your definitions of 'attractive' must be a hell of a lot different than mine, then, because you had about six offers – "

" – seven – "

" – seven, and not one of them was anything less than a stud."

Harry opened his mouth, then closed it.

"So the obvious conclusion was, no matter what you might say, you are not looking for a simple fuck."

Harry sighed and tipped his head back against the cushions. "I wish I could be. But you're right. I'm not – built that way."

"And you're already committed."

Harry barked a laugh. "Purely one-sided, but right again, I'm afraid."

"I don't know if it's completely one-sided." Harry frowned and turned to look at Justin. "He didn't leave the club, you know. He was watching you from the catwalk."

Harry eyes widened in shock. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I didn't want you getting your hopes up. It might not mean anything."

Harry's face fell. "Probably not. Dumble – the Headmaster tasked him with being my 'nursemaid', and whatever else Snape may be, he is an honourable man."

Justin studied him. "This guy is more than your teacher, isn't he?"

Harry's stomach lurched. Had he inadvertently given anything away? "How do you come to that conclusion?"

The blond shrugged. "I don't know. The way the two of you interacted. It wasn't the way I usually talked to my teachers – " Justin's lips thinned grimly " – but then most of my teachers were homophobic assholes."

"That's not Snape's problem."

"No. But it's more than that. You told him you could take care of yourself, and on some level he accepted that. There was a...history between you that led him to believe you."

Damn his sensitivity. Striving for a casual tone, Harry said, "He's been my teacher since I was eleven. That's the only history between us."

"Since you were eleven?" Justin stuck out his tongue. "No wonder he doesn't want to fuck you. That's  – eww."

Harry punched him on the arm.

"I've been thinking," Justin said, leaning closer. "Isn't there someone at your school you might want to date? One of the other students? If a relationship is what you're looking for – "

Harry shook his head. "It's – complicated." He debated with himself for a split second, then plunged ahead. "Where I come from, I'm somewhat – famous. Not for anything I did, but for – other reasons. And so my personal life, what I feel, what I think, what I do, has always been open to scrutiny."

Justin's brows lowered. "So you're afraid of people finding out that you're gay?"

"No. But it's not easy to separate those who want me for me from those who only want me because they can boast about having – had me."

"Oh. Yeah. I can imagine that would be a problem."

"So you can see why I want to get it over with. Only it's not as simple as I had hoped it would be."

Justin patted Harry's shoulder reassuringly. "It shouldn't be like that anyway. It should be special – I don't care what some people say." He took a deep breath, let it out. "That's what I was looking for that first night with Brian – to get it over with. I'd heard about Liberty Avenue, and I wasn't sure if I was ready for what I'd find there, but I knew I couldn't live this half-life anymore, sitting in the fucking wings waiting for something to happen. But the first time I saw him, I knew. Don't ask me how. I knew it wasn't going to be meaningless. Because it isn't; it shouldn't be."

Harry sighed. "I know. I know that. But I don't have the luxury of time."

Justin cocked his head. "Why not?" When Harry didn't answer right away, he gasped. "My God, you're not – sick?"

Oh, bollocks. Well, he'd done it now; there was no way out of this one. "Not exactly. Although you might say I have a – life-threatening condition. It's possible I could die, but then again, I may make a full recovery. I can't say any more than that."

"Jesus, Harry," Justin murmured. "I'm so sorry."

"Don't be. I'm not the only person who's in danger."

"Snape?"

Harry nodded. "He's one of the people at greatest risk." He gave Justin a wan smile. "But we're not beaten yet. Not by a longshot."

Suddenly, he felt exhausted. He yawned expansively, barely remembering to cover it with the back of his hand. "Sorry."

"'S'okay. I should get going anyway." Justin's hand rose to stroke Harry's hair gently. "You going to be alright for tonight?"

"I think so."

The blond man nodded, and made to stand, but Harry stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Justin?"

"Yeah?"

"I know you're tired of hearing it, but thank you. For everything."

Justin beamed. "You're welcome," he murmured, leaning in to kiss Harry lightly on the mouth.

When he drew back, Harry stared at him for a moment.

Then he laced his arms around Justin's neck and kissed him back.


 

 

 

 

~~ IV ~~

"You insensitive prick! Quit laughing!"

Brian sagged back on the bed and wiped at his eyes. "I'm not laughing at the kid. I'm laughing at you."

"I don't see how any of it was very damned funny," Justin snapped.

"Ironic, then. Pardon me if I find it a little bit satisfying that you ended up on the receiving end for a change."

"Of what?"

Brian rolled on top of Justin, pinning his arms at his sides before he could mount a counter- attack. "Of adolescent hormones." He bit Justin's shoulder. "Of an annoying teenage crush."

"He's known me six hours. I don't think that's enough time to develop a crush."

"It was enough for you."

"Only because you fucked me."

Brian raised his eyebrows. "Are you telling me you didn't fuck him?"

"Of course not!" Justin tried to dislodge Brian from his position, but only succeeded in grinding their bodies together. "Christ, would you let me breathe?"

"Why didn't you?"

"Because he was feeling lonely, and vulnerable, and – "

"And so you rejected him and left him alone."

"Yes! No! Look, it wouldn't have been right to take advantage of him. We had a long talk, and he understood that, too."

Brian stared down at Justin until he felt he might disintegrate under the weight of it. "I beg to differ. I think it would have been the kindest thing you could've done for him."

Justin frowned. "What do you mean?"

Growling, Brian pushed himself up and off Justin's body. "I shouldn't have to explain it to you."

Justin sat up. "Well, let's pretend you do," he retorted.

Brian rose to his feet and padded to the kitchen. Pulling open the fridge, he grabbed a bottle of water and began to drink it, watching Justin all the while.

Finally, Justin's patience frayed beyond repair. "Dammit, Brian – "

"You want to know why?" Brian exploded. "Because if it isn't you, it'll be that son of a bitch we met tonight. And getting tangled up with him is the worst thing that could happen. At least with you, he'll know he's important."

Justin gaped. "Brian, that guy is you in ten years."

Brian took another swig of water. "Exactly," he said, his voice dangerously calm.

The blond closed his eyes briefly, then patted the mattress. "Come back to bed," he murmured.

Brian huffed out a breath, but he complied. And later, when his cock was buried deep in Justin's body, Justin pulled him close and whispered:

"You always made me feel important, when we were like this. Always."

And Brian clenched his jaw and ground his teeth but still couldn't hold back the anguished groan as he came, hard and fast and surprising as hell.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

"You look like twenty pounds of shit in a ten-pound bag."

Snape opened one eye and felt the sunlight enter his pupil and pierce his brain. "What a charming colloquialism. More coffee."

The red-headed waitress smirked unpleasantly. "What? You don't want your teapot?"

Snape glared. Even that hurt.

Her expression turned serious as she poured. "Didn't find him, huh?"

"On the contrary. He will be meeting me here this morning." Or I will tear this bloody city apart brick by wretched brick until I find him. Then I will cast Imperius and drag his round little arse home. Azkaban will be heaven after Pittsburgh.

"Then how come you look like you were up all night?"

"Because I was!" Snape spat. "I lost track of him and ended up searching every bathroom, bar and back alley trying to locate the brat again."

"Why didn't you stop by Justin's? I went there directly I left Babylon."

Snape attempted to turn his head quickly, but soon realised this was an excruciatingly painful mistake. Suppressing an undignified whine, he gestured at the opposite bench. "Sit, Potter."

Over his head, he heard the waitress and Potter introducing themselves. Debbie. He should have remembered, but the steel spike currently driving through his corpus callosum must have affected his memory centre.

"You look like – "

"Spare me," Snape bit out. "I've already been most aptly described by better poets than you." He raised an eyebrow, which protested the harsh treatment. "Well?"

"Well what?" Harry said calmly.

"You know perfectly well what 'well' means."

Harry took a sip of his coffee. "You are tired. That sentence is beneath you."

Snape tried to keep his breathing even. "If you must know, I have a monstrous headache."

"Would you like me to fetch you some paracetamol? They always work for me."

Snape snorted. "The day I ingest a Muggle remedy is the day I accept a position as Lucius Malfoy's House Elf."

Harry regarded him over the rim of his coffee cup. "Did you bring anything with you?"

Snape shifted in his seat. "I didn't think I would be here more than a few hours. Had I known you planned to spend the week shagging every willing man in Pittsburgh, I would have brought along a cauldron and a representative sampling from my Potions cupboard."

One corner of Harry's mouth lifted. "I'm sure the Sheraton staff are grateful you will not be brewing a Draught of Living Death in one of their suites."

"Potter – "

"I didn't, you know." He studied the tabletop. "Shag. Get shagged. Whatever."

Snape struggled to keep his mask from slipping. "And what, exactly, led you to believe that I care?"

Harry's head snapped up. "Isn't that what this is all about?" he demanded. "Will you not insist that I meet you every morning and give you a – how shall I put it – a 'blow by blow' account of myself?"

"Don't be vulgar."

"Why did you watch me last night?"

Snape's brain screamed in its efforts to follow the changes in subject. "Because that is my bloody job."

Harry leaned in. "Did you like what you saw?"

Oh, blast and damnation.

"I don't know what you mean," Snape ground out.

"Did you like watching me dance? Did you enjoy it?"

Snape settled back against the vinyl bench. "Those questions do not even merit a response."

Harry smirked. "Silly of me to expect you to admit it, wasn't it?" He regarded Snape steadily. "Last night I lay awake concocting dozens of romantic scenarios for us – here, on the street, in your hotel room, even back at Hogwarts – but they're not going to come true. They never will. And I don't want to spend what may be my last few moments on Earth mired in fantasies. I want to experience something real."

"A noble goal, on the surface. But dig deeper and your noble pursuit of reality is revealed as simple, sordid lust, and not worth pursuing considering the risk involved."

"What do you suggest I do, then?" Harry said quietly.

"Return to reality, as you suggest: the only reality that matters. Ours."

Harry set his jaw stubbornly. "I want my week, and I'm going to have it. If I'm going to die – "

"You're not going to die, boy," Snape hissed, his brain pounding with every beat of his heart. "I trained you too well."

The dark slashes of Harry's eyebrows quirked. "I was too good a student, you mean."

Snape pursed his lips.

Harry sighed. "But you and I both know that for all our ability and training – as formidable as they might be – it's possible they won't be enough." He cocked his head. "Don't you have any desires, Snape? Any experiences you wanted to have, but didn't? I mean, if you should – " Harry trailed off, gesturing with a hand.

Snape sneered. "Die?"

The boy's expression grew stricken, as though, for an instant, he had seen Snape lying broken at his feet. Snape hid his surprise with effort. "Yes. If you believed you were going to die, and you could have anything, do anything, what would you wish for?"

"Nothing."

Harry frowned. "Is there truly nothing you want? Or is it that you don't wish to tell me?"

"There is nothing I want, because wanting is an exercise in futility. To wish for something one can never reasonably expect to have is nothing more than mental masturbation."

Harry shook his head. "I don't agree. Wanting that which seems unattainable is human. It's also sometimes futile, but without dreams, we may as well be dead already."

"What a lovely sentiment," Snape drawled. "Did you find that on a Muggle greeting card?"

Harry watched him until Snape was fighting the urge to squirm. "What keeps you alive, then?" he asked finally.

Snape blinked, unable to hide his astonishment this time. "Pardon me?"

Harry set down his cup. "Why are you still breathing, and brewing Potions, and scaring the shite out of first years, and fighting Voldemort?"

Snape's pulse sped up. "That's none of your – "

"Is it a form of penance?" the brat persisted. "Training me, passing on what you know, saving as many lives as you can – is it a way of atoning for the sins of the past? Of buying your ticket into Heaven?"

Snape schooled his voice to silken calm. It wasn't easy. "That ticket, had it ever existed, was burned to cinders before you were born."

He leaned in even closer. "Then what motivates you? What keeps your heart beating in your chest, Professor Snape?"

Snape narrowed his eyes. "Force of habit," he muttered.

Harry shook his head. "I don't believe that's all there is to you."

"Believe what you will," Snape said. "But don't impose your romantic notions of life's purpose on me. Some of us navigate through this world without ideals, or principles, or grand notions of true love, and are none the poorer for it."

"And you're one of them."

"That is correct."

Harry leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. "Then why aren't you still a Death Eater?"

Snape opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. Just as well, probably, for Harry didn't seem to be awaiting an answer. He rose from the table, and looked down at Snape.

"Same time tomorrow, then?"

"Where do you think you're going?"

Harry smiled. "Don't worry. I'll not be trolling the alleys – today. I was going to visit the Gay and Lesbian Centre, then do a bit more shopping. I'd also planned to cook dinner for Justin to thank him for putting me up in his flat."

"And tonight?" Snape asked, hating the slight waver in his tone.

Harry shrugged. "Woody's, or Babylon, I suppose. I don't know. Or maybe an early night. I've a lot of thinking to do."

"Hey, sweetie, you're not staying for breakfast?" The blasted waitress chose that moment to reappear with a pad and feather-topped pencil.

"No thank you, Debbie; I've already eaten." Fishing in his pocket, Harry dug out a few dollars and pressed them into her hand. "I believe this will cover the coffee."

Debbie stared at the notes. "It'll buy you ten coffees. Let me get your change."

"No, that's all right. Only – do you have any headache remedies?"

"We've got some travel size Tylenol behind the counter."

"Wonderful. If you would apply some of the remainder toward a package for Professor Snape, I'd be grateful." Turning back to Snape, he said sweetly, "I don't want to cause him any pain – if I can help it."

Snape would have growled if he could have been sure his skull wouldn't explode as a result.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

"You're a wizard!"

Harry snapped his head round so fast it nearly toppled off his neck. "Wh-what?"

Justin set down his portfolio case and gestured at the tiny table that served as his dining suite. Thanks to Harry, it was laden with aromatic dishes of rice, curried vegetables and bread, and topped off by a pair of elegant candles. "How did you make such an amazing dinner in my shitty little kitchen?"

"Oh," Harry breathed, trying to keep from sagging with relief. "I've done a lot of cooking in my day. I was raised by my aunt and uncle, who treated me rather as their charwoman."

Justin stared at him. "You're kidding me."

Harry shrugged. "At least I gained some useful skills. I can make sheek kebab better than anyone I know."

"God," Justin sighed, leaning over one of the steaming bowls and inhaling, "are you sure you wouldn't like to stick around longer than a week?"

Harry smiled. "Not a chance. I'd never be sure if you wanted me for my body or for my culinary expertise."

Justin looked up, and his face fell. "Harry, I, ah – oh, hell."

"What is it?"

The blond man straightened and approached him. "I wanted to – apologize for last night."

Harry shook his head vehemently. "There's no need."

"No, I was wrong. I shouldn't have walked out on you like that."

Harry gripped Justin by the shoulders and resisted the urge to shake him. "Listen to me. I was being foolish, and I know it. I wasn't hurt by anything you did, honestly." Releasing him, Harry smiled. "Besides, you made me realise something."

"What's that?"

"Well, let's put it this way. I don't want you."

Justin barked a laugh. "Gee, thanks a fucking lot."

"I'm not finished!" Harry exclaimed, grinning. "I did want you last night – that was pretty bloody obvious, I believe. You're sweet, and kind, and damned gorgeous; why would I not? But after we talked, I knew it would have been a mistake, and I'm grateful to you for stopping things before they went too far." Harry sighed as he took the kebabs out of the oven and arranged them on plates. "Because the awful truth is, no matter what you might advise, no matter how much I want it to be different, I don't want anyone but him. It's unbelievably aggravating, but there's nothing I can do about it."

"Yeah, that's what I was planning to tell you. But I'm not surprised you figured it out. You know a lot more about yourself than I did at your age." Justin smiled ruefully as he walked to the fridge for a couple of beers. "So, what are we going to do about getting you what you want?"

Harry stared at him. "You mean – you want to help me with Snape?"

Justin took one of the plates from Harry and handed him a bottle. "Sure. I'm Pittsburgh's leading expert in winning the hearts and pricks of older men who think they want to be left alone."

Harry sat and began spooning rice onto his plate. "I don't know. Snape isn't exactly Brian."

"They're more alike than you think. Let's face it, when you get them naked, all men are the same. Same needs, same desires."

"Snape told me he doesn't have any desires," scoffed Harry.

"Then Snape is full of shit." Justin speared a piece of curried cauliflower and gestured at Harry with it. "The only problem will be getting him to admit to them."

Harry couldn't help but grin at Justin's enthusiasm. "And how do you hope to accomplish that?"

"I'm glad you asked. Picture if you will – a war waged on two fronts."

Harry lifted an eyebrow. "Psychological warfare?"

The blond man's smile turned evil. "Psychological – and biological."

Harry took a long sip of his beer. "Good. For this campaign, we'll need all of the weapons we can get."

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Woody's was marginally less objectionable than Babylon had been, but it was still one of the last places Snape would have chosen to spend his evening. At least the atmosphere here was more relaxed, the arrangement similar to that of an English pub. A good percentage of the floor space was taken up by pool tables, one of which was currently being used by Harry and a gaggle of his newfound friends.

As for Snape, he maintained a discreet distance, sitting primly at the bar nursing a single malt. At least the publican had assured him it was single malt, but Snape was fairly convinced it had been cut with some of that disgusting American bourbon. Only the Yanks would think to name an alcoholic beverage "Wild Turkey." Pathetic.

He and Harry had acknowledged each other with nods when Snape first came in, but no words had been exchanged then, or since. Snape noticed the boy had discarded his stylish garb of last night in favour of a more casual ensemble – coal-black jeans and a white sleeveless t-shirt. Idly, Snape wondered if his penchant for form-fitting attire was a reaction to being forced to wear his cousin's outsized hand-me-downs all those years. If so, it was a reaction of Thermidorean proportions, for the shirt – what little there was of it – was stretched alarmingly tight, outlining every dip and curve of muscle and bone, and the dark denim covering his legs, buttocks and groin left no room for questions. Or modesty.

Lifting his gaze abruptly, it occurred to Snape that Harry's bared arms were quite a bit more developed than they'd been last summer, when Snape had seen them last. Of course, it wasn't surprising, considering the punishing regimen of physical training Sirius Black had instituted for all Aurors. Snape himself had added just under a stone of muscle mass in the past year, no mean feat for a man of forty-one.

Not that he was boasting.

The boy's skin, he noted, was still milk-pale, testament to a long Scottish winter. However, there was a slight flush riding the tops of his shoulders, the ridge of his collarbone and the back of his neck, as though he'd spent the day soaking up the spring sunshine, without heed to the dangers of ultraviolet rays. Snape wondered if the skin would freckle with prolonged exposure, or if it would acquire an even, golden tan – 

"Buy you another, sailor?"

Oh, Lord. Not again. Snape turned slowly toward the sound of the voice, intending to let fly with a low- level, briefly crippling hex. He took in the shoulder-length wig, the sequined dress, and the heavy makeup – 

 – Bloody hell.

"Ian?"

"It's Marilyn now, but you're right as always." The man pulled Snape into a bear hug. "Severus darling, it's been a dog's age."

"More like two or three," Snape replied, flabbergasted. "I haven't seen you since Oxford."

"You still look the same. Dungeon living agrees with you. Preserves that perfect complexion."

Snape frowned and inclined his head at the publican, who was standing no more than a couple of feet away. Ian – Marilyn – waved a heavily beringed hand.

"Don't worry about it. They never believe anything I say. So, what brings you to my neck of the woods?"

"I'm babysitting," he drawled.

"Ah, yes, the illustrious Harry Potter." Marilyn fluttered his fake eyelashes in the direction of the men gathered round the pool table. Through the haze of cigarette smoke, Snape watched Harry bend over the table, cue held easily between his fingers like an oversized wand, jeans pulled tight across his – 

"Who knew he'd grow up to be such a dreamboat?" Marilyn observed.

"Don't be revolting," Snape said. "He's hardly grown up."

Marilyn lifted a plucked eyebrow at him. "I'd say anyone who's faced You-Know-Who as many times as he has is entitled to be considered an adult."

Snape downed the last of his scotch. "What in the name of the nine hells are you doing in Pittsburgh, Ian?"

Marilyn called the bartender over and ordered another round for them both, then turned back to Snape. "I'm living, Severus. 'Mysterious Marilyn' knows all, sees all, tells all. Ten bucks gets you a peek into your future. Twenty? A kick-ass tarot reading. Fifty and your dead grandmother will return from the grave and forgive you for being a faggot."

Snape tried to keep the distaste from his expression, but obviously wasn't entirely successful, because Marilyn shrugged his footballer's shoulders.

"Fuck it. It's a job. On the side, I do some work for the CWA – the Central Wizarding Agency – over here. Strictly hush-hush, of course."

Snape snorted. "Does the American version house as impressive a collection of arseholes as the Ministry?"

"Pretty much. Government – it's the same everywhere." The publican delivered their drinks, and Marilyn took a delicate sip of his daiquiri. "I could've gone further with my degree, I know."

Snape studied his scotch. "You were the best Divination student Oxford had seen in a generation."

Marilyn chuckled. "Thanks. But the sad fact is, whether in our world or theirs, there isn't a whole hell of a lot of opportunity for a drag queen, magna cum laude or not." He raised his glass in mock-salute. "So a no-talent cunt like Sybil Trelawney gets a plum position at Hogwarts, and I read palms out of a fifth- floor walkup."

Snape pursed his lips. "At least you've avoided the worst of the war."

Marilyn regarded him sadly. "That might not be for much longer."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, he may not be satisfied with England. Or Europe."

Snape's jaw clenched. "We're going to stop him. We have to."

"Maybe. Maybe not."

"All right," Snape growled. "Out with it. Now."

Marilyn nodded toward Harry. "You won't defeat Voldemort without him."

Snape wasn't sure how long he sat there, listening to the blood roar through him faster than the Hogwarts Express. Finally, he managed to croak, "How?"

Marilyn frowned. "It's too big and too close. By the time I knew Harry was on his way here, it was too late for me to see the event accurately."

Snape concentrated on drawing one breath after another. "But he's in danger."

"Yes," said Marilyn, laying a comforting hand on his arm. "But it's not decided yet, Severus. There may still be time."

"Time for what, dammit? You don't know what's going to happen!" He made a move to stand. "I have to get him home. Now."

Marilyn's grip tightened, holding Snape in place. "That's not the answer."

"Then what?" Snape bit out.

"All I saw," Marilyn said quietly, "was that he was barefoot, and in tears. And he was running away."

"From Voldemort?"

"No, darling boy," Marilyn murmured. "From you."

Snape closed his eyes. "Fuck."

Marilyn patted his arm before releasing him. "I suspect that might have something to do with it, yes."

 


 

~~ V ~~

Harry twirled the pool cue between his fingers, wishing he hadn't left his wand back at Justin's. He wanted the calming energy of it to centre him, to reassure him.

Fuck it. He wanted it so that he could hex Snape into next week.

"He's not paying me any mind at all," he murmured as Justin walked by, looking for a better angle for his shot.

Justin chuckled. "You're blind. He's very aware of you, even if he's not always looking at you. I can tell."

Brian approached them from behind. "I thought you two were up to something. What the fuck is going on?"

"Don't worry your pretty head about it," said Justin, grinning. When he bent over to take the shot, Brian pinched him viciously on the arse.

"Ow! Brian!"

Brian leaned over Justin and rasped in his ear. "Don't tell me what to worry about. Are you encouraging this little twink?"

"He's entitled to go after any old bastard he wants," the blond said, undaunted. "After all, I did."

"And now you're lending your vast experience to the challenge. Wonderful."

Emmett regarded Brian with raised brows. "May I remind you you're not exactly in a position to judge?" Brian glared at him, but said nothing.

"It doesn't bloody matter anyway," said Harry morosely. "I could strip naked and grease myself down with Glamour Potion and he'd never notice."

"What's that?" Emmett enquired. "Some kind of new cosmetic?"

Shit. He had to stop thinking with his dick before he gave away the whole show. Hastily, he answered, "Yeah – it's, ah, glittery stuff. Makes you look irresistible."

"Sold American," Emmett crowed, laughing.

"Well," Justin said, sinking the eight ball with ease and setting his cue in the rack, "there's one other surefire way to get him going. And we're in the wrong place for it." Taking Harry's hand, he led him toward the door.

Harry did not look back to see if Snape was following.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape was in Hell, and its name was Babylon.

It was difficult to scan the crowd for danger and keep one eye on Harry at the same time, but he managed it. Of course, his previous vantage point on the catwalk was too distant for his purpose. Whatever happened now, there was no doubt in his mind that Harry's safety rested on Snape's ability to stay close to him.

Now, if only he could convince himself to follow through on it. He had a half-formed plan in his mind, but even to his unscrupulous mind, it was undeniably distasteful. Moreover, when he played out the scenario to each of its many possible conclusions, there was always a bad ending to it – at least as far as Snape was concerned.  He saw himself in Azkaban. Or he saw himself slain by Voldemort whilst trying to save Harry from Marilyn's prediction. And in the ultimate ironic twist, he saw himself a spreading stain on the front steps of Hogwarts after Dumbledore found out what his Potions Master had gotten up to in the Colonies.

But no matter which ending he predicted for himself, Harry survived. And ultimately, his well-being was all that mattered.

And his happiness?

Well, thought Snape. He was bound to find out that was all bollocks sooner or later. At least this way, he gets a few days. And after that, he'll be safe at home.

Of course, this all presupposes I know how to make anyone happy.

Snape decided that a perch halfway up the stairs would be ideal, allowing him to remain near the boy, yet stay off the dance floor. The dynamic duo of Brian and Justin had retreated to the catwalk, but a couple of the other men from Woody's were dancing in a loose circle with Harry and some younger, well-muscled specimens Snape didn't recognize. As he watched, two of the unfamiliar ones broke out of the pattern and began dancing closer and closer to Harry, as though he were a star possessed of a particularly dense gravity.

If only they knew, Snape mused. But perhaps in some ways they did; it wasn't the first time Snape had observed the phenomenon of Muggles being irresistibly drawn to a witch or wizard in their midst. In fact, he'd even been the wizard in question on a couple of occasions. Muggles were in general a dull, lifeless lot, but they did exhibit an unconscious awareness of magical phenomena on occasion. And with someone of Potter's raw strength, it was surprising half the men in the bloody club weren't plastered up against him just as those two were.

Snape peered through the haze. Yes. Plastered was definitely the correct term.

Also humping. And grinding.

And unless Snape's eyes were failing him in his old age, Harry was doing some humping and grinding of his own.

Christ.

Snape's feet moved of their own volition, carrying him down the stairs and into the thick of the gyrating crowd. As he drew nearer to the threesome, he could see that Harry's shirt had disappeared, revealing a smooth, hard chest with dark nipples. His skin was covered in a fine sheen of sweat; Snape wondered if all of it belonged to him and decided he didn't want to know. Strands of his unruly hair clung to his forehead and temples, giving him the appearance of a wild woodland faun. Snape half expected to see a pair of short horns protruding from his skull.

He didn't belong here, among these mundane creatures. He streaked like a comet across their vast, black cosmos, illuminating everything in his wake. That kind of beauty should only be seen by deserving eyes, and despite the boy's romantic notions of him, Snape was no fool. He knew that he had no more right to bask in Potter's light than the denizens of this underworld.

But the inescapable fact remained that Harry had chosen him. And were it in his power to fight it, Snape would not allow that comet's path to be intercepted, for that light to be snuffed from the heavens as easily as a candle.

He stopped approximately ten feet away from the dancers and waited as Harry's eyes opened and his head turned in Snape's direction. When those jade-green orbs were brought to bear on Snape, he knew he was lost. Lost as surely as he had been the day he took the Dark Mark.

But now, as then, he knew it was his choice to become so.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape's mouth was forming words, and although Harry could not tell what the words were, he most certainly knew their purpose.

He knew because the air around him became charged with magic – on a low enough level that it would escape notice, but still powerful. The two men rubbing intimately against his back and chest respectively were slowly peeled away from him, as surely as one pried the covering from an orange. He felt the chill against his sweat-soaked skin as they moved further and further from him, their expressions registering the horrified knowledge that their bodies were no longer obeying them.

Luckily, they were the only ones among the crowd who noticed the strange phenomenon. The only ones save Harry, who was watching Snape like a hawk as Snape approached him. At the last moment, Harry turned away and swivelled his hips in such a fashion that his arse brushed feather-light against Snape's groin. The magical energy crackled between them, then dissipated swiftly as Snape murmured a Finite Incantatem.

"Mister Potter," he rasped in Harry's ear, "I have matters to discuss with you."

Harry tilted his head back until it rested against Snape's shoulder. "What kind of matters?" he asked, his body undulating in time with the music. Slowly, his arms reached up and around Snape's neck. He could feel the other wizard's hot breath against the side of his face, sending delicious shivers over his skin.

Snape's nose touched Harry's cheek. "This position is not conducive to conversation."

Sighing, Harry released Snape and turned to face him. "Then dance with me."

Snape's lip curled. "To this noise? I think not."

"Too fast for you?" teased Harry.

"Hardly."

Daring greatly, Harry placed his hands on Snape's narrow hips and dug in with his fingers. "Then show me what you've got."

Suddenly, Harry's head was being held between two exquisite, long-fingered hands, while a cruel, harsh mouth hovered scant millimetres from Harry's own.

"If I should choose tonight to 'show you what I've got', Mister Potter," Snape purred, "you may rest assured that it will be in a much more...private...place." Harry's eyes lost their focus as Snape's thumbs ghosted over Harry's lips in a rhythmic motion perfectly timed to the thump of the music and the beating of Harry's heart.

"Please – " he heard himself beg. God. He promised himself he wouldn't.

"Please what?" Snape drawled, smiling evilly.

Harry took a deep breath and summoned all of his fraying will power.

Then he turned his head slightly and sucked Snape's right thumb into his mouth.

He couldn't hear the gasp over the sound of the music, but he could see Snape's lips part slightly in startlement.

Harry opened his mouth wide enough for Snape to see what he was doing; then he darted out his pink tongue and twirled it around the tip. Once. Twice. Again.

Snape closed his eyes. His hands dropped bonelessly to his sides.

Harry's fingers tightened on Snape's torso as he pulled himself closer.

"Then let's find a bloody private place," Harry breathed in his ear. "And quickly."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape should have been prepared, all things considered.

But he was nevertheless caught off guard when, the moment the two of them had Apparated to Snape's hotel suite, Harry Potter wound his arms around Snape's neck and stuck his tongue down his throat.

Somewhere in the dim recesses of his memory, Snape recalled having been that randy in his teenage years. Of course, it would have been prior to the taking of the Dark Mark, because in the aftermath of that ritual, every ounce of energy his young body possessed was placed in the service of Voldemort. But before the death of his innocence, Snape could remember sitting in one class or another and wanting to shag every remotely eligible being in sight.

That had to be the explanation for Harry as well, he reasoned, trying to maintain a clinical detachment as the boy proved himself to be a very talented kisser indeed. He wasn't the least bit sloppy, merely rough and enthusiastic and terribly, achingly sweet, in a way Snape believed he had never experienced – 

Harry pulled back slightly, giving Snape a chance to catch his breath, but as he tried to take back control, the brat nipped his lower lip, then soothed it by sucking it into his mouth. Before the exquisite sensation could wrest a moan from Snape's throat, Harry drew away to trail kisses over his chin, jaw and neck. Snape was annoyed when his own head tilted to one side, as if to invite unrestricted access.

God. He was baring his throat like a virgin sacrifice to a vampire, all for the amorous ministrations of an eighteen-year-old. What the hell – 

"Potter." His hands scrabbled for purchase on the boy's shoulders. "Potter."

Green eyes set in a flushed face focused on him. Then the boy smiled, calling attention to his kiss-swollen lips. "Feel free to call me Harry," he said. The sandpaper rasp of his voice went straight to Snape's groin.

"Very well," Snape said, willing to concede that much, aware he was walking a very thin and dangerous line. "Harry." Still holding the boy's shoulders, he stepped back slightly, out of the immediate range of temptation. "We have to – discuss – this."

Harry regarded him steadily for a few seconds, during which Snape attempted to maintain his best neutral expression.

He must have been at least moderately successful, for eventually Harry sighed and walked over to the small sitting area, where he flopped onto the couch with a resigned air. "Should've known it wouldn't be as easy as all that," he said with a hollow chuckle.

Snape hesitated for a moment, then moved to join him, taking care to avoid touching him. "You must understand this is not a simple situation."

Harry threw his arm over the back rest, but made no move to touch Snape either. "No, you're right. It's about as bloody complicated as it gets, on the surface. But doesn't our 'situation' – the war, Voldemort, the threat of imminent death – doesn't that tend to simplify things as well?"

Snape pursed his lips. "I suppose you would argue that the normal conventions which hold society together need no longer apply in these desperate times?"

"Essentially, yes."

"Bollocks."

Harry actually laughed. "Well, don't hold back, Snape. Tell me how you really feel."

Snape sprang to his feet and stalked over to the windows. This was impossible. Prophecy or no, the boy's consent or no, he couldn't bring himself to do this. It was beyond reprehensible.

He pushed aside the heavy curtains and peered into the blackness. Rain was beginning to fall on the city, scouring the grime and pollution from the air, cleaning the dirt and garbage and blood off the sidewalks and streets – 

"This isn't about social conventions, though, is it?"

Snape jerked at the sound of Harry's voice right behind him. How long had he been standing there?

A tentative, soothing touch on his upper arm, and he jerked again. Merlin.

"Well, not completely, at least," Harry was saying. "I know you have some ethical concerns because I'm a student. But I've also been working alongside you for over a year now, and I know you respect me as an Auror, even though you enjoy telling me how much I still have to learn." The hand on Snape's arm began stroking slowly. "But I don't believe this is about our relationship, or how you see me. It's about how you see yourself."

Snape continued to stare out the window. In the office building across the street, he could see a Muggle in dark overalls wiping down a desk with a large white cloth. No, it wasn't white, but an ugly shade of grey, stained from use after use after – 

"I wish I could convince you you're worthy of being loved," Harry whispered.

The quiet words were like a knife, slicing through layers of flesh and bone to release something long trapped at the centre of him. For a brief instant, a feeling he'd forgotten flared white-hot, then died, leaving ashes in its wake. Twisting round to face the boy, he hissed, "Stop spouting this romantic nonsense immediately."

It occurred to Snape belatedly that instead of countering Marilyn's prophecy, he seemed to be actively working to fulfil it. But Harry stood his ground. "It's not romantic nonsense. It's the truth, and you know it."

"You have no idea what I did, boy. What I was, what I in many ways still am. For all you know, I could have been responsible for the deaths of your parents."

"You weren't," Harry said with conviction.

"I am guilty of crimes as heinous."

"I know," Harry said, still with that maddeningly calm voice. "I've seen first-hand what Death Eaters do."

"Then how can you claim to love me?" Snape choked.

"Because love isn't rational. You'd know that if you'd ever felt it. Love is more frightening than Dementors, or torture, or death, because it finds its way inside you, winds itself around your heart and your veins and your nerves, more completely than any spell or potion. And once it's there, you can't reason it away, or try to control it."

He smiled. "It would be a hell of a lot simpler for both of us if I'd fallen for a pimply-faced Seventh Year. But I didn't. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was glad I didn't. There are a hundred good reasons for me to love you, and another hundred reasons to run as fast as I can in the other direction – "

Snape squeezed his eyes shut against the image.

" – but this isn't a problem in Arithmancy class, where one number cancels the other."

"Harry," Snape rasped. He opened his eyes and saw the young man standing before him, blocking out the view through the window.

"Yes?"

Snape shook his head slowly. Perhaps if he was kind, as Albus had advised, he could avoid the consequences, and Harry would be still be safe from the prediction. "If you do – love me," he murmured, stumbling over the words, "please don't ask this of me. I can't give you what you need. I don't know how. I don't believe I ever did."

Harry reached up and brushed back Snape's hair with a tenderness that nearly broke him.

"You don't have to give me what I need," he told Snape.

Harry drew back, and his eyes seemed to bore right through him, searching for the secrets of his soul. Unfortunately, Snape was no longer sure he had one.

He watched Harry's expression change, as though he'd found his answer. Snape fought to keep from trembling.

"But I have to give you what you need," Harry whispered. Then he raised himself on his toes, and touched his mouth to Snape's, and all of Snape's good intentions were washed away as surely as a speck of dust in the rain.

 

 

~~ VI ~~

Once, when Harry had been about, oh, eight or nine, Dudley had caught a vole in the back yard. Uncle Vernon had wanted it killed immediately; small creatures always offended Uncle Vernon, perhaps because he was so very large. But Dudley had whined and cried until Aunt Petunia insisted they go out straightaway and buy a cage so that Dudley could keep it as a pet.

Of course, his cousin's motive was not to preserve the life of the poor animal, but to prolong its misery as long as possible. After a week in Dudley's tender care, it was obvious the vole would not survive much longer; it was terrified out of its wits, and Dudley often forgot to feed it, having become bored with it after a day or two.

So one afternoon, when the Dursleys were out at the shops, Harry released the vole into the back yard. As the creature scampered away, he sent out a fervent prayer that it find a new home, far from 4 Privet Drive. And in that instant, Harry would have given anything to be going with it.

When he met Snape's gaze after leading him to the bed and unbuttoning his shirt, he recognized that look.

It was the look the vole had given Dudley whenever his fat face had loomed before the bars of its cage.

Harry's eyes slammed shut against the sight, and he wrapped his arms around himself to control the shuddering.

God. What had he become? Snape had obviously been reluctant from the first, but something – Harry couldn't begin to guess what – was impelling him to accede to Harry's wishes, against his better judgment. Was Harry so starved for love that he would take it even when it was not willingly given?

"Harry?"

He opened his eyes, because there was nothing else to do. "I, um, I'm a little nervous, I suppose," he lied. "Do you think that tonight, we could just – that you could – hold me?" Surely that wouldn't be too much of a violation. And if he couldn't have at least that much, he was certain he'd fly apart into a million pieces.

Snape's entire body seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. "Yes, of course. Anything you wish."

"All right, then," Harry murmured. After a brief, awkward pause, he scrambled off the bed and divested himself of his own shirt, jeans and socks, then lifted the covers and slid beneath them. He lay on his side and tried to slow his breathing while he watched Snape move about the room, dousing the lights. Snape's chest and back were exactly as Harry had imagined them; smooth and pale, with an underlayer of long, lean muscle. It would be sweet torture to spend the night so close to him, but for some unfathomable reason Snape had placed himself in Harry's hands, and Harry would sooner die than abuse that privilege.

If he was to have any hope with Snape at all, it would have to be on Snape's terms.

Now, all he had to do was to discover what those terms were.

Harry felt the mattress dip, and cool air kissed his bare torso as Snape settled beneath the covers. The dim light sneaking in around the lavatory door was the only illumination in the room; luckily it was low enough to hide Snape's expression, and those troubled eyes.

Sitting up, Harry touched Snape's chest gently. Stiff as a mannequin, one of Snape's arms came up and around Harry's upper back. Harry's eyes brimmed with tears, not for himself, but for the man beneath him. Slowly, in deference to Snape, he settled his head against Snape's breast. Listened for a few minutes to the strong, steady beat of his heart, whilst he felt Snape's muscles relax one by one. His skin carried traces of rosemary and jasmine, an odd combination of scents.

"Thank you," Harry murmured after a time.

"What for?"

"For this. For you."

Snape snorted. "I'm no gift, P-Harry."

Harry couldn't help but smile. Turning his head, he planted a soft kiss to Snape's sternum. "I beg to differ. I know this – " isn't where you want to be. But then why the hell are you here, with me? Tell me, or I'll – 

Oh, all right; he was allowed to act like an adolescent in the privacy of his own bloody head, wasn't he?

"I mean," Harry said aloud, clearing his throat, "I'm grateful for – this. That's all I'm trying to say." He reached out and stroked Snape's shoulder tentatively. "You see, I've never been very good at – close relationships. The Dursleys – the people who raised me – they weren't – affectionate, to say the least. The first person I can ever remember hugging me was Hagrid, when I was eleven." He chuckled. "I suppose you could say I'm a bit developmentally delayed in that area."

Snape's fingers brushed over Harry's temple. "And now you're determined to make up for missed time, I take it?"

Harry nodded. "Most days I feel like I'm bursting – there's no other word for it. I annoy the hell out of Ron and Neville, because I'm always arsing around with them. Hermione doesn't mind so much, but – " He trailed off, searching for words. "It's as if – I need to touch them to reassure myself they're still here. To convince myself that I'm still here. Since Susan – " Harry felt Snape tense under him " – and her family, it's gotten worse. I'm not sure why; it's not like it's the first time I've seen – that."

"You were close to her." It wasn't quite a question, or quite a statement.

"No. I mean, I knew her, but...I don't know. I have a theory, though. It's as if I had this number locked in my head; in Muggle action movies, they call it a 'body count'. Susan was the eighty-third, and maybe that was my 'body count'; that was all I could stand. But there will be more; I don't have the luxury of calling halt to the game, do I?"

"The eighty-third – " Snape cut himself off with a sharply indrawn breath. "Gods, boy. Do you mean you – "

"I write them all down," Harry told him. "What happened, as much as I can find out about them. I started with Cedric." He paused. "I'm on my third book."

Snape's voice was jagged. "Stop it."

Harry frowned. "Stop talking?"

"Stop counting. Stop writing. Forget their names, their faces. For Christ's sake, you'll go mad."

"I need to remember them. It's the only thing that keeps me sane," Harry whispered. "That, and knowing you're fighting beside me."

"I can't accept that responsibility," Snape said brokenly. "I won't. What if I should – "

Harry's fingers flew to Snape's lips. "Shhh. It's all right. I won't hold you to it." He replaced his fingers with his mouth in the softest of kisses. Snape didn't respond, and Harry closed his eyes. "Listen. D'you think we could – "

"What?" Snape prompted, not unkindly, when Harry didn't continue.

Harry took a deep breath, then barrelled on, full speed ahead. "Could we, well, spend the rest of the week here? Together? Just the two of us, without thinking about who we are and what we have to do when we get back? I mean, if something serious comes up, I'm sure they'll get word to us. But if we could take a few days to forget – "

"You don't want to forget," Snape pointed out. "You said so yourself."

"No, you're right. A rest, then. We're so far from the war, from Britain, from all of it. Soldiers rate a spot of leave now and then. Don't they?"

"I – "

"At least think about it. Please? You can tell me in the morning." Whether you want to admit it or not, thought Harry, you deserve a holiday as well. I'd like nothing better than for you to spend it with me.

With a final, brief caress to Snape's stern jaw, he laid his head back on Snape's chest, and drifted off to sleep within minutes. His last conscious memory was of long fingers curling over the back of his skull and holding him as though he were the most precious thing in the world.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Considering that Snape was quite unused to sharing a bed, he adapted to the change with surprising ease.

He awoke with the full awareness of where he was and who was lying beside him. But perhaps 'beside' was not the best choice of term, considering his legs and Harry's were entwined more thoroughly than the limbs of a bramble, and Snape's right arm was flung casually over the boy's midsection. With each soft inhalation, his fingers brushed the impossibly smooth skin of Harry's stomach. Obviously the brat wasn't particularly ticklish, or the contact would have sent him into fits by now.

Boy. Brat. Child. The use of these terms to define Potter no longer seemed appropriate after last night. First of all, Snape was not wrapped around the body of a child. Merely the thought of all that warm, hard flesh in contact with his own was enough to start reactions in Snape which had never before been caused by a student. The reality of it was extremely...disturbing.

Even more disturbing were the b – Harry's matter-of-fact revelations of the night before. Snape knew the basic facts of Potter's upbringing, but his brief description of the Muggles with whom Albus had left him seemed to conceal a wealth of hidden pain and neglect. Snape had long since revised his initial opinion of Harry as a spoiled, conceited brat, but now he began to wonder how Harry had survived his formative years without becoming some sort of emotional cripple.

But then, hadn't he admitted he was scarred by his experiences, in much the same way Snape had been? The difference, of course, was that Snape had chosen many of those experiences of his own free will, but for now that was neither here nor there. The fact remained that Snape understood what it was to feel detached from others, to feel as though the gap between himself and another human being was unbridgeable.

Hmm. Where's that gap now, eh, Severus?

Wonderful. Of course his long-dormant conscience would sound like Dumbledore.

With infinite care, Snape began the task of separating himself from Harry, beginning with his arm. The boy twitched at the loss of the weight; his legs shifted, and his backside thrust out – 

 – bringing it into full contact with Snape's groin.

Bloody, steaming hell.

Despite being in the best physical condition of his adult life, Snape still would never have guessed he could become erect so quickly. He suppressed a groan as Potter ground against him guilelessly and huffed out a long, sleepy sigh.

Snape closed his eyes and thought of McGonagall and Sprout, naked, jiggling ferociously, and going at it hammer and tongs. It didn't help.

Summoning all of his self-control, he gave Potter an ungentle shove, while at the same time disentangling himself as best he could. "Potter. Harry. Wake up."

"Mmm." Harry rolled onto his back and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Time z'it?" he slurred.

"Nearly seven," Snape answered.

Harry let out a moan which Snape tried not to find arousing. "God. Donchu wanna sleep in?"

"You awaken every morning at dawn for DADA practice," Snape said irritably.

"Yeah. But'm on holiday." Heavy-lidded green eyes fixed on Snape. "Whudabout you?"

"Whud – what about me?"

"You on holiday, too?" Harry asked. His tone carried a hint of eager vulnerability which stirred the empty space inside Snape where his heart had once resided.

He stared at the person who, against common sense and the laws of Nature, believed himself to be madly in love. With Snape, of all undeserving creatures. He tried to weigh the consequences of each response, but the balances he'd brought with him no longer operated properly, affected as they were by Harry's powerful gravity.

Look at it this way, Snape thought, as he allowed himself to be drawn deep into those impossibly green eyes. You can't possibly be damned more thoroughly than you are already.

"Yes," Snape said, earning a blinding smile from the youth lying beside him, "I believe I am."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"He said yes! He said yes!"

Justin burst out laughing as Harry Potter executed a joyous pirouette in front of their booth at the Liberty Diner. "It's good to see you haven't lost your head," he said, grinning.

"Let me be," Harry admonished, wagging a playful finger. "I haven't been frivolous in – oh, God – it feels like forever. But I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts, and hang the consequences." He slid onto the bench beside Brian and gave the man a dazzling smile.

Brian rolled his eyes; Justin kicked him under the table.

"Watch it," he growled. "Those are new Italian loafers."

"Oh!" exclaimed Justin. "I brought your bag." He lifted Harry's small black knapsack and handed it to him.

"Lord, I almost forgot about it," Harry breathed. Justin noted absently that Harry unzipped the bag a couple of inches and peered inside, then seemed to relax visibly.

"I didn't peek," said Justin.

"Oh, I'm sorry, of course you didn't," Harry said hastily. "It's just – I left something very important in it, something I should really never be without. But – there wasn't room for it in – what I was wearing last night."

"Tube of K-Y?" Brian enquired sweetly, around a mouthful of eggs.

"No," said Harry, blushing. "Something I use at school."

"Double-headed dildo?"

"Brian," Justin warned.

Harry couldn't suppress a giggle at the absurdity of it all. "I wish. Though you have the shape right."

Brian raised an eyebrow. "Now I'm intrigued." He threw an arm over the back of the bench and shifted toward Harry. "So..." he purred. "Was your professor able to get it up last night?"

Harry gave an enigmatic smile. "He was – wonderful."

Brian snorted. "Took Viagra, did he?"

The smile widened. "Trust me. Snape wouldn't be caught dead taking Viagra."

"Where is he, anyway?" Justin asked.

"Running an errand. He ran into an old mate of his here, and I suppose he's at his flat calling my headmaster."

Justin cocked his head. "Why didn't he just use the phone at the hotel?"

"Oh, ah," stammered Harry, "that's not the only reason he went to see him. Her."

"Trannie or drag queen?" The three men looked up to see Debbie standing beside the booth, a wide grin on her face.

Harry shrugged. "Um, not sure actually; I didn't ask. He goes by the name of Marilyn?"

"Not Mysterious Marilyn?" Brian said, chortling. "Jesus. She and Snape are buddies? That explains a lot."

Justin watched as Harry bristled visibly. "They attended Oxford together. He's – she's – a very accomplished Seer."

"Oh, do you believe in supernatural phenomena?" Debbie asked, intrigued.

"Implicitly," Harry replied.

Brian chuckled. "Twilight Zone, next stop. This is where I get off. Shove over, kid."

Harry shot Brian a look, but obligingly slid out of the booth so that Brian could get out. "I take it you're not convinced there are forces beyond your comprehension, Mister Kinney?"

"Oh, I'm sure there's a shitload of stuff in this world I don't comprehend," Brian replied. "But crystal balls and fairy dust – pardon the expressions – aren't worth my time." He turned to Justin. "I'm going to work. You want me to pick up anything on the way home?"

"Yeah. A pint of ice cream, a couple of salmon steaks – " he rose to his feet and twined his arms around Brian's neck " – and the crushed petals of several hundred roses which you will strew around our bed to show me how much you love me."

Debbie giggled on her way to the next table.

"You want anything else? The moon, maybe, hung just outside the window?" Brian nipped at Justin's ear. "A troupe of blindfolded Russian balalaika players playing sad gypsy songs in the can?"

Justin kissed him soundly, cutting him off. "You can't blame me for trying."

"And you can't blame me for laughing. Later." With a final hard kiss, he released Justin and was out the door.

Justin sat back down with a sigh. He looked across the table to see Harry regarding him steadily.

"Go ahead, say it," Justin said wryly.

"I was going to say that I think he loves you very much," Harry said quietly.

Debbie stopped beside their table again and placed an affectionate hand on Harry's shoulder. "Jesus, we got us another hopeless romantic here."

Harry smiled up at her. "It comes with the territory."

The red-haired woman snorted. "You don't know Brian. Romance isn't in his vocabulary."

Harry shook his head. "I'm familiar with the grand gesture, believe me. Self-sacrifice, love beyond death, the slaying of dragons." His lip curled slightly. "But I've come to realize the little things can be almost as important. The touch of a friend's hand when you feel most alone. Another hand-knitted jumper for Christmas." His gaze locked with Justin's. "The way he looks at you when he thinks no one else can see – "

Justin sucked in a breath.

" – offering to buy you ice cream on his way home from work." Harry took a sip of his coffee and smiled self-consciously. "You have no idea what I'd give for small things like that."

Debbie ruffled Harry's already tousled hair. "You sure you're only eighteen?"

"No," said Harry sadly, "I'm not at all sure."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Here you are, fellas. The Phipps Conservatory. Jesus, don't know the last time I drove somebody here."

Harry dug into his pocket for the money to pay the cab driver, then passed him the money through the window. "Thank you. Keep the change." As the vehicle pulled away from the kerb, Harry straightened to look at Snape, who seemed a little whiter than normal.

"Been a while since you've driven in a Muggle car?" he asked, not unsympathetically.

Snape pursed his lips. "The last time was about twenty years ago." Black eyes regarded Harry levelly. "Before you were born."

"Thanks, I can manage the arithmetic," Harry said cheerfully. His gaze swept over the taller man with frank approval, noting the way Snape shifted self-consciously at his perusal. The earlier trip to Emmett's shop had been as successful the second time round. At the moment, Snape was dressed in a charcoal silk buttoned shirt and black slacks that showed off his long, slim legs to perfection. The rest of the wardrobe was equally flattering. Where Emmett had dressed Harry formally, he had chosen clothes for Snape that screamed casual elegance.

Well, thought Harry, perhaps the clothes screamed casual and Snape screamed elegance. The fact was, you could probably dress the man in a frilly pink pinafore and he'd maintain his unflappable dignity.

An image of the Boggart from third year came to Harry suddenly, and he had to suppress a chuckle. As it was, his mouth curved, earning a raised eyebrow from Snape.

"Something amusing, Mister Potter?"

"Just imagining you in drag," Harry told him sweetly.

Snape's expression didn't change, but somehow he managed to send approximately a tonne of icy disdain in Harry's direction. "I assure you I have no desire to fill Marilyn's platform shoes," he sneered.

The comment was so unexpected that the laughter burst out of Harry before he could stop it. "I'm glad," he said quietly, leaning in so that only Snape could hear. "Because you look bloody beautiful enough in what you're wearing right now."

Snape snorted, but Harry could tell he wasn't entirely put off by the compliment. "Ridiculous," he huffed.

Harry only laughed harder. Tugging on Snape's arm, he pulled him toward the ornate glass and brick building.

"What is this place?" Snape asked.

"The brochure at the hotel said it's the loveliest botanical garden in the state. There are thirteen rooms in the conservatory and several outdoor gardens, including an extensive collection of medicinal plants."

"I had no idea you had such an interest in Herbology," Snape said.

"I don't, really. I much prefer 'foolish wand-waving,' as you well know. But you always loved it, didn't you?" At Snape's blank stare, he added, "I mean, it was your favourite subject when you were a student at Hogwarts, wasn't it?"

Snape stopped dead in his tracks and regarded Harry with a shocked expression. "How did you – "

"Had a peek at the old school records," Harry said, grinning. "You were tops in the class. The yearbook said you were planning to use your expertise to go into mediwizardry. Why didn't you?"

Snape's expression hardened. "Facility in Herbology is also useful for Potions work. And Voldemort had little use for the healing arts."

"Oh. Right," Harry murmured. Idiot, idiot – 

"Harry."

Green eyes locked with ebony ones. Snape took a deep breath. "It isn't your fault I made the choices I did. I'm sorry. This is – " his hand swept over the greenhouses " – very thoughtful of you."

Harry shook his head. "I didn't mean to remind you – "

" – of my youth?" Snape's mouth twitched. "I would rather think that a very effective strategy in your case. If I ever manage to forget what an ancient bastard I am, there exists a glimmer of hope."

Now it was Harry's turn to stare.

Snape made a graceful 'after-you' gesture, and once he recalled what his feet were for, Harry led the way up the steps.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Impossible, sweet, foolish boy.

How he could have had his parents ripped from him, his childhood crushed by cruel relatives, his youth sapped by skirmish after skirmish with the Dark Lord and his minions, and still maintained his innocence, Snape would never know. But it persisted, intact, as though staying pure and untrammelled by life was as simple as standing in the middle of a field and shouting, no, I will not to the heavens at large.

It had never occurred to Snape it might be that simple. If it had, he would be looking back on a very different life.

Dumbledore...now, there was a man who projected innocence without possessing one iota of the substance. Snape had been half-hoping that Albus would order him to drag Harry home by the hair, but the old fart had merely smiled and nodded at Snape's report, then said mildly – he was nothing if not mild –  "I trust your judgment implicitly in this matter, Severus."

Snape almost returned, So if I judge it necessary to fuck the little sod bowlegged, I take it I'll have your blessing as well? But at the last moment he restrained the impulse, and soon afterward their conversation ended and Dumbledore's smiling head disappeared from Marilyn's Floo.

"Well," Marilyn had said primly, pouring Snape a cup of tea, "I notice you left out a few details."

"He knows," Snape had replied heavily, pinching the bridge of his nose until it went numb. "He always knows."

"Oh, look!"

Harry's excited exclamation brought Snape back to the present. He looked down to see Harry crouching beside the garden path, between the digitalis and the bloodwort.

"What is it?" Snape asked, bending at the waist to get a better view.

Harry's head swiveled back and forth, surveying the area around them. Apparently satisfied, he favoured Snape with a brief smile before turning back to the plants.

Then he began to hiss.

Snape jerked at the sound of Parseltongue coming from that innocent mouth. He'd been shocked when he first heard Potter speak it in his second year, and he was still startled every time the lad displayed his gift. The only other Parselmouth Snape knew was Voldemort, but the Dark Lord used the language as he used any weapon – with direct, ugly force. Harry's raw silk whisper transformed it into poetry.

Harry reached down, and from between two foxglove plants, a tiny emerald-green garden snake left its hiding place to slither trustingly into the hand of the Boy Who Lived.

"Gorgeous, isn't it? And the proper colour for Slytherin," Harry said. He straightened, taking the small creature with him; Snape watched as it began to curl around his wrist, a piece of living jewelry.

"Perhaps you should have allowed the Hat to sort you there," Snape said.

Harry smiled. "No thanks. Loving a Slytherin is complicated enough."

Snape ignored the fluttering in his gut. "Moral qualms, Potter?"

Harry's fingers stroked the snake's head in the gentlest of caresses, reminding Snape of the events of last night. "Not about that," he said enigmatically.

"What, then?"

Harry leveled his gaze at Snape. "I have to remember that contrary to popular belief, I'm not the centre of the universe. I have to keep in mind that no matter how desperately I may wish for it, my happiness can't be gotten at the expense of another." He took a deep breath, let it out. "I want us to be happy for these few days. But if my definition of happiness and yours differ, I want you to feel you can tell me."

Snape frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," Harry said, his voice even, "that I'd spend the entire week in this garden with you, and be glad of it, rather than force you to do anything you don't wish to do." He took a step closer, and his emerald green eyes bored into Snape. "Do you understand me now?"

Snape's pulse pounded in his ears while he stared down at the young man before him with an expression which no doubt resembled that of a large flounder.

"Ewww! A snake!"

Snape spun round at the outraged squeak. The little girl was no more than eight or nine, with blond pigtails and the face of an angel.

He wanted to hex her clear across the garden.

But Harry smiled genuinely at the urchin. "Snakes aren't such bad creatures, once you get to know them," he told her solemnly, aiming a mischievous wink at Snape. Snape glared, but said nothing.

"Really?" the girl asked, clearly as mesmerized by the young wizard as – 

 – Merlin, as mesmerized as Snape.

His head swam with the implications of Harry's quiet declaration. Somehow, he knew – not all of it, of course, but at least the fact of Snape's reluctance. Which meant that Harry had taken pity on him last night, like the earnest but gentlemanly bridegroom faced with his new wife's horror of the contents of his trousers. By all rights, Snape should have been livid, incensed at the brat's presumption, but the only emotion he could manage to summon was...

...was...

Well, he didn't quite know. It was similar to what he imagined drowning in treacle would feel like.

He blinked. The young girl was reaching out a tentative finger toward the snake coiled round Harry's arm.

"Gently, now. There, see? He's not the least bit slimy, is he?"

A high-pitched giggle announced Harry Potter had made yet another conquest.

Snape's insides churned as he contemplated whether he too had just joined the ranks of the fallen.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The first thing that assaulted Brian's senses when he came home that night was the overpowering smell of roses.

The second thing was the solid weight of Justin Taylor slamming into him and nearly knocking him backwards into the elevator.

"You wonderful son of a bitch!" Justin cried, kissing him soundly. "I knew I'd wear you down one of these days."

"What – " But Justin was already tugging him forward, through the door and into the loft – 

 – the entire floor of which had been covered in a carpet of blood red rose petals.

"Jesus."

"Here, I'll take those," Justin purred, tugging his briefcase and the plastic grocery bag from his unresisting fingers. "When did you find the time to do this?"

"I – "

"No, don't tell me," Justin interrupted, "I don't need to know. You waved your magic wand, and it happened." Brian sucked in a breath as Justin treated him to a smile he hadn't seen since – 

 – oh God, since – 

"Brian, are you all right?"

"I'm fine. But I didn't – "

"You know," Justin said, unpacking the groceries and putting them in the fridge, "I've been looking forward to this all day. Not the roses, but coming home to you, eating a meal together, just the two of us. I know you'll say it's boring as hell, but I love nights like this, and sometimes I think you do too.

"And then it hit me: for you, sitting down and eating a salmon steak with another person is as monumental an event as thousands of rose petals. It's huge. It's more intimate for you than fucking, and I'm the only one you share it with." Coming closer, he placed his hands on Brian's chest and leaned in for a soft kiss. "And I'm glad to be the one. I am."

"Justin." Brian took a deep breath. There was no sense in continuing this. "I – "

"But I'm also glad you did this, because – " Justin bracketed Brian's face with his palms and smiled gently. "Brian Kinney," he murmured, "you are ridiculously romantic."

Brian stared at him.

Then he stared some more.

Justin's eyes began to fill with tears. "I, ah, I remembered. The prom. The dance. The kiss. Everything."

Brian inhaled a startled breath. There were still times when he woke up in a sweat after replaying that night in his dreams. He couldn't forget the moment soon after their fateful dance when that bastard Hobbes had slammed the wooden bat into Justin's skull, stealing his innocence, and very nearly his life. But it had taken a great deal of painful effort to even partially restore Justin's own memory of the event.

"I thought you – only managed to remember – afterward," rasped Brian. "The garage. The – " his throat closed over –  "the attack."

"Yeah, I know. I did, until I came home and saw – this." He swept an arm in a circle. "Gus's toy bat made me remember the attack, and this made me remember – the good stuff." His fingers caressed Brian's face. "God, I love you."

"Justin – "

"It's okay," Justin whispered. "You don't have to say anything." Without another word, he led Brian over to the living room, where an open space had been cleared. Justin pressed the controls on the stereo, and soft music filled the air around them, weaving in and around the scent of the roses.

Justin held out his hand palm up in mute invitation.

And surrendering to forces beyond his comprehension, Brian Kinney took the hand of his lover and pulled him close.
  

 

 

 

 

 

~~ VII ~~

"Admit it," Harry said, a huge grin on his face. "You loved it."

"I most certainly did not," Snape returned. Taking out the infernal plastic card, he swept it through the contraption stuck to the hotel room door. The Muggle world was rife with plastic. Awful stuff.

"Then why were you smiling at the end?" Harry's fingers brushed over his as the both of them reached for the handle at once.

Snape jerked his hand away. "I was relieved it was over," he said primly. Harry pushed the door open, and Snape swept past him into the suite.

"God," Harry breathed, kicking off his shoes and flopping onto the sofa, "it's far worse than I thought."

Snape frowned. "What is?"

Harry darted a mischievous glance at him from beneath lowered brows. "I love you even when you're being a prat."

Snape ignored the sudden attack of light-headedness. "Perhaps you should brew yourself a cure."

Harry's mouth twitched. "Or play Stormy Weather on the bongos."

Snape closed his eyes in pain. He'd forgotten that bit. "Is that truly what Muggles think of us? That we live wild, bohemian lives in seedy night clubs, barefoot, with parrots as familiars? What a ridiculous pile of tripe."

"Oh, for Heaven's sake," Harry said heavily, turning toward Snape when he too settled on the sofa, "it's not meant to be a serious study of witchcraft." He sighed. "Look, I apologise. I thought you'd find it funny. I figured you'd not seen many Muggle films, and when I saw the repertory theatre was playing Bell, Book and Candle, it seemed perfect."

Snape felt a little chagrined. He did not say that he found very little funny these...decades.

As if reading his thoughts, Harry demanded, "What does it take to make you laugh?"

"An act of God," Snape drawled.

"No, I'm serious this time. I just realized I've never seen you laugh. I imagine I'd remember it if I had." Piercing green eyes lanced through him. "Do you remember the last time you laughed?"

Snape regarded the draperies. "It's – been a while," he admitted finally.

"I'll bet you have a marvellous laugh," Harry said quietly. "Rich and deep, like your voice."

The air in the room grew thin. Snape fought to keep his breathing even.

Harry's face took on a wistful expression. "When I first understood that my feelings for you had changed, I used to listen to you in Potions."

Snape snorted. "You are confessing what I have always suspected: that you spent most of your school career in a permanent state of inattention."

"Shut up," said Harry amiably. "You know what I'm talking about."

Snape pursed his lips, but didn't answer.

"When things were at their worst, I'd listen to you, in class, at Auror briefings, during training, and I'd let that voice envelop me like a warm blanket. You have no idea how much it helped me." His mouth curved. "And at night I'd imagine you reading me poetry."

"Some sort of romantic nonsense by Shakespeare or Keats, I imagine," Snape murmured.

"Not hardly," countered Harry. "Whitman, perhaps, or ee cummings. Maya Angelou, now and then. I rather like her anger."

Snape stared at him, intrigued in spite of himself. "I'm impressed. You are capable of reading outside the prescribed curriculum."

Harry chuckled. "You know me – when have I ever stuck to the beaten track?" He leaned against the back of the sofa, still watching Snape closely. "But we're wandering off-topic. I wanted to know what makes you laugh."

Snape took a deep breath, let it out. Where was the harm? "When I was a lad, I had a terrific weakness for Monty Python."

Harry's jaw dropped. "Bloody hell! You must be joking. How did you get to watch the telly?"

"I used to sneak over to a mate's house."

"He was a Muggle?"

"No. But, like Miss Granger's, his parents were. They possessed all the comforts of a normal Muggle home, including a television."

Harry grinned. "Did you get to see their films?"

Snape shook his head. "My parents' tolerance did not extend to excursions of that kind."

"Too bad. My favourite's Life of Brian. I'll have to drag you to a showing, perhaps after school's done."

"I'd – " Snape cut himself off when he realized what he'd been about to say.

I'd like that. And Merlin help him, it was the truth.

"Thank you for your offer," he managed politely.

"It's not altruism," said Harry softly. "I'll be expecting some laughter in return."

Snape's gaze met Harry's and locked with a loud thud, like a Gringott's bank vault door.

"Harry, I – "

"Well," the young man interrupted, springing to his feet, "I suppose I'd best be off to bed. Justin asked me to go to Babylon with him tomorrow night, so I'll need my rest." Snape watched as Harry reached for his shoes and began putting them on again.

"What are you doing?"

"Heading back to Justin's."

Snape straightened. "It's rather late to be wandering the streets."

Harry smiled. "It's only eleven-thirty. But don't worry, I'll take a cab." He got to his feet, and Snape found himself looking up the length of his body.

"Well – "

"Don't go."

Harry looked down at him. "Why not?" he demanded.

Snape opened his mouth, closed it again.

Then Harry's expression softened, as though he'd decided to take pity on Snape. "Look, I know you want to keep me close to you for some reason, and I'm not flattering myself that it's because you suddenly fancy yourself in love with me. But it's – um," he faltered, his gaze shifting to Snape's shoulder, "it's – difficult to be here with you and not – "

"I can sleep on the couch," Snape offered hastily, trying to forestall any further explanations.

Harry snorted. "It's no more than four foot long. You'd be a pretzel by morning."

Snape rose to stand before him. "The floor, then. Anything."

"Why do you want me to stay?" Harry asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Is there some danger you haven't told me about?"

The brat was too intelligent by half. "It's – complicated," Snape hedged. "More of a – vague threat. Nothing with which you need concern yourself."

"Christ! I thought that was it!" Harry exploded. He whirled away from Snape, then rounded on him, face flushed. "Haven't I done enough to earn your trust, if not your respect? Haven't I earned the right yet for you to treat me as an adult? If there's a threat, vague or otherwise, I believe I'm entitled to know about it."

"You believe you are entitled to a great deal, don't you, Mister Potter?" Snape drawled. His voice, which had plummeted to its most low and dangerous, belied his state of inner turmoil. "You believe you are entitled to risk your life in the pursuit of mindless pleasure. You believe you are entitled to a meaningless fuck, or perhaps several, in a filthy back alley." He moved closer until they were only a hairsbreadth apart. "You believe you are entitled to go to extraordinary lengths to resuscitate the corpse once known as Severus Snape – "

"That's not – "

" – so that he will awaken from his enchanted slumber and fall madly in love with you. But miracles do not happen merely because you bid them happen, boy."

"I know," Harry said stubbornly, his jaw set, his gaze challenging. "Can you imagine how many times I lay in that damned closet and begged for my parents to return, to rescue me? I know bloody well that miracles don't happen."

Snape felt gut-punched. He tried to think of something to say, but Harry was ahead of him.

"I also know that nothing good happens in this life unless you do something to bring it about. I know that you can't live in the past, forever wishing things had been different. You have to make the most of now, and be grateful for whatever happiness comes your way."

He reached up a hand and laid it on Snape's arm. "I'm sorry if I dredged up pieces of yourself you want to keep buried. I was only trying to make our time here as pleasant as possible for you, truly. But if you'd rather, I can go back to my pursuit of mindless pleasure, and you can go back to hovering at a discreet distance. I can stop pretending that I've any kind of chance – " He faltered and ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "Bugger. I swore I wouldn't do this – "

Snape was horrified to feel a lump rise in his throat. "I only want you to stop – " He ground to a skidding halt.

"Stop what?" Harry whispered.

"Stop making me – feel," Snape answered brokenly.

Harry's face crumpled. "I can't help it," he murmured. "I can't – "

The rest of his sentence was crushed under the pressure of Snape's mouth.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

It took Harry at least a second and a half to realize Snape had kissed him.

Was kissing him, at this moment. Thoroughly, to be precise. With abandon, one might say.

As soon as he snapped to, Harry moaned into Snape's mouth and wrapped his arms around the taller man's shoulders, pulling him forward until their bodies were pressed full-length against one another. In response, Snape too moved to embrace him; one powerful arm locked round Harry's waist, whilst the other rose to cradle the back of his head. Allowing Snape the lead, Harry nearly screamed in frustration as Snape's tongue darted over his lips in maddening feints and circles before finally plunging into the depths of Harry's mouth. A soft, almost inaudible groan from Snape shot fire through every one of Harry's overloaded nerve endings, burning him to ash.

When they broke apart at last, Harry was panting from a combination of raw desire and insufficient oxygen. Snape's eyes were so black as to be bottomless, and his expression was unreadable. When he stepped back, Harry suppressed a whimper. It was all he could do to keep from latching on to the man and hanging on for dear life.

Snape was still watching him, and Harry strove to meet his gaze, aware of how desperate and disheveled he must appear. To Harry's credit, Snape looked slightly messy himself.

He concentrated on taking deep, steady breaths as he waited for Snape to tell him this had been a mistake.

It was a full two seconds before he realized Snape was holding out a hand to him.

"You – " Harry began, then stopped. Words would only ruin this; he had to believe that Snape knew his own mind.

"Yes," Snape breathed; Harry noticed his hand shook slightly. "Come."

Placing his hand in Snape's, Harry allowed himself to be led to the bedroom. Climbing up onto the mattress with as much dignity as he could muster, he rose to his knees, then gently drew Snape into his arms again.

Their kiss this time was slow and unhurried, and Harry took the opportunity to imprint every detail of Snape's mouth on his memory. He found that his tongue could detect the small scar nestled under Snape's lower lip, and that his eye tooth was as sharp as he'd imagined.

Small things, he'd told Justin. He was going to accumulate as many small things as he could in the coming days, the way an old woman acquired curios, crested china from the holiday in Blackpool or Torquay.

After a time, Harry's hands moved of their own accord to Snape's shirtfront, working the buttons through their holes one by one. Thank Heaven for Muggle clothing; Snape's robes normally had at least twice the fastenings. When his fingers slid to Snape's waistband, however, they were swiftly stilled by strong hands.

"No," Snape murmured against Harry's mouth.

"But – "

Snape pulled back and rested his forehead against Harry's. "Please," he said fervently. "I can give you what you need. But don't ask for that."

I need you inside me, Harry thought, but he closed his eyes tight and nodded. "All right. I'm sorry." Snape released his hands, and he moved them to the open edges of Snape's shirt. "Can I – ?" he asked.

"Yes," whispered Snape, and Harry slowly divested him of the silken garment. His fingers returned to ghost over the hard, smooth chest, tracing the lines of muscle and bone hidden under the pale skin. Snape hissed, whether in agony or ecstasy Harry wasn't sure. Deciding not to press his luck, he yanked his own t-shirt up over his head and tossed it aside, then lay down on the bed.

After a moment which stretched to an eternity, Snape moved to join him. Harry watched as Snape propped himself on one elbow and looked down at Harry, his onyx gaze flickering over the body displayed beneath him. Harry felt sure his erection had to be evident even through the thick layer of denim. As if at the thought, Snape's hand reached out and hovered – Oh, Merlin – then settled, feather-light, on the warm skin of Harry's belly.

Harry gritted his teeth, determined not to spook Snape with a wild reaction, but the long-awaited touch was like a brand, marking him, searing his flesh. He couldn't hold back a gasp as the hand travelled northward, exploring his chest, teasing over a nipple. In due time, the fingers grew bolder, pressing into the hollows between his ribs, tickling the inside of his elbow, delving into his navel.

When the hand suddenly pushed against his cloth-covered erection, Harry cried out and arched into the touch.

Snape immediately removed his hand.

"God!" Harry wondered if he could die of frustration. He gazed up, hollow-eyed, at Snape – 

 – who was looking at him as though he wanted to crawl inside him and never come out.

Snape leaned in close and brushed his lips against Harry's. "You're holding back, aren't you?"

Harry tried to focus on some portion of Snape's face, but failed. "Yes."

Snape's breath puffed hotly against his cheek.

"Don't," he whispered harshly.

God, he could feel Snape's hand loosening the button on his jeans. In the silence of the room, he could hear every tooth of the zip as it descended.

Snape's mouth captured Harry's in a long, deep kiss, then moved over his jaw, his neck, his earlobe, until Harry groaned, low in his throat.

"I want to hear you."

His head descended, and Harry jerked as Snape bit down on a nipple, then soothed it with his tongue.

"I want to feel you."

His nose burrowed into Harry's neck and he inhaled against his hairline.

"I want to smell you."

His hands coaxed Harry's hips up off the mattress so that he could remove jeans and underwear in one deft movement. Then, slowly, his lips and tongue traced a path down the centre of his body, until his face was hovering over Harry's engorged length.

"I want to taste you," Snape growled, right before he swirled his tongue around the head of Harry's cock.

"Oh, God," moaned Harry, his fingers scrabbling at the comforter beneath him, trying to find some anchor which would keep him from flying away. He couldn't bear to look down and see what Snape was doing to him, knew if he did it would all be over before it had even begun. He stared wild-eyed at the ceiling instead, his mouth open and gasping for air.

Not that he was likely to last long at this rate, for Snape had now switched from gentle caresses and licks to rhythmic, powerful suction. Harry could hear his own voice crying out incoherencies as though from a great distance, could feel his groin tightening for the final climb to ecstasy – 

Then, suddenly, Snape's mouth was gone, and Harry whimpered in desperation. He looked down to see Snape moving to straddle Harry's legs, holding them down ruthlessly. Then, he wrapped long fingers around Harry's slickened length and began a slow, firm stroking obviously designed to destroy what few brain cells remained alive in Harry's skull.

The interruption had the effect of temporarily cooling the fever of Harry's arousal, and for the moment he found he could form complete thoughts. Reaching up and tugging on Snape's free arm, he said, "Please."

Well, perhaps not complete, then.

"Please what?" Snape asked, his voice hoarse and jagged.

"Could you – kiss me?" Harry breathed, arching as Snape's grip tightened.

A flurry of emotions crossed Snape's features, and Harry held his breath. Slowly, as though fighting some unseen force, Snape leaned forward until his mouth tentatively aligned with Harry's. Of their own volition, Harry's hands moved to Snape's hips, pulling him down, and Snape gasped as the backs of his fingers made contact with his own groin. His eyes flew open, and he regarded Harry with a mixture of shock and horror.

"No!" Harry exclaimed, when Snape attempted to lever himself up. He flung one arm round Snape's neck, holding him fast, and whispered in his ear, "It's all right, it's all right to want this, want me, just let it happen – "

Snape groaned as though he'd been hexed with Cruciatus and pressed his hips into Harry's erection. He turned his head and captured Harry's mouth again, and this time Harry could taste salt, though whether it was sweat or tears or his own essence or all three, he'd never know for certain – 

Snape removed his hand, and then there was nothing between them but the thin cloth of Snape's trousers. One of Harry's hands gripped Snape's arse as the man's hips began a sinuous grinding motion, while the other caressed his face as they kissed. The combination of carnality and tenderness mingled inside of him, lifting him higher and higher, until he sobbed Snape's name and came in a rush of sound and sensation. A sharply indrawn breath and a final, hard push against Harry's hipbones, and he knew Snape had achieved completion as well.

When Snape would have lifted himself up and away, Harry's arms round his shoulders held him in place.

"Harry," Snape protested weakly, "I must be crushing you."

"Don't care," Harry said stubbornly, against Snape's hair. "If I let go, you'll run."

"I'm not going anywhere, you foolish – " Snape sighed into Harry's neck, then shifted so that they were entangled side by side. "Come here and be quiet for once."

"Thought you wanted to hear me," Harry murmured, smiling.

Snape tensed in his arms, then reached over Harry and retrieved his wand where it lay on the bedside table. A few words and Harry immediately felt cleaner and drier; a few more, and they were suddenly under the covers instead of sprawled on top of them.

Boneless and sated, Harry settled against Snape's warmth with a contented groan. "I love you," he whispered.

Snape's answer was a soft kiss planted on his forehead. Harry considered that to be evidence of progress.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape stood under the pounding stream of water and wished he could remember what it felt like to be clean.

The night had been restless for him, if not for Harry. The young scamp had slept like the dead, but then a roaring orgasm should do that for any man. The fact that it no longer did that for Snape was proof of his own loss of innocence.

Which led him, inevitably, to the sticky question of whether or not he had stolen the boy's innocence last night. Certainly, he had behaved in a manner that Severus Snape, Potions Master would deem reprehensible; his conduct constituted a breach of the trust bestowed on any teacher. Furthermore, his actions were repugnant to Severus Snape, the former Death Eater and now questionably recycled Doer of Good Deeds.

As for Severus Snape, the man...well, his opinion no longer mattered one whit.

That fact, however, did not prevent the man from reliving odd moments from the previous night with crystal clarity and an astonishing lack of remorse. The exquisite softness of Harry's skin, the breathy quality of his sighs and moans, the sweet taste of his virgin cock...Merlin help him. If he had believed that one night would cure him of this inappropriate affliction, he was sorely mistaken. The encounter had only left him starving for more.

Snape pushed his hair back from his forehead and leaned into the spray, allowing the water to batter his face and upper chest, trickle down over his torso and legs, disappear down the drain. The progress of the water reminded him of this – relationship – with Harry: it was inevitable, unstoppable, and eventually futile. For in a couple of days, he would be right back where he started.

Alone, weary, and dirty.

A crisp knock sounded on the door, and Snape jumped at the sound.

"What is it?" he demanded, poking his drenched head out from behind the shower curtain..

The door opened a fraction, and Harry stuck his head round the edge. "There are a couple of –  gentlemen – here to see you. Us." His expression was covered by a carefully constructed mask. "They say they're from the Central Wizarding Agency."

"You let them in?"

Harry stepped the rest of the way into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. "I didn't have much bloody choice. They Apparated in while I was getting dressed. But at least they had the courtesy to stay in the outer room until I was done."

Snape scowled. "That's impossible. I warded this entire suite when I arrived."

"Yes, they complimented you on your job. Said it took them over a day to get through."

Well, that was a blessing, at least. The image of a pack of CWA bottom-feeders standing politely outside the bedroom door while he and Harry – 

"I'll be out in a moment. Would you bring me – "

" – your clothes?" Harry pulled out his wand and waved it at the door. A crisp blue shirt and dark pants appeared on the hook.

"Thank you," Snape said; Harry nodded and turned to go. "Harry – "

Harry turned back, a wary sort of hope in his eyes.

"I – after those men are gone – we should discuss – "

The hope swiftly vanished. "So you can tell me it was a mistake? No."

Snape drew a deep breath. He hadn't truly expected anything different. "I was going to say that we should discuss our itinerary for today."

Harry studied him for a long moment, and Snape resisted the urge to squirm. "I'd like that," Harry murmured finally, stepping forward to bestow an impossibly gentle kiss.

Snape was shocked to catch himself returning it.


 

 

 

 

 

~~ VIII ~~

Harry had determined the CWA agents were arseholes the minute he saw the sunglasses.

One of the things he'd always loved about the wizarding world – although he didn't articulate it to himself until some years later – was that it was so very different from the world he had known. Certainly, some things were universal, but there was an energy and whimsy and timelessness about it which attracted him, brought him a stability and comfort he had never found in the Muggle world. It was curiously refreshing to find a whole group of people who couldn't care less about Top of the Pops or the latest Nintendo game, who operated with a set of priorities completely divorced from the ones he grew up with. There was no interest in aping the larger society to 'fit in'; assimilation was the last thing on their minds. In fact, some wizards had raised eccentricity and flamboyance to an art form.

The men currently perched on the chesterfield, however, dressed and behaved as conservatively as Uncle Vernon on Sunday morning. With the exception of the hideous plastic sunglasses, which Harry imagined were copied from some equally hideous Muggle movie with far too many special effects. And it soon became clear that making waves of any sort was high on their list of suspicious activities.

"So you're only going to be in Pittsburgh for a week?" Agent Number One asked.

"Yes," Harry ground out. Between Snape and himself, they'd answered the question no less than four times now. "I don't have the exact date and time of our departure, but we can let you know as soon as we leave."

"That would be very much appreciated," Agent Number Two purred. "You see, it's not that we're discouraging visitors from the United Kingdom – "

" – but there's no denying the fact that you're very high-profile visitors," One supplied.

"And seeing as how the CWA is doing whatever it can to maintain a neutral status in this conflict – "

" – we can't be seen to be favoring one side over another."

"You know," Harry said, wagging a finger at Two, "that's a rather clever trick. I didn't even see your lips move once while he was speaking."

"Mister Potter," warned Snape.

"D'you suppose you could manage it while drinking a glass of water?"

"All right," Snape growled. All three men in the room immediately snapped to positions of attention. "Gentlemen, you have my every assurance that we are not in this country to foment revolt, raise Galleons for the cause, or distribute t-shirts with 'I Hate Voldemort' printed across the chest. Is this sufficient, or do you require someone with greater authority to vouch for our conduct?"

"Believe me, Mister Snape," Two said smoothly, "neither of us would presume to make any assumptions regarding your...conduct." He arched an eyebrow at Harry, whose fists clenched at his sides.

"Exactly what are you trying to imply?" Harry demanded.

"Potter, you've said quite enough, I believe," said Snape in his best Professor Tone. Unfortunately – and this was something Harry imagined Snape bloody well knew – the Professor Tone had lost some of its bite in the last twelve hours or so.

"No, I don't believe I have," he countered, bounding to his feet. "You see, Professor Snape and I, along with thousands of others, have been doing all we can these past three years to defeat the greatest evil the wizarding world has ever seen. I'm not sure what you blokes have been spending your time doing, but I wouldn't be greatly surprised if it involved the abuse of live rodents."

Number Two sprang from the sofa like an electrocuted jack-in-the-box. "Now wait a minute – "

"Spare me," Harry spat. "I checked into the international rules and regulations before I left England, and there's nothing prohibiting British wizards from vacationing in the US. I imagine you've seen a few Death Eaters visiting your shores, but I don't guess you made quite as much fuss over them. In fact, we've arrested a couple of Americans on recent raids, which might indicate they're actively recruiting here. Your neutrality, gentlemen, is at the moment the biggest laugh in Britain."

Two stiffened. "We haven't heard of any detentions of US citizens."

Harry leaned in close. "Well, they're in Azkaban," he growled. "Come and get them, if you've the stones."

Snape was pinching the bridge of his nose rather viciously. "Do you suppose we could try to avoid the creation of an international incident?" he muttered.

Agent One stepped in at this point and laid a hand on his colleague's arm. "I think we've made our point clear. We have Professor Snape's assurance that this visit is purely for – " he cleared his throat " – pleasure, and he understands that we will not tolerate any questionable activity." He reached in his suit coat pocket for a card, which he handed to Snape. "Please contact us if you need to. We have phone, fax and e-mail capability."

"Sure you're real wizards, are you?" said Harry sweetly.

"We'll be watching you," Two sneered at Harry.

"Fine," he retorted. "We'll be sure to make it as entertaining as possible for you." The final zinger was rendered somewhat less effective for being delivered to thin air, as the two agents had Disapparated before Harry was finished.

Snape got slowly to his feet. "Pleased with yourself, are you?" he demanded in a tone that could freeze the sun.

"Not particularly," Harry admitted. "But it was fun while it lasted."

"Did it occur to you that the information about the US involvement may have been classified?"

Harry set his jaw. "Oh, bollocks. The European and American recruits – on both sides – are common knowledge by now. Sirius had three Ghanaian witches show up at his door last week, for Heaven's sake. The fact Tweedledum and Tweedledee didn't know about those arrests proves nothing."

"Nor does the fact you appear to be completely ignorant of wizarding politics. Aren't you aware of the isolationist movement afoot here? The American wizards have all but closed their borders to international travel. Voldemort is the least of their worries after the recent terrorist attacks."

"Which were carried out by Muggles."

"Which could as easily be blamed on us if the situation deteriorates!" Snape exploded. "The history of magic is the history of persecution, boy. If we drop our guard for one instant – "

"Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, I know," sighed Harry. "I did manage to stay awake for a few of Binns' classes. But I didn't think the price of vigilance would be persecution from our own people."

"How charmingly naïve of you," Snape drawled.

"I prefer to think of it as foolishly optimistic," Harry shot back. "But give me a few years, and I'm certain I'll be as pragmatic and cynical as the rest."

Snape closed his eyes briefly, as though conceding the point. "You do realize that they'll be monitoring our every move now?"

"Mmm," Harry agreed. "But they were going to do that anyway. How d'you suppose they even found out we were in the country?"

Snape pursed his lips. Harry's gaze darkened.

"What are you not telling me?"

"No," Snape said shortly. "Not this time." He held up a hand to forestall Harry's protest. "I will not have you running at my heels and stirring up more shite."

"Oh, come on," Harry wheedled, moving closer and placing his hands on Snape's chest. "I can be good." Snape's eyes widened in shock as Harry leaned in to nuzzle the underside of his jaw. "I can be very good, if only you'll let me."

"Potter," Snape warned. His tone of voice wasn't entirely convincing.

"They're gone," Harry whispered. His lips trailed across Snape's left cheek. "You can go back to calling me Harry."

"Harry," said Snape firmly. "I have – "

Harry chose that moment to cover Snape's mouth with his own. After a split-second of rigid tension, Snape relaxed into the kiss and returned it with abandon. Strong arms circled Harry's chest and nearly drove the breath from his lungs.

As quickly as he had begun it, however, Snape ended the kiss, tearing his mouth from Harry's and stepping back. "Bollocks," he breathed. "You're not – "

" – half bad?"

"Making this easy," Snape huffed.

Harry's green eyes twinkled. "That's almost as nice a compliment. Because I don't want to make it easy. I want to make it hard. Very...hard."

At Snape's horrified expression, he burst out laughing. "Don't worry," Harry wheezed, "I'm not that pathetically adolescent."

"Thank Merlin," Snape drawled. "I'll meet you at the diner – " he checked his Muggle wristwatch " – about one?"

"We're not going to breakfast together?" Harry murmured.

"When have you ever known me to eat breakfast?" Snape returned.

"That's true. Well, how about I eat breakfast and you look at me with romantic longing?"

"Potter – "

"All right, all right. I know when to retire from the field of battle." He delivered a final, swift kiss to Snape's mouth, then picked up his knapsack. "I'll help you reset the wards later. Be harder for them to crack it if we work the spells together."

Harry fancied Snape continued to watch him as he walked out the door.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"You will encounter a handsome stranger who will fuck you senseless."

An unknown voice emerged from behind the purple velvet curtain. "But that happens to me pretty much every night."

"Ah, yes, but this one will enjoy the experience. I'd hang on to him if I were you, honey."

The curtain billowed outwards and a young man of dubious parentage stalked out. He cast a speculative glance at Snape before continuing on his way.

"Severus. Fancy meeting you here." Marilyn was in full Gypsy regalia today, complete with bangles which clinked softly whenever she moved.

Snape raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you know I was coming?" he drawled.

Marilyn pursed her lips. "I've been preoccupied. This morning has been especially – " she trailed off as she took in the empty waiting room " – busy."

Snape feigned surprise. "Yes, I wondered at that. Suddenly they all seemed to remember pressing appointments elsewhere."

Marilyn sighed and waved Snape to a chair. "All right. Any particular reason you want to hex away my bread and butter?"

Snape settled in an overstuffed armchair. "Potter and I had a visit from two CWA agents earlier."

"Oh? What did they want?"

"They seemed to be under the impression we were here recruiting for the cause."

"That's ridiculous." Marilyn frowned. "But it sounds like them. How would they have even known you were in the country?"

Snape leveled a speculative look at her.

"Oh, no," Marilyn protested, holding up a daintily painted hand. "I haven't spoken to them for weeks." Shock registered on her features. "Do you suppose – they have me bugged?" She began patting down various parts of her anatomy. "I wouldn't put anything past those bastards – "

"Ian." The use of her original name brought Marilyn's head up sharply. "I've always considered you a friend."

"And I you, Severus," Marilyn told him seriously.

"Good. Because if I find out someone is threatening Harry – "

"Oh, so it's 'Harry', now, is it?" Marilyn enquired archly.

Snape scowled. Marilyn leaned forward eagerly.

"I knew it!" she crowed after a moment. "It was so deliciously obvious."

"Don't tell me you had a vision," Snape choked. A vivid memory hit him full in the face: Harry,

writhing beneath him as Snape ground against his body like a senseless, rutting animal – 

"No," Marilyn replied. "I caught you checking out his ass in Woody's."

"Bloody hell," Snape growled, shooting to his feet. "I refuse to discuss this with you."

Marilyn rose to face him; in the heels, she topped Snape by about a half inch. "Well, it's no skin off my nose if you don't, Severus darling, but you should discuss it with someone. The pain it's causing you is radiating off you in waves." She reached out to pat Snape's left arm reassuringly.

The moment she made contact, Snape felt as though a dagger had been plunged into the heart of the Dark Mark. It was only with the greatest effort that he kept from crying out.

"What's wrong?" Marilyn asked, her voice laced with concern.

Snape lowered his head and took a second to even out his breathing before he spoke. A flash of green caught his eye, and he struggled to focus on one of Marilyn's Gypsy bangles. Different from its brightly coloured companions, its heavy, dull pewter was molded in the shape of a snake. The creature's eyes were tiny, beadlike garnets, reflecting the sunlight pouring in through Marilyn's windows.

Snape cleared his throat. "Nothing. I felt a bit light-headed – stood up too quickly, I suppose. But then, I missed breakfast."

"Oh, you poor thing," Marilyn cooed. "I have some Mueslix – "

"No, I'll be all right." He looked his old school chum in the eye. "I imagine I'll see you again before we leave."

"Oh, I'm sure you will," Marilyn assured him.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Hey, honey! How are you doing?"

Harry discontinued his contemplation of the dozen or so packets of artificial sugar, which he had arranged in several neat rows across the breadth of the tabletop, and looked up. "Oh, hullo, Emmett. I'm fine, thank you."

The tall man sidled into the booth opposite Harry and regarded him with an assessing gaze. "You're not, though, are you? Tell me everything."

"Oh, it's just – Snape's late."

"When were you going to meet him?"

"One o'clock."

Emmett glanced at his watch. "It's six minutes past."

"You don't understand. Snape's never late for anything. I'm starting to worry."

"All right," Emmett ventured. "What do you suggest we do about it?"

Well, first I'd take out my wand and try a Location Charm, but that would probably scare the living piss out of you. "I don't know. I suppose I'll check the hotel first."

"Well, give him a few more minutes. I'm sure he'll be here."

Harry lifted an eyebrow. "Are you psychic as well, then?"

Emmett laughed. "Oh, how I wish I were. I could've changed about a thousand really bad decisions."

Harry shook his head sadly. "You couldn't, though. That's just it. There's a certain order to things, and you can't change them."

Emmett frowned. "So you're saying we're all fucked, basically? That everything is laid out for us before we're born?"

Harry smiled thinly. "Or shortly thereafter."

"Well, there's only one problem with your little theory, darling," Emmett said slowly. "It's full of shit."

Harry stared at him. "What?"

"You heard me," Emmett said calmly. "You're way too young to be thinking your whole life is predetermined. If I'd thought that way, I'd be back in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, married to a woman with two first names and livin' in a trailer."

"Pardon me?"

Emmett waved a hand. "It's a Southern thing. The point is, I decided to live my life on my terms, and once I did, nothing could stop me. But if I'd listened to the people who told me I was wrong or sick or going to Hell – " he trailed off. "Well. There's no point in dwelling on the past. Or the future, for that matter." He chuckled. "The future will take care of itself, believe me. The only thing you own is now. Grab onto it with both hands."

"But – " Harry sucked in a breath.

"But what, honey?" Emmett asked soothingly.

"Is this conversation confidential?"

Emmett crossed his heart. "I will carry your secrets to my grave."

Harry pushed a couple of sugar packets out of alignment. "I – I can't do anything that might hurt someone else."

"Of course you can't," Emmett agreed, a puzzled furrow appearing between his eyebrows. "But you don't seem like the kind of person who would hurt anyone."

"You should have seen me last night," Harry said morosely.

Emmett chewed on this for a moment. "Your teacher?" he said finally. "Tall, dark and darker?"

Mutely, Harry nodded.

"You're in love with him, and he's not in love with you."

Harry's head snapped up. "Did Justin – "

"No. But we've all been there; I recognize the symptoms. So you told him how you felt, and he rejected you?"

"Not exactly," Harry admitted. Emmett's eyebrows disappeared into his bangs. "I can't say any more; please understand. The point is, Snape – well, I know he wants me. That's not the problem. The problem is, he believes he doesn't deserve to be happy."

"That it's not in his destiny, hmm? Why?"

"Because – because he can't get free of his past. He can't forget what – he was."

Emmett gave a little laugh. "You're making him sound like a reformed criminal."

Harry sipped his coffee.

"Jesus Christ, Harry," Emmett breathed. "Do you know what you're getting into?"

"Yes, I do," said Harry fiercely. "He's a good man. I can't tell you how I know, but I do. He's redeemed himself a hundred times over, but he doesn't think any of that makes up for his past. And I don't know how to begin convincing him otherwise. It's so damned frustrating. Like – knocking my head against a brick wall.

"I wouldn't mind the frustration, though, if I could be sure it would all end happily. But I'm not at all sure any longer. I have this terrible feeling that if I ever do succeed in getting past his barriers, he'll simply spill his contents all over the floor, just disintegrate before my eyes. And so it's not right that I keep on."

"Oh, honey," Emmett said kindly, taking Harry's hands in his and looking him in the eyes, "you may think you can see the future, but you can't. Nobody can." He sighed. "If you're sure you love this man – "

"I do. God, I do."

"Then don't hold back. Show him how you feel. Then if he can't accept your gift for what it is, at least you'll know you gave it your best shot."

Harry closed his eyes, remembering Snape's harshly spoken command to him last night.

You're holding back, aren't you?

Yes.

Don't.

Perhaps Emmett was right. Perhaps somewhere, deep inside Snape, there was a man locked away, waiting for someone to arrive with the key. Or at least someone who would rattle the bars on the door until they came loose.

He had to keep believing that man was still alive, and that it was in Harry's power to summon him forth.

"Yes," Harry said finally. "Yes, I believe you're right. I mustn't give up."

"An inspiring sentiment, Mister Potter."

The low, silken voice delivered five thousands volts of electricity to every one of Harry's nerve endings. He craned his neck round and saw – 

 – a thoroughly displeased-looking Severus Snape towering over his head.

 

 

 

 

~~ IX ~~

It was somehow both satisfying and upsetting to Snape that he could still produce that look of apprehension on Harry's face.

"How long have you been standing there?"

Ah, now that was a familiar question, one he'd heard countless times in the classroom. And as in the classroom, he didn't answer. Merely stood there, letting the silence enhance the effect.

Harry's expression darkened, and Snape's memories of last night returned with a force which nearly poleaxed him.

You no longer have a right to treat him as a child. Dumbledore again. Annoying git.

"Why don't you join us?" For the first time, Snape paid attention to the man sitting across the table from Harry. One of the crowd from Babylon and Woody's, the tall one.

"We can't stay," Snape said, casting a meaningful glower in Harry's direction.

"I'll just order something to go, then," Harry said. "Anything for you?"

Snape shook his head, once; Harry slid out of the booth and headed for the counter. Snape made to follow him, but was stopped by the voice of the other man.

"Take a load off, Professor," he said. Or perhaps ordered would be a better word. Snape turned to face the man and was met by a surprisingly intense gaze which brooked no argument.

Sighing, Snape complied. He was not in the mood for this.

The man nodded in the direction of the lunch counter, where Harry was speaking with the redheaded waitress. "He's an interesting kid. Well, not a kid, I should say. Not anymore."

Snape frowned. "Why do you say that?"

The man laid his elbows on the table and leaned forward conspiratorially. "Well," he said sweetly, "you fucked him last night, didn't you?"

Snape's jaw dropped, for an instant too stunned to keep his own counsel. "Did he tell you that?"

The other man treated him to a silence of his own.

"I – " Snape clamped his mouth shut. What did it matter what this Muggle thought of him? His opinion was worth even less than Snape's own.

The other man waved a hand. "Never mind. I don't need the details." He snorted. "Definitely not your typical eighteen-year-old, though. He actually sets another person's happiness before his own."

Snape resisted the urge to cast Petrificus on the whole bloody restaurant.

The other man continued. "He deserves somebody who can love him like that in return. If you're not that guy, you'd better tell him before you break him."

"I don't see how it's any of your business," Snape growled.

"It is, and it's not," the man admitted. "You see – and I don't know if you've noticed this – but there's something about Harry that makes you want to look out for him."

I've noticed, thought Snape. I've noticed since he was a snot-nosed brat of eleven.

"It's corny, because, hell, we don't always know how to take care of ourselves. But for all his toughness – and he is tough – there's an openness there, a refusal to hide. And since we're so used to hiding, I guess we can't help but root for him to hang onto that, for as long as he can." He chuckled. "Me, I had a chip on my shoulder bigger 'n Mount Washington when I was his age. Took me a while to realize that wasn't any way to live." He speared Snape with a meaningful stare.

"I hope you're not waiting for any reciprocal confessions," grated Snape.

The other man merely laughed. "Well, I'm sure I don't know what he sees in you. You probably don't, either."

Snape's jaw clenched.

"But the fact is," the other man persisted, "that Harry sees it. If he were most teenagers in love, that wouldn't count for shit. With him – well." A small smile. "Who knows?"

Snape sucked in a breath.

"Okay," Harry said brightly, a paper bag clenched tightly in his fist. "I'm ready to go."

Snape practically bounded out of the seat. He turned away as Harry and the other man exchanged good-byes, and left the restaurant without another word.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The short chat he had with Debbie at the counter helped him to regain some much-needed equilibrium. He knew that Snape would be livid if Harry ever discussed their relationship with anyone, and he supposed he couldn't blame him. If word ever got out about what they had done last night, and what Harry still hoped to do, the consequences for Snape could be grave. Despite Harry's arguments about extenuating circumstances, he hadn't yet lost all touch with reality.

But on the other hand, Justin and Emmett were hardly going to go haring off to Dumbledore with the particulars. And it felt surprisingly good to talk with another person about his feelings. He'd spent large portions of his life suppressing them, or denying they even existed, in order to retain his sanity. The freedom he was experiencing with these people, so different to him and yet so alike in many ways, was a heady thing.

"Hey, honey," Debbie grinned when he approached the counter. "How come you didn't sit in my section today?"

Her smile was infectious. "I thought you'd be sick to death of me by now," he answered playfully.

"Not a chance." She wagged a finger at him. "You're gonna be here for the rally Saturday, right? Noon, starting at City Hall. Did Justin tell you about it?"

Harry shook his head.

"That kid," Debbie sighed, exasperated. "It's gonna be huge. It's a nationwide protest for human rights we've been organizing for months. Not just the gay and lesbian community, but immigrant groups, unions, civil libertarians, homeless advocates – hell, everybody who's fed up with the way things have been going lately. Those assholes in the local and state and federal governments have been gettin' away with murder, and this is our chance to be heard in an important election year, to do something that will affect the future of this country. And afterwards, we're blocking off Liberty Avenue and throwing a big ol' street party." She rolled her eyes. "The only way you can get some gay men to be political is to promise them a chance to shake their booty."

"Sounds wonderful," said Harry. "I'll try to attend."

Debbie fixed him with a look of motherly concern when he ordered a couple of lemon bars to go. "You sure that's all you want, sweetie?"

Harry smiled warmly. "You think I require fattening up, don't you?"

Debbie's mouth quirked at her own transparency. "All you boys are too fuckin' skinny, far as I'm concerned," she mock-grumbled. Then her expression grew serious. "You gonna be okay?"

Harry cast a brief glance back at the booth, where Snape was engaged in a conversation with Emmett. Or, more accurately, where Emmett was engaged in a one-sided conversation with Snape. "I believe so," he replied, hoping he sounded convincing. Truth be told, he wasn't at all sure that Snape wasn't going to have his guts for garters the minute they left the restaurant.

"Well, you need anything, you know where you can find me," Debbie said, as she handed him the small paper bag.

"Thank you," Harry told her, leaning across the counter to give her a brief peck on the cheek. "I'm grateful to have you in my corner."

When he drew back, Debbie's gaze was as fierce as any centaur's. "Count on it," she told him.

Harry blinked once or twice before returning to the table.

"Okay. I'm ready to go."

He couldn't recall ever having seen Snape move so quickly. And when his coal-black eyes met Harry's, there was a flicker of...something that Harry couldn't identify. Perhaps – guilt? But that was ridiculous, wasn't it?

"Will I see you again, Harry?" Emmett asked, his gaze flickering over the both of them.

Harry couldn't look at Snape. "I certainly hope so."

"Well," Emmett said, moving to stand and holding out his arms, "give us a hug, then, laddie."

Harry heard Snape heave an aggrieved sigh as Harry stepped into Emmett's powerful embrace. When they released one another, they exchanged knowing smiles.

"All right," Harry said, once he and Snape were a safe distance from the restaurant, "what's going on?"

Snape did not look at him. "We must return to Hogwarts immediately."

"What?!" exclaimed Harry. "But why?"

"Because," Snape ground out, his stride unbroken, "if Voldemort is not here already, he will be soon."

Harry shook his head. "He's not anywhere near here. I would have felt his presence in my scar. But how do you know he's coming?"

"I shall provide you with the full details once we are safely in Scotland. For now, we must return to the hotel and Apparate from there – "

"Dammit!" Harry exploded, coming to an abrupt halt in the middle of the sidewalk. "Stop treating me like a child. We can take two minutes for you to fill me in now. Starting with how you know Voldemort's on his way."

Snape rounded on him, and for a split second Harry was back in that first class, watching the man swoop down on him like a great, predatory hawk. Well, he'd stood up to him then, and he'd do the same now. He planted his feet firmly and returned Snape's scowl measure for measure.

Snape loomed for another moment or two, then clenched his jaw until Harry felt sure his teeth would crack. Without another word, he led Harry toward a deserted alley, then turned to face him.

"I mentioned my old schoolmate, Ian."

"Marilyn, yes," Harry acknowledged.

"This morning, after you left, I went to see him, believing he may have had something to do with the earlier visit from our American friends." Harry opened his mouth, but Snape held up a hand to silence him. "The reasons were sufficient. He assured me, of course, that he had nothing to do with it. When I was leaving, I noticed that he was wearing a bracelet which I have since identified as part of the Malfoy family's jewelry collection."

Harry nodded. The Malfoys had several artifacts of Voldemort's, including the Riddle diary which had wrought so much havoc in Harry's second year. "But how did you identify it?"

"I returned to London this morning and searched the records at the British Museum."

Harry snorted. "That's a good one. You went all the way back to – "

Snape pinned him with a stony glare.

"Oh," Harry said weakly. "So that's why you were a little late, then."

"Indeed," drawled Snape. "And once I had confirmed it, I knew that it was imperative we leave here immediately."

"But I don't understand. It's not certain Marilyn has any sinister intent, is it? I mean, she could've bought the bracelet, or – "

"It doesn't matter what her intent may be!" roared Snape, his patience apparently deserting him. "Whether or not she is being controlled by the bracelet against her will is immaterial. The fact remains that there is a sinister intent at work."

"But how do you know?" Harry persisted.

With sharp, jerky movements, Snape unbuttoned the cuff of his left sleeve and yanked the material up his forearm.

Harry gasped.

The Dark Mark on Snape's arm appeared as freshly branded as it must have on the night it was bestowed.

"Oh, Merlin," breathed Harry. Of its own volition, his hand reached toward the angry red flesh. "You – it must hurt terribly."

Snape's face registered a mix of emotions before the mask fell back into place. "It is – unpleasant," he admitted. "If I had access to some of my potions ingredients – but I didn't have time – "

"Listen," said Harry quietly. "After the last battle, my scar looked something like this, and the pain wasn't diminishing. I, ah, found an obscure spell in one of the Restricted Section books, and I tried it on myself. It helped, a bit. Shall I – ?" He cast a glance over his shoulder, and finding them to be alone, partially withdrew his wand from his knapsack.

Snape met Harry's questioning gaze. In those black orbs, Harry caught a glimpse of something he would never have expected.

Fear.

But he was not afraid that Harry would hurt him.

Snape was afraid to accept his help. To need or to want something, anything that another human being might have to offer.

To admit that Harry might have something worth taking, no matter how insignificant.

Please, Harry pleaded silently. Let me in.

After an eternity, Snape said, "Yes. All right," and Harry released his indrawn breath.

Taking out his wand, Harry positioned it over Snape's outstretched arm. An immense wave of tenderness washed over him as he regarded the exposed skin of Snape's pale wrist, contrasting sharply with the hideous scarlet Mark.

Closing his eyes, he began the incantation, moving the wand at right angles to Snape's forearm. As he spoke the final words, he traced the lines of the Mark as gently as he could with the tip of his wand. Snape's fist clenched, but that was his only reaction.

Harry lifted his wand and made a graceful arc over the affected area. "Initium Salubris," he intoned, and Snape's arm was suddenly encased in a golden glow.

Snape's eyes widened, and he exhaled on a sigh.

"Better?" Harry enquired tentatively as the glow faded.

Snape's arm dropped loosely to his side. "Yes," he murmured, flexing his fingers experimentally. "Yes, much better."

Harry realized that he'd moved closer to Snape as he was performing the spell; he could feel Snape's breath on his face. Slowly, allowing Snape the chance to stop him, Harry reached up and laid his hand on Snape's cheek. His thumb brushed across the sharp, haughty jut of Snape's cheekbone, then glided lower to sweep over his chin. Harry's heart kick-started as Snape's lips parted slightly and his gaze lowered to Harry's mouth.

Harry was about to close the remaining distance between them when Snape spoke again.

"We should go."

It took Harry a moment to switch gears. He drew his hand away with great reluctance. "Back to the hotel?"

"And thence to Hogwarts."

Harry frowned. "But – we're just going to leave your friend behind? What if she is being controlled by the bracelet? Shouldn't we try to help her?"

"I will inform the CWA agents of the situation once we are home again."

"I don't trust those two," said Harry stubbornly. "What if they're in on the whole thing?"

"Harry – "

"And what about my friends? If Voldemort has something planned for Pittsburgh, they could be in danger."

"There have been very few incidents to date involving Muggles."

"There have been deaths."

"Six," Snape growled. "As opposed to hundreds of witches and wizards."

"Does that make those lives any less valuable?" Harry countered. "Attacks against Muggles have been on the rise. He's getting bolder every time."

"I'm aware of that," Snape snapped. "But the Americans can take care of their own affairs. There's no evidence Voldemort has anything planned over here for the near future."

The near future. The words echoed in Harry's head. The future.

 – to do something that will affect the future of this country – 

"Bloody hell," he whispered.

Snape stared at him. "What is it?"

"Remember what you said about the American wizards being worried we'd be blamed for terrorist activity?" Snape nodded impatiently. "Well, what if Voldemort was planning a little terrorism of his own?" Swiftly, he filled Snape in on the details of the rally Debbie had told him about.

Snape frowned. "But what would he hope to gain?"

"You said that Marilyn is in some way affiliated with the CWA?"

"She does some odd jobs for them, yes."

Harry thought. "Well, what if, in cities where they're going to be holding these marches, there are one, perhaps two witches or wizards under his control? As an added bonus, they work for the CWA in one capacity or another. In the midst of a peaceful rally, they spread panic and probably worse; you know how much damage a wizard can do with one good cast, especially if they don't have qualms about using the Unforgivables.

"The incidents lead to a complete purge of the CWA, and maybe even persecution of American wizards. Meanwhile, those who remain loyal to Voldemort lay low until there's a chance to fill the power vacuum."

A muscle in Snape's jaw leapt. "It seems rather farfetched. But – " He trailed off.

"But?" prompted Harry.

"It is a possibility," conceded Snape.

"So how do we begin? Perhaps the Headmaster knows someone in the CWA we can trust – "

Snape shook his head violently. "Listen to me. If you are correct, the danger is far more grave than I thought. If Voldemort finds a way to have us implicated in this mess, the international repercussions could cripple our efforts in Great Britain and Europe. We can't be involved. We must return home immediately."

Harry met Snape's intense gaze and felt a pang of regret. He knew Snape cared for him, that he wanted to protect him. Whether or not that caring tended in the direction Harry wished for it to go was irrelevant; the fact remained that Snape sincerely desired for Harry to be safe.

Which made it all the more difficult for Harry to disappoint him.

"I'm sorry," Harry said firmly. "I can't abandon these people to some unknown fate. You'll likely say it's too bloody Gryffindor of me, but I can't help that. I have to do whatever I can."

Snape made a noise somewhere between a snort and a grunt. "I see. With less than forty-eight hours remaining, unable to trust a soul on the entire continent, you will singlehandedly save American wizardry from a plot which has been months, perhaps years, in the making. I am aware that it's considered bad form for teachers to discourage the ambitions of their students, but I nevertheless feel compelled to suggest you have gone completely round the twist."

Harry scowled at him. "I'll think of something. Just give me some time – "

"There is no more time," Snape informed him calmly. "We need to leave now."

"You can leave if you wish," murmured Harry, stung at Snape's curt tone. It had been too much to hope, he supposed, that Snape would join the fray with him. However, he had rather hoped Snape might at least understand his position. "But I'm staying."

"That is your final decision?"

"Yes."

"Very well," Snape told him, turning his back abruptly.

Harry's heart plummeted. Was that all? Was this how the vacation ended, not even with a goodbye, with any acknowledgment – 

Then Snape spun back round, and Harry's spirit soared.

He did not see the wand in Snape's hand until it was too late.

"Immobilus," Snape murmured, the word as softly voiced as an endearment.

 

 

 

~~ X ~~

When Snape released him at the edge of the Hogwarts grounds, Harry's legs were so cramped that Snape had to hold him to keep him from pitching forward onto the grass.

Just one more thing I'll be paying for, he thought grimly.

"Give it a minute," Snape hissed into Harry's ear as Harry began to struggle in his grasp. "Your muscles will relax shortly."

Harry shook his head, and Snape heard his neck crack unpleasantly. "Let. Me. Go," he gritted.

"You'll fall."

"I don't care," Harry growled.

"Harry," Snape heard himself pleading. "Let me help you."

"You've done enough for one day," Harry spat, jerking away roughly. He took a couple of stumbling steps in the darkness, then regained his footing a split-second before he toppled.

And Snape stood, frozen, watching Harry walk away from him.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Where the bloody hell have you been?" Ron demanded, his deep voice laced with concern.

Harry forced his limbs to obey him as he hobbled up the stone steps. Perfect. Thanks to the time difference, he had the good fortune to enter the castle just as the students were leaving the Great Hall after supper.

He felt the warmth of bodies and heard the buzzing, murmuring noise of conversation, but tried his best to ignore them. Then a hand touched his arm.

"Harry!"

Hermione. God love her. "I have to get to Dumbledore," he told them, eyes still focused on his feet, as though his concentrated gaze would help them move.

"You look worn out," Hermione said quietly. "Let's get you up to Gryffindor Tower for a bit of a rest – "

"No!" shouted Harry. The buzzing in his immediate vicinity fell silent, and he continued in a softer voice. "There's no time, I tell you. I have to see him now."

"That won't be necessary, Mister Potter."

Harry's eyes rose to meet the stern stare of Professor McGonagall. The other students, with the exception of Ron and Hermione, had parted before her like the Red Sea before Moses.

"Your first priority is to eat, then to get a good night's rest. The House Elves will deliver a supper to your room."

"But – "

"No 'buts', Potter," she informed him sternly. "Headmaster Dumbledore is aware of the situation, and he is taking action. He will meet with you in the morning. Seven a.m. sharp." And with a swish of her robes, she stalked off, forestalling any further debate on the matter.

Harry took a deep breath, then let it out, resisting the urge to scream at the top of his lungs. Even after all this time, all these years of true friendship from the two people flanking him, after nearly two years of working in concert with other wizards to fight Voldemort, he was still loath to trust in anyone but himself. And just when he had begun to trust – 

 – No. He wouldn't think of that now, with a hundred pairs of eyes trained on him.

"Come on, then," Ron said, one hand resting comfortingly on Harry's shoulder.

Silently, Harry nodded, and allowed himself to be led.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Ah, Harry. Come in, my boy, come in. Sit down."

Harry walked as proudly as possible into Dumbledore's office, his stride purposeful, his back straight despite his fatigue. He had stayed up half the night tossing and turning, his mind replaying the events of the past few days over and over again. Then he had spent the rest of it silently rehearsing the arguments he planned to use at this meeting.

He managed to reach the ring of huge wing chairs around Dumbledore's desk without making a complete arse of himself, but then he hadn't opened his mouth as yet. He kept his gaze steady as he met McGonagall's penetrating glare, then caught a slight movement of black at his extreme left and took in Snape, returned to the formality of his teaching robes. Was it Harry's imagination, or did he seem rather drawn and pale – paler than usual, at any rate? Probably just the effect of the familiar clothing, he decided, trying not to recall how handsome Snape had looked in the Muggle togs Emmett had selected for him.

He inclined his head gravely, and Snape returned the gesture in kind. Something small and cold grasped Harry's heart in a tight grip, then released it before it could stop beating altogether.

"We're wanting our two guests, I'm afraid – ah, here they are." As though Dumbledore's words had the power to conjure – and of course, they did, thought Harry foolishly – the Floo promptly flashed and disgorged two figures, both of them tall and slender. Harry watched as the smoke cleared, and every ounce of his carefully rehearsed maturity disappeared as he recognized – 

 – "Sirius!"

"Harry, m'lad. Come give your godfather a bloody great hug." The command was a kindness, because it excused a shameless display of affection which the teenager would have bestowed anyway. Harry stepped round the chairs and enfolded Sirius in a powerful embrace, squeezing for all he was worth.

"Merlin! You're stronger than I remember!" The Chief Auror and Minister of Special Services laughed, returning the hug.

"My bastard of a boss has me on a punishing exercise regimen," Harry said, giving him a final pat before releasing him.

"Ungrateful whelp. Those biceps are probably leaving the girls in a – "

McGonagall cleared her throat loudly, and Sirius stepped back and gave a tiny cough.

"Albus, you're looking well."

"As are you, Minister."

Sirius stuck out his tongue. "Please. I hate that bollicky title."

"Perhaps you would prefer 'Spot'?"

All heads turned toward Snape, who was still leaning against the wall.

"I missed you, too, Severus," Sirius said drily. Moving aside, he added, "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. I'd like to introduce you to my colleague. Harry, Severus, Minerva, this is Frankie Hyde. Of course, you already know one another, Albus."

The woman who had emerged from the Floo with Sirius stepped forward and smiled at the others. Though perhaps stepped was inappropriate, for it would be more accurate to say she glided. Her robes were a rich forest green and similar to Snape's dueling robes, form-fitting on top and full below, though hers were cut low, to a point just above the swell of her breasts. Harry guessed her age to be about thirty. Her auburn hair was cut boyishly short, her long face well-formed and equipped with a strong jaw, and her largish hands were tapered and graceful

"Pleased to meet you all," she said, in a mellow, pleasing voice. Her vowels were not jarringly American; rather, she possessed one of those polished Eastern Seaboard accents Harry had heard in old Muggle films. She swept a hand over the chairs. "Shall we get to it, then?"

"Still eager as always, eh, Francine?" Dumbledore said with a twinkle in his eye.

"Albus, I only have to remind you my people invented the 'New York Minute,'" she said, grinning toothily. One by one, the six of them sat. Harry kept his focus on the right, toward Frankie and Sirius and away from Snape.

"First, a little about myself for those of you who don't know who the hell I am. I'm with a secret branch of the CWA – " Harry stiffened a little at this but made no comment " – dedicated to the maintenance of American wizarding security. We've been convinced for some time now that Voldemort poses a great threat to the US, and have been on the alert for any signs of activity."

"The views of your department are not shared by the rest of your government," Harry said stonily. He felt Snape's glare boring into the back of his head.

Hyde merely blew out a breath. "You're right about that. We're a little – ah, unorthodox in our views."

The upward movement of Dumbledore's eyebrow was very nearly audible. "All right," the woman conceded, "a lot unorthodox."

"I believe my other contact in the CWA dubbed you 'a pack of war-mongers'," the Headmaster said mildly.

To Harry's surprise, the American threw back her head and laughed. "That's not the first time I've heard it, and it's not the worst I've heard. But they're not down with the field informants like we are. Things have been happening for a while. We just didn't know when, or where, he was going to risk trying something big."

"So you believe me?" Harry said, forgetting his determination to stay cool. "You're going to do something about it?"

"Let the woman speak, Mister Potter," McGonagall said wearily.

"No, it's all right," said Frankie. "Cut to the chase, then. Yes, we're going to do something. We already have. When Albus called me last night, we started checking up on our field personnel – not the agents, because they're screened regularly for any kinds of hexes, potions or other coercive magic, but people who work for us now and then like your buddy Marilyn – and it turned out we had a lot who hadn't reported in at all the week of January 4-10 of this year. It was too weird, too regular. Even if you leave aside the ones who had way too good a time at the New Year's Eve party, that still leaves at least a couple in about forty cities."

"Forty!" breathed Harry. "Bloody bollocks."

"Exactly," agreed Hyde. "We think that's when your boy and his little friends moved on them. They kept it as quiet as possible, but it sure as hell looks like a coordinated effort." She reached into her robe pocket and extracted a long, white cigarette holder. "Anybody mind if I smoke? I'll set up an Air Purifying charm."

No-one answered, and Dumbledore waved a hand. "Thanks," she said, lighting the end of the cigarette with a brief flick of her wand, then reclining back in the chair. The smoke emerged from the tip, then disappeared before it could reach anyone else. Harry imagined the same thing would happen with the ash. "I think better with one of these," Hyde said on a long exhale.

She turned to Harry. "We're grateful to you for picking up on this, and mightily pissed off that we overlooked it. Your hunch may still turn out to be nothing, but we can't afford to take that chance. The problem is, I don't have enough agents I can trust for an operation of this size. Luckily, Sirius has offered to lend us a few of his Aurors, and if we can slip them into the country quietly, we can put them to good use in some of the major centers."

"Would Pittsburgh be one of the major centres?" Harry asked warily.

Hyde blew smoke. "We're more concerned with New York, Washington, Seattle, LA and San Francisco. Those are the places where the demonstrations will probably be the biggest."

"How many agents do you have detailed to Pittsburgh?"

Hyde flicked a glance at Sirius. "We should be able to spare one of ours," he told her.

"Only one?" protested Harry, then calmed himself before someone could reprimand him. "Well, that should be enough. Will you be arresting the suspects today?"

"Arresting?" Hyde said incredulously. "Did Britain turn into a police state when I wasn't looking?"

Dumbledore smiled enigmatically. "It would certainly expedite some of our current problems. But no."

"Well, back in the U S of A, we still have this pesky thing called the Constitution, and it's not just for the Muggles. We don't have any hard evidence linking Voldemort to the agents we've identified, and we can't move without it."

"Then how do you intend to stop them?" Harry demanded.

"My people and Sirius' will attend the demonstrations and keep tabs on the suspects," Hyde answered calmly.

Harry stared at her. "You must be joking. You're going to wait until they act, and then do something?"

"Harry." Dumbledore this time.

"What's the bloody use of being a bloody secret organization if you can't bend the bloody rules to protect people?" Harry blustered. Deep down, he realized he sounded foolish, but he couldn't seem to care.

Frankie Hyde seemed to take it in stride, however. Rising from her chair, she moved to Dumbledore's desk, then leaned on the edge directly in front of Harry. Another swish of her wand, and the cigarette disappeared. "You have a personal interest in Pittsburgh."

Harry set his jaw firmly. "I do," he admitted. "There are people there I've come to care about. They'll be at the demonstration tomorrow." He took a deep breath, then plunged ahead. "And I owe it to them to be there."

"Harry, it's too dangerous for you to go back to America," Sirius said immediately. "If Voldemort is planning what you believe – "

"You've sent me on dangerous operations before," Harry argued.

"But this more than a raid. And if we're discovered, we could be arrested and detained by the American wizarding authorities." Sirius shook his head firmly. "There are just too many complications."

"Dammit," Harry gritted, attempting to keep his voice steady, "I thought of all people that you would understand. These people deserve my protection."

Sirius' startled gaze flew to his face, then looked away, and too late Harry realized the full import of what he had said. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, unwilling to continue the discussion in front of everyone.

Hyde crossed her arms and regarded him coolly. "Sirius tells me you've been an Auror for a while. You've had the full training. You accept the responsibility."

"Yes," agreed Harry, wondering where this was going.

Her words were soft and deliberate, her gray gaze level and inescapable. "Then I want you to think as an Auror. Can you protect these people effectively? All of them, not just your friends?"

Harry hesitated. It was, he knew, a fair question, and deserved some deliberation. Finally, he said, "Yes. I can."

"Be sure. Because their lives will be in your hands."

Harry nodded. "I understand."

Hyde pushed off the desk and glided over to the Floo. "Add him to the list," she said to Sirius.

Sirius' head snapped up, as though he'd been lost in his own thoughts. "There are others – "

"You know we don't have enough as it is. And you're giving me all you can spare." She paused. "I'm sorry. But can he do the job?"

Sirius glared at her for a moment, then closed his eyes briefly. "Yes."

"If you are accepting volunteers, you can add my name to your charming list as well."

Harry's hands convulsed on the arms of the chair.

"Severus," Dumbledore said quietly. "You made three transatlantic Apparition crossings yesterday. Poppy is ready to tie you to a bed."

Oh, bollocks. That hadn't even occurred to Harry. Slowly, he turned to face Snape, and for the first time since he'd come in, allowed himself the chance to study the man. The lines of exhaustion were now clearly apparent, and Harry felt a small pang of regret. Of course Snape was drained; Apparition was strenuous enough over short distances, but Snape had journeyed thousands of miles in a few short hours, the last stretch with Harry as deadweight.

Although that last wasn't exactly my fault, he thought stubbornly.

Snape faced down the Headmaster as easily as he might have a quivering First Year. "You charged me with a task, and I intend to see it through to completion."

Harry's face burned. So that was it; he was a bloody task, like mixing a fresh batch of Pepper-Up potion for the Infirmary stores. He wanted to leap up and shout that he didn't need protection, but that would only have succeeded in making him look far more childish than Snape was managing to do. All Aurors worked in teams, and from the way Hyde had spoken, she hadn't even been intending to send an agent to Pittsburgh. Moreover, she was right: he couldn't afford to allow his personal feelings to interfere with this operation.

Dumbledore nodded. "Very well, Severus. But you will both need to get some rest." He turned to Frankie. "What time is the briefing?"

"Five p.m. tonight, New York time."

"Fine. That gives you a chance to catch up on your rest, at least. I'll have Poppy bring you both some Dreamless Sleep." Snape opened his mouth. "No arguments," said the Headmaster sternly, and Snape closed it again.

"How will S- Professor Snape return to America?" Harry heard himself asking. All eyes swiveled toward him, and Harry felt himself blushing once more. "I mean, as you said, Headmaster, he's pretty worn out. Will eight hours be enough?"

"I am not an invalid," growled Snape.

Nor am I, though you saw fit to treat me as one, Harry thought, biting his lip to keep from saying it aloud. "I'm merely – concerned."

Dumbledore smiled benignly. "Of course, Harry. Our Aurors must look out for one anothers' well-being. But Professor Snape will not be Apparating to America, nor will any of you." He arched an eyebrow at Hyde.

"We'll head to London, then cross to Washington via Floo," she informed them blandly.

Harry gaped.  "I'm sorry – did you say London to Washington?  On the Floo Network?"

Frankie grinned.  "It's a secure line, not available to the public.  We have all the fun toys, fellas."

"Oh, goody," drawled Snape.  "Just like Christmas."
 

 

Chapter Text

 


~~ XI ~~

 

Snape was not normally given to looking on the bright side of things. But to his shock and amazement, the meeting in Dumbledore's office had gone surprisingly well. The American was not excessively – American, and Sirius was actually subdued.

And Harry? Harry had been – 

Is 'mature' the word you're searching for? What about 'professional'? 'Composed'?

What he did not appear to be, Snape reflected, was heartbroken. Anguished by Snape's betrayal. Even mildly upset, really.

As he made his way to the dungeons and a horrid dose of Dreamless Sleep, he told himself this was for the best.

"Severus. Hold up."

Bugger, thought Snape viciously. His own fault, for tempting the gods and Thinking Good Thoughts.

"Didn't you hear the Headmaster, Black?" said Snape, not even bothering to glance round or to slow his stride. "It's past my bedtime." He reached the door to his chambers and murmured the words which would deactivate the wards.

"I only need a few minutes. Please."

Snape did turn round at that. He raised an eyebrow at Black, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. Had he been in dog form, Snape would have been tempted to let him out to do his business.

The oaken door creaked open, and wordlessly Snape motioned Black inside.

"Do stop fidgeting," Snape muttered as he collapsed into a chair. There was a warmly glowing fire in the grate; even in May, the dungeons needed the damp taken out of them to be liveable. For the first time in years, Snape wondered why he insisted on living there.

Because that's what Slytherins do. They scowl, and scheme, and live in dank holes. They do not ride off into the sunset with beautiful, luminous Gryffindors.

As though he needed a reminder of that last, with Sirius Black standing before him.

"Sit down, for gods' sake."

Black strode over to the mantel, then back to the chair opposite Snape's. "I – yes. Thank you." The moment his arse touched the seat, he leaned forward at an alarming angle, elbows on knees, as though he were poised to leap. Snape tried not to find this vaguely threatening.

"Now, to what do I owe this sudden display of civility?"

"Dumbledore, ah, told me Harry ran away from Hogwarts Monday."

"Technically, that is untrue. He was on a weekend visit to London, and simply did not return on time."

"Yes, well, he skipped school to go to America. I'd say that counts as running away."

Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. "Did you come here to argue semantics?"

"Albus wouldn't tell me why he sent you."

Snape regarded the fire. "Nor did he see fit to explain it to me. Supposedly, it was down to me or McGonagall, and he said that since he was a horror at Transfiguration it would have to be me."

Sirius frowned. "Wasn't he – "

"Transfiguration Master, yes, in his day. I didn't bother calling him on it, as it wouldn't have done any bloody good."

"I know why he sent you," Black stated, his voice suddenly gone flat.

Snape pursed his lips. He refused to do anything to encourage this poor excuse for a conversation.

Black waited for a cue, and after receiving none, took a deep breath and plunged ahead anyway.

"He sent you because Harry's gay."

Snape refused to allow himself a reaction.

"He, ah, he hasn't told me yet," Black continued. Snape noticed Black had suddenly found his hands fascinating. "But I guessed as much."

"Your deductive powers are admirable," grated Snape. "Now, if there's nothing else – "

Black's gaze rose abruptly, catching Snape unawares. "I don't have a problem with it, you know."

It was incredible, thought Snape. It wasn't enough that he had survived several days of Hell, and would be returning there in a few short hours. No, Hell apparently had decided to – pun intended – dog his steps.

"I will not hear your confessions," he spat.

"It's not a – oh, hell!" Black barked, shooting to his feet. "I hoped – that you'd understand, I suppose. Stupid of me to come, but I thought – I don't know what I thought."

Snape's lip curled. "Perhaps you thought that Hogwarts' resident poof would be ready with a sympathetic ear and words of sage advice? Provide you a self-help manual: What to Do When Your Godson's a Cocksucker?"

Black's eyes narrowed. Snape spread his hands.

"Your words, not mine," he said simply.

"You're never going to forget that, are you?" Black said quietly.

Snape regarded him steadily.

No. I never will.

Black sighed and shook his head sadly. "Nor should you. I'm sorry. I can't imagine – but I was a teenager, and indescribably stupid. It's not an excuse," he added, holding up a hand, "but I'm not that teenager any longer."

"I sincerely hope for Potter's sake that you are not," Snape said. And it was the truth, without bitterness or embellishment.

Black merely nodded. "Well," he managed, "I suppose I'll let you get your rest."

"It would be appreciated."

Black turned to go, but looked back as he reached the door.

"Severus."

Snape glowered back at him.

"Take care of him. Please?"

Snape's blood hummed through his veins. "I do not require your entreaties to do my duty. I do not require anything of you, Black."

And as soon as the words left his mouth, he knew they were true. Somewhere, hidden in the deep caverns of his mind, there had lurked a lingering resentment, a lingering desire, hateful and unacknowledged. The speck of his soul which would forever be sixteen lay there in its dark prison, anguished, hurting, and desperately in love with its own pain.

When had that feeling left him? When had he finally released it?

Black was speaking again; Snape heard him as though through a long tunnel. "Yes. You're right, of course. You've been looking after him longer than I have." He expelled a breath. "But he doesn't need looking after now, does he? He's a man."

Yes, he is a man, thought Snape. And he deserves the world and all the heavens.

And I wish I could give them to him.

"He is a man," Snape said aloud. "And he needs looking after. As do we all."

Snape did not mark Black's departure. Overwhelmed by an unfamiliar feeling of peace, he drifted off in front of the fire without touching the bottle of Dreamless Sleep.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry watched the slight rise and fall of Snape's chest and concentrated on controlling the tremor in his limbs.

When he'd arrived at Snape's chambers after being sent by Dumbledore to fetch him, he'd taken in the unwarded door with alarm. Snape never forgot to ward his quarters. The fear of what Harry might find when he entered seized his heart and twisted it mercilessly.

He had certainly not expected to find Snape dozing quietly by the fireplace, his hair askew and his head tilted at an odd angle against one wing of the chair back. The relief at finding Snape unharmed, coupled with the endearing domesticity of the picture he made had the sudden, unstoppable effect of flattening every last bit of Harry's anger and trampling it into the dust.

So this is love, Harry thought with a small, private smile. I can't even stay brassed off at him when he bloody well deserves it.

Moving silently, he closed and warded the door behind him, then crossed the room to where Snape sat. The flickering firelight lent his pale skin a tawny glow, and reminded Harry of the first time he'd stood in this room and told Snape of his feelings. He had no regrets from that day, or any day thereafter. As Emmett had said, there was no sense living in fear of tomorrow. Whether or not Snape would ever be able to return his love, at least Harry would know he'd given it every chance.

Reasoning that Dumbledore had given him no instructions on how to summon Snape, Harry bent to press a feather-light kiss to Snape's forehead. To his surprise, Snape stirred a little, but didn't wake.

Hell. He had to have been completely worn out by yesterday's events. Harry took a deep breath to speak, then changed his mind at the last moment. Swooping lower, he settled his mouth over Snape's and kissed him tenderly, then drew back.

This time Snape's eyes did open, but only the merest crack. The blackness which made it impossible to distinguish pupil from iris was all Harry could make out; he wasn't sure if Snape was focusing on him, or if he was indeed fully awake – 

"Harry," whispered Snape.

Gooseflesh popped out over every square inch of Harry's skin at the sound of his name being spoken like an intimate caress.

One of Snape's hands rose, and warm fingers wrapped around Harry's neck. He didn't need any further encouragement to lower his head once more.

As he closed the distance between them, it occurred to Harry that Snape's conscious mind was not in full control of his actions; ethics would dictate that he wake him.

Then Snape's mouth opened under his, and Harry thought, Fuck ethics.

Snape kissed him as though Harry were a rare delicacy, worthy of savouring; he suckled Harry's lower lip before grazing it lightly with his teeth, then tasted the inside of it with a tantalising sweep of his tongue. Harry's hands fluttered over his shoulders before rising to his face. His thumbs traced the line of Snape's jaw while he held himself as still as possible and allowed his mouth to be sampled over and over.

Snape's grip on the back of his neck tightened, and then Harry felt Snape's other hand grasp him about the waist, tugging him forward. Harry stumbled, and one of his hands returned to Snape's shoulder, clutching at it to steady himself.

At the sudden pressure, Snape's eyes snapped wide open. He broke the kiss abruptly and stared at Harry with a look of mingled shock and confusion.

"Hi," Harry said, smiling.

"What – " Snape became aware of the locations of his hands, and released Harry as though he'd caught fire.

"Don't worry," Harry murmured, sobering, "You didn't compromise my virtue."

Snape pressed his head against the chair back and closed his eyes. "I'm sor – "

"Shut up, please," Harry told him brightly, cutting him off. "You apologise for kissing me like that and I truly will hate you. For at least a week."

Snape stared straight ahead, which put his line of sight at Harry's right elbow. Harry bent his knees and squatted in front of Snape's chair so that their gazes met.

"Why didn't you just tell me you were going to speak to Dumbledore?" he asked softly.

"Because I didn't know if anything would come of it," Snape replied. "As it was, he required very little persuading to enlist the aid of the Aurors and the Americans."

"He trusts your judgment," Harry said.

"And yours," Snape added.

Harry frowned as the puzzle pieces shifted in his head. "That's it, isn't it?" he asked, the light beginning to dawn. "It's not that you don't trust me enough. You think I don't trust you enough. That's why you didn't bother to tell me; because you would have had to ask me. And you were sure I would say no."

Snape pursed his lips, but said nothing.

Harry laid his right hand over Snape's left where it rested in his lap. Snape flinched, but didn't pull away. "I understand that, believe me, better than you think. It isn't easy for me to trust; never has been. But you're wrong," he told Snape simply. "I trust you with my life. And with my heart."

"Your trust is based on a delusion," Snape spat.

Harry shook his head. "The man you are now is not a delusion. Nor is the man you were. But the one does not annihilate the other."

"On the contrary," Snape drawled. "They cancel one another out most effectively, believe me."

"And what's left is a hollow, empty shell, I suppose? I don't believe that. I've seen nothingness," Harry said softly, "in the eyes of Voldemort." He took a deep breath, then barrelled on before he could give his next words much thought. "The man who cried over Susan Bones and her family is as far from an empty shell as I can imagine."

Snape stared at him then, and Harry could see the realization strike him like a blow. Very much aware that the man before him had a great deal in common with a wounded, frightened animal, Harry moved slowly. While his fingers traced soothing circles over the back of Snape's hand, he moved to a kneeling position, which caused him to crane his neck upwards. Exposing his throat. Letting Snape know in some primal, ancient way that he trusted him implicitly.

"You're human, whether you want to admit it or not. Not a Death Eater any longer. Not a walking corpse. Do you think so little of me that you would believe I would fall in love with someone unworthy of the emotion?"

Snape remained silent, but he began to shake his head back and forth, deliberately, not quite a negation, more a plea.

"It's all right," Harry said quietly. "I won't push this any farther, not now. There's too much to do, too much we have to concentrate on. But I want you to understand one thing: I don't regret a single instant of this past week. And I'm glad I didn't give myself to anyone else, didn't make it meaningless and sordid. Because you're the only one I want."

"You're young," Snape said, his voice acidic yet laced with a hint of regret. "You'll find someone else."

Harry had to laugh at that, earning a startled look from Snape. Rising from his knees, he cupped Snape's face in one hand. "You, Professor Snape," he said affectionately, "are a royal pain in the arse." He had the pleasure of watching Snape's eyes widen at the words, right before he delivered one last hard, searing kiss to Snape's mouth.

"Come on, then," Harry said, straightening. "We have to be in New York in twenty minutes. Better hop to it."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Now what's this?" Harry asked eagerly.

"That's a Hex Thrower," the Hyde woman replied proudly. "Can increase your casting radius by two hundred percent."

"Amazing!" Harry said, picking up the small, round object and turning it over in his palm. "How does it work?"

Snape refrained from growling as she demonstrated its mechanism to Harry. Bloody American gadgets. Nevertheless, it was a perfect ending to a night which had begun with the longest, most unpleasant Floo ride of Snape's life. As a mode of transport, it had always been his least favourite, and after being sucked across the Atlantic at such a great rate of knots that he was still feeling nauseous, he was ready to return to the UK via a slow-moving Muggle freighter.

Right now, he wanted nothing so much as a quiet, dark room and a soft bed, but Hyde had been determined to familiarise the Britishers with some of their newest technology before sending them off to their respective assignments. So far, everyone else seemed ready to fall to their knees and worship at the altar of American ingenuity. As for Snape, he couldn't stand the bollicky things, and was nearly ready to tell them so.

Some of the devices, he noted, were even made from plastic.

The wizarding world was definitely going down the crapper.

"And here are our latest Spell Shields," Hyde was saying now, holding up a rigid oval disk about the size of a man's chest. "Most of our field agents are using them. Blocks against most common curses and hexes."

"What about Avada Kedavra?" Snape intoned, and all heads whipped round. Black frowned at him, but made no comment.

"No, I'm afraid it's no good against the Unforgivables, though it will give you a little added time to fight Imperio." She smiled. "I've had them bring up enough for all of you. There's a wide variety of sizes here – "

"You expect us to wear these blasted things?" Snape demanded, eyeing the contraptions with horror.

Hyde blinked. "It's not mandatory, no."

Black did speak now. "Severus – "

"Black. Surely even you can see that these will be worse than useless."

"There's no need – "

"No." This time, heads swiveled toward Harry, who was gazing at the devices with a pensive expression. "I see his concern. It's the mobility, issue, isn't it?"

Snape schooled his features to show no reaction, but he was nevertheless surprised – and not a little pleased. "Partly. And the balance."

Harry nodded. "Right." He picked up one of the shields and hefted it. "Not heavy, but even so..."

Snape raised an eyebrow at Black, who pursed his lips. "All right," Black muttered finally. Turning to Hyde, he said, "Thank you, Miss Hyde, but Severus is – right. We've trained our Aurors without shields, and they rely on their agility and their balance to avoid and block spells. As lightweight as these may be, not having trained with them will put us at a disadvantage tomorrow."

Hyde nodded, then inclined her head in Snape's direction. "Point taken." She glided a little further down the table and said, "Now here's something you're gonna love."

Snape closed his eyes and sighed.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry realised he was destroying his albeit very slim chance of getting shagged tonight by laughing. But he simply couldn't help himself.

"Oh, put it on. For me," he wheedled, holding it out to him.

Snape huffed and strode down the hall. "I'm going to bed, Potter. This discussion is finished." Right before the bathroom door slammed shut behind him, Harry could have sworn he heard Snape mutter, "Baseball caps. Of all the – "

Still chuckling, Harry turned the corner and peered into a largish bedroom with a pencil post bed and lovely wide plank floors. The mattress was high and wide and looked so appealing, but he knew that the moment he stretched out on it, he'd be asleep in seconds. And that wouldn't do. Because there were five other bedrooms in this CWA safehouse – palatial historic property with a staff of three House Elves, more like – and Harry wasn't about to let Snape end up anywhere else tonight.

For all their impressive technology, Harry could see that the Americans were out of practice in fighting wars. Designs – such as the Spell Shield – which might look like the bee's knees on the drawing board tended to fall apart in the most horrendous fashion on the battlefield. The Britishers and their allies did make use of wizarding implements, and they did maintain an estate full of boffins somewhere in the Cotswolds to dream up new ones, but the overall philosophy was that no gadget could take the place of the human mind, the human body, and intense, hard training. It wasn't glamourous, but then neither was this bastard of a war.

Harry sank into a chair by the fire and inspected the device in his hands. On the surface, it looked exactly like a Muggle baseball cap – this particular one was black and had the crest of the Pittsburgh Pirates emblazoned on it – but inside was an advanced detection unit which would help the wearer search for suspects. It could see through other people, buildings, through three feet of steel, and it made positive identification foolproof, as it saw through disguises as well. Hopefully, it would make the task of finding the rogue wizards easier tomorrow.

Of course, Snape was refusing to wear his; Harry smiled as he picked up the bright green cap with "CAT" embroidered in huge block lettering. He supposed the choice was Hyde's "fuck you" for showing her up at the meeting.

She was an odd duck, that one, which was perhaps why Harry found himself liking her as the day wore on. Still, her habit of levitating everywhere puzzled the hell out of him, and so there was an annoying buzz at the back of his brain throughout the meeting. He didn't enjoy mysteries, hadn't ever since that riddle when they went searching for the Philosopher's Stone in first year. But the mystery had been solved for him when one of the other agents approached her at the end of the meeting.

"That guy from the CIA is here," he murmured to her. "Says it's urgent – wants to pick your brain on security for tomorrow."

Harry couldn't help the startled expression that crossed his features. He'd known the Ministry of Magic back home had ties to the Muggle government, but the secrecy of Hyde's department seemed to preclude such alliances. Which of course was silly; if everyone was secret together, what did it matter?

"Oh, crap," Hyde breathed, and she seemed to lose a couple of inches in height as her shoulders slumped. "I wasn't going to have to hit the ground until tomorrow."

"I know. I'm sorry." The fellow paused, obviously feeling awkward.

"Well, bring it out," she said shortly. "I'm not ashamed of the damned thing."

And Harry couldn't help watching as the young man walked over to a darkened corner and emerged pushing a lightweight wheelchair.

Hyde floated over to it, then took out her wand and murmured, "Finite Incantatem." Abruptly, she collapsed into the chair as if shot, and Harry took an involuntary step forward.

"It's okay, kid," she said. "I could make it easier, but I kind of like crashing to earth." She gestured at the chair. "The spooks know who we are, but they get a little antsy if we make Public Displays of Magic, you know? It tends to distract them from the topic at hand."

"I'm – I didn't know," Harry said lamely, feeling like a complete git. "I mean, I noticed you were levitating, but I didn't imagine – " Oh, bloody hell, shut up.

" – that wizards and witches could be disabled?" Hyde finished for him, her voice surprisingly gentle. "Or that the disabled could be wizards or witches?"

"Both – neither, oh damn," Harry murmured. "I suppose I keep forgetting we can't fix everything."

Hyde nodded. "Or everybody." Harry's eyes rose to meet hers, startled, and she sighed. "Not with the wave of a wand, anyway."

Too true, Harry agreed silently, as his own limbs began to feel heavier and the world grew dim...

"Harry. Harry."

"Mmph." Harry's head jerked as he woke suddenly, producing an unpleasant cracking sound in his neck. He blinked and adjusted his glasses, which were lying askew. Snape was squatting before him, hands on knees, a – dare he call it fond? – expression on his face.

Reaching down, he took one of Snape's hands in his. "Déja vu in reverse," he murmured.

Snape snorted. "With one notable exception."

Harry's mouth curved. "I noticed." He yawned expansively. "Think I'll fall asleep again, and this time you can do a proper job of waking me."

Snape's fingers got a firmer grip on Harry's own, and then the man was rising and pulling Harry with him. Startled, Harry took a stumbling step forward, bringing his chest into brief contact with Snape's before he could recover his balance.

The apology died on his lips when he noticed Snape was still holding his hand. His gaze rose to Snape's face, but the light spilling in from the hallway was insufficient to reveal his expression now that he was standing.

Snape cleared his throat. "I, ah, I wished to thank you for speaking up about the Spell Shields."

Harry blinked. Spell Shields? Spell Shields? Oh. Yes. "Well, you were right," he said. "We're better off without them."

"You're certainly better off. Your agility is your greatest protection."

Did Snape just say what Harry thought he said? "Was that a compliment?" he asked archly.

"No," Snape ground out. Belatedly, as if finally realising his fingers were still holding fast to Harry's, he released them. "Merely a statement of fact. Your facility in Quidditch stood you in good stead when you began your Auror training."

Unable to resist, Harry laid a palm on Snape's chest, feeling for the strong beat of his heart. Snape took a deep breath, but made no move to push Harry away. "I saw you once, late one night when I was flying on the pitch." The hand began a slow, gentle circling motion. "You watched me."

"You knew I was there?"

"Yeah."

"And you said nothing?"

Harry smiled faintly. "What would I have said? I know you're there, and is three a.m. on the Quidditch pitch a good spot to tell you I'm mad about you?" Harry hesitated. "That wasn't the only time, was it?"

Snape stiffened under his touch. "You wish to pry all my secrets from me, do you, Potter?" He was clearly trying to recapture some of that old harshness, and failing miserably.

"Not all of them," Harry told him softly. "Just the ones about me."

Snape met his comment with silence, and Harry sighed and removed his hand. This wasn't the time to be doing this; he was exhausted, and Snape was irritable. But there was one more thing Harry had to know regardless. "You're not going to wear that cap tomorrow, are you?"

"Of course not," Snape spat.

"Then how are you going to find the suspects?"

"I have an alternate method," Snape said.

Harry frowned; his head was much to muzzy to second-guess Snape, yet he had to try. He was pleased when his mind pounced on the answer almost immediately. "Not that bizarre out-of-body herb mixture?"

"Yes, 'that bizarre out-of-body herb mixture'," Snape returned dryly. "Its proper name is Volanimus. And how, pray tell, do you even know about that?"

Harry waved a hand. "Seamus found it in a book when he was looking for hallucinogenic plants. Tried it once after supper and didn't come back to his own head until morning. We were ready to take him to the Hospital wing."

"As well you should have," Snape told him. "The combination must be exactly right, and the plants must be freshly picked. The slightest variation could cause madness, or permanent separation of body and soul. But if mixed properly – and be assured I will mix it properly – it will allow me to scan the crowd easily."

"And while you're in that state, I won't be able to communicate with you."

Snape regarded him blandly. "I shall be able to contact you whenever I wish. That will be sufficient."

Harry felt a prickle of anger, which he quickly suppressed. "Not good enough. We need to be able to contact one another." Snape opened his mouth to argue, but Harry cut him off. "I'll have to take it as well."

One corner of Snape's mouth lifted. "I thought you were enamoured of your baseball cap."

Harry fought back a smile. You don't like that we'll be privy to each others' thoughts, do you? he thought. He remembered that much from Seamus' reading; when two or more people took the herbs at the same time, a kind of telepathic link was created, which allowed the users to speak to one another. Ron, practical as ever, had immediately thought of slipping some to Hermione before their Transfiguration NEWTs. Most everyone else thought about the sexual potential, which was probably why no one had offered to share with Seamus.

Aloud, he merely said, "I'd prefer that we were in – contact."

"As you wish," Snape conceded, after a few moments' hesitation.

"Good, that's settled," Harry breathed, setting the caps down on the seat of the armchair. "Now, let's get to bed."

Snape turned his head toward the massive four-poster, then nodded at the door. "Fine. I'll take the room down the – "

"Severus."

Snape sucked in a breath as Harry, daring greatly, laid a hand on Snape's cheek. Snape turned his head slowly, fighting, fighting. Despite the darkness, Harry fancied he could read Snape's expression: stony, shuttered, yet with a barely-hidden fear so vast, Harry wondered how he would ever – 

Fuck it. Nothing ventured, as they said.

"We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow," he murmured.

Harry felt a muscle in Snape's jaw convulse under his hand. "It is quite likely that nothing will happen tomorrow."

"I dearly hope so. But if something should – I mean, if one of us – "

Snape cut him off. "A shag before dying? How romantic," he spat.

"I want to be close to you," Harry blurted, before he could censor himself. He took a step forward, and the gap between them disappeared. "I don't care how."

One of Snape's long-fingered hands came up and drew Harry's away from his face. The fingers wrapped tightly round his wrist, nearly cutting off the blood flow.

"But I don't want to be close to you," Snape whispered.

Harry felt as though a giant fist had punched him in the midsection; it was all he could do to keep from doubling over. "Oh," he said weakly, amazed he could still produce sounds. "All right. I – "

Snape cut him off with a harsh oath. The grip on Harry's wrist was now painful "For Christ's sake, don't be so bloody understanding! It's one of your most insidious tactics. You're trying to find your way inside me, and I will not allow it. I cannot."

"I'm not trying anything," Harry countered, voice a little stronger now. "I do understand. I can't help that. I understand what it is to feel alone, to be afraid to let anyone in. It's not a tactic. It's how I feel."

"Feelings are rubbish," Snape spat. "It's past time you realised that."

"You're wrong," Harry said quietly, and Snape's head jerked up. "They're all we have now. They're what separate us from the bastards we're fighting. You have them too, or you'd still be with Voldemort."

"Potter – "

Harry's other hand slid to the back of Snape's neck and rested there. Time to jump straight into the lake, and damn the merpeople and the giant squid and the ball-curdling water, just jump in and hope you don't drown. "You didn't mean that, did you? About not wanting to be close. You want it." He leaned forward until less than an inch separated their faces. "You want it."

"Stop." Snape forced the word past his lips as though it hurt him.

"No. You don't want me to be understanding? Then I won't be." He brushed his mouth against Snape's. "I'll be demanding. I'll be ruthless. I've been watching your damned Slytherins for the better part of seven years; I ought to be able to do a creditable imitation." He nibbled at Snape's chin, the underside of his jaw. "Is that what you want? Someone who pushes you over the cliff without a rope to hold on to? Someone who treats you the way you believe you should be treated? I can do that. I can be whatever you want – "

Strong hands seized his shoulders and shook him hard, once. "Shut up," growled Snape. "I don't want you to be different, do you hear?"

Harry couldn't believe his ears. "What?" he breathed.

Snarling in frustration, Snape shook him again. "I. Mean. I don't want anything." His voice cracked. "I don't – "

"Please," Harry whispered, fingers rubbing light, soothing circles on the back of Snape's neck, in direct counterpoint to the ones digging into his shoulders. "Please," he said, his mouth coming closer to Snape's. "There isn't any time left for lies. There's no time left."

For an endless moment, the two of them stood frozen in a tableau. Then, with a sound that was almost a sob, Snape bridged the final gap between them.

 

 

 

~~ XII ~~

I did not just produce that damnable noise. That wasn't me.

Then who was it?

Sod it. I don't care.

Snape gave up conscious thought as Harry kissed him until his synapses melted. Of course, if his brain had still been functioning, it might have observed that he was most enthusiastically kissing Harry back – but this was a minor technicality. And Snape was currently reaching for the hem of Harry's t-shirt and pulling it over his head. And trailing his fingertips over the skin of his back and chest until Harry shivered and began undressing him in turn. And placing his tongue everywhere his fingers had been.

More technicalities.

It took what seemed like hours for them to be lying spread out together on the bed. At some point, one of them – probably Harry – had closed the door and lit the candles on the nightstand; the warm glow flickered over Harry's face and torso like a caress. Snape felt the weight of Harry's chest atop his, and reveled in the soft brush of wiry hair as Harry slid against him. His own hands sank into Harry's tousled mop and pulled him down for another kiss. God, how long had it been since he'd kissed like this, been kissed like this?

Never, his mind replied silently. Never like this.

It occurred to him that he should protest when Harry tugged his mouth free and began kissing his way down Snape's chest, but somehow he was unable to summon the words. Then Snape felt a tugging sensation below his navel. Dimly, he thought of Portkeys, and the non sequitur kickstarted his brain again.

He looked down and saw Harry determinedly undoing the fastenings of his slacks.

His hand reached out to stop Harry, then faltered. Admit it, some devil in him hissed. You want this.

Of course I want it. But that doesn't mean I can have it.

"Harry," Snape managed, weakly, as the last button slipped free, annoyed that he had to beg another for the self-control which was rapidly abandoning him.

Without looking up, Harry pressed an open-mouthed kiss to Snape's stomach. Snape felt a strong, wet tongue moving over his skin and moaned in spite of himself.

Bowing to his hesitation, Harry ended the assault on Snape's trousers, and began a slow, torturous exploration of Snape's upper body instead. Lips, teeth, tongue and fingers – there was no other word for it – worshipped him, in a way that would have seemed ridiculous to Snape had he been in his right mind. Within minutes, the entire surface of his skin was tingling, a sensation not unlike the feeling of blessed relief after a Cruciatus curse. As Snape felt the last shreds of his once-magnificent intellect deserting him, he managed to wonder how Potter had become so bloody good...at...this...

Snape felt the low vibration of a chuckle against his collarbone, and realised he had spoken at least part of that question aloud. Harry bit down lightly on a nipple, and Snape's back bowed. "M'glad you think so," the brat murmured, a self-satisfied smile in his voice.

"Arrogant Gryffin – oh!" he gasped, as Harry attacked the other nipple, then began to – Merlin – hum.

Snape heard himself make another embarrassing sound, but he was now too aroused to care. He felt Harry trail an experimental hand downwards, circling around his navel, then ghosting over his now-prominent erection. Against his will, Snape's hips bucked into the warm palm, and Harry released a guttural sound of his own. He pressed his lips to a spot directly over Snape's heart, as if to absorb its staccato rhythm.

"That's it," Harry whispered against his flesh. "Forget it all. Forget everything. Just be here with me." He raised his head; those green garnet eyes flashed in the candle light, and Snape sucked in a breath at the heat and emotion that was displayed, naked and unashamed, in their depths.

And in that instant, the certainty that this path would lead him straight into Hell no longer mattered. All that mattered was this moment, and these insane new feelings, and the extraordinary boy who was determined to tear him open with his bare hands.

Harry's agile fingers moved to the waistband of Snape's trousers, and Snape lifted his hips obediently. Harry's gaze grew bolder, hotter, and Snape felt his face burn. The cloth slid down his legs, followed by his underwear. He resisted the urge to run and hide as Harry gazed down at him. Then Harry's eyes rose to Snape's face, and the look of intense pleasure in them told Snape he was – 

 – beautiful.

He had to frown at the unspoken message. "I'm not," he rasped, intending to sound stern, but only managing peevish.

Harry said nothing, only kept those eyes on him while he sat up and shifted to remove the last of his own clothing. Snape reached out one trembling hand and stroked down over the lad's belly and hip. Harry inhaled sharply and his lips curved in a secret smile.

But you are, Snape thought fervently, astonished all over again by the smoothness of his skin. Gods, you are.

"Accio bag," Harry said softly, and there was a brief pause while the black canvas grip Harry had brought with him flew into his hands. Snape closed his eyes as he heard the zip being opened, and after a few moments of rummaging, he heard the bag hitting the floor.

Then Harry was lying beside him, stroking his hair back from his face in a gesture that nearly undid him. He, Snape, was the more experienced one, here; why did he feel as though he were about to shatter?

Because when it comes to love, I'm as much a virgin as he is. More.

And the one time I believed – 

No. Stop. This isn't the place for that.

"Are you OK?"

Snape looked up into the concerned face hovering above him. A face so similar to one he'd memorized in his foolishness, one he'd believed to hint at an inner beauty Snape had never before experienced, let alone dared to hope existed. And for a few wonderful weeks, he'd imagined that beauty could one day be his.

How wrong he'd been. And in the aftermath, he'd crushed that dream of beauty underfoot, convinced once and for all it was an illusion.

Harry was not that man. Not as handsome on the outside, but possessed of fully a hundred times the heart. And somewhere along the way, Snape had allowed himself to make the distinction between the two, banished the shadows and permitted the light to enter his windowless dungeon.

Snape looked up into the face hovering above him and allowed himself to forget.

"Fine," he whispered. "I'm fine." Pulling him close, Snape kissed him until they were both shaking with need, until Harry was producing small breathless whimpers. When Snape could no longer bear it, he wrapped his arms around the wiry young body and rolled Harry onto his back. The jewel-bright eyes stared up at him with a mixture of surprise and desire.

Wordlessly, Snape reached out his hand, closing it over Harry's and taking the tube he'd retrieved from his bag. He loosened the cap – Merlin, more plastic – and dribbled some of the contents onto his fingers.

Snape closed his eyes, picturing his stores back home and potions he hadn't thought of mixing in – oh, an eternity. As they were now a considerable distance away, and he had never bothered to learn the charm equivalents, he supposed this would have to do. He pressed a brief, chaste kiss to the young man's lips and opened his mouth to ask the question, but Harry spoke first.

"Yes," he breathed, raising one knee and letting it fall to the side.

Snape suppressed a shiver as his body absorbed the word and the gesture of absolute trust. He swallowed and murmured, "Turn over."

Harry shook his head. "I want to see you."

Snape swallowed again. "It will be – more difficult," he managed finally.

"I know," said Harry calmly, drawing him down for another kiss. "I don't care."

Snape hesitated again.

"Please," Harry implored, into the black curtain of Snape's hair.

Snape pressed his face to Harry's cheek, then insinuated his hand between Harry's legs, slowly easing lower, deeper. Harry whimpered with need, undulating his hips in an ancient dance.

"Please," he said again, turning his head, brushing his lips across Snape's cheekbone. Snape turned his head and captured his mouth, plunging his tongue inside the moist, sweet cavern of Harry's mouth just as – 

Gods, gods, so – 

The smallest gasp against Snape's mouth, a brief pause, and then – 

Harry's tongue duelled with Snape's, he moaned and lifted, taking everything – 

Accepting and retreating in a slow, exquisite rhythm – 

Snape pulled back, gasping, and watched that beautiful face transformed by pleasure – 

"I, oh, oh god – " Harry panted. His hand wrapped round Snape's wrist, stilling it, then scrabbled across the sheet until it found a small packet. Tearing it open with his teeth, he withdrew the contents and pushed himself up on one elbow.

Snape stared at him. Harry smiled, uncertainty marring his features for the first time that night.

"I know we don't – I mean, I don't imagine you, and I – "

Snape shook his head, clearing away his stupor. "No. You're right. I – " He reached for the condom, but Harry held it away.

"Can I – " Harry's expression turned feral. "I want to do it."

"Merlin," Snape whispered fervently. Rolling onto his back, he closed his eyes.

"Look at me," Harry ordered.

I can't.

Snape felt Harry move to straddle him, the hair of the young man's inner thighs a silk tickle against Snape's calves.

Strong fingers wrapped around him and Snape did shudder this time as he felt the tight sheath envelop his length, then retreat.

Retreat?

Snape's eyes snapped open in time to see Harry's mouth descending on him for a second time. He stiffened as if struck by lightning, his whole body responding to the image and the sensation of snug, wet heat – 

Harry looked up, concern etched on his features. "Did I do something wrong?"

Snape blinked. "N – why?"

Harry's lips twitched. Snape noticed they were wet and swollen. "You yelled."

"Oh."

Harry smiled faintly and lowered his head again.

"No!" said Snape, and Harry grinned evilly. "I mean – " Snape groaned and his head fell back against the pillows, acknowledging his defeat. Harry sat up once more, then took the condom and rolled it inch by torturous inch over Snape's now-pulsing erection.

And then, without warning, Snape yanked Harry into his arms and tumbled him over, earning an undignified squeak from his partner.

"You're an unmitigated tease," Snape growled, nipping at his shoulder.

"No, m'not," Harry chuckled, running his fingertips up and down Snape's back, finally settling over the globes of his arse and squeezing hard. Snape squirmed in his grasp, and Harry used the opportunity to spread his legs wide.

Oh. Oh.

"Now. Please."

Snape sat up and reached for the tube again, and heat rose to his cheeks as Harry watched him apply the substance to himself. Finally lifting his head, he caught that pure gaze and held it for a long moment.

I'll hurt you.

It shouldn't be me.

I can't give you – 

Harry lifted one leg and rubbed it gently against Snape's arm.

"Yes," he said.

Snape took a deep, ragged breath, then placed Harry's legs against his shoulders. With infinite care, he positioned himself at the entrance and – 

 – Harry made no sound, but those trusting eyes widened – 

Stop. Stop.

"Don't. Stop," Harry gritted through clenched teeth.

"I – oh, gods – I have to – "

Harry made a sound low in his throat, a sound of anguish and pleading and frustration. His hands clamped onto Snape's hips and tugged desperately. "I need," he gasped. "I need – you."

The groan tore from Snape's throat as he surrendered, sinking slowly into madness as the boy welcomed him home.

And Snape stared down at the place where they were joined and wondered if he'd ever seen anything so perfect.

Harry's hands strained to touch him, and Snape leaned down, meeting him halfway in a devouring kiss. Harry shivered under him; Snape swivelled his hips, and Harry wailed in pleasure.

"Again," panted Harry, and Snape complied. Harry's body bowed, exposing the pale line of his throat, and Snape nuzzled it hungrily, burying himself fully as he did so.

Another hoarse cry rent the air; Snape's head snapped up. Merlin, he'd been too harsh, he'd hurt him – "Are you all right?" he demanded, taking in the flushed cheeks, the open, gasping mouth, the wild eyes, searching for signs of pain.

And then Harry actually chuckled. He took Snape's face between his hands and smiled.

"I couldn't be better," he said simply, claiming Snape's mouth in the sweetest of kisses.

"Harry," Snape breathed against his lips, the word an astonished confession.

Not James. Not anyone but – 

"Harry," said Snape again, descending into Harry's arms and giving in to their shared need, stroking into him deeply until they both shattered.

 

 

 

~~ XIII ~~

Harry stood under the pounding stream of water and sang at the top of his lungs.

He was not a particularly good singer, he knew, but this morning he didn't give a damn. Even the difficult and dangerous task ahead seemed less worrisome than it had twenty-four hours ago.

Nothing like a night of mind-blowing sex to rearrange one's priorities, Harry mused with a smile.

Stretching his arms over his head, he felt his elbows crack unpleasantly. He switched from bellowing to a tuneless humming as he soaped his body, wincing a little as he encountered various sore spots. Oh, but it was a good kind of sore, one which had him drifting off and reliving moments of such intensity that he found himself becoming aroused all over again. Soon, he knew he'd have to dispel the memories in order to focus on the job, but for a few minutes, he gave them full rein.

Inasmuch as he'd planned last night – and he hadn't, not to any great extent – he'd known that if he and Snape ever made love, there was no way he could betray the slightest hesitation, or the game would be off in a heartbeat. It hadn't proved to be particularly difficult to conceal the fact he was shit-scared; a lifetime of hiding his emotions from the Dursleys had taught him that skill. But he hadn't expected the way his hands and mouth and body had responded to the gift of the man he loved spread out beneath him, a warm, breathing sacrifice. Quite suddenly, he'd known where and how to touch him, as though the instructions were etched into Snape's skin for his fingertips to read.

And when Snape had come deep inside him – God, he could still feel it – Harry had looked into those black eyes and seen a spark of reluctant but exquisite joy that nearly made him weep. He felt privileged to be present at the rebirth of Severus Snape, and no matter what it took, he would fan that spark into flame.

"Harry! Open the bloody door!"

The insistent banging on the bathroom door finally penetrated his consciousness. Sticking his head out from behind the shower curtain, he flicked the latch. The door was flung wide, and Snape's scowling face peered around it.

"I can hear your caterwauling all the way downstairs. You're worse than a Kneazle in heat."

Harry waggled his eyebrows and grinned.

Snape cast his eyes heavenward, but his expression softened minutely. "I'm going back to the Phipps to collect those herbs. I'll return before the demonstration begins."

"Oh," Harry said. "Wait a moment; I'll come with you." So much for the morning after; Snape had been gone when Harry awoke, and now he was on his way out the door. The spark was clearly going to require a bit of fanning to ignite.

Snape raised an eyebrow. "That won't be necessary."

Lost in his own musings, Harry blinked. "Hmm? Oh. Well, I want to come. With you."

"You'll have to be ready in five minutes."

Now he frowned. "It's barely seven. The gardens don't open until nine." Suddenly it all came clear; Harry might be basking in the afterglow, but he wasn't completely gormless. "There's time."

"What for?" Snape snapped, then looked as though he immediately regretted the question.

Harry deliberately stuck out his lower lip as if in deep thought. Then he sucked it into his mouth. Snape's eyes widened marginally.

"Well, I'm not particularly hungry; never can eat anything before an op, or an important Quidditch match." This earned a grunt from Snape. "So food's out."

Bending down, he shut off the taps, then pushed back the shower curtain. Snape took a small step backward, colliding with the door as he did so.

Harry held up his hands and inspected them as he stepped from the tub. "M'nails look fine – no need for a trim or a manicure. And I don't have to do my makeup or style my hair." As if to prove his point, he shook like a retriever, his hair spraying water in all directions. Snape spluttered in indignation.

"What the bloody – "

Harry closed the distance between them, and suddenly pressed the length of his damp, naked body against Snape's not-quite-dry, clothed one. He was rewarded by a gasp.

"I'm fresh out of ideas," Harry admitted, leaning in to nuzzle the warm skin of Snape's neck where the Muggle shirt left it exposed. "You have any?"

When Snape remained unresponsive and silent, Harry traced Snape's jugular with his tongue. That tactic had been particularly effective last night.

"Harry," said Snape, attempting a firm tone.

"You were going to run away," Harry murmured, his lips throbbing in time with Snape's pulse. "But then you changed your mind."

"Oh, for Heavens' sake," protested Snape peevishly. His hands came up to bracket Harry's shoulders, but worked neither to push him away nor to pull him closer.

"So you came up here," Harry continued, nipping gently at Snape's chin, "to interrupt my shower."

"And why would I wish to do that?" drawled Snape.

Harry wrapped his arms around Snape's neck and pulled him close. "To get one more look at me starkers," he said blithely.

Snape's eyebrows shot into the stratosphere. "You're barking," he snapped.

"Mmm-hmm," Harry agreed, sealing his mouth over Snape's. Making no move to deepen the kiss, he waited for any sign of a reaction from Snape. He got it when one of Snape's hands rose to the back of Harry's head and tangled in his hair. Harry pulled back to suckle Snape's lower lip and Snape groaned.

"Harry," Snape managed weakly, as Harry began a determined attack on his shirt buttons.

"Hmm?" Harry planted a kiss in the center of Snape's chest.

"I – oh – last night – " He cleared his throat. "Last night was – "

"Wonderful. Amazing. Perfect," Harry said, cutting him off. He was suddenly desperately afraid that given the slightest opening, Snape would tell him it could never happen again.

That simply wouldn't do.

Slipping the last button free, he peeled back the sides of the shirt and placed his hands on Snape's quivering belly. "But now I want to see you in the daylight. And I want you to see me."

Snape sucked in a sharp breath.

"I want to look at my hands moving on your skin," Harry murmured, his fingers gliding up over Snape's shoulders and pushing the shirt off his body. Dimly, some part of Harry's brain was astonished that he was capable of saying these things, doing these things. But the part controlling his hands and mouth was shameless, hungry for more of what he'd experienced last night in Snape's arms. Determined to banish any doubts or recriminations Snape might be harbouring

At the moment, however, Snape gave no sign of harbouring anything but shock and desire: his eyes were wide, his face was flushed, his breathing was audible in the steam-filled room. Encouraged by his reaction, Harry took Snape's hand and guided it to his own chest, splaying it over his heart. Snape shuddered, but did not pull away when Harry let him go.

"I want to watch you touch me," whispered Harry.

"Gods." Snape's voice was jagged as broken glass. His fingers flexed against Harry's skin as if savouring its texture. The hand which had been cupping his head slipped to his shoulders and pulled him close.

"You're beautiful," Snape murmured against Harry's mouth. "And I'm a fool."

Harry wanted to ask about this last, but gave it up as a bad job when Snape kissed him.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Hey, Sunshine! Over here!"

Justin searched the crowd for the origin of that strident voice. He didn't have to search for long; Debbie may have been small in stature, but she was also fluorescent in hair. He grinned when he caught sight of her and wove his way through the PFLAG group to meet her.

"Brian didn't show, huh?" Debbie snorted. "I was kinda hoping – "

"He's up front. With my mother," Justin said, grinning.

Debbie's eyes widened. "You're shittin' me."

"Nope. She's having us over to dinner next Thursday."

"And he agreed to go?"

Justin leaned in close. "Don't tell anyone," he whispered.

Debbie laughed. "Cross my heart." She scanned the crowd again, her eyes full of concern despite her smile. Justin sighed.

"You're looking for Harry, aren't you?"

Debbie's mouth tightened. "Yeah. I suppose he's back home now, safe and sound. But I wish we'd found out some way to stay in touch with him. I'm worried about that kid."

"He seemed like he was able to take care of himself," ventured Justin.

"In some ways, sure. But did you see the way he looked at that 'professor' of his? That's trouble waiting to happen."

Justin opened his mouth, then closed it, unwilling to betray Harry's confidences. Debbie shot him a glare.

"Why the hell am I talking to you? You're the chapter president of the Older Guys Make Great Fucks Club."

"Hey!" Justin laughed. "That age gap is too much, even for me. I draw the line at two decades."

"Well, it's nice to know you have some standards," Debbie muttered. "Though I have to admit I kind of see the kid's point. I wouldn't mind serving a detention with him either," she mused, an evil smile curling her lip.

Justin's jaw dropped, but Debbie merely shrugged. "Hey. It's the voice." She scanned the crowd, which had begun to move, then jerked a thumb. "Looks like we're getting underway. I'm gonna go up front and help coordinate."

"Need a hand?" a voice asked from behind them. Justin turned and grinned widely when he encountered a pair of impossibly green eyes.

"Oh, sweetie!" Debbie exclaimed, pulling Harry into a brief, crushing hug. "We're so glad you're here! We thought you'd left already."

"Without saying goodbye?" Harry said. "Not a chance." He craned his neck. "Are all of you – here? Brian and Michael and Emmett?"

"Uh, well, Michael's joined Ben with the ACT UP group – they're just behind us. And Em – I'm not sure where Em is."

"GLAAD," Justin supplied.

"Right. They're further up, ahead of Amnesty. You want to talk to any of 'em?"

A flash of something Justin couldn't identify crossed Harry's attractive face, then disappeared. He shook his head. "No, that's all right. I'll pop round to see them after the protest. Oh, and I almost forgot. Snape's looking for his friend Marilyn. I don't suppose you've seen her?"

"I've never known Marilyn to go to a demonstration," Debbie answered. "But if I see her, I'll let her know he's here. Where are you two gonna be?"

"No!" Harry exclaimed. "I mean, you don't need to say anything to her. After all, Snape can visit her later. Look, I'll see you afterward, all right? Good luck." And with a final squeeze to Debbie's arm and Justin's shoulder, he was off again. Justin noticed he moved through the crowd in a straight line, as though he expected the people to move aside for him.

The funny thing was, it looked like they were.

"What the hell was that all about?" Debbie asked.

Justin wrenched his gaze from Harry. "I don't know."

"He seemed nervous. What's he got to be nervous about?"

"Debbie," the young man admonished, turning back to find Harry had disappeared entirely. "I don't think we have to worry about him."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Bloody bloody bloody bollocks.

A faint popping noise came from behind the kip. Snape strode across the alleyway and found Harry standing there, removing his wand from inside his shirt.

"You were supposed to be here ten minutes ago," Snape gritted.

"You try casting protection charms with an audience of thousands looking on," Harry growled. "Besides, they weren't in the same spot."

"Did you find out about Ian?"

Harry shook his head. "Debbie says Marilyn doesn't normally turn out for demonstrations."

"If your theory is correct, he will be in attendance for this one."

Harry's jaw set, and his gaze grew Gryffindor-fierce. "I need to keep them safe."

Snape resisted a ridiculous urge to smooth his hand down Harry's cheek. He clenched his own jaw instead. "Then let us begin." Reaching into one of the pockets of his trousers – hideous Muggle clothes, with hardly any storage room – he retrieved the small pouch of herbs he'd collected this morning at the Phipps greenhouses. He tipped the contents of the bag into his palm; a quick drying charm had made grinding and mixing the ingredients by hand much easier. Secretly, Snape admitted to a certain pleasure at being able to work under primitive conditions, far from his well-equipped laboratory.

"Should've bought some bottled water," Harry muttered as Snape measured out half into his cupped palm.

"Oh, for Merlin's sake," Snape huffed. Harry winked at him, and he sighed. Snookered again.

"Any words?" the whelp asked.

"No," said Snape, downing the small dose without ceremony. He swallowed, then watched with some satisfaction as Harry choked trying to copy him.

"Would you care for a slap on the back?" Snape asked sweetly, raising a hand high behind Harry, the palm stretched flat.

Harry shook his head vehemently while water squirted from his eyes.

"Oh. Did I fail to mention one of the herbs is quite – ah – spicy?"

"Spicy?" Harry wheezed. "Try fucking lethal!" He wiped furiously at his face, then leaned back against the brick wall of the building as he caught his breath.

Snape ignored the boy as he began to focus inward. He'd never used Volanimus with another person; the rumoured intimacy of the bond established, free from the constraints of the physical body, had been anathema to a man who was determined to hoard all the secrets he could. How had he ever agreed to do this with Harry Potter, of all people?

Oh. Yes. The brat hadn't given him any choice.

"Well?" Harry demanded testily after a few moments of silence. "When can we expect to – AAH!"

Suddenly, every nerve ending in Snape's body caught fire. The Dark Mark on his arm was not the only point of origin for the pain this time; his skull felt as though it were ready to split, cleaved by an axe point driven into his forehead. He gasped aloud, trying to draw oxygen into his searing lungs. Forcing his eyes to remain open, he watched with a kind of distracted interest as the ground rose up to meet him.

That damned baseball cap was looking more and more appealing.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Marilyn felt the burning in her wrist, and looked down.

The snake looked up, its blood-red eyes unblinking.

"Now," it said.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Bugger!"

"Please," Snape groaned, clutching at his head. "If you would be so kind as to think more quietly."

Harry slowly straightened, then reached out a hand and hauled Snape to his feet. "You can feel it."

"Yes." A deep breath. "He's here."

"Perhaps. Perhaps he's far away and inordinately happy. Whatever the case may be, it doesn't bode well." Harry rolled his shoulders experimentally; the pain from his scar was rapidly fading. "All right. Before he has another orgasmic fit, let's go." He closed his eyes and began to concentrate on leaving his body behind.

"Stop!"

Harry's eyes snapped open. "What is it?"

"Do you have the slightest inkling of what you are doing?"

Harry frowned. "I've had some experience in mind control techniques in my Auror training. I seem to remember you saw to some of it."

"Yes," Snape said slowly, as though he were restraining himself with great effort, "but this is not merely mind control. You will need to leave a portion of yourself behind or you may never return."

Harry nodded. "Fine. Tell me how I do that."

Snape snorted. "In one easy lesson." He shook his head and sighed. "This is foolish. I never should have – " Trailing off, he pursed his lips in a thin line. "Close your eyes. I shall have to show you."

Harry obeyed.

"Now. Reach for me with your mind."

Harry didn't bother to ask how best to accomplish this, for he knew Snape would only give him an enigmatic answer. He conjured an image of Snape in his mind, then devoted every last ounce of his energy to walking toward it.

In his mind, the Snape-image looked up and their gazes locked.

"Good," it said. "Now. Watch."

The Snape in Harry's mind was outlined by a bright flash of brilliant golden light, making him appear, for a brief instant, angelic. Harry fought back a laugh; then the warm, deep voice enveloped him, and he shifted his focus.

"While you are in the process of leaving your body, you will need to concentrate on the outside as well as the inside. Take a piece of yourself – any piece will do, but it should be one from which you do not wish to be separated for a long period of time."

"And how do I leave it behind?" Harry couldn't help asking.

The Snape-image raised an eyebrow. "Grasp hold of it and tug, Mister Potter." And before Harry could think of a suitable retort, Snape did just that. One hand plunged deep into his chest, releasing a blinding flood of that same golden light. When the light finally diminished, Harry could see that Snape was holding a small ball of – something, its form and edges indistinct, nebulous. As he watched, Snape turned it over in his hands, slowly, almost lovingly, as though he were absorbing its essence through his fingers.

Harry moved closer, reached out towards it. "What did you choose?"

Snape's face closed off completely at that. Jamming the ball into a pocket, he muttered, "It doesn't matter. You may choose whatever you wish."

And right then, Harry knew which memory he would select to return to. He suspected it was the same memory Snape had picked.

Lifting his right hand, he drove it into his body like a spear, and did not stop until he felt its fingers close around his heart.

~~ XIV ~~

Come back. Now.

Harry pretended not to hear, but Snape's voice in his head distracted him sufficiently that he careened through two shouting demonstrators in the IWW crowd. They abruptly left off shouting in favour of looking around in consternation.

What's the matter? thought Harry. Never been visited by a ghost before?

You're getting careless, Snape's presence warned him, and Harry cringed. There were definite disadvantages to this mind-sharing business, not the least of which was that Snape was aware of every single cockup.

Only when you're nattering at me, Harry shot back. I just want to check this lot.

There's no time – 

Wait! exclaimed Harry. He zoomed toward the head of the labour contingent; some of the most powerful union leaders in the country would be speaking at the demonstrations today, including the charismatic Emma Hernandez. Frankie had briefed them on both the rogue agents and the most prominent of the Pittsburgh protestors. He spotted Hernandez first, and behind and to her left, not twenty feet away – 

It's Radwanski. I've found him! The burly, rough-hewn wizard was the perfect choice to blend in with a group consisting largely of auto workers and longshoremen. His beady little eyes were fixed on Hernandez's back, as though he were trying to burn a hole in it.

Harry sailed over their heads, into the mass of people united under the ACLU banner. Frankie's hunch was right. They're targeting all the key speakers. They plan to take out the most vocal and eloquent leaders, leaving the movements in disarray. Conspiracy theories will abound; the Muggle government will get the blame.

Not to mention the entire wizarding community, Snape added.

At least they'll be up front. They're all headed toward the park.

Good. Time for you to return.

Harry stepped up the pace of his inspection. Soon. Just a few more minutes.

No, Snape barked at him. We've pinpointed as many as we can.

All but the most dangerous one, Harry growled. He sailed on at slightly above head-height, scanning faces as he went. What did it matter if they were beginning to blur?

We don't know that Ian is anything of the sort.

She is. You know she is.

Harry, Snape thought, and there was an edge of worry to it this time which startled Harry. Enough. The crowds are gathering in the park. I need you here.

I need you. A thrill shot through him at Snape's words, even though he knew they consisted of ninety-nine parts manipulation and one part sincerity. Well. You had to fall in love with a Slytherin.

Quite, Snape agreed.

Shit! Harry exploded, losing his focus and barrelling through another half-dozen protestors. Get out of my head.

Harry fancied he could hear Snape smirk. Impossible for the time being, I'm afraid. But the effect will diminish once you return to your body.

Very well, conceded Harry, changing his course. In a matter of seconds he could see the trees and greenery of the park beyond the sea of humanity crowding the street. Veering to his right, he headed for the alley he had left over two hours before.

It was more than a little disconcerting to watch one's self come into view, leaning serenely if vacantly against a wall as though nothing were amiss. Beside it, a fully conscious Snape looked up at him as he rounded the corner, as though he were visible only to the stern Potions master. Their bodies, Snape had told him, contained just enough of themselves to give the appearance of normality should anyone stumble upon them, but detailed conversations or movement would be impossible until they could return with their animating force.

Animus. Not for the first time that day, Harry wondered if human beings were no more than puppet-masters controlling a marionette. He'd already seen how traits, thoughts and feelings could pass from one wizard to another; now he began to consider the divisibility of the individual. How many parts did he contain within himself? Could they be detached and carved up at will, to be scrutinized, modified, improved?

I contain multitudes, he thought.

Snape snorted, but made no other comment. Grudgingly, Harry had to admit that the American baseball caps would not have caused him to ponder questions of existence and the definition of the soul the way Snape's method had done. Unfortunately, such an admission would make Snape insufferable for weeks.

Right, Snape told him. You'll need to reach out for the memory you left behind.

Fair enough. Harry could manage that. He made as if to stretch out nonexistent arms, and sought to pull the events of last night back into himself. Within moments, he was rewarded by a flood of thoughts, emotions, and sensations so intense he felt as though he'd been affected by a Time-Turner. He could see Snape's burning eyes, hear his groan as he slid further and further into Harry's body, felt the delicious weight of him as he collapsed against Harry's chest. Harry savoured once more the incomparable feeling of oneness he'd experienced after Snape's climax, when Harry had wrapped his arms and legs around him, keeping him close, keeping him inside where no one had ever been.

And Harry had thought, fiercely, as his fingers dug into Snape's shoulders, Never. Never want you to leave.

"Merlin," whispered Snape.

Harry sucked in a breath – 

 – and returned to himself. His limbs tingled, the surface of his skin crawled as with a thousand ants. He shook his head to clear it, and forced his body to move, turning to regard Snape.

"You heard that?" Harry said quietly, when he could remember how to work his voice.

Snape said nothing, merely stared at him, white-faced with shock. There were other emotions hidden under the mask, but Harry was too muzzy to try to sort them out.

"Well," he said crisply after another few moments of heavy silence, "best be at it, then."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

There was something Marilyn needed to remember, but the voice was making it difficult to recall.

Yes. Yes.

The excitement was building. Marilyn had always enjoyed excitement; there was far too little of it in Pittsburgh. There was that trip to New York she'd been planning.

 – Did I book the plane tickets yet? What day is this? Wait a minute – 

No!

Pain, lancing into her wrist and surging through her body, making her stumble. And for an instant, she could see again, and she remembered – 

 – that she had to fight, that fucking bastard how dare he just concentrate on being as angry as you can possibly be that's the only way to block the sonofabitch – 

 – the pain blinded her, filled up her nose and throat until she couldn't breathe, couldn't imagine a time when she knew how to breathe. And right before she blacked out, she let – 

 – go.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Five of six." Harry shook his head. "And two of us." He reached for the wand tucked under his shirt.

"And what do you intend to do with that?" Snape drawled, trying desperately to regain his equilibrium and failing. He needed time to think, dammit. How could he have known the boy would feel this way?

How could he have known that he himself would – 

"I intend to cast Immobilus on four of the five. Then I'll position myself beside Radwanski and wait for him to try something. You can keep searching for Marilyn. You're more familiar with her."

"You're going to casually swish-and-flick four separate times in a park full of Muggles," Snape said, flabbergasted.

Harry frowned murderously. "Do you have a better idea?"

"Yes. We reverse roles."

Harry regarded him carefully. "You know we're risking getting in shite with the Americans. Violation of their civil rights and all that."

"Mmm," Snape grunted. "Well, have you ever known me to be particularly concerned for civil rights, Mister Potter?"

Harry smiled. "Point taken."

"I can take care of the other wizards in a more subtle way." He extracted a vial from the pocket of his trousers and held it up. "Stunning Potion. It can be absorbed through the skin. A small daub of it over the jugular will work very quickly."

"You're going to go right up to them and carefully spread potion on their necks?"

Snape raised an eyebrow. Striding around Potter, he walked up behind him and laid his fingers on the young man's shoulder, one straying to the side of his neck at the same time. "I approach them thusly." Harry turned around and faced him, and Snape met the piercing green gaze. "Excuse me, aren't you Fuzzy Oathammer? We went to Eton together and had our arses whipped by the Headmaster? Oh, you're not? So sorry. Enjoy the demonstration."

Harry cleared his throat, but when he spoke his voice was still husky. "You'll have to use another chat-up line with the witches."

"Clearly." Snape paused, then realized his hand was still resting on the brat's shoulder. He made as if to lift it.

"Don't."

Snape froze.

"Kiss me – one more time," Harry murmured.

Snape fought not to betray a reaction. He was certain the boy had meant to say one last time.

Slowly, he laid his other hand on Harry's opposite shoulder. Harry's eyes widened.

"We'll survive this day," Snape said quietly. "Don't get maudlin."

Harry's mouth quirked. "Can't help it." he replied. "You bring it out. It's all that damned black you wear." He took a deep breath, then reached up to cup Snape's jaw. "I love – "

Snape cut him off with a harsh, bruising kiss that nearly suffocated them both.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

There was no more confusion.

Marilyn moved like a cat, weaving through the crowd effortlessly.

Muggles.

Vermin.

Where are the ones you seek? You know them.

"Yes."

In the distance, Marilyn could see the banners and flags, in the colours of the rainbow. No sign of Potter or Snape yet. But that didn't mean they weren't here.

They would be dealt with later. For the moment, there was only the task at hand. Her eyes scanned the crowd, searching for the targets...

There. Not far away, now.

The first one. But not the last.

Lavender hair. If only all of them were this easy.

Marilyn smiled. The snake curled around her wrist drew warmth from her skin.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Where are you?

There were a few seconds of silence. Then: I have succeeded with the others. Approaching Radwanski now.

Something's occurred to me, Harry thought at him. You'll stand out like a sore thumb in a crowd full of longshoremen.

If Snape could have produced a mental snort, Harry imagined he would have. I don't fancy you would have fared much better. But it doesn't matter. He's moved closer to the podium.

Then it's almost time.

Yes. A pause. Have you found Ian?

Harry's gaze swept over another section of the crowd, to no avail.

I take it that's a 'no'?

No.

I'll Stun Radwanski and come assist you, Snape thought.

For an instant Harry considered declining, then shoved the notion away angrily. This was no time for pride, or foolish chances. People's lives were at stake.

Yes. Yes, thanks. Come as soon as you can.

Snape sent him the mental equivalent of a nod, and Harry devoted his full attention to the desperate search.

"Harry!"

Swearing under his breath, Harry pasted on a smiling face and turned to greet Michael. He'd seen him, but hadn't the time to engage in conversation.

"It's great to see you again," Michael said, one hand going to Harry's shoulder affectionately. "Mom said you were here."

"Yes, sorry I couldn't visit, I've been a bit – preoccupied."

"Yeah, she told me you were looking for Marilyn."

Harry's eyes darted from Michael's face to the crowd ahead. This section of the parade had nearly reached the park now; the speeches would begin shortly, and then it would be too late...

" – to tell you she saw her earlier."

Harry's head whipped back round so quickly it nearly spun off his neck. "What did you say?"

"Mom wanted me to tell you I saw Marilyn earlier."

"Where was she?" demanded Harry.

"Up with Marty Collins, the ACT UP chapter president. I waved to her, but she didn't seem to notice me."

I don't suppose she would have, thought Harry. "D'you have any idea of where she might have gone?"

If Michael marked the frantic edge to Harry's voice, he gave no sign. "Well, the last time I saw her she was headed up the line – oh, there she is!" He pointed eagerly.

Harry turned back in the direction of the park toward which the line was inexorably moving. Toward the group of demonstrators just ahead of them.

And saw Marilyn in her finest Gypsy regalia, engaged in an animated conversation with Debbie.

"Your mother," breathed Harry, "she's – what's her position in PFLAG?"

"Oh my God," Michael said, laughing. "Don't ask her that, or she'll bend your ear until it falls off. She was elected chairwoman last month. Just imagine how crazy she was when she found out she'd be speaking today."

Harry said nothing, but inside him there burst forth a roar of rage so loud he knew that Snape would hear it.


 

~~ XV ~~

Wait, damn it all, wait.

Snape sped through the thick, suffocating crowd, his natural grace failing him as he collided with protestors left and right. Ignoring the epithets delivered to his retreating back, he plowed through the seething mass of humanity.

She hasn't seen me. Harry's thoughts, iridescent with anger, invaded his head. Snape let out the breath he'd been holding.

Concentrating all of his mental energy on reaching the boy, he projected his animus as far from himself as he could without losing contact with his own body. A portion of his soul sailed on ahead, and within seconds he could see – 

All right. Stay there. I'm not far. I'll come up behind them and to the left.

There isn't time, Potter insisted. I have to move now.

Snape bit back a curse, then forcibly calmed himself. The only way, he knew, would be to reason with him. You'll need to get close. Allow me to provide a distraction. Give me a few more moments to reach – 

Harry's thoughts sliced through his own. Shit.

Snape's heart shrivelled in his chest.

Debbie's spied me. She's waving madly.

Wait – 

Got to go. Wish me luck.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Hey, honey!"

Harry waved and began his approach. His wand was still safely tucked in the waistband of his jeans; when Marilyn spun to face him, he made sure to casually hike up his shirt, revealing an inch or two of stomach – along with an inch or two of wand. Thank the gods he'd had the sense to leave most of it unbuttoned when he'd begun his search; a split second would be all he'd need to draw.

Hurt her, and Imperius curse or no, you will regret it.

Marilyn caught the flash of holly wood; her dark, expressive eyes narrowed at the sight. Then, before Debbie could notice anything amiss, the drag queen resumed her previous, placid expression.

"Where's your Professor?"

"Oh, yes," Harry said to Marilyn, in as bright a voice as he could manage. "Professor Snape was looking for you."

"That's what I've been telling him," Debbie said, chuckling. "He wondered if he should be worried."

Harry raised his eyebrows. "Oh, I shouldn't think so. I think Professor Snape wanted to extend an invitation to you to visit England again. Have you been back since Oxford?"

There was a hesitation, as though Marilyn were fighting her way through an unseen barrier to reach her memories. Imperius, then, thought Harry. Without a doubt. Or some variation whose power is focused in the bracelet.

"No, I – haven't been back," Marilyn answered belatedly, her voice strained. Debbie shot her an odd look, but said nothing.

Keep him talking. Snape's mind touched his own unexpectedly, and Harry fought to keep the reaction from showing on his face. "That's too bad. The UK is much more – interesting these days."

Marilyn's eyes glittered, the pupils sharpening to diamond points. "Yes. So I've heard."

Sensing an opportunity, Harry shifted slightly. If he could distract Marilyn sufficiently, there might be a chance to inch close enough to protect Debbie with his own body. "Of course," Harry drawled, "I'm sure all of that – nuisance – will be cleared up shortly. We'll soon have things under control."

"You think so?" This time Debbie jerked at Marilyn's shrill, whipcrack retort. "There are others who would disagree with your assessment."

Careful, Snape warned. Harry's eyes darted to the crowd, and he breathed an inward sigh of relief when he caught a glimpse of the man no more than forty feet away, approaching with a careful balance of swiftness and stealth.

Debbie glanced from Harry to the drag queen and back. "Marilyn, honey," she began, soothingly, though there was a protective edge in her tone. She of course had no notion of the danger of the situation, and mistakenly assumed, like any good mother, that Harry was the one who wanted protecting.

Please, Harry thought fervently. Just stay out of it. Both of you.

Turning back to Marilyn, he shrugged, assuming a bored look. "Well, you know how it is," he said. "They're the worst sort of rabble, really. Rotten to the core. They're already crumbling fast; won't be long before they're nothing but a bad memory." He arched an eyebrow. "If that."

"You little upstart!" shrieked Marilyn. "Muggle-loving whore!"

"Hey!" The shout was Debbie's, and Harry's heart went into triple-time as she placed herself firmly between Marilyn and Harry, in a terrifying mirror of the situation Harry had hoped to create. "You lay off of him!"

Harry looked around her. Snape was now twenty feet away. Fifteen. He still hadn't been spotted.

Ignoring the furious woman between them, Marilyn hissed, "I know all about your escapades on this side of the pond, my boy. And soon, I won't be the only one. Do you imagine the leader of the rabble would be interested to know of your...activities? And with one of his lost sheep, no less?"

Harry's heart plummeted for his shoes. Even though Snape was no longer actively spying on Voldemort, the idea that the Dark Lord would somehow learn of their relationship was a chilling one. If Marilyn reported back – 

No time to worry about that. Focus.

Snape was now no more than arm's length from Marilyn, but he was in full view of Debbie. If Debbie said anything about his presence, the result would be disastrous.

As if there were much chance of anything but disaster at this point.

"What the fuck is the matter with you?" Debbie spat at Marilyn, her arms flailing at her sides. Harry watched Marilyn's gaze track the woman's furious movements, and knew all at once that this was the best opportunity he was likely to get. His own movement hidden from the drag queen by Debbie's body, he reached for his wand – 

 – and everything went to hell.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Justin caught the flash of intense green light out of the corner of his eye.

"Jesus," muttered Brian, shielding his eyes with a hand. "Somebody setting off fireworks in the middle of the day?"

Harry squinted in the direction of the light, which had faded, leaving an afterburn on his retina. He blinked several times and tried to focus.

When he could make sense of what he was seeing, he gasped.

"Fuck," Brian breathed, as they stood side by side.

Moving as one, they plowed through the bodies surrounding them.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape was unstoppering the vial of Stunning Potion when he saw Debbie fall to the ground, saw Harry – 

 – Harry – 

 – his arm moving in a furious yet graceful circle – 

 – his beautiful mouth forming the words – 

 – Finite Incan – 

 – a blinding flash of light that seemed to come too soon – 

 – Snape reached for the place where Ian's neck had been scant seconds before, and met nothing but air – 

 – screams of pain, but whose, damn it – 

He shoved aside the squirming bodies trying to escape what would have appeared to have been an explosion, and let out a surprised gasp as he took in the scene before him. There, sprawled on the pavement, writhed Ian, clutching at his arm, which was smoking rather unpleasantly and giving off a foul odour. The screams were emanating from him. Also on the ground, holding an unmoving Debbie in his arms, was an apparently unharmed Harry. His wand lay at his side.

Snape's heart resumed beating.

"I'm okay, and so is she," Harry said, inclining his head toward the woman half-lying in his lap. "I pushed her to the ground just before I cast the spell. I think the force of the spell-blast knocked her out."

"Spell-blast?"

"It backfired. Finite Incatatem should work for Imperius as well as anything, shouldn't it?"

Snape frowned, then turned and hunched down to inspect the still-screaming form at his feet. "Not necessarily," he said. It took a bit of effort since Marilyn was cradling her arm protectively, but soon Snape was able to wrench it free for a closer inspection.

Oh, God. The bracelet had turned white-hot, and was eating through the flesh. Snape caught the stench of charring meat full in the face, and bile rose in his throat. Without a thought to discretion, he swiftly drew his wand, shielding it as much as possible from onlookers with his body, and murmured the counter-curse.

"Absolverus." The bracelet immediately crumbled into powder and blew away. Marilyn's screams continued, but they did abate slightly.

"I've never heard of that," Harry said softly. "I wish I had – I wanted to help her, and I ended up – "

"Don't blame yourself," Snape said, cutting him off. "The Dark Lord frequently booby-trapped his – gifts. The spells binding them were not easily broken." That particular counter-curse had been devised by Voldemort himself, Snape recalled; the bastard was possessed of a considerable god complex.

"I should have waited for you," Harry persisted.

Snape pushed to his feet, but the stench stayed in his nostrils. "Leave it. This is neither the time nor the place. We have work to finish, and we cannot loiter here."

"All right," Harry said. He motioned to Debbie, who was now beginning to stir. "Just let me – "

"DEBBIE!"

Snape sighed as he looked up to behold two of Harry's American friends rushing toward the open space created by the fleeing crowd. "All right. Do what you will. I can take care of the rest of them on my own. But extricate yourself before the police arrive." And with that, he turned on his heel and strode away to lose himself in the throng.

 


 


~~ XVI ~~

Harry sat in Woody's nursing a pallid beer and trying to enjoy what would no doubt be his last night in America.

"Hey, cheer up," Justin told him, rubbing his arm consolingly. "Michael said Debbie's going to be fine. It was just a fainting spell, brought on by the heat, they think."

"Right – right," Harry replied, mustering a smile. "Sorry. 'M just – tired, I suppose."

"Well, all that sightseeing would wear anyone out. It's too bad you missed the demonstration, though. It was really something."

"Yes, I wish I could have been there." Harry took another sip of his beer. He was hardly an expert on Muggle affairs the way Mister Weasley was, but part of his Auror training had involved a section on "emergency containment," allowing him to perform Confundus charms and various other spells designed to cover his tracks. He had to gamble on the crowd – there was no way he was capable of Obliviating an entire park full of people – but then, he was unknown here, and unidentifiable through the normal Muggle channels, as were all Aurors. As far as the British government was now concerned, Harry Potter no longer existed, and hadn't for over a year now. Even his fingertips had been spelled to leave no prints.

No, identification would not be a problem, unless one of his new friends said too much to the wrong people. Even if it was unintentional, the full report on what had happened today could seriously damage US-UK wizarding relations. And so, although he disliked it intensely, he carefully Obliviated them so that no word of his or Snape's presence at the demonstration would leak out to the wrong parties. And of course, he made sure to do the same with Marilyn before the ambulance arrived; her promise while still under Imperius to inform Voldemort of Harry's and Snape's relationship frightened him more than he wanted to admit. If Voldemort found out, and tried to use the knowledge to exploit one or both of them...

Harry wasn't an idiot. It had occurred to him before this that his adversary could use anyone Harry cared for to further his own perverted ends. It had also occurred to him that while Snape, probably more than anyone he knew besides Dumbledore, had the skill and the stones to stand up to the Dark Lord, he was also peculiarly vulnerable to attack. Perhaps it hadn't been the wisest choice to fall madly in love with a former Death Eater who himself had fallen into disfavour with the most feared wizard on the planet.

Harry's mouth quirked slightly at that, and he raised the glass to his lips once more to cover it. Choice, fortunately or unfortunately, had had nothing to do with it.

"Harry, sugar, are you asleep or just drunk?" Belatedly, Harry realised that Emmett was standing over him, his hands on his hips, an amused expression on his face.

"Oh, sorry. Hullo, Emmett."

"'Hullo, Emmett,'" the tall man scoffed, holding out his arms. "Come here." Harry stood and was immediately enfolded in a hug. When he drew back, Emmett held him at arms' length and searched Harry's face. "Why so sad? Your professor didn't put out?"

Harry blushed in spite of his best efforts to control it. Emmett's eyes widened. "Well, good for you, sweetie," he said, patting Harry on the arm. "Where is he?"

"Ah – well, we did a little sightseeing in the countryside today. He's back at the – hotel, resting."

"Yeah, those old guys need their rest," Justin said, leering at Brian, who promptly flipped him the finger.

Harry joined in the laughter, but inside his gut was churning unpleasantly. In truth, he had no clear idea of where Snape was at this moment. After taking care of Debbie and containing the situation, he searched for Snape, then called out for him with his mind, but received no response. He panicked at that; the bond was supposed to last out the day. Once he left the park, he proceeded immediately to the safe house, and was relieved to find chattering, miffed House Elves – a sure sign of Snape's recent presence.

"Have you seen Severus Snape?" he asked the chief House Elf, a tough, scarred specimen called Morrie with a pronounced New York accent.

"Morrie saw him, yeah," the Elf muttered, "but Morrie ain't happy about it."

"Where did he go? Did he leave me a message?"

Morrie only grunted at that, then hopped over to the hallway table and retrieved a small envelope, which he passed to Harry without further comment. Harry immediately ripped it open and began to read the note contained inside.

The others have been released as Marilyn was. I am going to inform your dogfather of our findings.

S.

P.S. – I suppose it is futile to suggest that you Stay. Here.

Harry rolled his eyes at the postscript, then folded the paper carefully and stuck it in a pocket. Well. There wasn't much he could do to help things at this point. He'd already paid a visit to the hospital – at least his animus had – and discovered that while the doctors were puzzled, they weren't terribly interested in investigating the possible causes of Marilyn's burns. After all, as one of them muttered to his colleague outside of Marilyn's room, who knows what these perverts are capable of doing to each other?

Anger had washed over him, then subsided. For once, homophobia would work in their favour; everything would be kept quiet without the need for intervention, and Marilyn would receive medical attention, if of an indifferent sort. Perhaps later he could talk to Frankie about quietly transferring her to an American wizarding hospital.

And that was when it had struck him. Later was now. He should Floo to New York, deliver his report, and return to Hogwarts. The vacation was over. Everything was...over.

"Will the young master be needing me any longer?" Morrie enquired in his gravelly voice. Harry looked down at the House Elf, startled to realize he'd been standing there the whole time, probably watching the emotions play over his face with great interest.

"No thank you, Morrie. I'm going out. But if Professor Snape should return, please let him know I said that he could sod his postscript."

Morrie's own craggy face burst into a fearsome, toothy grin. "Now that is a message Morrie would be happy to deliver."

Harry shook himself like a wet dog, banishing the memory. "Sorry, Em," he said, looking up at Emmett. "Just woolgathering like mad. Don't know what's the matter with me."

Yes, you do, a small voice inside him said. Unfortunately, it was his own, not Snape's.

"Well, I have the cure for what ails you," Emmett told him. "Tonight, in honor of the biggest human rights demonstration Pittsburgh has ever seen, the gay community will be celebrating in its own inimitable fashion."

Brian leaned in, smirking. "By stripping down to its skivvies and shaking its collective ass."

Harry must have looked as confused as he felt, because Justin sighed and waved the others off. "Babylon is having a special 'Studs 'n Suds' dance tonight. Lots of bubbles, lots of water, lots of mostly-naked, incredibly hot men."

"Oh. Quite," Harry said, setting off another round of laughter.

Emmett nudged him with an elbow. "C'mon. You'll love it."

Justin smiled at him. "It's your last night here. What better way to say goodbye to America?"

And that was so absurd that Harry had to laugh this time. "Than taking off my clothes and dancing in the world's largest bubble bath? Sounds perfect to me." He hooked his left arm in Justin's and his right in Emmett's. "Off we go, then."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Woody's was largely deserted, most of its crowd having left for Babylon, when the bartender adjusted the television set to pick up the tail end of the eleven o'clock news. He wanted to be sure to catch the numbers for the latest Pennsylvania State Lottery draw. A couple of the patrons protested weakly at having their porn cut off.

"...and in a bizarre twist on the human rights demonstration this afternoon, a participant caught this strange luminescence on her digital videocamera. The data has been passed on to the police, but at this point they have no word on the identity of the parties involved, nor do they believe it to be an act of terrorism. It's not known if this was part of the protest, or merely a prank. Channel Five news has checked with the city hospitals, and it seems there were eleven cases of heat stroke among participants in the demonstration, two of them serious, and one case of third degree burns requiring hospitalization. We will keep you up to date on any developments in this mysterious case."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape was in Hell, and its name was Babylon.

And to make it sublimely infernal, Black was standing at his side.

"He's here?" Harry's godfather shouted, above the pounding din that passed for music.

"Welcome to our world," Snape sneered. The statement was more provocation than truth; Snape had rarely partaken of the bar circuit's charms, even when he'd been Harry's age. But his unwilling immersion in the homosexual community over the past week had had the unexpected side effect of rekindling his identification with that group, Muggle or no. There was a certain satisfaction to be had, after all, in fucking with the hearts and minds of straight people, of all varieties.

"How are we going to find him in this crowd?" Black demanded. "We don't even know he's here."

"He's here," Snape insisted, eyes scanning the ocean of squirming male flesh below them. There was certainly a great deal more skin displayed than usual, and every square inch of it was slick and glistening with soap, the planes and angles catching and reflecting the lights that pulsed and throbbed above the dancers in a relentless rhythm.

Snape's lip curled. So like the Americans to abandon all pretence of subtlety.

"I should go back to New York. It was silly of me to want to check on him," Black said, a hint of nervousness in his tone.

Snape caught the scent of a heterosexual male in denial, and pressed his lips together to keep from grinning evilly. "Don't worry, Black," he said coolly, tamping down any outward display of amusement. "A eunuch would be hard pressed to keep from becoming aroused in this atmosphere. There's no need to question your precious orientation. Once you buy yourself the latest issue of Playwizard and toss off successfully, this will all fade in your memory like a horrid dream."

Snape heard a strangled splutter, but made no answering comment. His gaze was drawn to a slowly revolving knot of young men, in orbit around a solitary figure in the middle of the dance floor.

Harry.

The central figure's head snapped up. Green eyes locked with his, and he gasped.

You're here.

Yes, Snape choked out, unnecessarily. The rhythm of the music, which had been merely an annoyance up until now, was suddenly in his bones and his blood and his heart.

Harry's thoughts invaded him. It's our last night in America.

It would – seem so. Evidently Harry wasn't aware of Black's presence.

Harry's green gaze bored into his. I know he's there. I don't want to go home yet.

Snape drew upon his tattered will power. We must. We should.

The rhythm permeated every cell of his body, urging him to move to the place where Harry was and take him in his arms – 

I can feel you wanting me.

Snape sucked in a ragged breath. His hands gripped the railing of the catwalk until the knuckles turned white.

One more night. Think of an excuse. Tell him you'll find me, that he can go back to New York, that we'll see him in the morning.

Harry's spine bowed back as he moved with the music; the muscles of his chest drew taut under the skin, gleaming with soap and perspiration – 

Imagine how good it could be with the two of us linked this way. Harry's mind caressed his, mimicking the sinuous actions of his body. I want to know what you're thinking when you take me. I want us to be together like this when you're inside me.

Snape's mind shrank back in abject fear. No.

You want it too, Harry persisted. Don't try to pretend you don't.

I don't, Snape insisted stubbornly, willing his traitorous thoughts to obey him.

Maybe you don't, Harry conceded after a few breathless moments. Because if we did then you couldn't deny you loved me.

"There he is!"

Snape turned to regard Black, feeling as though he were submerged in a vat of molasses. The annoying git was waving his arms at his godson madly, a huge grin splitting his face.

Snape groaned as he forced his painfully tight muscles to propel him forward.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry waved back at Sirius, pointed meaningfully toward the bar tucked under the catwalk, then smiled as Sirius nodded his understanding. Excusing himself with a few words to Emmett – not wanting to interrupt Brian and Justin in mid-snog – he headed off the dance floor.

Ordering himself a Coke, he wiped at his face with one of the cocktail napkins – that soap tended to sting the eyes – then downed the drink all in one go. He'd have to keep his wits about him tonight; in all the confusion, he'd forgotten that he and Sirius had never actually had The Talk about his sexuality. However, by the only slightly stunned look on Sirius's face as he descended the metal staircase, Harry suspected that none of this was coming as a great shock to his godfather.

If Sirius was uncomfortable in his surroundings, he gave no sign as he took Harry by the shoulders and grinned at him in a way that warmed Harry's heart. "You did well, lad," he said simply.

"I know you can't give me many details here," said Harry, "but were there any – incidents?"

Sirius shook his head, and Harry breathed a sigh of relief. "Went off without a hitch."

Harry leaned closer. "Arrests?"

Sirius spoke into his ear so as not to be overheard. "We have a few in custody. They're telling their stories at the Manhattan headquarters now. Sounds like what you suspected."

"Do you think anything will come of it?"

Sirius sighed. "Frankie's not sure. Perhaps, perhaps not. It depends on how willing the government is to listen."

Harry finally dared a glance at Snape, who was standing beside Sirius, tension written in every line of his body. "I'm glad no one was seriously hurt."

Snape frowned. "Ian?"

"Will be fine," Harry said. "But I want to talk to Frankie about having her transferred to a more – suitable location."

Sirius nodded. "We can arrange it tomorrow."

Harry turned to stare at his godfather, who smiled and gestured at the dance floor. "You're entitled to a party, wouldn't you agree?"

Harry schooled his features to calm. He wanted to shout. He wanted to scream.

He wanted to rip off every stitch of Snape's clothing and fuck him senseless in the back room.

Snape made a choking noise and called out for the bartender.

"Are you sure?" Harry asked Sirius.

Sirius reached out and ruffled his damp hair. "I daresay the world will be safe if you take a night off," he said.

Harry laughed, darting his eyes to Snape, who was drinking deeply of some form of unadulterated alcohol. "Don't be too certain of that," he grinned. Leaning close to his godfather, he murmured, "I'm sorry."

Sirius frowned. "Whatever for?"

"For not telling you sooner." He made a gesture encompassing the bar. "About me."

Sirius shook his head vehemently. "Don't be. I – I think I knew. I did know. And after I had a talk with Snape – "

"You what?" Harry exclaimed. He spun toward the place where Snape was standing – 

 – had been standing.

Bloody hell. This is ridiculous. Snape's irritated psyche sounded inside Harry's brain just as it registered the sight of Snape being dragged bodily onto the dance floor by a very determined-looking Brian and Emmett.

"Harry, we're borrowing your professor."

Snape's black eyes locked with his, and for the first time Harry saw a look that might be construed as pleading on the sharp-edged face.

Harry waggled his fingers in a farewell gesture. "Help yourselves."

Snape's expression turned murderous in an instant; Harry watched with unrestrained glee as they hauled him into the mass of writhing men. Long-fingered hands batted at Emmett's when the Southerner reached for the buttons on Snape's shirt.

When Harry could catch his breath once more, he returned his attention to Sirius. "So," he wheezed. "What did you and Snape discuss about me?"

"Well," Sirius said, appearing slightly uncomfortable. "You know Snape and me – grease and water."

"Sirius..." Harry warned.

"We didn't say a great deal, to tell the truth. I, ah, I suppose I wanted his advice on how to talk to you, and I bollixed it up."

"Because he's gay," Harry said. No point in playing dumb, he reasoned.

"Yes." Sirius's eyes narrowed. "How did you know?"

"Oh, the secret handshake, of course," Harry said. He held out a hand, then let it flop at the wrist.

"Stop that," hissed Sirius, casting a glance around.

"Sirius," Harry said, leaning in conspiratorially, "everyone here knows they're queer. You don't have to keep it a secret."

Sirius shook his head. "I'm terrible at this, I know. Snape's probably told you all sorts of horrid stories about me – "

"What stories?"

Sirius shifted. "I, ah, you remember the story of the Shrieking Shack?"

Harry nodded impatiently.

"Then you remember that your dad was the one to save Snape, to keep him from being attacked by Remus? Right, I see that you do. At any rate, after that happened, Snape and James became friends."

"They what?" Harry demanded, flabbergasted.

"Well, it was an odd sort of friendship, really. James was still one of us, of course, one of the Marauders, and in class he and Snape didn't treat each other any differently. But we'd see them from time to time on the grounds, or in the library, talking with one another. When we called him on it, Prongs flushed and said they were helping each other out. Snape was somewhat weak in Charms, and James never was much for Potions – "

" – like father, like son – " muttered Harry.

" – so at some point they decided to help one another with their schoolwork."

"Why is that such a horrid story?" Harry asked. "If that's all it was – "

"That's all it was as far as James was concerned," Sirius said darkly.

Harry's heart twisted inexplicably in his chest.

"But Snape clearly thought otherwise." Sirius cleared his throat. "At least it was clear to us."

"Us," Harry repeated mechanically. A drift of soapsuds gathered around his ankles and pooled at his feet. If he moved, he'd slip and fall for certain.

"Yeah." Sirius rubbed the back of his neck. "The rest of the Marauders. I was the first to see it, I suppose." He took a deep breath, then plunged ahead. "Snape was forever making sheep's eyes at James when he thought no one was watching. Hero worship, we imagined at first; after all, James had saved his life. Only James tended to inspire that kind of admiration in lots of kids, and this was – different."

"Different," Harry parroted again. "As in – "

"He was in love with him," Sirius said grimly. "We all knew Snape was a – that he was gay, y'see. It wasn't a great leap – well. Look, Harry, I was sixteen. And I suppose, if I cared to admit it, I was jealous of James spending time with Snape. It's no excuse, but – "

"You did something to him," Harry said, his voice sounding strange to his own ears. "To Snape."

Sirius hung his head. "Yeah. One night – "

"I don't want to know!"

Sirius opened his mouth, then closed it with a snap, temporarily silenced by his godson's outburst. As for Harry, his mind was screaming so loudly he imagined Snape could hear it. But for once, he didn't care.

Snape was in love with James.

In love with my father.

Suddenly, everything came clear as crystal. So why was his vision suddenly blurred?

"Harry – "

"Damned soap," he said angrily, wiping the back of his hand across his eyes. "I, uh, I'm feeling a little chilled. I should find my clothes..." He stalked off in search of his jeans, shirt and shoes, which he'd dropped over in a corner with Emmett's and Justin's.

"Harry – " Sirius was right behind him, following him, not letting him go – 

He had to go, had to find a quiet place to think, to sort this all out. Just because Snape had once been in love with his dad, and Harry looked quite a bit like his dad, actually – 

 – Oh, God – 

 – didn't mean that – 

"Harry, please stop! I – you must think I'm awful."

He shook his head, still rummaging in the pile of damp, discarded clothes for his own. Shirt...jeans. Good. He donned them hurriedly, then returned to the pile. Shoes...shoes...sod it.

"Harry, I'm not that person any longer! Please." Hands gripped Harry's arms as he turned. "I swear I will do whatever I need to do to earn your respect."

Harry finally looked up at his godfather. "I know that, and I appreciate it. And I don't think you're awful. I just need – some – I'm tired, Sirius. I'll – I'll see you in New York in the morning, all right?" And giving the man a brief, fierce hug, he headed for the door. He wanted to say good night to his friends, but Snape was with them, and he couldn't face him. Not right now.

His feet sliding on the slick floor, Harry made for the exit as quickly as possible.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 – "All I saw," Marilyn said quietly, "was that he was barefoot, and in tears. And he was running away."

"From Voldemort?"

"No, darling boy. From you." – 

Snape's mind reached for Harry's, but he knew even before he made the attempt that he'd receive no response. Ignoring the protests from the men around him, he dove into the crowd, his shoes slipping in the soapy water covering the dance floor, watching in horror as the boy disappeared out the door and into the night.

Rounding on Sirius, he snarled, "What did you say to him?"

"I – I was telling him about – " Confusion reigned over Black's features. "About you and James at school. Your friendship. And about – what I did."

"Bugger!" Snape's hands clenched into fists at his sides, even as his blood ran cold at the implications. "Why did you even bring it up? Why must you Gryffindors pour out your confessions on unwilling ears?" Without waiting for an answer, he whirled around and made for the door through which Harry had escaped.

Dear Merlin, Harry, please hear me – 

 – It's you. It's only you.

"Wait!" Behind him, Black struggled to catch up. "I think he just wants to be alone."

Snape didn't slow his steps. "He is in mortal danger. Never mind how I know. I know."

"Bloody hell," breathed Black.

"I sincerely hope so," Snape muttered grimly. "It's precisely what I deserve."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Harry's in trouble."

"Fuck. Not again."

"Brian. You're a superhero, remember?"

"I'm on vacation. I'm hanging up my cape."

"Come on."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The bracelet Harry wore winked in the pallid light from the streetlamps, the intricate phoenix feather design etched into the gold seeming to glow with its own inner fire. He'd received several compliments on it tonight, but he wasn't thinking about those now.

In fact, he wasn't thinking about much of anything as he walked down Liberty Avenue, heedless of his direction or his destination. His mind, his heart, his rapidly cooling feet – they all felt numb, dulled to sensation. Eventually he knew he'd have to think, but right at this moment, he was hoping to put it off for as long as possible.

When the blow came, he barely felt it.


 

 

 

 

~~ XVII ~~

He was certain he'd never be warm again.

His skin was frozen, clinging to his body only by force of habit. He couldn't feel or see or smell anything, could only hear the occasional sound: the whisper of a breeze, the slamming of a door – 

 – the hoarse, rattling breath of a – 

 – no, no, can't be, no, they're all dead – 

 – louder now – if he could feel, the breath would be battering his face; if he could smell, there would be the stench of death – 

 – "Hey! Get offa him! Not yet, they said! Not yet!"

And then the cold reached his heart and gripped it tightly, so tightly – 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Brian didn't know who was screaming in his ear, but as soon as he could remember how to work his arms he was going to punch the son of a bitch.

"Brian!"

Brian twitched like a landed fish. Stop it. Stop it stop itstopit, he said.

Or maybe he didn't. The words weren't making it from his brain to his mouth. Okay, try something simpler – 

"Shhh! Shhh! Shhhhhhh!" Well, at least his lips and lungs were still working. He used those fairly often, be a shame to have them out of commission.

"Oh, thank God," the voice was yelling now. "He's moving. How's Harry?"

Harry? Who gave a shit about Harry?

Oh, right, they did. That's what had gotten them into this mess. At least he thought it was a mess. The screaming and the pain and the lack of functioning limbs were all solid clues pointing in that direction.

Not for the first time, it occurred to Brian that things would've been a hell of a lot easier if he'd succeeded in blowing his brains out with Dad's shotgun when he was seventeen. But he never was able to get the hang of pulling the trigger with his toe. You'd think a seventeen-year-old would be what was the word, limbic? Timber?

Sleep, a voice in his head told him. He listened.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"What did he say?" Emmett asked.

"I think it was 'toe'," Justin answered. He swept a hand over Brian's sweating brow, careful of the bruise that was beginning to darken.

"He may have a concussion," Emmett persisted. "You'll have to wake him up, honey."

"I'm trying," Justin shot back, tamping down the wave of panic that threatened to break over him.

"Don't whisper at him like you've been doing," Emmett suggested calmly. "I know he's probably got a headache, but there's nothing you can do about that. Come on."

Justin took a deep breath. "BRIAN! WAKE UP!"

"AAAAAH!" Brian sat up as though he'd been shot through with five thousand volts. Then, face crumpling inwards in pain, he turned to the side and retched.

"Christ," breathed Emmett, while Justin, feeling helpless, stroked his lover's back with small circles.

After a couple of minutes, Brian straightened slightly and placed his head in his hands, elbows propped on his bent knees. "Fuck." One eye opened and attempted to focus in the poorly lit room. "Anybody else here besides you?" he asked Justin.

"Emmett and Harry." Justin's hand continued its soft stroking. "What happened to you?"

"I wish I knew. I feel like I've been run over. Where the fuck are we?"

Justin shook his head. "No idea. Em and I woke up here about ten minutes ago. It's three thirty in the morning, so we lost about two and a half hours."

"How did we get here?"

Emmett huffed out a breath. "Justin and I have been trying to figure that out. After we followed Snape and his friend into that alley, I remember finding it empty. We called out for them – "

" – and then it suddenly went really cold, like we'd walked into a freezer," Justin added.

" – and then it got dark," Brian finished. "Yeah, I remember, too. You called out to me – "

Justin smiled. "And you told me you were there."

"And then we were knocked out," Emmett finished. "I don't remember anything else, but you look like you've been worked over, Brian. Do you have any memory of what happened to you between now and then?"

Brian tried to recall the past couple of hours, but thinking hurt. "I think – " A series of images came to him, the wisp of a memory. "I think I woke up earlier."

The flash of a boot before it connected, then the force of the impact reverberating through every square inch of his body. Pain radiating outward from the point of contact, spreading like a blast wave.

Muggle fag.

"Yeah," he rasped, as he felt the ghost of another boot slam into his shoulder. "I woke up too early." He attempted to turn his body to face Emmett, but various muscles and nerve endings screamed in protest. "Is Harry okay?"

"He's breathing and doesn't seem to be hurt, but he won't wake up," Emmett said. "He's still shivering like crazy. We're not sure – "

Right at that moment, there was a heavy crash and inarticulate shouts which seemed to be coming from outside the room. Justin held his breath as the noises came closer.

Damn it. He'd been so concerned about Brian and Harry, there hadn't been time to search the room for something that could be used as a weapon.

"What the – " Brian began, and then the door at the far end of the room burst open. A blinding flash of light caught Justin square in the eyes, and he cursed and shielded them with his hand, trying to make out what was happening.

There were a couple of dull thuds; as abruptly as it had come, the light disappeared as the door slammed shut again. Justin heard a weak moan, then silence.

"Who's there?" Justin demanded. Keeping to a cautious crouch, he inched closer to the door.

A deep voice emerged from the gloom. "Is Harry with you?"

"Professor Snape?"

"Answer the question, boy," snapped the voice.

Yeah. Definitely Snape. "He's here," sighed Justin. "With Emmett." As Justin drew nearer, he could see another shape struggling at Snape's feet as the tall man rose. "Is he okay?"

"No," Snape said curtly, and swept across the room toward Harry and Emmett.

Justin stared incredulously after Snape for a moment, then turned toward the groaning man lying on the floor.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Alive. Alive. He's alive, Snape's mind babbled. The pain in his ribs faded, leaving him feeling oddly lightheaded.

"Harry," he whispered, one hand reaching out to touch the softness of Harry's hair, heedless of the watchful eyes of the man who was holding Harry in his arms.

"He won't wake up," Emmett told him. "Just shivers now and then. I've been trying to keep him warm. Does he have a medical condition?"

"Yes," Snape answered. "He's allergic to Dementors."

Emmett frowned. "Is that like asthma?"

Snape shook his head. "Not exactly."

Sirius and Snape had barely made it out onto the street when they saw Harry being dragged into an alley by two shadowy figures. Rushing to the scene, Snape arrived just in time to watch one of them Disapparate with a limp Harry over his shoulder.

And then there were suddenly...more of them. A great many more. And something else besides, a presence that chilled even his stone heart.

His last conscious thought had been, Well. Apparently we didn't manage to kill them all.

They awoke to find their wands had been taken; Snape knew he hadn't fought as well as he might have, but there had been solid reasons for it. If Harry had been kidnapped, the easiest and swiftest way to find him would be to allow the same fate to befall him.

And if he were dead, or worse than dead...in that case, the same fate would be a blessing.

Black had been with him, of course, and it seemed he'd borne the brunt of the beating they received at the hands of their captors. Snape had been rather surprised to find that the thrashing had been carried out Muggle-style, with fists and feet. Rather crude, really. It had been too dark for Snape to make out faces, but then he doubted he'd recognize any of them. The voices that occasionally shouted at him had harsh American accents.

If Snape still believed in anything resembling a higher power, he would have taken a moment to thank it now, for the search that had been performed on himself and Black had been as crude as the beating. It had failed to turn up the two small pouches which Snape had magically hidden inside the Muggle clothes he wore. Sometimes, his paranoia paid dividends. He reached inside his shirt now, touching his fingers to the spot where he knew they resided. Keyed to respond to his touch alone, first one, then the other fell into his waiting palm.

"What's that?" Emmett asked, helping to shift Harry to Snape's arms when Snape reached for him.

Snape pocketed the remaining supply of Volanimus mixture and set to loosening the drawstring round the top of the second pouch. "A healing elixir," he murmured, unstoppering the small tempered glass vial. "A few drops should restore him." Unless his soul has been sucked out through his mouth, he was tempted to add, in which case he will never wake up again.

Emmett snorted. "Magic potion, huh?"

Snape's head snapped up, his gaze locking with the American's. After a moment, Emmett frowned.

"What are you waiting for?"

Annoyed at his own suspicious nature, Snape bent to his task once more. He covered the top of the bottle with one finger and turned it over gently. A drop wet his fingertip; he righted the vial again and replaced the cork. Then, he raised his finger to the boy's mouth and lightly dabbed the substance onto his lips, his closed eyelids, his scar.

Harry stiffened in Snape's arms, his limbs rigid as tree trunks, and he drew in a harsh, gasping breath.

His eyes flew open.

"Guess it works," breathed Emmett.

"Where does it hurt?" Snape demanded, while Harry blinked up at him, emerald eyes attempting to focus.

"He didn't seem to be injured anywhere. We checked."

Snape bit back an angry retort. Whatever he might think of these Muggles, the fact was that they had obviously done all they could to help Harry. Unfortunately for them, their foolish urge to protect him had landed them in the worst trouble of their lives. Not that they were currently aware of this.

"D – De – " Harry stuttered. "Dement – "

"I know," Snape told him quietly.

"Th – thought they were g – gone."

"So did I," Snape agreed. "But it would seem as though some of them have – emigrated."

"S – Sirius?"

"Here with us." He didn't bother to mention Black's condition, partly because he hadn't bothered to ascertain its gravity, and partly because he didn't want to add to Harry's already stressed state.

Another violent fit of shudders wracked the boy's frame. Snape adjusted him in his lap so that his arms could provide more warmth.

"I'm – okay," Harry gasped. "Just – c – cold. In a few minutes I'll be r – right as r – rain."

"Hey," Justin called. Snape raised his head and speared the lad with his most penetrating glare.

It didn't have the desired effect. "That stuff you just used," the young man continued. "Does it work on bruises and other injuries?"

"Justin? Are y – you here?"

"I'm here," Justin replied grimly. "I wish we weren't."

"W – who's hurt?" Harry demanded weakly.

"Brian and the man who was brought in with Snape."

"S – Sirius? And B – Brian?"

Irritation rose in Snape. For one irrational moment, he wanted the people around them, the Dementors, the bastards who had brought them here, Voldemort, the whole bloody world, to go away, to disappear. He wished he could – he wished – 

Dear God. He hadn't wished for anything in over two decades.

"I'll be all right," Harry was saying, his voice as firm as he could make it. "They need you more."

Snape faltered, the shock at his undisclosed revelation overwhelming him. "But you – "

Harry reached up and laid a hand on Snape's chest, palm cupped as if cradling his heart.

"Please."

Snape drew a ragged breath, his composure deserting him entirely for a moment. When he raised his head and looked at the Muggle, the man gave no sign of having witnessed his lapse, although Snape knew he had.

"Hold him," ordered Snape. "Keep him warm."

The Muggle nodded gravely, and Snape forced his arms to yield their burden.

  ~~ XVIII ~~

Harry spent several minutes practising a technique of ancient Eastern healing magic, a mantra which helped to restore balance in his electromagnetic field. Poppy had attended a convention in Tibet last year, before the escalation of the war, and had returned with all sorts of ideas which were received with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Sirius, being Sirius, had pounced upon the simpler healing techniques, predicting that there would be times in the field when medical assistance was not readily available.

This was definitely one of those times. He didn't even have so much as a square of chocolate to help him along.

When the chant was complete, he made a quick inventory of his condition. The shivering had nearly stopped, and he was definitely feeling warmer. The effect of the initial curse had worn off, and his senses seemed to be functioning at a level approximating normal.

He turned his head and observed Snape tending to Brian's ribs, which even in this dim light appeared bruised and battered. He'd been badly beaten, from the looks of things, but why? Why had their captors – no doubt minions of Voldemort – bothered to take the three Americans? There was no obvious explanation for it.

Sirius, Harry noted with relief, was beginning to stir; Snape must have ministered to him first. Forcing his gaze back to Snape, he saw that Snape's movements lacked their usual fluidity. He'd been hurt as well, but Harry was willing to bet he hadn't used any of the elixir on himself yet. It was an even bet whether this was due to the fact that Snape possessed a hidden well of altruism, or whether it could be attributed to sheer bloodymindedness. Harry's Galleons were on the latter option.

He tried not to think about what he'd learned right before the attack. There would be plenty of time afterward – he hoped, at any rate – to sort out exactly how Snape's history with James Potter (Harry tried not to think of him as "my father" in this particular context) fit into the scheme of things. And it would take time, for Harry knew damn well that extracting personal information from Snape would be more difficult than prying the secrets of the universe out of a sphinx.

Perhaps he could work it into a casual conversation. Lovely weather we're having. And by the way, remember the other night, when you buggered me? Well, I don't suppose you were thinking of my dad at the time, were you?

Harry winced involuntarily. He'd have to put in a bit of work on the topic change.

Ignoring the residual tremors in his extremities, he pushed himself to a sitting position, then shifted away from Emmett so that he could attempt to stand.

Emmett's hands immediately went to his shoulders, both to support him and to lightly restrain him. "Whoa, there, honey. Are you ready to fly solo?"

Harry nodded. "I think so. But I wouldn't say no to a hand up."

"All right then," Emmett said, sounding unconvinced. He stood and gripped Harry's arm. "Up you come."

"If you're giving out blow jobs," Brian called, "sign me up for the next one."

"I think you need to conserve your strength," Emmett shot back. "Save that protein for a few more hours."

Harry couldn't stop a chuckle at the exchange. Sirius opened his eyes at the sound and tried to push himself up on his elbows. "Harry!" he said, his voice stern but weak. "You shouldn't be – "

"Neither should you, Black," Snape bit out, without looking up from his current charge. "That potion needs at least a half hour to work through your system." He darted a glance at Harry, but it was too dark for Harry to discern his expression.

"I didn't realise you'd been appointed Matron," sniffed Black. "It's a step down from the other job you've been pining for, isn't it?"

Snape bristled. "Feel free to ignore my advice. At this moment I would like nothing better than to see you – "

"Oh, shut your gobs, both of you," Harry snapped. "We haven't time for arguments. Did any of you see who took us?"

"No," Snape replied, after a brief pause.

"Neither did I," Harry sighed. "But I suspect they're not terribly organised. That may work to our advantage."

Sirius raised his eyebrows and seesawed his eyes in their sockets in the unmistakable not in front of the Muggles gesture. Harry sighed. "Look, my brain isn't functioning well enough to come up with witty euphemisms. Besides, I need to show you both something, and I'm not about to ask them to turn their backs."

Snape regarded him levelly. Sirius grimaced, but nodded. Harry touched the golden bracelet on his wrist; a brilliant light erupted from it, and he caught it as it transfigured back into its original shape.

There was a moment of charged silence, which was finally broken by Emmett's voice. "Would someone mind telling me what the fuck just happened?" he enquired sweetly.

Harry hefted the wand between his fingers as Snape and Sirius continued to stare, dumbstruck. Eventually, Sirius managed to say, "This changes the plan somewhat."

Snape snorted. "You had a plan? The mind reels."

Harry grinned. "So, what do you say we get the hell out of here?" He pointed the wand at the door.

"Stop!"

Harry was brought up short by Snape's harsh shout. Snape was on his feet now, and even in the semi-darkness Harry could tell his eyes were spitting fire. "I will do you the courtesy of assuming your impetuousness is due to your weakened condition rather than a congenital defect. But do attempt to marshal your functioning brain cells. What do you suppose is on the other side of that door?"

"A Dementor," said Harry, his teeth grinding together.

Snape crossed his arms. "And at least one other wizard, and possibly several others."

Out of the corner of his eye, Harry noticed the Americans react to the word 'wizard'. Thankfully,

however, they did not interrupt the conversation. "I can – "

"You cannot," Snape insisted, his voice flat and hard. "Remember, Black and I are still unarmed, and thus of no use to you. Even famous bloody Harry Potter cannot produce an effective Patronus and defend himself against attack simultaneously. "

Justin leaned close to Brian. "I know they're speaking English, but..."

"Do you have a better idea, then?" Harry asked, frustration gnawing at his innards.

"Barely better," admitted Snape, "but more likely of success." Reaching into a pocket, he removed a small, familiar-looking pouch.

Harry's brain pounded against his skull as if demanding its freedom. "The Volanimus."

"There should be enough for all of us, as you and I will only need to take reduced dosages."

Harry frowned, desperately trying to think, to understand. "But that won't get us out of here."

Snape set his jaw. "No. Our bodies will not be protected against the killing curse. But I do not suspect they intend to kill us."

Harry's heart made the connection before his mind did; it beat wildly, fluttering in his chest. And then he understood.

"Oh, God," he breathed. That explained why his friends had been taken as well.

The Dementor was hungry.

"But will that work? We're to leave a piece of our souls behind. If the Dementor latches onto that piece – "

" – it will probably be able to find the rest of it," Snape agreed. "That is why we must remove ourselves completely from these bodies."

Harry shook his head. "I thought you said we might never be able to find ourselves again if we did that."

Snape's eyebrow quirked. "I did mention that this plan was 'barely better' than yours, I believe. I made no false claims for its brilliance. It merely seems the best of a bad lot."

Harry's gaze moved to Sirius, who had gone paler than before. It hadn't been so very long ago that he had faced the Dementor's Kiss, and Harry felt for him. "What do you think?" he asked.

Sirius swallowed. "Much as I hate to admit it, I think Snape has our only option. But you should still keep your...wand handy."

"Mister Potter," Snape purred, obviously pleased with his victory over Sirius, "would you like to do the honour of explaining to your friends what must be done? I should hate to have to Petrify them and force it down their throats."

"Thank you, Professor," muttered Harry, aiming a silent curse in his direction. With great reluctance, he turned toward Justin, Emmett and Brian, whose faces were registering varying degrees of astonishment, annoyance and trepidation.

Harry clapped his hands together. "Well! I'll give you the short version, shall I?"

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape was ready for death. Anything would be preferable to this.

"So let me get this straight," Brian said slowly. He had been appointed unofficial Muggle spokesman by default, as the other two seemed to spend a great deal of time with their mouths hanging open, thus making speech difficult.

"You're wizards."

Harry nodded.

"And you have magic wands, and you can cast spells."

Another eager nod.

"That crap Snape just rubbed on me is a magic potion."

Yet another nod. It was amazing the head didn't simply detach itself from the neck.

"And you want us to eat something that will separate our souls from our bodies, so that when this Dementor kisses us, we won't get them sucked out through our mouths, to be lost forever."

"That's right," said Harry, encouragingly.

"I only have one question."

"Certainly. Ask anything you wish."

Brian leaned forward and indicated the wizards with a waving finger. "Who supplies your shit? Because you've obviously got your hands on some serious narcotics, and I might want to become a customer."

Snape's right hand fidgeted, frustrated by its emptiness. Oh, for a wand, any wand...

Harry sighed and looked at Snape and Black in turn. "Should I?"

"You'll have to," Snape said, before the other man could reply. "This requires their cooperation."

"Show them a Patronus," Sirius suggested.

Snape's gut clenched as Harry hesitated. One of Black's greatest shortcomings was the inability to see past his own nose. Could he not understand that the spell would rob Harry of his already depleted energy reserves?

"I'll do it," Snape said. "Give me the wand."

The blasted brat had the audacity to look upon him with pity. "You're not in any better shape than I am," he muttered stubbornly. "And he's right, it's an impressive spell."

Snape took an involuntary step forward. "Harry," he murmured, aware that Black would find the use of the name unusual. "Please. Allow me to do this." For you.

Harry's green gaze skewered him like a bug, as though he had heard the unspoken words. Snape held his breath. "All right," Harry said finally, holding the wand by its tip and offering it to Snape.

It was with no little satisfaction that Snape clutched the holly wood, still warm from Harry's hand, and gave it an experimental wave. A shower of green sparks shot out the end, and two of the men twitched. Snape's mouth thinned. "Watch closely, now," he instructed the Muggles, as thought he were demonstrating to First Years.

If he was going to die, he might as well have a spot of entertainment beforehand.

"EXPECTO PATRONUM!"

It had been some time since he'd performed the Patronus, as the last Dementor had disappeared from Britain nearly a year ago. Snape was thus pleased to see a fully-formed Hungarian Horntail burst from the end of the wand, its great wings beating, its massive tail scissoring back and forth. It reared up directly in front of the Muggles, then raised its head and shot silver fire at the ceiling.

"Fucking Jesus Christ!" yelled Justin, retreating swiftly, trying to drag his friends with him. Emmett was completely frozen, as unmoving as if he were carved from marble. But Brian's reaction was quite unlike that of the others, and not what Snape had expected.

A small smile curving his sensual mouth, he stood his ground without flinching and murmured, "I'll be goddamned."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Emmett held the crushed herbs in the palm of his hand and stared at them blearily. "So," he said brightly. "This is it, huh?"

Harry touched Emmett on the arm, and he raised his head. It was odd to see the normally confident man with the wind knocked out of him, but this was understandable considering his entire worldview had just been turned on its ear. "I don't have any right to ask you to trust us," Harry said quietly. "I can only tell you that this is the best option we have."

"I know, sweetie," Emmett said reassuringly. "It's just that – I've kind of grown attached to my body. Mind you," he added with a self-deprecating smile, "I've fantasized about nipping and tucking various parts of it over the years, but it's still mine, y'know? I'd hate to leave it behind forever – while it's still got some perfectly good miles left on the odometer."

Harry locked gazes with him. "I will do everything in my power to keep you all safe."

Brian stepped up behind Harry and rested his head on his shoulder. "Those comic books have gone to your head," he murmured into his ear. "And you," he said to Emmett, "take your medicine like a good boy and shut the fuck up."

"I thought you'd be the last one who'd be willing to leave his dick behind," Emmett retorted.

"On the contrary, old chap," Brian said in a mock-English accent, "I take the attitude of the Zen masters. To wit: when you gotta go, you gotta go."

Harry shoved Brian off and spun to face him. "We don't need that attitude now," he growled. "There isn't much time."

"Stiff upper lip, Hero Boy?" Brian said, unfazed. "Relax. I don't want to die any more than you do." He speared Emmett with a look. "But I'm not afraid to die. I don't guess you or your pals are, either. So quit giving us the stirring speeches and tell us what we need to do."

Without another comment, Emmett opened his mouth and downed the handful of herbs.

"All set?" asked Sirius. He had recovered nicely and was now assuming his Tone of Command, a fact which probably annoyed Snape no end.

"I don't feel any different," Emmett noted. He held up his hands in front of his face, as though expecting to see his soul peel away from the flesh.

"It's not so much a feeling as a – " Harry began, but he lost his train of thought when two things happened simultaneously.

First, a cacophony of thoughts invaded his mind, as the potion took effect and the unfiltered thoughts of the other men in the room came crashing in on him.

And then the pain struck his scar and rebounded through his body.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape's Mark was ablaze.

Shut. Up, he commanded the yammering voices in his head. Amazingly, they fell silent.

Harry.

Yes. Faint, as though he were hundreds of miles away, rather than a few feet. I'm OK.

We shall communicate through this means, Snape informed the others. Wait for instructions, and then follow them to the letter. He tried not to think about the fact that he was now responsible for the lives of five men, three of whom were Muggles who had never practised magic before.

And one of whom was Harry.

Harry? It was the young one, Justin. I just wanted to say, thanks for the roses.

In the faint light, Snape caught a flash of white teeth. You're welcome, replied Harry.

There was the sound of locks being turned, and then a seam of blinding light opened around the door.

Snape's hands curled into fists as he awaited his fate.


 

~~ XIX ~~

Three men entered the room, a shorter one bookended by two gargantuan specimens. Harry willed himself to ignore the pain; he'd done so often enough. But something was off. None of these men was Voldemort, he knew it.

Snape knew it too. He's not here.

Then where? Harry replied. It isn't like Voldemort to wait in the wings.

The centre figure waved a wand, and the room erupted in light. Harry blinked rapidly; as he focused, his eyes nearly popped loose from his head.

"Bloody hell," he muttered. "If it isn't Tweedledee."

It was the CWA agent known to Harry as Number Two. He'd had a suspicion about the oily bastard from the first.

Yes, you are vindicated. Focus.

Harry set his jaw, but did not otherwise reply to Snape's barb.

Harry. It was Justin this time. What – the – fuck – are – they?

Casting a glance at the bookends, Harry noted for the first time that the massive creatures were not, in fact, human.

They're trolls, Harry told him. Not very bright, but nasty.

Brian invaded his thoughts next. Jesus Christ. I was bashed by trolls.

"Well," Number Two said silkily, "we meet again, Mister Potter." He inclined his head toward Snape. "Professor." Unlike at their last encounter, the agent was now sporting a faint mid-Atlantic accent.

British, then, or spent some time in Britain, observed Harry. Interesting. His lip curled. "I knew you'd been watching too many bad films. You'll have to work on your dialogue. That line went out with wax moustaches and tying women to railroad tracks."

The other man twitched slightly, then took a step forward. "A pity you won't be in any condition to critique my performance much longer."

"Yeah, brilliant, you're going to kill us," Harry sighed. His wand, returned to its transfigured form, was warm against his wrist. "Anything's likely to be better than listening to you."

The knuckles on Two's wand hand went white. "Much as I'd like to have the honour of killing the Boy Who Lived," he gritted between clenched teeth, "that's not on the agenda for tonight. My Lord wants you very much alive. However, he took my advice that it would be better to render you – " his smile was feral " – inoperative."

You were right, Harry thought, an odd mixture of relief and apprehension rushing through him. He tried to assume an unequivocally fearful expression. "The – Dementor?" he said quietly.

Two raised his eyebrows. "You're brighter than you look."

Snape huffed. You mean I'm brighter than he looks. Aloud, he said, "If I may be so bold as to ask, how do you intend to explain the disappearance of three of your countrymen?"

"Oh, the Dementor is only the first step for them," Two said with the wave of a hand. "My friends here – " he indicated the trolls " – were quite disappointed by today's events. You see, they were counting on nationwide violence and rioting...a troll's idea of heaven on earth," he chuckled. "In the chaos that would follow, who would notice a few more dead one way or the other, especially if they were homeless or poor?" Two grinned. "Lots of homeless Muggles are living under bridges these days. It's almost too easy."

Harry tried not to let the panic show on his face. The plan would be useless if there were no living bodies to which the Americans could return.

"But these people are not anonymous Muggle homeless," Snape was saying calmly. "Their deaths would not be easily explained."

"Oh, no?" Two asked. He leaned into Snape's personal space. "They're faggots, right?" he said conspiratorially. "Like you two lovebirds?" He raised an eyebrow at Harry.

Snape stiffened, but didn't reply. Harry kept his gaze level and steady, while the rage inside him threatened to spill over.

He's the only wizard here, Harry thought at Snape and Sirius. And he doesn't know I'm armed. Let me take him.

We don't know that, Sirius said. Wait.

"But you have a point, there, Professor," mused Two. "It is unusual for three queers to get snuffed at the same time. So we'll have to...spread things out a little." He paused. "They should keep for a while."

"You bastard," hissed Sirius.

Two actually laughed at that. "Very observant, Mister Black," he said. "That is, oddly enough, an accurate description."

"You know who I am? How?" Sirius demanded.

Two snorted. "We do get the Prophet over on this side of the pond. And you are a well-known figure – the Minister of Special Forces, no less. A prize catch, as is the dear Professor. But this," he said, turning toward Harry, "is the biggest prize of all."

"Yes, I suspect you'll be quite the golden boy once you deliver my hollowed-out body to Voldemort," Harry muttered. "Might even make up for the huge cock-up you and your boys made today."

Two's fists clenched. "I suspected you had something to do with that."

"And that's precisely the reason you want us unable to talk when you deliver us to him," Harry continued. "It wouldn't do for us to let Voldie know that his American cousins can't find their pricks with both hands."

"Don't call him that," Two said, his voice gone cold and deadly.

Harry, Snape thought at him.

But Harry sensed an opportunity to put the other man off-balance, and to put himself at an advantage. "What? Voldie? Oh, don't worry about that, he and I are old friends," Harry said dismissively. "We go way back. Sixteen years, give or take. 'Course, he wasn't – himself – for a good part of that."

"That was your last insult," whispered the other man. He nodded at the troll to his left, who shuffled out of the room.

Gone to fetch the Dementor, Harry thought. This was happening too quickly; they had to think – 

All of you listen closely, Snape ordered. I want you to imagine yourself standing in front of a mirror. But you must imagine your position is reversed. The place you inhabit now is the reflection: your true self lies on the other side. I want you to concentrate on leaving the reflection behind. You are going to walk forward – 

Wait, Harry thought desperately.

Harry. This will give them temporary safety, Snape snapped. You cannot fight the wizard while you have to worry about the Dementor's effect on the rest of us.

Harry turned. Snape's obsidian gaze was locked on him. How did you know? demanded Harry.

Snape paused for a moment. Because I know you.

Harry gasped. The thought had been akin to a caress.

Sirius' head snapped round, but there was no more time. Harry could feel the chill caused by the approaching Dementor, could feel the ravening hunger radiating from it. To his right, Emmett shivered. Dimly, he could hear Snape continuing with his instructions to the others.

"Just one final question, Tweedledee," Harry said, rounding on the agent again. "You said earlier that you were a bastard." He cocked his head and waggled a finger. "I'm guessing you're the product of...a Death Eater and a very nervous sheep?"

Two's lips twisted into an awful smile, and Harry sucked in a breath. He'd only seen that parody of humour on the face of one other person. If it were possible to call him a person – 

"Very witty, Mister Potter," Two drawled. "But I suppose you should know who is responsible for your final defeat. My true name is Marvolo Riddle."

Harry stared, unable to keep the shock from his features. "But – "

"My mother was an American whore," he said calmly. "And my father – is Lord Voldemort."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Fuck.

Brian's thoughts intruded into Snape's dawning sense of dread. You expect Harry to take on this guy all by himself? Even I can tell he's nuts.

Don't interfere, Snape returned sharply. We have the situation under control. Privately, of course, Snape had definite doubts about that last, but he was sufficiently skilled to keep from broadcasting them. His brain told him that everything was about to go disastrously wrong, even as his long-dormant heart encouraged him to have faith that they would be victorious.

Bugger. Now that it was functioning again, he could tell it was going to be an awful nuisance.

Like hell you're in control, Brian persisted. You're going to be fine, but they're going to pound us into hamburger.

Apparently the Muggle was more observant than Snape would have given him credit for. Unfortunately, Snape's ability to carry off inspirational speeches was sadly lacking. But before he could muster a suitable reply, Emmett interrupted.

Thought you said you weren't afraid to die.

I'm not, returned Brian. But –  The thought was abruptly cut off by its owner.

Brian. The young one. He spoke that one word as though it were the most important one in the English language. It's okay. We're all going to be okay.

Brian did not reply, and in that moment Snape realised that the Muggle was not concerned for his own safety. Apparently they did have at least that much in common, then.

Harry's thoughts intruded. It's here. Go. Now.

Snape started. The Dementor was coming through the doorway, stooping slightly to avoid brushing its hood on the frame. The room became nearly dark once more, and he could feel the fear and despair of the others like a palpable thing.

Remember the mirror, Snape instructed. Can you all see it?

One by one they responded in the affirmative. Snape retreated into his mind and saw the men standing in a brightly lit room, all facing their respective mirrors. Sirius was at the other end; they turned and nodded to one another.

Harry was nowhere in sight.

Focus, Snape ordered, as much for himself as for the rest of them.

Dimly, he could hear Harry's laughter as he fought the Dementor's influence with all his might. "You – you should be on the bloody telly, mate," he wheezed. "I haven't heard anything funnier since the last time I watched the dead parrot skit. You actually expect me to believe you're the bastard son of Voldie?"

Now. Begin walking away from your reflections. Step out of the mirrors; leave them behind. Do not look back, or around you. Focus on reaching your true self, on becoming one with it.

Snape's mind watched as his own 'body' grew closer and closer, knowing he could not afford to check on the progress of the others until he had reached it. At the same time, his eyes saw Riddle's arm fling out, stopping the Dementor on its way across the room. A wave of nausea swamped him as he felt the Dementor's frustration at being thwarted.

"Wait," snapped Riddle. "Our Mister Potter needs convincing, I see." He cocked his head. "I suppose I'll just have to let you hang onto your soul just long enough to see my Lord. He can tell you himself."

Snape's gut twisted. Voldemort was here? In America? He heard Harry ask a similar question of the CWA agent.

"No, I'm afraid not. My father has to concentrate on the war effort at home."

Harry snorted. "What, don't tell me Voldie's too busy to spend time wid his ickle babykins?" he cooed.

Riddle drew his wand and leveled it at Harry's chest. "Watch what you say, Potter," he snapped. "I'll not tolerate any more of your insults."

Snape tried to concentrate on the task at hand, but between the increasing agitation of the Dementor and his fear over Harry's safety, it was nearly impossible. He took a few more halting steps toward his goal as he also watched Riddle commune with the hooded fiend in his service.

Frowning, Riddle huffed, "Oh, very well. I know I promised, but you can have all the others." He pointed a finger toward Sirius. "Here, begin with that one."

With a last burst of effort, Snape reached his phantom self, then stepped forward and merged with it, blending into a single entity. His soul was now completely separate from his body. As soon as he did so, he glanced over at Sirius, who was regarding him as well. Success.

Not quite, Sirius said, his worried gaze leaving Snape's.

Snape looked over at the Muggles. Bloody hell.

Emmett had managed to complete the task, and Brian was nearly there. But Justin was struggling to emerge from his mirror; the Dementor was quite close to his physical body, and was probably affecting his concentration.

Snape and Sirius both started toward Justin's mirror, intending to pull him through. But their actions drew Brian's attention.

What's going on? he demanded.

Stay focused! Snape instructed. Don't look round until you've reached – 

Snape saw Brian's 'body' began to flicker and fade. Then Brian turned round and saw Justin, still trapped behind the glass.

A cry of abject anguish escaped from the depths of the man's soul. Jus – 

The second syllable didn't reach Snape's consciousness. He watched in horror as Brian disappeared entirely from view.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

As the Dementor lowered its mouth to Sirius', it was all Harry could do not to retch at the sight. There was no way he could be sure they were all safe until he was contacted; until then, he had to avoid distracting them at all costs. He could only hope that Sirius or Snape would have sent a signal by now if something was amiss.

"Yes, it will be entirely more satisfying to see your reaction as you bow to the Dark Lord," sneered the man Harry was now beginning to believe was exactly who he said he was. There was something in the features, in the casual sadism of the man, that reminded him of young Tom Riddle. Of course, this man was much older, perhaps forty; Harry shuddered to think that Voldemort could have produced an entire army of such loathsome spawn in his aimless travels before his rise to power.

But the knowledge only served to strenghten Harry's resolve. This creature before him could well be the linchpin in Voldemort's plan to spread the war to America; if Harry could remove him from the picture, it would be a definite blow to the enemy.

He tried to keep his thoughts running along these cold, military lines as he waited for the Dementor's reaction. If Sirius had been successful, the Dementor would be disappointed at finding no soul on which to feed; if he had been unable to get away, Harry would feel a temporary ebb in the drain on his own energy – 

God, please, please, let him have escaped – 

The Dementor shoved Sirius' motionless body away with such force that it crumpled to the ground, then threw back its head, such as it was, and made an unearthly noise which tore a gaping wound in Harry's soul.

Still hungry, you bastard! he thought fiercely. I hope you bloody starve.

Harry.

It was Snape. Harry reached out with his mind. Are you safe?

Snape's thoughts reached him in rapid-fire succession. Emmett, Sirius and I were successful. The others were not. I am going in to retrieve Brian while Black retrieves Justin. Keep the Dementor away from their bodies for the next couple of minutes. I will inform you when we have them.

"What's HAPPENING?" Riddle was screaming at the Dementor, which was still howling and flailing its skeletal arms wildly. Harry's heart sped up. This was the moment he needed; the trolls were confused, the Dementor was out of control, and Riddle was distracted.

He reached towards the bracelet with his other hand, but stilled it when Riddle's head whipped back round. Harry cursed himself silently for missing the opportunity.

"Keep it quiet." Riddle snapped at the trolls as though they were dogs; the hulking creatures moved to encircle the Dementor, and Harry breathed a sigh of relief. A couple of more minutes, and there would be no need to worry about the fiendish thing. Riddle's wand had never wavered from Harry's chest, and now he took a step forward. Harry's mind began frantically considering possibilities; obviously, it would have to be Riddle first, then the trolls, then the Dementor, but – 

"Where is your godfather, boy?" hissed Riddle. Harry's eyes widened slightly as he realised that Riddle was speaking in Parseltongue.

"Over there," he spat back in the same language. He was taking an awful risk; at any moment Riddle could cast Cruciatus, and even if Harry did manage to Transfigure his wand successfully, he would be powerless to use it.

"Where is his soul?" Riddle demanded, speaking slowly and deliberately.

Harry feigned the anger he would have felt had the Dementor accomplished its task. "Inside that thing!" he yelled, pointing at the Dementor. "What are you playing at?"

Riddle's wand moved from Harry's chest, gliding upwards until the tip pressed into the underside of his chin. "A very convincing performance," he said. "But I've seen better. Perhaps your acting will improve when you're begging for your life."

"I'm afraid you'll be disappointed," said Harry coldly, still in Parseltongue. "I don't beg."

Riddle began making a low, rattling noise which Harry finally identified as laughter. "Such a negative attitude. We'll have to see what we can do to fix that."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Instructing Harry to stall for time had been one of the most difficult things Snape had ever done, for while he sent the thoughts into Harry's mind, he had wanted to scream at him to Go. Leave, now. Save yourself. Damn him, and Black, and the Muggles, to hell with them all. If Harry alone survived, he knew it would be enough.

Unfortunately, it would not be enough for Harry. Bloody Gryffindor.

Reaching out with his animus, he searched for Brian's until he felt it respond. The Muggle's energy was still fairly strong, but weakening by the second from the influence of the Dementor. There was an odd fog around him, as though Brian were attempting to hide.

When he could 'see' Snape's soul clearly, he beckoned to it, but to his surprise, Brian hesitated. Where's Justin? Is he safe?

My – colleague is retrieving him. Snape's image strode forward and stopped, not wanting to intrude too deeply into Brian's mind if he could help it. The last thing he needed now was further distraction. He will be all right.

I don't trust you, Brian stated.

I'm aware of that, Snape returned testily. However, you have no choice at the moment.

But I do. I can stay here and die.

The rage inside Snape threatened to boil over. Then you condemn us all.

Brian rounded on him then, his fury matching Snape's. You don't get it, do you? Do you think I give a shit about you, or me, or anyone but – but him? The emotion washed over Snape, almost sending him careening off into space; he'd gotten too far inside, and now he was sharing Brian's feelings and doubts and fears.

He gasped. It was not terribly unlike the inside of his own head.

The image of Brian appeared shocked at what he'd just told Snape; obviously, he had no experience with shielding his thoughts and emotions from someone with direct access to his soul. He set his jaw in a defiant gesture, and Snape could feel his animus retreating in on itself.

Snape willed himself to calm. On the contrary, he revealed to Brian, I understand you very well.

Brian's image frowned at him for a few moments, and then to his surprise Snape could feel Brian's soul brush against his briefly. Maybe you do, he admitted finally.

I will make you a promise, Snape told him. If Justin does not survive this, neither will you.

It was a bizarre thing to say, on reflection, but it was exactly what Snape would have wanted to hear had another man held his and Harry's fate in his hands.

Brian pondered this for what seemed an eternity, then nodded. Sounds good to me, he replied, and without further ado, reached out and seized Snape's arm.

Snape pulled them up, up out of the fog and into the light, where the others waited. Black was holding back a struggling Justin, but released him when Brian and Snape arrived. The young blonde ran headlong into Brian, nearly knocking him over. The two men held one another tightly – or rather, their souls held one another – 

Gods, thought Snape. To be that close – 

Snape! Black called his attention to the scene below them. Snape looked down from their vantage point near the ceiling and saw several things happening at once.

The Dementor released a terrible scream – of hunger, he recognised – and broke away from the slow-moving trolls trying to restrain it. It glided over to Snape's body and administered the Kiss, only to discard him as it had Black and move to the next – 

The trolls, never ones for independent action, looked to Riddle for instructions – 

While Riddle, whose eyes remained fixed on Harry's, leaned close and murmured a soft, gentle word into Harry's left ear.

"Crucio."

And Snape listened helplessly as Harry's scream rose above that of the Dementor.
 


 

 

~~ XX ~~

All right, that really bloody hurt.

Harry fought to retain consciousness as the pain from the Cruciatus curse lanced through his body. Creaking one eye open, he managed to register that the Dementor was frantically searching for a meal, only to be disappointed time and again. Snape and Sirius must have been successful. Now, if only the pain would subside enough for him to Transfigure his wand, he might have a chance. Shutting his eyes, he tried to remember the words of Poppy's healing chant, but they wouldn't come.

He rolled to his back, gasping, and looked up – 

 – to stare into the gray, sightless eyes of the Dementor. The creature, still emitting those hellish sounds, grasped his shoulders with its bony hands – 

"Expecto Patronum!"

The Dementor swiftly retreated as a great silvery cobra erupted from the end of Riddle's wand and slithered forward, hissing and snapping at it.

"HOLD IT, I said!" Riddle shouted at the trolls, who moved to restrain the Dementor bodily. Trolls were not generally affected by Dementors, as their thick skins and simpler emotional responses tended to make them more trouble than they were worth for the soul-sucking fiends. Unfortunately, the same qualities also made them more resistant to magical spells. One usually had to be in top form to Stun a troll on the first try, and Harry was decidedly not in top form.

"Can you hear me, Harry?" Riddle's voice sounded unnaturally loud in Harry's ears, and he resisted the urge to cover them.

"I said," Riddle continued when Harry didn't answer, "Can – you – hear – me?" Each word was punctuated by a boot to Harry's ribs.

"Fuck you," Harry wheezed, when he could find the breath.

"I'll take that as a 'yes,'" Riddle hissed, smiling down at Harry's crumpled body. "Tell me where the others have gone."

"Don't – know."

Another sharp kick; Harry winced and bit his lip. "My Dementor is very disappointed. And very hungry. What do you propose I do about that?"

"Let it – snog you silly," Harry spat.

The next blow cracked a rib, he was sure of it. Much more of this and he wouldn't be able to fight at all. "I don't like your suggestion, Harry. But I have one of my own. Would you care to hear it?"

Eyes closed, Harry merely nodded. The pain from the curse was beginning to fade; another minute or so and he could make an attempt.

"I'm going to leave you here with the Dementor for a while. Oh, don't worry," Riddle added hastily, "I'll keep it bound. But I think it's only fair to let it have a meal before I take you to Father, so we'll give it some time to drain you of your sunny disposition – you certainly won't be needing it any longer. And our friends have been such a help here in America, spreading fear and despair among the Muggles. They deserve a reward."

"How many – have you got?" choked Harry. The longer he could keep him talking, the longer he had to recover.

Riddle chuckled. "Do you honestly think I'm going to tell you that? We have enough. And we're gaining more every day." He squatted down and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "We're encouraging them to have little Dementors."

Christ, thought Harry. Of course Dementors must reproduce, but he'd never bothered to consider the mechanics of it. "Don't give me any – details," he muttered.

"You don't know how a Dementor breeds? Perhaps you didn't pay proper attention in school. Let me fill you in. After it sucks the soul from a body, the Dementor has one of two options. It can discard the shell, or it can transfer a small part of its own essence back into the body."

Harry was only half-listening to the words, so intent was he on regaining his strength. Keep talking, you bloody bastard, keep talking. You love the sound of your own voice as much as Daddy does.

Riddle cast a speculative glance over the five men now lying on the ground. "Now, it seems that these bodies are conveniently vacant, aren't they? Well, I did promise them to my trolls, but I'm sure we can find them suitable prey elsewhere." He turned back to the Dementor. "Would you care to do the honours?" he asked, waving a hand over the bodies.

The fog enveloping Harry's brain finally lifted sufficiently for him to realise what was about to happen. No no nonono, he chanted, as he watched while the trolls released the Dementor. It glided forward eagerly, its cadaverous hands outstretched.

It was headed straight for Snape.

Harry focused inward, gathering all of his strength and energy. He pushed the pain as far away as he could, then took a deep, cleansing breath and reached for the bracelet.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape was beginning to despair of ever finding his blasted body again.

He could 'see' the goings-on in the room below him while he was outside of himself; as soon as Riddle cast Cruciatus on Harry, he'd left the others in the reluctant care of Black and dived for his body.

That was when his troubles had begun. First, he'd tried to simply aim for his own head, but it wasn't as simple as all that; once he got inside, he lost awareness of his surroundings. And without the point of reference of even a memory to latch onto, his animus became confused and disoriented. With increasing frustration, he'd woven in and out of his brain as though he were an electron attempting to blast through an inert and unresponsive nucleus.

And all the while, his pale body lay there like an unappealing sack of moldy potatoes, refusing to so much as twitch in response.

When Riddle kicked Harry, Snape's rage grew exponentially, swamping his thoughts. Black was at least trying to keep the others quiet, but Snape could feel his anger as well, and it fed his own.

This isn't helping, he admonished Black, and himself. Frantically, he tried to reason out the problem. There had to be a way to reintegrate body and soul; he was simply going to have to suppress his emotions in order to work it out.

He noticed that Harry was attempting to keep Riddle talking, but he couldn't be bothered to discern what they were discussing. And then he saw Riddle turn toward the Dementor, and watched the trolls release it.

Watched it come for him.

Dementors were not stupid; they lived mainly by instinct, true, but they understood human emotions. This one had probably sensed Harry's feelings toward him. But what could it hope to gain now, with his soul supposedly gone?

He decided to abandon his attempts until the Dementor had retreated, and pulled back from his body.

That was when he saw the flash of light.

Harry had Transfigured his wand, and in the next instant had aimed a Petrificus at Riddle.

The spell struck Riddle, then, to Snape's surprise, dissipated harmlessly.

"Oh, did I bother to tell you?" Riddle said silkily, reaching to undo the buttons on his shirt and peeling back the material. "I've been equipped with the CWA's latest Spell Shield. We Americans are an ingenious people, aren't we?"

Harry raised his wand again, and Snape knew that the next curse he sent would be an Unforgivable. Those were the only spells which had a chance of penetrating the shield.

But Riddle was not weakened by pain or injury, and he was swifter. "Crucio," he said again, sounding almost bored.

Harry's spine twisted horribly; his wand hand convulsed, and his only weapon clattered to the concrete floor and rolled away from him – 

 – toward Snape's body.

And suddenly, an idea came to him, an idea born not of logic and reason, but of something with which Snape was not the least bit familiar. An idea born of the vision of Brian and Justin locked in an embrace, their souls intermingled.

He'd been thinking of this in entirely the wrong way. Volanimus was the human desire to become one with the universe, with another soul, with love – made real. Purging emotion in favour of reason was not the answer; the magic inherent in it defied all attempts to bind it to earth, to the laws of space and time. In order to return to one's body, it was necessary to abandon those ties, to acknowledge they were meaningless. To understand that there were things more important than mere existence.

In order to return to his body, Snape had to want.

With a soul-deep roar that would have shamed the Gryffindor lion, Snape dove for his target one last, desperate time.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

He'd failed.

Harry's eyes stung with unshed tears as he writhed in agony; his wand lay out of reach, and try as he might, he couldn't force his limbs to obey him. He could only stare in mute, abject horror as the Dementor came closer and closer to Snape's unmoving body.

"Say goodbye to your lover, Harry," purred Riddle. Harry's heart tried to pound its way out of his chest, and he made one last attempt to move his arm. It clawed at the concrete and inched forward.

"How touching. You Gryffindors are so plucky."

Harry watched his hand as though it were detached from him; he wouldn't think about the distance, he wouldn't give up. His world narrowed to that small patch of floor, to that hand and that wand.

Then something moved at the periphery of his vision.

Oh, God.

It was Snape. His hand had moved.

Snape! Harry called out. Severus!

No answer. Harry shifted his eyes to Riddle, who was still smiling his sickening smile. He hadn't noticed.

The Dementor's scaly gray fingers were digging into Snape's shoulders – 

And Snape's own hand shot out, closing around Harry's wand.

Riddle's head snapped round as he caught the movement.

But he was too late.

"Avada Kedavra!" shouted Snape.

The blast caught the Dementor full in the chest, blowing him back and throwing him into Riddle. Riddle let out a terrible scream as he was crushed beneath the dead creature.

Pushing himself to his feet, Snape strode over to the spot where Riddle lay. It took every ounce of Harry's energy to turn his head to watch what was going on. The trolls took a menacing step forward.

Snape brandished the wand at them. "Give me a reason," he snarled. They froze, dumbstruck for a moment, then stepped back. The wand's point shifted back to Riddle. Snape took a breath.

"No!" Harry attempted to shout, but no sound emerged from his lips. He closed his eyes and focused inward.

Stop!

Opening his eyes once more, he could see that Snape had obeyed his request. However, the wand was still trained on Riddle, as was Snape's murderous gaze. Harry could see that Riddle was unconscious, but still breathing; every so often the Dementor would stir as Riddle's lungs filled.

Look at me, Harry demanded.

If I look at you, I will most certainly kill him, Snape told him. You cannot have both.

Harry's thoughts tried to organise themselves, but it was a near-impossible task for his overloaded brain. If you kill him, and he is Voldemort's son, there will be – trouble. Oh, hell. That didn't sound terribly convincing.

Snape clearly shared his opinion. Not to sound childish, Mister Potter, but I don't care.

Harry took deep, even breaths, then tried another tack. We need to know what he knows. It's important.

Snape shook his head, once. He will tell us nothing without torture, and the Ministry no longer resorts to that method.

Dammit! Harry's hands found purchase on the floor, but he could not force his arms to push him upright. Look. At. Me.

Snape's head swiveled, slowly. His black eyes were unreadable in this light, but Harry could feel the naked, raw emotion coming off him in waves.

He gathered everything he felt for Snape, everything he loved, everything he needed, and sent it along the thread connecting them. He knew when Snape had received it, for Snape stiffened and gasped.

I won't have you kill for me when you don't have to. I won't have you hurt yourself for me, add to that body count inside of you, when it can be avoided. I love you too much.

And I l –  Snape halted abruptly, as if realising for the first time that there were others listening in.

His shoulders straightened even more than usual, and he nodded slowly. Very well. A flick of Harry's wand, and with a loud crack several thick cords appeared, twining swiftly around the bodies of the dead Dementor and Riddle, binding them together. Riddle moaned softly, but didn't awake.

"Not so tough now, is he?"

Harry turned his head to see Emmett rising from the floor. Snape frowned at him.

"How did you return so swiftly?" he demanded.

"Hmm? Oh, piece of cake," Emmett replied, snapping his fingers. "Do you think I might have some magic in me?"

I don't doubt it, thought Harry, relief finally washing over him, I don't doubt it one bit.

 

Chapter Text

~~ XXI ~~

Harry awoke to the rhythmic sound of footsteps clicking down a hallway and a faint scent of antiseptic and dried herbs.

"You're awake!" Sirius' voice exclaimed, and then his godfather was bending over him, his haggard face beaming.

Harry's mind reached for Snape, but received no response.

"How're you feeling, lad?" Sirius asked, his hand tentatively reaching out to stroke Harry's hair.

"Not sure yet," Harry answered, not in the mood to take inventory at the moment. "How long have I been asleep?"

"Five days, give or take. With your injuries, they thought a healing trance would be best."

"Who's 'they'? Where am I?"

"You don't remember?" Sirius asked worriedly. "Perhaps you've got some memory loss. What's your full name?"

"Sirius."

Sirius' face darkened. "That's not it."

Harry sighed. "I haven't had memory loss, Sirius. I remember everything except how I got here." I remember everything, he thought, knowing Sirius would no longer be able to hear him. We beat the bastard. No one was hurt.

And he loves me. A smile spread across his face before he could stop it.

Sirius frowned; evidently Harry's smile was more than a little idiotic. "You're in New York, in the CWA secure headquarters under the United Nations building. After taking those hits of Cruciatus, the doctors here didn't want to risk moving you too far."

Harry began pushing himself up on his elbows; the first thing he noted was the blessed absence of pain.

The next thing he noted was the absence of Snape.

Sirius' hand moved to his shoulder. "Wait a minute – "

"Sirius, I feel fine," Harry said irritably. "Could you snag me a few more pillows?"

While Sirius walked to the closet to fulfil his request, Harry took a moment to survey the room. The room was much more like those of a Muggle hospital than those of St. Mungo's; there was a sterile feel to the bare walls and a prevalence of plastic that bothered him. Only the lack of heart monitors and other gadgetry revealed that it was not a typical hospital. He looked up at the ceiling, and stared.

"Is that – a telly?" he asked, pointing at the silent black box.

Sirius glanced up. "I think so. They wanted to put it on for you, but I told them to keep it off. Thought it would soothe you. Imagine."

"How does it work?"

"Wave your wand at it and tell it what you want to watch. Apparently there's a wizarding television network over here, but the matron wanted me to know they also get HBO, whatever the bloody hell that is."

"Mmm," Harry grunted noncommittally.

His godfather stuffed the pillows behind his back and head. "Better?" he asked, his face eager as Harry leaned back.

"Yes, thanks," Harry answered, feeling a little guilty over his earlier snappishness.

"Well," Sirius said, settling into the chair beside Harry's bed, "I suppose you'll want to know what's going on. I'll Floo Frankie in a few minutes; she's been popping round to watch you while I slept. She'll be pleased to hear you're up and around."

Harry regarded his hands, which were folded neatly in his lap. "How're the others?"

"The Muggles? Fine, fine. We brought them here as well; they all received treatment, then were Obliviated and returned to Pittsburgh. Frankie had to send a cleanup crew there. Apparently some of your antics at the demonstration made it onto the news. They had a bit of a job fixing that."

Harry felt a wave of sadness wash over him. He knew that Obliviation was standard procedure, but he couldn't help feeling as though he'd lost some good friends.

In truth, he had.

Aloud, he said, "I'm sorry to have caused them so much trouble."

Sirius patted his arm absently. "That's all right. Those fellows are trained for incidents like that; all part of the job, isn't it?"

"Hmm?" Harry said, then realised they'd been talking at cross-purposes. "Oh. Right. Yes. It's their job." Attempting a casual tone, he asked, "And how did you and Snape make out?" He thought perhaps if he combined the two of them in one statement, Sirius wouldn't pick up on his concern.

He was wrong. Sirius' reaction was subtle, but it was evident in the temperature drop in his voice. "Fine," he answered slowly. "A couple of broken bones, a bruised kidney or two. Nothing serious." He paused again, and Harry held his breath. "Snape's back at Hogwarts. Teaching."

"Oh," Harry said, then cursed himself at the hint of disappointment he could hear in it. Obviously, he was not fully recovered, or he would have been able to conceal his emotions much more readily.

"He hasn't been in touch with me since he went back."

Sirius was implying Snape hadn't asked after his condition. He couldn't know that.

"Well, that's Snape, isn't it?" Harry said, attempting a light tone. "He's not much for – "

"Harry, I know."

Harry schooled his features to calm. "You know – what?"

Sirius studied Harry's bedspread. "I know that something – happened between you and Snape. When we were linked – I know it seems like eavesdropping, but I couldn't help it. It was obvious that you two were – close." He raised his eyes to Harry's. "Do you – that is, would you care to talk about it?"

Harry went perfectly still. "There's nothing to talk about."

Sirius' jaw clenched. "If you don't want to tell me, that's fine. But don't lie to me, lad."

Harry fought down the anger. "I'm not lying," he gritted. "There's nothing to discuss. I'm over the age of consent – "

"Harry, that's – "

"And my sexual activity is no one's business but mine."

"He's your teacher," Sirius bit out. "It's improper for him to – "

"'Improper'! I like that," Harry said, with a bitter laugh. "Do you think I give a tinker's damn about 'impropriety' after all that I've seen, all that I've done? Do you honestly believe that any of it matters any longer?"

Sirius blinked. "I'd like to think some things still matter," he said quietly. "Otherwise, what are we fighting for?"

Harry sighed, his anger dissipating as quickly as it had arisen. "Oh, Sirius, of course there are things worth preserving. But they're the essential things – loyalty, and truth, and right, and love. The superficial rules and regulations – " He shook his head. "They need to be bent or broken, now and then. Or questioned, at the very least." Smiling, he added, "Look who I'm talking to about rule-breaking. You used to be the sodding poster child for mischief."

"Keep a civil tongue in your head," Sirius said, mock-seriously. "You're talking to a bloody Minister, you are."

"Yes, sir," Harry returned, snapping off a jaunty salute.

Sirius watched him for a long moment, and Harry was reminded of all the man had done for him over the years, trying to make up for lost time, and for the deaths of his parents. Harry had never asked him why he declined at the last minute to be his best friends' Secret-Keepers, and he never would. Partly, he believed that Sirius would tell him when and if he were ready, and partly, he did not want to know. His godfather bore a heavy cross through life, had done so for sixteen years; Harry knew that to demand an explanation might push Sirius past the limit of his endurance.

After a few moments, Sirius blew out a breath. "Snape, eh?" he asked, simply.

"Yes," Harry answered. "I love him." His mouth curled in a smile. "I love the greasy git." He took Sirius' hand in his and squeezed it tightly. "Please don't try to take this away from me. I need it. And I'll fight you like a tiger, and I don't want to do that."

Sirius' mouth formed a thin line. "I don't care to fight you, but I also don't care to see you hurt." He paused. "You remember what I said about James."

Harry's heart clenched. "Yes," he replied calmly. "I didn't get a chance to – talk about that with him. I will."

Sirius nodded stiffly. "See that you do. If he's told you that he – returns your feelings, you have to consider that – "

"That it's not me he loves? Thanks lots," Harry said weakly. Why did Sirius have to slap him across the face with that particular fear? Now he wouldn't be able to think about anything else until he saw Snape again.

Not that it hadn't been at the forefront of his mind since he'd regained consciousness.

"I'm not trying to imply you're not loveable," Sirius soothed. "I'm only saying that Snape may not be capable of the emotion."

Imagine that, thought Harry wryly. You and Snape are finally in perfect agreement.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"He's coming home tomorrow."

Frankie regarded the dark, flickering head floating in her fireplace as its owner digested the news. Fucking technology, she swore silently. I can't even make out his reaction. The transatlantic Floo was fine for travel, but the transmission of messages could be a little wonky in storms, and right now there was a doozy of a hurricane off Cape Hatteras. Magic did not solve all the problems.

"Do you know the time?"

Frankie blew smoke at the head, and Snape wrinkled his nose. "Why do you want to know? So you can run like hell?"

Snape's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Are all Americans trained from birth to ask impertinent questions of strangers?"

Frankie snorted indelicately. "Hardly strangers. You've had your head in my Floo practically every waking moment, and some of my sleeping ones, I might add, demanding updates on his condition."

She thought she saw Snape's face tighten at that. "You were the only person I knew in America."

Frankie didn't bother mentioning Sirius Black; the enmity between those two men had crackled in the air from the moment she saw them together. She shrugged. "S'okay. It's not as if I mind. But it just seems like a waste of time to me if he never knows how much you care about him."

Snape tightened up even more, if that was possible. "Our relationship is none of your – "

"Yeah, fine, whatever," Frankie said, waving a hand. "Don't worry, I have enough problems in my own love life to obsess about yours. But I've been spending some time with Harry, and I like him. A lot." She aimed a meaningful look at the fireplace. "He doesn't deserve to be hurt."

"Nevertheless, he has been hurt, Ms. Hyde," Snape said, his voice low and relentless. "He has been hurt since the night he received that scar. And he will continue to be hurt for as long as he lives. That is the nature of our existence." And before she could even open her mouth to reply, he was gone.

Frankie blinked at the empty fireplace for a few moments, then picked up her wand and murmured the words that would allow her to leave gravity behind.

"Professor Snape," she said quietly as she rose into the air, "you are so full of shit."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Back to normal. Back to normal.

Harry silently chanted the phrase like a mantra as he walked along the edge of the lake with Ron and Hermione. When he arrived early Saturday morning, they spent about half the day treating him like a particularly delicate piece of china, or a favourite dotty old aunt who'd just been released from the mental ward after thirty years. They stopped abruptly when he took them aside at dinnertime and told them he was fine, he was completely recovered, and if they didn't stop behaving like arseholes he'd transfigure them into plant stands.

"Talk like that doesn't convince us you're back to normal," Hermione pouted, but she grudgingly gave in.

Now it was Sunday afternoon, and they'd all decided to take a break from helping him to catch up on two weeks' missed classes. When Hermione insisted he start his homework as soon as possible, he thought about protesting, but wasn't sure how to go about it. Give me a couple of hours, 'Mione. I just have to nip down to the dungeons and convince Snape to declare his undying love. Then you have my word I'll come back straightaway and work on my Herbology essay.

That probably wouldn't have gone over, so Harry kept his mouth shut. And if he cared to admit it, the truth was that he wasn't exceedingly eager to see Snape. Sirius' words kept nagging at him, planting doubts in his brain which settled to the bottom of his thoughts like unexploded mines.

Snape left hospital as soon as he could.

He didn't contact Sirius about Harry's condition.

He was once in love with Harry's dad.

He might not truly be in love with Harry at all.

Boom. Boom. Boom. BOOM.

"Harry!" Ron's impatient voice nudged its way into his consciousness.

"Hmm? Oh, sorry," Harry murmured. "What was that?"

"I was asking what you got up to in America," Ron said, sounding slightly miffed. "I mean, before the Dementor and You-Know-Who's evil spawn and all that. What did you do?"

"Ron, maybe Harry doesn't want to talk about that," Hermione said hastily.

Ron frowned. "Why wouldn't he?"

"It's all right," Harry interjected, embarrassed that Hermione still felt compelled to protect him. "I – did a few tourist things – greenhouses and such." With Snape. "Visited the shops, bought some new clothes." With Snape. "I went clubbing, danced a bit. Flirted a bit." With Snape.

And I lost my virginity. With Snape.

Ron chuckled. "What was Snape doing while you were dancing and flirting and shopping and sightseeing? Creeping around after you like a great black bat, I suppose."

Harry darted a glance at Hermione, only to be caught by a penetrating stare. He felt the blush rise up from his neck. Bloody hell.

Calm down. She doesn't know anything.

Ron appeared not to notice that his question hadn't been answered. "So, find yourself any good looking blokes in America?"

"Ron," Hermione said darkly.

Harry's gut churned as their gazes met once more. She knows.

The ginger boy frowned in genuine confusion. "What's the matter with you? You're the one who's been telling me to be more accepting of – " he waved his arms ineffectually " – of, you know, of Harry's...you know."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "And this is an improvement? It's like asking Seamus or Dean how many birds they pulled on their last trip to London."

Ron seemed to have no sense he was in deep, dangerous water. "Yeah...?" he prompted.

"Oh, for the love of – " Shooting Ron a last venomous glare, Hermione turned on her heel and stormed off toward the castle.

After she was out of earshot, Ron started to laugh. When Harry stared at him in surprise, he laughed even harder.

"Keeps her off-balance if I let her think I'm a pig every now and then," he said, grinning. "Don't want her to think I've grown up too fast, now, do I? She'll have me barefoot, pregnant and chained to the bloody stove before you can say, 'Alohomora.'"

Harry joined in his friend's laughter, and Ron threw an arm around his shoulders as they walked. "Seriously, mate," he said, sobering, "you know you can talk to me if you need to, right? About anything. I mean that."

"Yeah," Harry said, feeling an annoying lump form in his throat, "yeah, I do. Thanks."

"No, you don't," Ron said softly, giving Harry one last powerful squeeze before releasing him. "But I'm hoping if I tell you enough times, it'll leak through your thick skull one of these days."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Albus Dumbledore watched as the dot named Harry Potter wended its way down from Gryffindor Tower to the dungeons.

The map was much more ornate than the one created by Messrs. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, but it worked in the same fashion. Filch would give several essential body parts to have it in his possession, but Albus had no intention of giving it to him. He himself used it only on rare occasions, when the situation warranted it, when he felt there was a particular danger to one of his students.

He told himself that was not the case now, and so he should fold it carefully and return it to its place inside the hollow copy of One Thousand and One Uses for A Dried Yak. He told himself that the decision he made two weeks ago had been the right one, and that all would turn out for the best.

He continued to stare at the map until the dot named Harry Potter reached the private chambers of the dot named Severus Snape. Then he removed his half-moon spectacles, closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose.

Not for the first time, he pondered the question of whether or not he was a meddling old bastard.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry didn't have long to wait to find out how Snape was feeling.

Or rather, he didn't have long to find out that Snape had no intention of telling him what he was feeling. When he opened the door to Harry's knock, Snape's expression was as blank as new parchment. There was no hint of emotion, positive or negative, on that patrician, angular face.

Harry, in his turn, treated Snape to an open, guileless smile. "You're looking better."

Snape straightened. "My injuries were minor."

Harry's mouth quirked. "Three ribs cracked, two broken, and a sprained shoulder is hardly minor."

Snape said nothing, and Harry decided he wasn't going to allow this to happen. Not without a fight. Pushing past Snape, he entered the Potion master's chambers.

"Do come in," murmured Snape, but he offered no significant protest. Harry heard the door close with a heavy clunk, and then the low-voiced words of a locking ward.

Snape was warding him in. Did that mean he expected Harry would be staying for a while? Or was it merely the paranoia of a former spy and Death Eater at work?

Harry took a moment to look about him. Somehow, he'd built up an image in his mind of late Victorian clutter and excess, but the medium-sized sitting room was surprisingly Spartan in both furnishings and appointments. Except for the large bookcase filling one wall, the room was devoid of distinguishing features such as photographs or mementos, as though its resident had only just moved in. Harry found this indescribably sad.

"How long were you in hospital?" Harry asked.

"A little over a day."

"Did you get a room with a telly? I did." Moving to the bookcase, he ran a finger down the spine of one of the older tomes. "Life of Brian was on late one night, but I fell asleep halfway through." He took a deep breath. "Wasn't any fun watching it alone, anyway."

"Harry," Snape began.

Harry kept his eyes glued to the bookshelf. "I don't want to go back."

A sigh. "Nevertheless, we are back."

"I don't mean physically. I don't want to go back to the way we were."

"You have no choice. Unless you intend to drop Potions, you will be in my class tomorrow morning at ten a.m."

He turned and met Snape's gaze, which remained shuttered. "Where you will probably deduct five points from Gryffindor for some bloody thing or other. Fine. In less than a month, that's over. Then what?"

Snape blinked; it was the most reaction Harry'd gotten out of him so far. "Then – I imagine you will be off to the Salisbury compound, as you had planned."

"I could be. But Headquarters isn't the only place where Aurors are stationed. There are detachments all over. London, Cardiff, Chester...Hogsmeade."

Snape's jaw clenched, then relaxed. "You should not be changing your career plans based on – on what happened in America," he said finally.

"Why not?" Harry asked softly, taking a step forward. Snape tensed, but did not move.

"Because it was based on an illusion."

Harry regarded him steadily. Another step. "It was real."

"Listen to me. Ian told me on the night I met him that you would be hurt if I forced you to return to Hogwarts. And so I – did what I thought was – more likely to achieve the desired outcome."

Harry was within arm's reach of Snape now. "You're trying to tell me you seduced me in order to fulfil the requirements of your bloody job?"

"Of course not," Snape huffed.

"Good. Because unless I was hallucinating, I seem to recall that I was the one who seduced you." Harry raised a hand – 

 – and Snape moved out of reach. "I am saying that I was sent to protect you, and I failed miserably. I put my – I behaved abominably. And in the end, you were nearly killed because of my foolishness."

"Because of my foolishness," Harry corrected. "I was the one who went haring off that night – " Blast. He wasn't going to bring it up this way.

"You're not to blame for what happened," he continued instead. "We were the ones who bollixed their plans. It was inevitable that they would come after us." He advanced on Snape once more; the older wizard stood, fists balled at his sides, still as a statue. Harry reached up to caress his face; Snape flinched, and Harry hesitated.

No, damn it. I won't let him.

Making contact at last after what seemed like an eternity, Harry closed the distance, stroking his fingertips against the pale cheek. "You can't pretend you don't want me," Harry whispered. "That you don't – care about me. I won't believe you."

Then the most peculiar thing happened. Something in Snape's facade seemed to crack wide open, and for an instant Harry could see everything he'd hoped for in his wildest dreams: desire, hope, trust, love. He sucked in a breath at the startling, naked power of it.

And just as suddenly, as if a shade had been drawn against the sun, Snape's expression hardened. The temperature of the room seemed to drop, and Harry fought the urge to shiver.

"What did Black tell you to make you run, Harry?"

Surprise betrayed itself on Harry's face. He hadn't expected Snape to be the one to bring it up. "W-what?" he countered, stupidly.

Snape leaned in closer, and Harry's hand dropped. "What did Black tell you that night about my relationship with your father?"

Dammit. He knew Snape was trying to turn him round somehow, but the naming of his deepest fear was accomplishing just that. He struggled desperately to recover his composure. "Not much," he said, as nonchalantly as he could. "Just that you and he had become friends after – that business with the Shrieking Shack."

"Did he," Snape said coolly. "But if we were such great friends in our youth," he drawled, moving around Harry, "why should I now resent him so? Did Black offer a theory to explain this?"

Harry's jaw tensed. "I assumed you must have had a falling out."

"Come now," Snape said. "The ending of friendships do not have such dire consequences."

"All right," Harry gritted. "He said that you had been in love with – James."

Snape pursed his lips. "With your father."

Harry concentrated on breathing evenly. What are you playing at? I'm not going to fall for it.

"It's true," Snape said softly.

Harry stopped breathing.

"I was sixteen years old," Snape was saying, "and I was – not popular. Not like your father, like his friends. I hated them from our first ride on the Hogwarts Express, and they felt the same way about me. It was more than inter-House rivalry. There were a hundred petty reasons, I imagine. These were complicated by issues of class, of ideology, which are passed on by parents, half-understood by children – it hardly matters now. But suffice it to say, I could not envision a time when I would have gladly begged for the smallest mark of the great James Potter's favour."

He chuckled, but there was no humour in it. "How quickly it changed. But hormones lay waste to us all. Your father was a very attractive young man...much like his son," Snape purred, his mouth close to Harry's ear. Harry fought back a shudder. "And when he risked his own life to save me that night – well, I had been reading some romantic tripe about wartime heroes from opposing sides falling in love, and I fancied us the protagonists. Quite disgusting, when I look back on it now, but at the time it seemed real."

Harry's eyes narrowed at the obvious parallel.

Snape continued blithely. "The illusion was encouraged by the unlikely friendship we formed afterward; I started the pretense of helping him with his homework. And he reciprocated; purely by coincidence, my Charms mark deteriorated rapidly, and James, the star pupil, offered to help." He raised an eyebrow. "To me, spending time with him was heaven; I didn't question that he never wanted to meet me when his friends were about. In fact, when they were nearby, he treated me as he always had."

Harry frowned. "Why would he have done that?"

"Oh, there may have been several reasons," Snape answered, smiling unpleasantly. "My theory at the time, of course, was that we were destined to be lovers in secret, star-cross'd. But as with so many things, the explanation was the most obvious one: he was not keen for his friends to find out that he enjoyed the company of the greasy Severus Snape."

Harry's sense of dread rose exponentially; he wanted to scream at Snape to stop, just stop talking now, but at the same time he recognized that this was inevitable. Whatever future he and Snape might have, they would first need to dispel the past. Aloud, he said, "What happened when they found out?"

For the first time since he had begun his tale, Snape hesitated, and Harry saw a flash of uncertainty cross his features before the mask descended again. When he next spoke, it was barely above a whisper.

"Well, I'm afraid it was not terribly original. The basic script was copied from previous generations of boarding school students the world over. You see," he said, "they all knew I was queer."

Harry flinched.

"But magic can come in handy on certain occasions. And it was no different with this."

Please, Harry thought, please just get it over with.

"Once again, Black lured me. But he was more clever this time; he knew I would not trust him. So that night an owl brought me a note, in your father's hand. It said, simply, 'Meet me at our place at midnight.'"

"'Your place?'" Harry blurted, cursing himself for his weakness.

"That's how I thought of it," Snape said. "There was a small copse at the far edge of the garden – it's long gone – where those who wanted privacy could go. There was a clearing I thought of as 'ours', though until then I had no idea James felt the same way. It stirred my adolescent blood to think he wished to meet me late at night. I left all my suspicions, my training, my instincts behind that night as I snuck out of the castle, in favour of following my cock."

Harry sucked in a breath.

"When I arrived, I could tell someone was near. The moon was half-full and bright, and when my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw him leaning against a tree. Merlin, but he was beautiful in the moonlight. I took a step forward, but he halted me with one sentence. To me, they were the sweetest words ever spoken. He told me, 'Tonight I'm going to give you what you want.'"

Oh, God.

"Indeed," Snape said drily, and Harry realised he'd spoken aloud. "But first, he said, in James' voice, that he wanted to see me. He wanted to see all of me, he said."

Harry wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. "It's okay," he said, taking a tentative step in Snape's direction. "I understand now, you don't have to – "

"When I was completely naked," Snape continued, as though Harry hadn't spoken, "he walked toward me. Polyjuice is quite convincing. He reached out and trailed one finger down my chest, and I was hard in an instant. And then your godfather took out his wand, cast Petrificus, and I was frozen – exactly like that." He spread his hands. "There was a considerable crowd assembled to admire his achievement when he levitated me out to the garden."

"Christ – " whispered Harry. The tears were tracking silently down his cheeks, but he couldn't be bothered to dash them away. "Please, stop."

Snape shrugged. "There's not much more to tell. The Headmaster offered to Obliviate the students, and myself, but I refused."

"You – " Harry trailed off. Knowing Snape as he did, that made perfect sense to him. "But – " he began.

"Yes?" Snape asked, arching an eyebrow.

"What about – my dad? What made you hate him so much?"

"Ah, yes," Snape said brightly, as though Harry had just reminded him of an important point. "Well, he had written the note, hadn't he?"

Harry stared at him. "N – no," he stammered. "I thought you said – Sirius – "

"Sirius disguised himself as James. But it was James who wrote the letter. I suppose, looking back on it now, that the incident was probably not at his instigation."

"Then why did he – "

"Because," Snape said matter-of-factly, as if he were explaining something to a small child, "he did not want anyone to think he was a cocksucker."

Harry's heart froze in his chest.

"It's rather ironic, isn't it?" mused Snape. "To think that his son has grown up to be one."

"Why are you – " Why are you doing this? Harry choked, then started again. "Why are you telling me this now, like this?"

Snape locked gazes with Harry, his hard, sharp obsidian eyes boring into Harry's misty green ones. "Because you need to understand once and for all that there can be no future for us. Because you will never be sure that when I look at you, I am not seeing James, seeing the past, and what transpired there."

Harry swallowed hard, willing the tears to stop falling. "I'm not my dad. You know I'm not."

"Well, that is true in some respects," Snape admitted, leaning in close. "Because your father never would have let me fuck him. Perhaps if he had, I might have a wider basis for comparison."

Harry didn't remember leaving, didn't remember the journey back to Gryffindor Tower. He only knew that when he finally collapsed on the couch in the deserted Common Room, he did not stop crying for a very long time.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Severus Snape, although he knew many potions to reduce or erase the effects of alcoholic consumption, made it a habit never to imbibe on school nights. He occasionally took a glass of port after dinner on Saturdays or during the holidays, and – rarely – a finger of whiskey.

When the dawn light filtered in through the magical windows behind his chair, he raised his last remaining tumbler of MacAllan for a final time in a toast. He'd already toasted James Potter, Sirius Black, and everyone else he could think of, and damned every last one of them to the flaming pits of Hell. Starting with himself, of course.

He'd saluted the Boy Who Lived, who with a single gentle touch had forced Snape to play his last, desperate trump card. Harry Potter, who offered up his carefully hoarded tears at the altar of Snape's adolescent humiliation.

But the dregs were rightfully dedicated to the man behind the curtain, the wizard of their own private Oz, who pulled the levers and made them all dance. Who had thought to give the tin man a heart, without bothering to enquire whether or not he wanted the sodding thing. And in exchange, the tin man had now robbed the lion of his courage, reduced him to a creature afraid of his own shadow.

Even drunk as he was, it did not seem a fair trade.

"To Albus Dumbledore," he said thickly. "The meddling old bastard."

 

 

 

 

~~ XXII ~~

Six Months Later


When Muggles looked at Salisbury Command, they saw the rotting remains of a World War II army base, the pavements cracked, the Quonset huts caving in on themselves. But the Ministry had refurbished the base last year with new facilities, made Unplottable and protected against attack. It was now the nerve centre for the Ministry of Special Services, and stronghold of the forces of light. The irony wasn't lost on the Aurors there; the walls of their mess were covered with old posters dug out of the rubble, the rips and stains repaired, the colours made bright once more with the wave of a wand.

Harry was grateful he wasn't actually in the military, however, because if his flat had been subjected to a regular inspection, he would have failed every time. Luckily, it was small enough that he rarely entertained, but Ron and Hermione were due for supper tonight, and he'd had to make some effort to make the tiny kitchenette and living area shipshape in Bristol fashion.

He kicked his old trainers under the sofa, sending them to join the rest of the clutter that had previously been scattered over the sitting room floor. Hands on his hips, he surveyed the apartment with a critical eye. Not bad.

Then he sniffed the air.

"Oh, bugger," he muttered, striding to the kitchen. "I suppose the rubbish'll have to get the chop."

Pulling open the oven door, he removed a half dozen grease-stained takeaway boxes, then spent a few minutes rummaging through the fridge, discarding anything that was mold-covered, reeking, or unidentifiable. Then, too lazy to take it out to the compost, he pulled out his wand and waved it over the pile. The entire mess disappeared with a loud popping noise.

He sniffed again. Well, it was December, but surely it wouldn't hurt to open a couple of windows.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Sirius stared at Edmund Fitzpatrick. Edmund Fitzpatrick stared back at him.

Edmund, m'boy, thought Sirius, I would like nothing better than to see you take a long walk off a short pier.

Doubtless the man in front of him was thinking similar thoughts. To be fair, he was an excellent Auror, a skilled fighter, and completely fearless – just the kind of soldier they needed at this point in time. Unfortunately, he was also Fudge's nephew, and as such had been automatically promoted to command rank. That had been a mistake.

Add to that the fact the man happened to be Snape's commanding officer, and it became a disaster of epic proportions. Snape was not easily led, and since Harry had left for Salisbury, there was no other liason at Hogwarts to mediate between the Potions master and the rough-edged wizard standing before him.

Sirius pushed thoughts of Harry from the forefront of his mind. This was not the time to dwell on that situation.

"You told him – what?" he asked. Perhaps his hearing had failed him; he was getting older, after all – 

"Well, I didn't exactly sack him," drawled the burly, ginger man. "I let him know it would be best if he took some time off. Holidays, what? Good excuse, good time of year."

Sirius paused a moment to marvel at the appalling lack of complete sentences in the speech of the upper classes, then barrelled on ahead. "Snape hates Christmas," he sighed. "And I imagine he would have seen right through that ploy."

"Hmm," Fitzpatrick grunted, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Suspect he did, from the way he shouted at me. Unpleasant fellow. I never realised quite how much – after all, your Harry used to attend most of the briefings in his place. How is your Harry, by the way?"

He's not 'my' Harry any longer, thought Sirius. "Fine," he gritted. "Now, did you give him a reason?"

"Didn't have to, did I? That last raid was a close shave. He got wind of something afoot in the Hebrides and very nearly buggered off without us. Would have, too, if Dumbledore hadn't given us a tinkle."

Sirius closed his eyes briefly. Snape was not a team player at the best of times, but lately he'd become more and more reclusive. Although his spying days were over, he still had contacts among Voldemort's followers, but the reliability of some of those sources was questionable. Sirius could understand Snape's reluctance to risk the lives of other Aurors on the strength of information gleaned from them, but it was against Ministry policy for mavericks to go it alone. There was no doubt Snape had begun taking rather large chances with his life; Sirius tried not to give too much thought to the reasons behind this.

Aloud, he said, "I thought Dumbledore was going to speak to Snape."

"Was he? Well," Fitzpatrick huffed, squaring his already square shoulders, "ultimately, it's up to the commander to determine the fitness of his troops, isn't it? I had to make a decision, and I stand behind it." Although they were the only two people in the room, he leaned in close as though imparting a secret. "Probably for the best if he does resign, anyway. Death Eater, you know; can't trust 'em further than you can levitate an elephant."

"You bloody – " Sirius began. Oh, sod it. Fudge can have my bollocks. "You bloody fool."

"Pardon me?" squeaked Fitzpatrick. Sirius resisted the urge to tap him on his nonexistent chin.

"You heard me. I told you a hundred times to speak with Albus before you dealt with Snape; he's the only one who understands him, who knows him." Nearly the only one, at any rate. "And whether you like it or not, I'd rather have one Snape than a dozen of you lot. For you, this is all some sodding great adventure, all made up of abstract concepts like Heroism and Truth, but Snape knows the evil we're fighting is the greatest threat we've ever faced. He knows that if we lose now, we lose the light, and he's as committed to keeping that light shining as any of us, because he's lived in the darkness."

Bugger. Where had that come from?

Fitzpatrick spluttered for a moment before he managed to form words. "Well, I certainly – "

"Sirius, are you – oh. Hello, Edmund."

Sirius spun toward the fireplace to see Albus Dumbledore's head floating inside it. "Albus," he said, as jovially as he could manage. "How can I help you?"

At first, Sirius was at a loss to explain why the Headmaster of Hogwarts looked – not exactly like himself. His expression was otherwise placid and serene, as always, his hair and beard neatly combed, his hat tilted at a jaunty angle.

Then he met that blue gaze, and he knew. Dumbledore was worried.

"I was wondering – if Severus were there with you," the Headmaster said quietly.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Hermione was approximately one inch from throttling Ron. Or Harry. Or perhaps both of them.

Since they'd left school, whenever she'd tried to get together with Harry – not that there'd been much time, between his Auror duties and her own work in the Magical Ciphers department at Bletchley – he'd always managed to firmly, if politely, rebuff her with one excuse or another. Much as she hated to concede a shortcoming, she had to admit she was terrible at being a sympathetic ear, for she tended to want to fix things, and invariably ended up putting people off by telling them exactly what they should do and how they should do it. The trouble was, most people looking for a shoulder to cry on didn't want that shoulder to open its big, fat mouth and offer them helpful advice at every turn.

Ron, on the other hand, had always had a more effortless friendship with Harry; despite their occasional contretemps, the two boys had developed a silent system of communication over the years which Hermione envied. Ron's more easygoing personality meant that he would never pry Harry open like a tin of mushy peas, counting on Harry to know his own mind, and to seek his support when and if it was needed.

But there was only one problem with this method. Harry didn't know his own mind, and it was eating him up from the inside.

As the two men chatted on incessantly about the hopes for postwar Quidditch, Hermione resisted the urge to kick Ron under the table. Had he forgotten everything Sirius had told them the other day, forgotten the haunted look on Sirius's face when he expressed his concern? It was obvious from the dark circles under Harry's eyes and the faint pong that greeted them upon arrival that their friend wasn't taking care of himself. When was Ron going to get on with it and bring it up?

Oh, for Heaven's sake, settle down, she chided herself. It's not as though he can simply blurt out, 'Your godfather thinks you have a death wish.' Give him time.

Harry was laughing, but there wasn't a great deal of mirth in it. "Well, I suppose you're entitled to your opinion, mate," he said, grinning. "But considering their best Keeper snuffed it in the last raid, I don't imagine the Cannons have got much of a hope when the dust settles."

"Harry!" Hermione exclaimed. "I can't believe you just said that." He'd been an Auror the last two years at Hogwarts, witnessed horrible things, and yet she'd never heard him make such a callous remark. If this went on much longer, they'd lose the Harry they knew and loved.

"Sorry, 'Mione," Harry replied, not looking particularly contrite. "But working here, you get a rather different attitude than you might holed up in a basement with twenty other boffins."

Hermione frowned, stung. All right, so she wasn't on the front lines – not yet, anyway. With her skill in Arithmancy, they'd told her she was more valuable to the war effort as a code expert, developing numerological weapons in the fight against Voldemort, and cracking the Death Eaters' complex, number-based wards and hexes. Ron had only recently returned from America, where he was supervising the secret transfer of high-tech CWA gadgetry to the British forces. They were both doing vital work. She opened her mouth to tell him just this – 

 – but Ron got in ahead of her. "Yeah," he mused, "I heard your attitude's changed a bit."

Harry sat a little straighter in his chair. "What d'you mean?"

"'S a small war, isn't it? Fred 'n George might be in Cardiff, but they're Aurors, and they hear all the gossip. Right now most of it's about how long you're going to last."

Hermione's eyes bounced from Ron to Harry, as though she were in the stands at Wimbledon. Sod a dog, she thought. Even I could've been more subtle than that.

Harry leaned back in his chair, the very picture of nonchalance. "They have a pool going at Cardiff too? Reg Marsden over in Barracks D is laying three to one I don't make it to New Years'. Tell your brothers they may want to get in on a sure thing – I'm planning to pop off 'round February, no sooner."

"Goddamnit!" Ron's open palm smacked down on the table with enough force to topple Hermione's wine glass. She watched the blood-red liquid soak into the pristine tablecloth. "You think this is a sodding joke?"

Harry's jaw set. "Whether you like it or not, it is," he said quietly. "Aurors joke about death all the time, Ron. It's how we stay sane."

"Only it isn't a laugh to you, is it?" Ron retorted, spots of colour staining his cheekbones.

"Ron – " Hermione began. This was not the way to get Harry to open up – it took patience, and cajoling, and finesse. Ron's approach had all the finesse of a mountain troll on heroin.

Harry fixed his gaze to a blank space on the wall opposite. "Did Sirius send you?"

Ron hesitated, and Hermione slid into the gap. "He spoke to us, yes. But that's not the reason we came." Tentatively, she reached a hand across the table and touched Harry's. "We've been worried about you for some time. You've been getting worse for months, before we left school, even. But we didn't know how to bring it up."

Harry chuckled hollowly. "I've some news for you. You still don't."

"Well, since we were afraid that by the time we had it figured out, you'd have snuffed it – "

"All right, Ron," Hermione sighed.

"No. He needs to hear this. He needs to hear us." Ron leaned forward, his expression and tone earnest. "We love you, you bloody git. And we know you're doing one of the riskiest jobs in this war, and that you could very well die tomorrow. That's hard enough to stand. But when we think you could be taking risks you don't need to take, that you're putting yourself in danger because something's gone wrong and you don't want to deal with it – " his voice broke " – Christ, Harry..."

"I'm not – " Harry began, blinking rapidly. "I'm – it's not as bad as all that. I'm just – "

Hermione took a deep breath. Harry was in worse shape than she thought; he couldn't even acknowledge it to himself. "I went to Hogwarts last week," she told him softly.

Harry's head whipped round; jade eyes locked with hers.

"To consult with Professor Vector about a tricky formula." She paused, then before she could talk herself out of it, plunged ahead. "If it's any consolation to you, he looks to be in even worse shape than you do."

Harry stared at her for a moment, then closed his eyes and buried his head in his hands, elbows resting on the table. "Bugger," he breathed.

For the first time in recent memory, Hermione took no pleasure in being right.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

He was cold. He was tired. And to make matters worse, there was a terrible rattling noise all around him.

Oh. That was his teeth.

What day is it? He tried to organise his thoughts, marshal his memories. He could recall a huge room, and dozens of voices raised in song...

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me – 

Christmas. It was always cold at Christmastime. Bloody useless holiday; soon Flitwick would be decorating the tree...

...No, Flitwick had been dead a year and a...

...and three months? Four?

Think, damn it. Try...remember...

Too cold to think.

Don't want to remember.

He struggled to stand, but the pain from the mess they forced him to drink was crippling. Had he taken the powdered bezoar before he left? Always a good idea to take a pinch of powdered bezoar in case they tried to poison you.

Take a pinch – take a – taketake – 

And a point will be taken from Gryffindor house for your cheek, Potter.

Eyes opened in darkness, or perhaps he was blind. Yes, it would explain a great deal, if he had been blind all these hours, days, months, years, decades...

The mad laughter bubbled up from his throat, and try as he might he could not remember how to stop it.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry awoke with a numb arse, a stiff neck and a damp chin. He righted his head and turned to look round – 

 – at Hermione, who was returning his sleepy gaze with a bemused expression. They were both sitting on the floor, their backs to the couch. In the dim light, he could make out Ron's arm flung over Hermione's left shoulder; her right had apparently been serving as Harry's pillow. He reached up a hand and placed it there, only to find it was also damp.

"Bloody hell," he whispered. "I drooled on you."

Hermione smiled fondly. "I don't mind. This sweater needed a wash."

After giving his chin a wipe, Harry leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. A loud snore erupted from behind them, and he jumped.

"How come he ended up with the couch?"

Hermione chuckled. "Let him sleep. He's been working nonstop, Flooing between New York and London every day."

Harry rubbed at his eyes. "How's that coming?"

"Wonderfully. Your friend Frankie's quite the subversive character. Convinced the American wizarding congress that giving us all these gadgets didn't compromise their neutrality, since they were just lending them to us."

"Lending, eh?" Harry drawled. "Load of tripe. I can't believe anyone would swallow that."

"Oh, and they get the free use of our resort in Bermuda in exchange. And exclusive television rights to the war news."

Harry smiled, remembering the television in the hospital.

His heart twisted.

"Why don't you go and talk to him? Have it out?" Hermione asked quietly.

Harry lay his head back against Ron's leg. "Because it'll end up the same as it did before. He doesn't want to deal with me, with the possibility that we could be..." He trailed off, not wishing to be dragged down into that bottomless pit yet again.

"Mmm," Hermione said, stroking Harry's hair absently. "Probably true. But I was talking about Sirius."

Harry stiffened. "I have nothing to say to him. I attend his briefings, do my job. He doesn't have any reason to fault me."

"He doesn't want to fault you. He wants a chance to talk to you, to patch things up. He loves you."

Harry shook his head. He'd revealed quite a bit to Ron and Hermione over the course of the evening, but he hadn't disclosed the details of the prank. "You don't know what he did. It was – monstrous."

"He was sixteen, Harry," she said gently. "Most teenage boys, present company excepted, are pigs. He's a grown man now."

"You don't understand, all right?" Harry said sharply. Behind them, Ron snorted and convulsed, but didn't wake. "They did – what they did – because he was gay. It could as easily have been me in Snape's place."

"It couldn't have been you," Hermione countered. "I'm not saying that Snape deserved to be treated badly. But I think the animosity between your dad's crowd and Snape isn't only one-sided. There's a lot of complex history there we'll never understand."

"It doesn't matter," Harry persisted. "What Sirius did is unforgivable."

"Perhaps," Hermione said, still stroking his hair. "But it's not your place to say, love. It didn't happen to you. Only Snape has the right to choose whether to forgive him."

Harry sighed. He closed his eyes, allowing himself to be lulled by Hermione's soothing touch and the low, rhythmic sound of Ron's snores.

"All right," he said finally. "I'll try."

"Good," Hermione said brightly, apparently satisfied with his answer. She shifted, laying her own head on Harry's shoulder this time. He relished the soft brush of her wild curls against his cheek.

Small things, he thought.

"Missed you," Hermione whispered.

"You, too," replied Harry.

Hermione was silent for so long, Harry fancied she'd fallen asleep. Then, in a small voice, she said:

"He asked me to marry him last night."

Harry started. "You're kidding."

She snorted. "Don't tell me you didn't know."

"I didn't. Well, not exactly. The last time we spoke, he said he wanted to wait until the war was over to ask you."

"Nice of you both to include me in the decision making," she huffed.

"Oh, shut up," said Harry affectionately. "How did it happen? What did he say?"

Hermione lifted her head off his shoulder and looked at him, and Harry could see that her eyes were brimming with tears.

Harry cleared his throat. "That bad, huh?"

"Hardly." Ron's voice was husky with sleep. "I was bloody brill, mate." He pushed himself up on one elbow. "Used logic on her. Told her that life was too short to be waiting round for happiness to kick us in the arse. And that since we couldn't kick our own arses, it was past time she married me."

Hermione sucked in a ragged breath and dug into her pocket for a tissue. "Isn't that beautiful?" she sniffed, wiping at her nose.

Harry pulled her to him and hugged her so tightly that she squeaked in surprise.

"Yes, it is," he agreed, his eyes squeezing shut against the prickling sensation as Ron wrapped his long arms around them both.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Over here!"

Sirius bounded off in the direction of the shout. Four long legs ate up the ground as he drew nearer to Fitzpatrick, crouching at the base of a tree beside a black-clad, crumpled figure.

It had been three hours since Dumbledore's call. Three hours of digging through Snape's coded notes – Vector had been a great help there, thank Merlin – to eventually narrow it down to four likely locations.

They found him on the second try.

Sirius bounded up to the tree, then concentrated on changing, and in a few seconds had reassumed his human form. "Is he – "

"Still breathing," Fitzpatrick said gruffly. "But I don't know for how long." The large man's face was ashen, and his gaze was deeply troubled.

Well, thought Sirius. Maybe you'll make a decent commander yet.

Fitzpatrick made to gather Snape in his arms. "I'll take him," he murmured, rising to his feet. And with a pop, the two men were gone, and Sirius was alone on the barren Highlands heath.

"You bastard," Sirius muttered, to the starless, murky night. "You'd better make it through this. Because if you die, there's no way in hell Harry will ever speak to me again."

 

 

 

 

~~ XXIII ~~

Hermione struggled to keep up with Ron's longer legs as the two of them raced down the corridor toward the Infirmary. Harry had beaten them here by several minutes; as soon as they Apparated at the edge of the Hogwarts grounds, their friend mounted his Firebolt and zoomed on ahead.

The sound of raised voices echoed against the stone walls, and when they rounded the last corner, Hermione spied an unusual quartet, made up of Madam Pomfrey, the Headmaster, Harry...and Sirius Black. Although they had fallen silent for the moment, their grim expressions spoke volumes.

"Bollocks," breathed Ron. "That doesn't look good."

The group assembled in front of the Infirmary doors looked up as one at the arrival of Ron and Hermione. Harry's tension-filled face relaxed somewhat. "Hermione," he said gratefully. "I'm glad you're here. I need you to dash down to Snape's stores and prepare something for me."

"No," Sirius said firmly. "Harry, please – "

"It's my life," Harry gritted. "As I've been telling you for the past five minutes."

Hermione felt a chill run through her. "'Your life?' What exactly is going on?"

"Professor Snape is in a coma," Matron Pomfrey said evenly. "When he came to us, he had been poisoned by his attackers, but as he takes powdered bezoar regularly, I was able to counteract the effects without much difficulty."

"So what's the problem, then?" Ron demanded.

"He won't wake up." Harry turned toward them, and Hermione suppressed a gasp at the hollow, lifeless green eyes which confronted her. "And I don't think he's going to – because he doesn't want to." He clenched his fists. "He's getting further and further away. I can feel it."

Sirius shook his head. "You can't possibly – "

"I need you to prepare a Volanimus mixture," Harry said to Hermione, cutting him off.

Ron blinked. "You mean that stuff Seamus tried – that's awfully dodgy, isn't it?"

"We've used it twice before, Snape and I," Harry persisted. "If I take it, I can find him again. Bring him back."

"It's not worth the risk," Sirius said stubbornly. "If he's determined to die, and you're there with him – "

"You'll be lost as well," Hermione breathed. Although such mixtures and potions were not her specialty, she was familiar enough with the principles involved to know what was at stake. "Harry, you're asking me to put your life – your soul – in danger."

Harry stepped up to her then, and took her gently by the shoulders. "If you don't do it, I'll mix it myself, and even when I'm at my best I can't do as good a job as you could in your sleep." His voice shook slightly, betraying his agitation. "Please, love."

Hermione took a deep breath and looked – truly looked – into the face of her friend. She'd known about his feelings for Snape for some time, but now she realised she'd never completely believed they could run as deep as her own for Ron. Snape was not the most lovable man, after all, and Harry's life had given him few opportunities to experience the emotion. But as she took in his haggard, desperate expression, she knew that she had been wrong. For this was the same face that would greet her in the mirror if someone came and told her Ron was – 

She exhaled in a rush. "All right."

"Goddamnit!" Sirius swore, running long fingers through his disheveled hair.

"Harry."

Five pairs of eyes fixed on Headmaster Dumbledore, who walked up to Harry, effectively shutting out the others standing nearby. As Hermione watched, one bony hand reached up to cradle Harry's cheek.

"Understand one thing," the Headmaster told him softly. "Your will to live must be pure, without the slightest taint of doubt. And strong enough for both of you."

Harry seemed to absorb the old wizard's words, drawing in on himself as if searching for the answer contained within. After a long moment, he met Dumbledore's steely blue gaze and nodded.

"I'm sure. I wasn't – until I heard he was – " He cut himself off. "But I am now."

Dumbledore regarded him for another few seconds, then released him. "Hermione," he said, his eyes still regarding Harry, "thank you for your offer of assistance, but I will prepare the Volanimus for Harry." And without another word to any of them, he turned on his heel and walked briskly down the corridor leading to the dungeons.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"What the bloody hell is that?"

Severus cringed at the sound of the voice, the first time he'd heard it in over a month. Secretly, though he knew it was wicked, he'd been hoping he'd never have to hear it again.

"Answer me, boy!"

He straightened his spine, waiting for the blow. "It's a – Christmas tree."

"And can you explain to me," the voice said silkily, drawing closer, "what that piece of Muggle claptrap is doing in my home?"

He thought about pointing out the Druidic origins of the tree and various other winter solstice traditions, preserved through the millenia by wizarding families and only recently appropriated by Muggles; he'd been reading about them in the book Mother gave him. But even at his young age, he knew she had given him the book to recruit an ally to her side, and he was tired of playing the rope in their eternal game of tug-of-war.

Aloud, he said, "No, sir." He could at least demonstrate that much loyalty.

"'No, sir?' I suppose the infernal thing floated in here all by itself?"

The voice was rising now. He looked up and watched the little charmed dragon ornament flick its tail in agitation. Twin tongues of flame shot from its nostrils.

That one was his favourite.

"Octavius. How generous of you to grace us with your presence during the holidays."

He wouldn't watch, he wouldn't, they couldn't make him. He pushed himself up off the floor, where he'd sat as he contemplated the ornately wrapped boxes under the tree.

I should have known it was too good to be real, he thought. Without taking his eyes off the carpet, he walked toward the hall – 

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Leave Severus alone!" shrieked his mother dramatically. "He was so looking forward to Christmas, and now you've ruined it!"

His father's tone had dipped low once more, a sure sign of impending action. "I haven't ruined it yet, my dear. But rest assured I shall."

Severus reached the stairway and began to climb. Oh, bloody well get it over with.

Behind him, there was a loud bang, then the roaring, hissing sound of flame engulfing the tree and his mother's screams of indignation and fury. As he made the top of the stairs, the high-pitched wail of the dragon joined with hers in a sickening duet.

Gods, I'm so tired, he thought. I could sleep forever.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Several thousand miles away, Justin Taylor woke with a start. Leaping from the bed, he rushed out to the living area. He stared stupidly at the massive white pine, its limbs outlined by the ambient light oozing in through the window.

"Another one?" The sleep-roughened voice emerged from the darkness, just before long arms wrapped around Justin from behind.

"Yeah. It was weird. The – the tree was on fire. And there was this inhuman sound – " He shivered. "Did you have it too?"

"Not this time." Brian dropped a kiss on Justin's bare shoulder. "Come back to bed."

"In a little while. I want to get the image down first, before it fades."

Brian sighed, but made no other comment; by now, he knew better than to argue. Justin padded over to the computer and turned it on, then reached into a drawer for the small portfolio he'd assembled, a combination of the memories of three men.

Memories of things that had never happened to any of them.

A boy with attractively tousled hair and stunning green eyes stared up at him from the first paper. For some reason Justin always drew him in motion, the hair streaming back from his face, as if he were riding a motorcycle.

He laid that one aside, and studied the second portrait in the glow of the monitor, contemplating the knife-sharp nose and obsidian gaze which also haunted their dreams.

"Who are you?" he whispered, laying the second drawing beside the first.

There was, of course, no answer. Reaching for his tablet, Justin began to sketch the details of the room he'd seen tonight.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry sat beside the bed, his hands enfolding one of Snape's, trying to impart some of his warmth to the softly breathing figure.

He seemed so much...smaller...lying there, the covers pulled up nearly to his chin. Harry imagined it was the effect of the hospital bed, but he thought the man also seemed thinner than the last time Harry had seen him, at graduation.

The Leaving Feast had been sheer hell; Harry spent his last three weeks of school torn between wanting to tear down to the dungeons and force Snape to talk to him, and chukking the NEWTs and all of it and leaving Hogwarts forever. In the end, he'd done neither, just continued on in a sort of half-trance until graduation day.

At the Feast, Harry kept darting glances in Snape's direction, hoping for some sign, any sign that Snape harboured some regrets over his earlier decision to reject him. After all, the last minute was always the point in the Muggle films when the protagonists decided they couldn't live without one another, wasn't it?

Of course, at the time he had assumed that his departure from Hogwarts was indeed the 'last minute.' Now it appeared they'd arrived at another one, much more final, and a great deal more deadly.

Harry squeezed the hand he held a little more tightly, and leaned forward until his head was resting on the pillow beside Snape's ear.

"Are you listening, you hook-nosed bastard?" Harry murmured. "I'm coming in after you. I'm going to drag you out of this, by the balls if I have to, kicking and screaming if need be. And then I'm going to stick fast. You won't be able to pry me off with a dissolving potion. If you thought I was a nuisance in your classes, just wait 'til you wake up." He closed his eyes, his voice dropping to a whisper. "From this day on, you're mine, do you hear?"

"It must be love, then."

Harry jerked upright and twisted in his seat. Hermione stood at the gap in the curtain, a small bowl in her hand. "I couldn't help catching the last bit. Sorry."

"'S'alright," Harry said. "I just hope you weren't the only one."

"Me, too," she said fervently. Holding up the bowl, she said, "Ron and I, ah, went down to the dungeons and gave the Headmaster a hand. We didn't think it was right for him to – " She trailed off, waving her other arm ineffectually.

"Yeah, I understand. Sharing the load, just in case, right?"

Hermione nodded, then reached into her pocket and drew out a small leatherbound book. "I also brought you some reading material on Volanimus I found in Professor Snape's collection. It's a little trickier to make contact with another person's soul when that person...is, ah, comatose, or...doesn't want to be contacted. I've marked the relevant pages."

"Thanks," Harry said, suppressing a smile as he took the book from her. Setting it down on the small bedside table, he reached out a hand for the bowl; Hermione took a step forward, then hesitated.

"You did mean what you told the Headmaster, didn't you? About being sure you could do this?"

Harry's mouth quirked. "Suspect I was fibbing, did you?"

Hermione pursed her lips. "You've lied to him before. To save him worry."

Harry turned back to the sleeping man on the bed; gently, he stroked over the proud forehead, the dark, limp hair. "Well, this time I wasn't. I'm sure – as sure as I can be, without knowing what I'm in for. I do know what I want now," he said, meeting her gaze levelly. "And I'm going to do everything I can to get it."

"All right, then," Hermione said softly, handing over the bowl; as he took it, she bent down and kissed him on the cheek. "We'll be close by."

"Thanks," he murmured, swallowing against the lump in his throat. "And 'Mione? If I, ah, if I shouldn't come out – "

She sucked in a breath, but nodded for him to go on.

" – tell Sirius I do love him, and that – I never stopped."

The tears in her eyes spilled over silently. "Will do," she said briskly, and then she was gone.

Harry set the bowl on the table, took a pinch of the mixture and picked up the glass of water lying beside it.

"Hold on," Harry said. "I'm on my way."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Someone was coming.

Snape lay on his bed and contemplated the intricately painted snake design which decorated the ceiling and walls of his bedroom. On the nights when he'd lain awake listening to his parents shout at one another, the fanciful reptiles slithering across the walls of his room were strangely comforting to him. He imagined them as his protectors, shutting out the world for a short span of time.

But the boy approaching now had a secret weapon which would breach the battlements of his fortress as surely as if it were made of tissue paper.

For the boy who had come looking for him could talk to snakes.

Hopping off the bed, he raced to the door and peered out into the hall. No sign of him yet, but it wouldn't be long. He'd have to hide.

Why? Why do I need to hide?

Shaking his head to clear it, he ran back over to the nightstand and fetched his wand. The smooth, polished wood gleamed in the lamplight. He loved this wand; it had lasted him all through Hogwarts – 

 – Wait. He was only nine, wasn't he? Father hadn't bought him his first wand until his tenth birthday.

Oh, sod it. It sounded like his father's voice. Don't try to make sense of it. You need a weapon, and now you have one.

Snape paused as he turned the wand over in his hands. Why do I need a weapon? Is the boy that dangerous?

There was no answer forthcoming. Sighing, Snape eased through the doorway and disappeared into the darkness.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Whatever Harry had been expecting, it certainly wasn't this.

The book Hermione loaned him offered some helpful techniques, but nevertheless the journey to the outer layers of Snape's mind took considerably longer than he'd hoped. Prior to this, the two of them had only used the Volanimus to communicate with one another, an almost natural process once the soul was free of physical constraints. But this time, Snape was not interested in communicating, and his soul was locked deep within his body.

This time, Harry had to go in after him.

He knew he was successful when the landscape before his 'eyes' changed from utter blackness to a thick, choking silver mist; here again, the reading had paid off. But when the mist cleared, Harry was shocked at what was revealed.

He supposed he'd imagined the inside of another person's mind would resemble a Daliesque scene, a forced perspective tableau peppered with melting clocks and cadaverous horsemen. For Snape in particular, since the man was always so methodical in life, he'd figured on a high level of organisation, with the memories, emotions and thoughts carefully stored in neatly labelled manila envelopes, or behind evenly spaced doors leading off an endless corridor.

But there was no organisation, no rhyme or reason to this place. Forbidding mountains rose from the roofs of houses whose interiors lay open to the elements; snow-covered trees coexisted beside gardens in full bloom. Apart from the plants, there was no sign of a living thing anywhere. Harry felt an imaginary chill race through his 'body'. Was this the normal state of Snape's mind, or was this a sign of his soul's retreat, like the path of destruction left by a defeated army?

The mist was still swirling around his ankles. Harry took a step forward and stumbled over an unseen obstacle in his path. Once he righted himself, he reached down and felt about for the object. His hand closed around a box; when he lifted it above the fog, he saw that it was – had been – a Christmas present. The silver and green wrapping had been burned on the top and down one side; when he tried to unwrap it, the ribbon crumbled in his hands.

Inside, he found a small green garden snake. When Harry offered it his open palm, the creature slid into it trustingly.

Harry's heart leapt. Was Snape sending him a message, leaving him clues to help Harry find him?

"Which way should I go?" Harry hissed at the snake.

The tiny animal's slitted eyes regarded him steadily; after what seemed like an eternity, it answered, "You should go back. He is as good as dead."

Harry's gut twisted. "I'm going to find him, with or without your help."

An odd sound began to emerge from the snake. It took Harry several seconds to realise it was laughter. The creature slithered off his hand, and then it began to...grow.

Harry slowly rose to his feet as the tiny garter snake metamorphosed into a full-sized man. A man with the slitted eyes of a snake.

"Without my help, I should think, Harry," crooned Voldemort, as his thin lips stretched into a parody of a smile.
 

 

~~ XXIV ~~

Hermione shivered at the sight of Harry lying beside Snape, eyes closed, still as death. He was resting on his left side, one arm flung over Snape's chest as though they were lovers fallen together on the field of battle.

"Is that normal?" she asked Madam Pomfrey, who was waving her wand over Harry's unmoving form. "For him to be so – quiet?"

"He's fine," the Matron said absently. "Heart, lungs working perfectly, humours in perfect balance." Hermione watched a crease appear between the older woman's eyebrows as she passed the wand over Snape's body.

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure." The wand tip hovered an inch or two from Snape's forehead. "Harry is there now. But there seems to be an excessive level of – activity – going on."

"Perhaps he's found Professor Snape," Hermione suggested.

Pomfrey shook her head. "I don't believe so. It should have taken much longer than this."

"Then what else could be happening?"

The older woman described a graceful arc in the air with her wand, and murmured a few words too low for Hermione to hear. Then she closed her eyes as though listening very carefully to a faint, faraway sound.

When her eyes snapped open, Hermione's heart plummeted for her shoes.

"Hermione, my dear," the Matron said, her voice betraying only a slight quaver, "would you please fetch the Headmaster as quickly as you can?"

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry stared at the man standing before him.

Then he burst out laughing.

"I'm impressed," he said after a time, between chuckles. "You're very convincing. The eyes, the voice, the whole Angel of Death demeanour. Super job. I expected as much, though, so it's not exactly a surprise."

Voldemort's smile diminished marginally, and Harry felt a strange burst of affection for Snape. He knew Snape's psyche would attempt to throw obstacles in his path, and Harry was prepared to meet them. He would not show fear, or even hesitation; Snape would have no reason to doubt him.

"It's been lovely to see you again, Voldie old sod," Harry continued. "But if it's all the same to you, I think I'll head on my way." He shook his head. "What'll be next? Rabid centaurs? Blast-Ended Skrewts in frilly pinafores?"

Harry took a step to the side, intending to walk around the image of Voldemort. But Voldemort backed up quickly, blocking his path, and withdrew his wand.

Calm, Harry told himself. Stay calm.

That's the spirit, my boy. The voice was a hissing sneer that most certainly did not belong to Snape. Harry recoiled at the sensation of something cold and barely human brushing against his soul, caressing it with a teasing touch.

No, Harry's mind protested. It's not really you. I don't believe it.

Voldemort cackled. I, too, am familiar with Volanimus. So many uses. So many...possibilities.

It couldn't be. Or could it? Harry's thoughts raced, seeking connections. Snape had been poisoned by Voldemort's followers. What if the attack had been planned, a way of weakening Snape, of drawing Harry to his side? Harry could no longer be Located by simple charms. What if this was a way – 

 – to kill two birds with one stone?

Harry's head snapped up, and he met the slitted gaze defiantly.

"I can't imagine why you did so poorly on your NEWTs," drawled Voldemort. "You are quite the bright little thing."

Harry tamped down the sudden wave of fear that gripped him, but not soon enough for Voldemort to miss it.

"You're not so sure now, are you?" he said, his mouth twisted in a wry sneer.

Deliberately, Harry allowed the mask he'd used so often in life fall over his "features", hoping it would help him to regain some control. He fought to block his thoughts and emotions from Voldemort's view, but at the same time he knew it would be a near-impossible task. Voldemort doubtless had more experience in mind control techniques, and as a result, any schemes Harry might come up with would be known to him as soon as he thought them.

And if he shut himself down completely or retreated back to the relative safety of his own head, he would never find Snape.

His only chance was to operate on instinct, to employ his impulsive, unpredictable nature in something other than mischief.

That would be a first, he thought wryly. And then he concentrated on purging his thoughts completely.

Aloud, he spat, "What are you doing here, you bastard?"

Voldemort clucked his tongue. "You disappoint me once more. I should have thought that would be obvious."

"You're not seriously here for revenge?" Harry said evenly. "Come, now; someone who snuffed his own dad and grandparents could hardly make claims to be a family man."

Voldemort chuckled. "How astute of you. No, you're quite right – I have little feeling for my American spawn. Though he does make an effort to please me, he's rather inept, as you have observed. A deficiency of the Muggle blood, of course."

Harry snorted. "Of course."

Voldemort took a step closer, his wand now inches from Harry's chest. "But certain actions require...retribution. There is such a thing as honour, though I would hardly expect a Mudblood-lover such as yourself to understand that."

Harry clenched his fists. "I understand honour. And a hundred other things you never will."

"Such as love?" Voldemort cooed, baring his teeth in a ghastly grin.

Don't react. Don't.

"I must admit you surprised me, Harry," Voldemort said, circling him slowly. "The Boy Who Lived, on his pretty little knees before one of my Death Eaters. It makes a fascinating tableau."

"He's not one of your Death Eaters any longer."

"He has betrayed me, that is true. But he will always remain a Death Eater. His soul is rife with the memory of what he saw. What he did." Voldemort leaned in close. "I'm surprised you couldn't smell it on him while he fucked you."

Snape's words to him all those months ago rose unbidden in his mind. I will be a Death Eater until the day I die. And probably beyond that, if I am so unfortunate as to be cursed with an afterlife.

"Yes, he knows," Voldemort said smoothly, reading Harry's thoughts with ease. "He lives with those memories. Since he has 'embraced the light,' I imagine the conflict raging within him is slowly tearing him apart. And now that he has embraced you, I would guess the speed of that process has increased exponentially. It's no wonder he wants to end it all."

Harry bit back a reply as he realised Voldemort's intent. The man was trying to make him doubt, trying to force him to abandon Snape. It won't work, you slimy son of a bitch. This is more powerful than you can imagine.

"Is it, now?" Voldemort purred. "Well, perhaps I should try a different tack." He walked round until he was facing Harry, then waved the wand in the air. "Accio."

Harry looked up to see a charred box, similar to the one he had opened, flying through the air toward them. Voldemort caught it with ease, then tore off the remains of the wrapping and peeked under the lid.

"Yes, this is the one," he said softly. "It's a little heavy – be careful."

"Wh – " Harry began, but he was too late, for Voldemort had already thrown the box at him. Instinctively, he caught it, nearly fumbling it as he did so. The top fell off, and a blazing light poured from inside, blinding him.

And in the darkness which followed, he could hear the screaming.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry's body convulsed on the bed. Dumbledore touched his forehead cautiously, then did the same to Snape's.

Hermione fought the urge to scream.

"You were right, Poppy," the Headmaster said wearily.

"Right about what, dammit?" Sirius demanded.

Pale blue eyes met Sirius' dark ones. "Voldemort is there," he said.

"Voldemort – ?" spluttered Ron. He was too shocked to notice he'd said the name aloud.

"Yes. My suspicion would be that he was lying in wait for Harry from the beginning. He may have used the poison to weaken Severus' rather formidable mental defences."

"Jesus!" Sirius exclaimed, taking a step forward. "We've got to bring him back! Let me take some of that – "

"He will not come," Dumbledore said calmly, "unless Severus is out of danger."

"But he needs our help!" Ron said.

"He needs to conquer his doubts," persisted the old man. "No one can do that for him."

"His doubts?" Sirius ground out. "His doubts about that bastard?"

"No, my boy." Dumbledore laid a calming hand on Sirius's shoulder. "His doubts about his own capacity for love. And about his worthiness of being loved in return."

"Voldemort can kill him, can't he?" Hermione's voice was barely above a whisper.

"He can do much worse than that," the Headmaster answered her. "He can kill Harry's hope." Turning back to the bed, he stroked Harry's wild hair with gentle fingers. "But I do not think our Harry will let him."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The House Elves at Snape Manor understood his need for a space of his own. After all, they lived there as well, and they were neither blind nor stupid. So when he turned ten – in their opinion, having outgrown his mother's exhortations that he be watched constantly – they built him a tiny play cottage deep in the wood behind the manor, a place where he could be alone. No matter how much he thanked them, however, they could not resist bashing their heads against handy tree trunks, for they had disobeyed the mistress. But it pleased them that he was happy there, for their was little enough of that commodity in the Manor.

The summer after his first year at Hogwarts, his father had found it and burnt it to the ground. The bastard was truly a pyromaniac of epic proportions.

But here, once more, it stood in the small clearing, its cheerfully painted exterior greeting him when he waved his wand to make it appear.

It was exactly as he remembered, and a thrill ran through him as he realised he could stay here as long as he liked. Forever, if need be. Time had no meaning here.

He opened the door and looked inside. Even the furniture was exactly as he'd left it, right down to the cedar bench, with the clay pots neatly arranged in rows. Perhaps later, after he'd eaten the lunch he brought from the house, he could – 

The screaming was barely a whisper carried on the soft breeze. He could ignore it if he wished.

I will ignore it, he told himself firmly. I'm not going to listen.

Why should I?

He could stay here forever, he knew. It was the perfect hiding place, because it no longer existed. His mother wouldn't find it, and the boy who talked to snakes wouldn't know where to look for him; he'd charm all the snakes to stay away. And his father – 

 – his father – 

Shut up. Shut up shut upshutup.

He strode over to the couch and flopped down on it, stretching out flat. His legs stuck out over the end, and he stared at them for a moment.

Swinging his legs back to the floor, he bounded to his feet – 

 – and struck his head on the ceiling.

Cursing, bent nearly double, he stumbled outside. The screaming was louder out here. And there was something more. There, at the edge of the wood, a flash of – something, too fleeting to identify, yet strangely familiar in spite of that.

He turned back to the cottage, which had shrunk – or had he grown?

It doesn't matter, he told himself. In either case, he could not go back there. But where else could he go?

A voice invaded his head, its soft, husky tones coalescing around a litany:

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.

He knew that voice. He was sure of it.

His eyes scanned the limit of the trees, but he could discern no other sign of activity. The screaming had changed to awful, hitching gasps.

His mother's.

He took a step forward, then stopped.

You know what's there. You can't go there.

You'll go mad.

But it was no use, for he suddenly knew that was exactly where he had to go. The certainty of it burrowed under his skin and lodged near his heart. Like an itch felt deep inside the body, so intense you wished you could take your hand and plunge it into your chest – 

Without realising what he was doing, he made a fist and did just that.

And the light came pouring out, blinding him with memories.

 

 

 
 

  ~~ XXV ~~

 

Brian dreamed that his dad was yelling at him about something. He couldn't make out the words, mainly because he was yelling back. His mother was standing over by the kitchen window, drinking a tumblerful of vodka, ignoring them both.

"Just say it, damn you," Brian kept shouting at him, over and over. "Say it!"

Then Pop turned into a giant snake and ate his mother, tumbler and all.

"Fuck!" He sat bolt upright in bed, startling Justin from sleep.

"What?" Justin asked, reaching up automatically to stroke his back. "Did you see something?"

Brian stared at the tree. He'd turned on the lights after Justin's nightmare, and they winked at him softly from between the branches.

"Was it anything like my dream?" Justin persisted.

"No," Brian said. "Nothing like it."

Justin took a deep breath. "Look, I, uh, I know you said no the last time, but you remember Emmett's suggestion? I think it might be a good idea."

"You want us to take a trip down the Yellow Brick Road and visit the Wizard of Oz too?" Brian snapped. "Oh, that's hilarious."

"It's worth a try," Justin said quietly. "A regular shrink would just laugh us out of his office. Marilyn is the only one who might understand what's happening to us. You have to admit the fact we're all dreaming the same dreams doesn't make a lot of sense."

"I am not paying that old, broken-down queen to tell me my tea leaves say I'm going nuts," Brian gritted.

"All right," Justin said evenly, still rubbing Brian's back. "But I may take my drawings to her to see if she has any ideas. Okay?"

"Do what you want," Brian said, flopping back down on the bed and turning over on his side. He just wanted to get a decent night's sleep for once. Was that too fucking much to ask?

Justin lay down behind him and pressed a kiss to his shoulder. "You want to talk about your dream?" he whispered.

"No," Brian said, unable to repress a shiver as Justin's fingers trailed down his arm. "It doesn't matter."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.

Harry was finding that if he filled his mind with white noise, it was easier to let the myriad acts and scenes of Voldemort's little play slip past him unnoticed. It also helped immeasurably to imagine Emmett's voice narrating the proceedings.

Of course, the performance began with the Death Eater initiation ceremony – a charming ritual involving far too much masochism to be healthy. Harry was not surprised to find that he was right about the brand. As he watched the red-hot iron being applied to Snape's flesh, he focused on Emmett.

Tie me up, tie me down, get over yourself. Pain is so Nineties.

The commentary wasn't at all funny, but at least it kept him from wanting to vomit.

From there, Harry had been expecting a parade of lurid orgies, gang rapes, and killing sprees, but there was nothing of the sort. Instead, there was Snape – painfully young, scrawny as hell – toiling in a small, cramped laboratory, mixing potions and coughing over the noxious fumes they produced. The stink of them filled Harry's nostrils and he began wheezing as well. What sort of shite was he brewing?

That stuff has got to be hell on the complexion, Emmett remarked. No wonder he has all the colour of a dead fish.

"I am an astute judge of character; it is what makes me a great leader."

Voldemort remained at his side throughout, providing his own script. Harry did what he could to block him out, but the sheer grandeur of the man's megalomaniacal fantasies made them difficult to ignore.

"Severus joined me fresh out of Hogwarts, at the age of eighteen. He was the most talented Potions student in three generations. He was the perfect recruit for my visionary weapons research program."

"He wanted to become a mediwizard," Harry said firmly. "And what's so bloody visionary about it? Looks like a moldy old basement to me."

"Secrecy had to be maintained," snapped Voldemort. "My Death Eaters had the fortitude and the dedication to work under difficult conditions."

"Not like the younger generation, eh?" Harry smiled. "That son of yours certainly likes his Versace suits and aviator sunglasses. And he cried like an ickle baby when he woke up strapped to that dead Dementor. He shrugged. "'Course, you can't blame him. It was starting to reek something awful – "

"Silence!" roared Voldemort, his snakelike eyes flashing.

Now here is someone who could really benefit from prescription drugs.

Harry hid his mirth behind a hand as he coughed again. Before them, Snape hummed quietly to himself as he poured his latest concoction into a small vial.

"That was his first potion – the first of many which were a great help in our cause." Voldemort's voice had calmed somewhat from his earlier outburst. "I thought it would be the supreme irony to employ it tonight."

Harry hid his shock as best he could. "That's – the poison you used on him?"

"Yes," hissed Voldemort. "Quite deadly unless one takes the proper precautions. But then, I knew that dear Severus protected himself against such attack. Always the cautious one, was our Severus..."

Voldemort waved a hand, and the laboratory scene dissolved, to be replaced with a dark, oak-panelled library, with handsome leather furniture and a huge Persian rug, such as one might see in a stately English country home.

And Harry finally understood where the screaming was coming from.

In the centre of the room stood a man with striking patrician features and a commanding bearing. Harry guessed his age to be about fifty, though it was difficult to tell with wizards. One thing he knew for certain, this man had to be Snape's father; the flashing eyes and haughty mien were clearly hereditary. Which would make the woman wailing at the top of her lungs his mother. Neither of them had noticed his and Voldemort's arrival on the scene.

Harry was also certain of the cause of the woman's distress, for it was obvious. There were two Dementors standing guard over the entrances to the room, stoic and unmoving. Even though he knew it was a mere memory, their presence chilled him. He knew this was the climactic scene Voldemort had been leading up to, and he had a sinking feeling that even Emmett's voice would not be able to help him now.

"He was a cautious one," Voldemort repeated. "The poor boy was in desperate need of a father – his own was sadly lacking – and I was only too happy to fill that role for him. He craved quiet, routine, stability – he'd had little enough of all three – and I provided that."

"As long as it suited your purposes," gritted Harry, trying to block out the woman's cries and failing.

Voldemort chuckled. "How well you know me – but then, we know why, don't we? You're correct. There came a time when I required Severus to learn another part. But for even the best performers, there must be...rehearsal."

Had Harry been in his body, bile would have risen in his throat.

"Ah, Octavius," a silky voice intoned. "It's been too long since our last meeting."

Harry turned swiftly toward the main entrance to the room, where one of the Dementors was stepping aside to make room for two black-clad men.

The first he recognized almost instantly. The teenager he'd met in second year was a full four decades younger than the incarnation which glided into the room now, but Harry had no difficulty recognizing him. His high cheekbones, sensual mouth and hate-filled eyes hadn't changed one whit.

Lord Voldemort, in his prime.

And beside him stood Snape.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Of course he remembered this. If he didn't, he wouldn't be here. But he'd managed to keep it buried all these years, crushed under the weight of denial and will and the stultifying boredom of teaching.

He didn't know who he hated most in this moment: Harry, Voldemort, or himself.

If he had to guess? Himself, probably. That was always the safe choice.

He looked about the room. He had to admit to being slightly surprised that every detail had been preserved, right down to the chill in the air. He could almost taste his mother's fear, and his father's hatred.

And the knowledge that this was fixed, unalterable, that now he'd returned here it would play on an endless loop in his mind, over and over again – 

No. No time for that now.

He needs you.

Snape could not see Harry at first, although he knew Harry was there. Turning his head this way and that, he finally caught the flicker of a shadow in his peripheral vision. There.

He tried it again, and his heart seized. There were two shadows.

Of course. It wasn't likely that Harry, meddlesome brat that he nonetheless was, would be prying into these deeply buried caverns of Snape's past on his own. A swift pain jolted through him as he realised what the boy would think of him once this had played out.

No point in crying about it, Snape decided. Now, at least, he would understand why it was impossible. And as soon as he had gone, Snape could – 

"Riddle," his father said haughtily, not even bothering to incline his head in further acknowledgment. He did not acknowledge his son in the slightest.

Voldemort's hawk eyes narrowed dangerously. "That is no longer my name."

His father barked a laugh. "You expect me to bow to you, call you Lord? You will be disappointed."

"Father." Snape felt his throat work without his conscious consent. "You should show him the proper respect."

Another laugh; when he spoke again, the elder Snape continued to address Voldemort. "Did I hear one of your lapdogs barking, My Lord?"

"You do not believe I am deserving of the title, Octavius?" There was a barely detectable edge in Voldemort's smooth tones, but it was definitely there. Snape – and any other Death Eaters who valued their lives – had learned very quickly to be sensitive to the Dark Lord's ever-changing moods.

His father looked upon Voldemort with the utmost contempt. "You mean do I believe a half-Muggle bastard is capable of leading the Wizarding world into a new Golden Age of power and glory?" His lip curled in a sneer, the silent answer to his own question.

Snape took a step forward without telling his leg to do so; the performance was underway. "Father!"

"Do whatever it is you are going to do with us and get out," his father ordered.

"Ah, but that is up to Severus," purred Voldemort, the coldness of his voice even more chilling than the presence of the Dementors. "And he has not yet decided your fate. Much depends on you, I believe."

Snape took another step forward, then hesitated. At first he thought it was an indication he had some power over his actions, but then his father waved a hand impatiently.

"Well, boy?" he snapped.

Yes, Snape remembered that. Remembered all the times he'd heard that particular phrase when he'd interrupted his father while he worked or tried to get his thoughts to assemble themselves after they'd been scattered by his father's imperious stare.

Well, boy?

Well, boy?

But unlike the thousand other times, Snape strode forward without faltering, until he was only inches from his father. Snape raised an eyebrow, but did not step back.

"Well," Snape began, "I'll keep it simple, because I know you're a busy man. I want you to apologise."

Now his father's face did betray a reaction. Complete and utter bewilderment.

"You want me to apologise – ?" he said, incredulously.

"Yes."

Confusion resolved itself, turned to contempt once more. "You're madder than he is. You want me to apologise to you for what, precisely? For donating half of your genetic material? For feeding you, clothing you, keeping a roof over your head for eighteen years?" He leaned in slightly, until Snape could feel the faint puff of the man's breath as he spoke. "Surely you don't expect me to apologise for making you queer? Because I believe your dear mother deserves the credit for that."

Snape's hands clenched into fists; it was astounding that after nearly twenty years, the man could still make Snape want to batter him to a bloody pulp. "I want you to apologise to me for treating me as you have. That's all." He forced his hands to unclench and spread them, palms up, in a benevolent gesture. "If you can do that, you will be left alone. We'll leave, and never bother you again."

His father stared at him for a long moment. Please, he thought, though he knew it would do no good. Please, just this once, just this once, you bastard. I never asked for anything from you. Give me this one God-damned crumb.

Octavius Snape regarded his son steadily, then opened his mouth as if to speak.

Snape's heart hammered. Please, please just, just pleasepleaseplease – 

And then his father's spit struck him in the face.

Even though he had been expecting it this time, he reeled back. The performance must not deviate.

Voldemort made a motion with one hand, and the Dementor nearest him took a step forward. Snape's mother, who had fallen into near-silent whimpering, released a full-throated wail.

His father stood his ground as he greeted the mouth of Hell.

Snape was no longer aware of the scene, or the shadows dancing at the edge of his vision. He was only aware of the Dementor, and his father, and the babbling, childish voice which pushed against the confines of his skull, clamouring for a way out.

I only wanted you to say you were sorry. Please say you're sorry. Please. Please.

No. Stop. Don't hurt him. I don't want you to anymore. Please.

"PLEASE!!!" screamed Snape.

But by then it was already too late.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry knew it was an illusion, but he could feel the tears streaming down his cheeks as surely as if they were real.

"A pity, really," Voldemort was saying. "Octavius, while not an overt supporter of our cause, would have been a valuable addition to the new order. The Snapes are one of the oldest, purest wizarding families. I had hoped he would have acceded to Severus' request, and that would be the end of it. The boy's growing sense of his own power would have been fed by such a humiliation. But we both underestimated Octavius'...stubbornness."

Harry took a deep breath. "What happened to Severus after this?"

Voldemort's jaw tightened. "Another pity. The next night, he stole away from his laboratory and returned to Hogwarts. I received an owl from him later saying that he had reconciled with Dumbledore so as to spy for me, but I had my suspicions about that. I was about to investigate further, but..." He trailed off, and Harry understood.

"You paid a little visit to the Potters first," he gritted.

Voldemort's slitted eyes flashed. "Indeed."

Harry forced his face to produce a smile. "Sounds like you ballsed up fairly frequently. You miscalculated about Severus, and you bollixed the job of killing me. And now you've miscalculated once more."

"You think so, do you?" shrilled the Dark Lord. "I beg to differ." He pointed at Snape, who was crumpled on the Persian rug, sobbing, clutching at his father's robes as his father sat in one of the leather wing chairs, his soulless eyes staring unblinkingly at nothing. As Harry watched, his mother strode over to them both, then kicked and slapped at her son until he released his hold. And then Voldemort waved a hand, and the scene dissolved, leaving only Snape behind. Harry could see now that there were strands of grey in Snape's hair, and his heart seized.

"God," breathed Harry. It was you. You lived it all over again.

"Exactly," Voldemort said, reading Harry's thoughts. "It took me some time to pry the memory loose from his subconscious. But now that it's free, I don't suppose he'll want to remain attached to it much longer. And Severus knows that the dead have no memories."

"He's not going to die," Harry spat. "I won't let him."

"Oh, what a noble sentiment," Voldemort cooed. "Precisely what I expected from a loyal Gryffindor such as yourself. Too bad you did not receive enough of my Slytherin traits to qualify, Harry. They would have saved your life."

I'm not going to die either, you sodding bastard, Harry thought, taking a step toward the shuddering figure still huddled on the ground.

You will, if you bond with him. He will drag you down until your soul loses its way home.

Harry hesitated for a split second. Then, cursing himself for allowing Voldemort to influence him, he moved forward once more.

No time for doubt. No time for anything but him.

Focus.

He crouched down beside Snape, and tentatively reached up to place a hand on one trembling shoulder. Snape recoiled as though he had been struck again.

"Shhh," Harry soothed. "I'm here. I'm here. The memory is gone."

There was a long silence, so long that Harry began to wonder if Snape had heard him. And then, in a small, hoarse voice, Snape said, "You are wrong. The memory is everywhere. It occupies every cell of my body. It is who I am."

Ignoring the flinch, Harry began stroking Snape's hair as he had at his bedside. "I know it hurts. But you're so much more than this," whispered Harry. "So much more."

Snape shook his head back and forth, inconsolable, like a child in the midst of a nightmare. "I did this. I did this to my own father."

"You're not solely responsible for what happened that night. Voldemort shares that responsibility. And so does your father."

"It was my fault," persisted Snape. "I poured my heart out to the Dark Lord, exposed my weaknesses to him. I knew what would happen. Deep down, I knew that my father would never apologise."

"All right, then," Harry said quietly, knowing he wasn't going to solve every problem here, in this wretched place. "We can argue about it later. Come on, let's go." He wrapped his fingers around Snape's shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly.

Snape remained huddled on the floor. Still shaking his head, he murmured, "We're not going in the same direction."

Harry beat back the fear which rose in him. You knew this was going to happen. Calm down. "I know it would be easier to die," Harry admitted softly. "But you've never been one to choose the easy path, have you?"

Snape didn't answer, merely gathered himself into a tighter ball.

You're hastening his departure. Voldemort's thoughts battered against Harry's consciousness, demanding entry. You're losing him.

Oh, for fuck's sake. Would you please take a Xanax?

Harry's head snapped up as he heard Emmett's voice once more. Behind him, Voldemort appeared confused, scanning the darkness surrounding them as though searching for something. His distraction temporarily relieved the crushing weight which had been oppressing Harry's thoughts since he'd arrived here.

Too busy to ponder his good fortune, Harry turned back to Snape. Gripping his shoulders more firmly, he encouraged Snape to straighten up. "Look at me," he ordered.

Snape lifted his head. Eyes bloodshot with grief stared at him defiantly out of a pale, gaunt face. There was already a cadaverous cast to his skin which frightened Harry in spite of his efforts at self-control.

He was giving up. But how to convince him life was worth living?

Behind him, he could hear the sound of Voldemort's laughter. Love isn't enough, is it, my boy? It's a sad lesson to learn. My heart bleeds for you.

You don't have a heart, Harry shot back. You have no idea what it's like to love someone enough that you'd die for them. So even if I die tonight, I've still had something that you'll never have, that you'll never understand.

An image assaulted Harry's consciousness then, one so powerful he was nearly knocked flat. At first he thought it had come from Voldemort, but then he processed what he was seeing.

Brian and Justin, running toward one another as though they'd been separated for years. Brian opening his arms wide, absorbing the force of Justin's body slamming into his own. A blaze of light as he lifted the smaller man off his feet and held him with a fierceness that took Harry's breath away.

And suddenly, Harry understood exactly what he had to do.

Ignoring the bewilderment in those shattered obsidian eyes, Harry grasped the hem of his shirt and pulled it over his head.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Damn. This was definitely an improvement over the first dream.

Justin was wrapped so tightly around him, Brian couldn't have told anyone where he began and the other man ended. They'd never been this close, so close he felt like they were sharing the same skin. At first he thought he was dreaming about fucking, but it was more than that. More than bodies, and sweat, and spit, and come. More than anything he'd had since – 

 – since – 

A bright white room, with mirrors hanging in the air in a long row.

Three men, standing together; one turns, and smiles, and Brian's heart starts beating again – 

God, it's him, he's there, he's there, he's safe – 

He starts running, spreading his arms wide, not giving a damn who can see it, who will now know how much he wants this – 

And then, without warning, pain exploded in his skull. Beside him he could hear Justin's labored breathing, but he couldn't free himself from the dream. It was dragging him under, like a rogue wave at the seashore, filling up his lungs, drowning him – 

Fuck, he thought, before he blacked out altogether. Do you think I could go back to the snake?

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Wh – what do you think you're doing?"

Harry's heart soared at the hint of irritation in Snape's tone. Finally, he was provoking some sort of reaction. "I'm taking off my clothes. And when I'm done, I'm going to start on yours."

"You'll do no such thing," gasped Snape. He darted a look at Voldemort, who was watching the proceedings with a mocking leer.

"Don't bother about him," Harry said fiercely, taking Snape's face between his hands and turning it back to him. "Focus on me. On us." Harry himself tried desperately to follow his own advice; if Voldemort read his thoughts, he could try to prevent what was about to happen. To counter it, he forced his world to narrow down to the man in front of him.

"Do you suppose a virtual shag in front of the Dark Lord will revive my will to live?" Snape choked out, as Harry reached for the zipper on his jeans. "Stop it, I tell you."

"We're not going to shag," Harry told him, pushing the denim and boxers down in one go, ignoring the revulsion he felt at being naked in front of Voldemort. "Everything in this place is symbolic. The clothing we wear stands for the barriers we create around ourselves, the walls we build to keep us safe. I'm trying to show you that I'm not afraid any longer."

Harry smiled suddenly, surprised at his own words, even more surprised to realise they were true.

I'm not afraid any longer.

"Harry," Snape said, his voice hoarse, "you can't still – "

"Can't what, love?" Harry said softly, his smile turning gentle as he began to work Snape's shirt buttons loose.

Snape batted at Harry's hands. "I will not be your charity project. Leave me be."

Harry's fingers stilled. "That's not what you were starting to say. I can't still – ?" he prompted.

Snape blinked at him. "You can't – " He cut himself off, then folded his arms across his chest and shook his head vehemently.

Harry felt a momentary jolt of panic. What if he couldn't do this, couldn't save him? What if he wasn't enough?

Don't give up now. You didn't expect it was going to be easy, did you? Remember, use every weapon you've got: chemical, biological, psychological. Throw the whole fucking arsenal at him.

Harry started. The voice had been Justin's.

Before he could give in to his doubts, Harry leaned forward and brushed a soft kiss across Snape's forehead. When he pulled back, the look on the man's face was one of pure shock. "Let me take a stab at it," he whispered. "I can't still want you after what you said to me when we returned to Hogwarts. I can't still need you after living without you all these months. And I certainly can't still love you after what I've seen here. Does that just about cover it?"

Snape's gaze grew harsh and shuttered, but behind them was a flicker of the lost little boy Harry had heard screaming his pain here tonight, pleading with his father, pleading with his past. Through clenched teeth, he ground out, "That is essentially accurate."

"Well, you'll have to brace yourself, then, Professor Snape, because you've never been more wrong." Taking Snape's face between his palms, he said, "I still want you, every last aggravating, prickly piece of you. I still need you; even when I tried not to, I'd lie awake every damned night in my flat, wishing you were near, wishing I could talk to you and be with you."

Snape's gaze was fixed on his now, boring into him with an intensity that threatened to stop his breath. "And I still love you," Harry murmured, "more than I ever have, I think. More than I ever thought I could love anyone."

Snape reared back at that. "How can you say that?" he cried, pushing to his feet. He took a step backward, then another, but Harry was not about to let him run now. Swiftly, he caught up with Snape and grasped his arms tightly.

"I don't have the faintest bloody idea how I can say that," he replied fervently. "I understand you better now, but that doesn't have anything to do with love. I only know the way I feel. And all the flowery words in the world won't convince you. So I'll just have to show you."

And without further ado, he pushed Snape's robe off his shoulders, then reached for the edges of Snape's shirt and tore it open. The buttons flew in every direction, and Snape stared at him in horror. He opened his mouth to speak, but Harry cut him off.

"Give me this," he demanded. "If you ever had any feelings for me at all, don't leave me without giving me this chance to try."

"I can't let you," Snape whispered brokenly. "I can't let you risk your life for me."

One of Harry's hands slid to the fastenings of Snape's trousers at the same time the other wrapped round his neck and dragged him down. "I'm risking it for both of us," Harry murmured against Snape's mouth. "Because when I'm not with you I don't care much for living."

"Harry," Snape sobbed, finally giving in to Harry's urging and lowering his head, taking Snape's mouth in a deep, shattering kiss.

Harry's focus slipped at that, and dimly he could feel Voldemort's consciousness slithering up against his own. He repressed a shudder as Voldemort read his thoughts. But instead of attempting to stop him, Voldemort merely cackled shrilly.

You will not survive, he hissed at Harry. He will take you with him.

Harry shook his head violently, trying to banish all remaining doubt. Using both hands now, he pushed Snape's loosened trousers down and off, along with his undergarments. Skin to skin now, they stood frozen in time and space for an endless moment.

And then Harry took Snape's hands in his and plunged them into his own chest. The light spilled from his body like a supernova, annihilating the shadow of the man standing beside them. His high-pitched, inhuman wail was the last thing Harry heard.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

That bitch from 203 must be having a party again. The thumping of the bass was pounding up through the floor and slicing into his skull.

"Brian? You gonna get that, or should I?"

Shit. It was somebody at the door.

He cracked open one eye, and felt the pounding in his skull turn to searing, rhythmic spikes of pain. "Oh, Chris'," he slurred. "My head's ready to 'splode."

"Yeah, so's mine," moaned Justin. "And it's four in the morning. I wonder who the hell that could be?"

Fighting the wave of nausea that crashed through him as he moved, Brian swung his legs over the edge of the bed and pushed to his feet. Was he wearing any clothes? No. Oh well, somebody was about to get an early Christmas present.

Heaving open the door, he met the pale, panic-stricken face of Emmett. The other man stared at him for a moment, then exhaled in relief.

"Oh, thank God," Emmett breathed, pushing past Brian and into the loft.

"Come on in," Brian muttered as he shut the door once more. "It was just about time to milk the cow."

"Justin, honey," Emmett called, ignoring Brian. "You here, sweetie?"

"Mmmph," Justin grunted, no doubt from under a pillow. Brian moved to the kitchen and dug out two glasses and the bottle of extra-strength ibuprofen.

"He's fine," Brian said, feeling exasperation creep into his pores. "Now, if it's not too much to ask, why the fuck are you here?"

"Oh, hell, I don't know," Emmett began, folding his arms defiantly. "Maybe because I dreamed you both died? And maybe because I called your cells and your home numbers about a dozen times, and you didn't answer?"

Frowning, Brian reached for the phone on the counter and picked it up. Dial tone. "That's weird," he mused. "The phone usually wakes me up."

"Me, too," Justin said, scratching his head as he emerged from the bedroom. "I had one dream earlier, but I don't think I had another one."

"Did you sketch it?" Emmett asked.

"Yeah, over there."

Emmett followed Justin's finger and picked up the drawing lying beside the computer. Brian watched as the paper began to tremble in Emmett's normally steady hand.

"This is getting too creepy," Emmett said, laying the sketch down and passing a hand over his face. "I saw this place tonight. Along with those two guys, and these – God, these things. I can't even describe them." He sat down heavily in an armchair and sighed. "I feel like I haven't slept in months."

"Tell me about it," Justin agreed, stretching one arm over his head. Even from ten feet away, Brian could hear the cracking sound, and winced along with Justin. "Jesus, I hurt all over."

"Are you sure you didn't dream of anything else tonight?" Emmett persisted. "I saw this place, but I saw another place, too, and that one was even more bizarre."

"What did it look like?" Justin asked, reaching for the glass of water Brian held out to him.

"It looked – like a white room," Emmett began. "Pure white, blazing white. And there were these – mirrors."

There was the sound of breaking glass, and Brian looked down at his bare feet.

"Christ, Brian, you dropped it!" Justin exclaimed. A couple of the shards had rebounded off the ceramic tile and embedded themselves in Brian's skin. He was bleeding in several places. "Don't move, I'll clean it up."

Brian and Emmett exchanged looks.

"Okay," Brian said softly. "We'll try it your way."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Hermione was hovering on the edge of a fitful sleep when she heard Ron's shout. She was off the bed in an instant and racing toward the small cordoned-off area, Sirius, Dumbledore, and Pomfrey not far behind.

Shoving her way past the hospital curtain, she stopped dead in her tracks at the sight which greeted her.

Harry lay with his arm around Snape as before, only this time Snape was turned toward him, his head tucked into the curve of Harry's shoulder. Harry's eyes were open, and – 

Harry's eyes. Were open.

"Harry? Are you – " Sirius whispered.

"I'm here," he said quietly. "I'm OK."

"And Severus?" the Matron asked.

Snape didn't answer. Turning her attention to him, Hermione noticed he was trembling. His palms lay flat against Harry's chest as though trying to absorb its warmth.

"He's going to be all right," Harry murmured. He tightened his hold around Snape, and Snape let out a faint sound which coming from anyone else might be termed a whimper.

As it was coming from Snape, Hermione had no idea what to call it.

"Only one more question, and then we'll leave you be, Harry," Dumbledore said. "Do you know what happened to Voldemort?"

"No. I'm hoping he's hurt, but it's probably too much to hope that he's dead. I only know we succeeded in driving him away." Snape's shivering increased markedly at his words, and Harry pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "Now, please – "

"Of course, my boy," the Headmaster soothed. The five of them shuffled out of the room wordlessly, and the Matron closed the curtain behind them in order to afford the two men as much privacy as possible.

Hermione was quite proud of the fact that she didn't start crying until they had left the Infirmary.

 

~~ XXVI ~~

Harry didn't notice it was snowing until the flakes became so thick they obscured his view of the hoops at either end of the Quidditch pitch. He nosed his Firebolt into a steep climb, absently brushing off his shoulders and hair with one hand as he rose. Although he knew the flight hadn't accomplished the intended task of helping him think, he didn't feel terribly inclined to come down just yet. Concentrating on flying was preferable to the thoughts which had been racing through his mind the last few days.

Harry had spent those days commuting between Salisbury and Hogwarts, reporting for duty in the mornings, returning to the castle at night to keep watch over Snape. Since security was of the utmost importance, Flooing regularly was impossible, so Harry flew to Scotland and back every day, under cover of his Invisibility Cloak. If he got a decent night's sleep, the routine might not be so difficult, but he spent each night crammed into the armchair in Snape's sitting room, half-awake, waiting for some sound that indicated Snape needed him.

But Snape never needed him. Harry's presence was necessary, true, since Pomfrey would never have released him without the promise of supervision, but that presence was obviously not a welcome one. And in the mornings, Snape woke him just after dawn so that he could limp back to Salisbury once more.

He knew that he couldn't continue much longer like this; he'd be exhausted within a fortnight. Apparently, his CO had been pondering the same problem, because today after the briefing, he gave Harry a choice: a transfer to Hogsmeade or temporary suspension. Harry mastered himself before commenting on the unfairness of the second option – most would have been offered leave in similar circumstances – but then, at least he'd not been suspended outright. And the transfer seemed the perfect solution; though he enjoyed working at Headquarters, he wasn't averse to serving at one of the outposts, especially as he'd now have the chance to work with Snape again.

The question was, did Snape want the same thing?

And therein lay the problem. If he flew until he dropped, Harry would be no closer to deciphering Snape's wishes. Since emerging from the coma, he'd been withdrawn, aloof. Typical Snape, Harry thought, but he knew that wasn't entirely true. Over the years, their adversarial relationship had changed, grown, but that pugilistic spark had always remained – until now. In the past four days, it was as though all of the fight had been knocked out of Snape, and what was left was – 

Don't think it, Harry admonished himself, spurring his Firebolt to even greater speeds. The wet snow pelted against his face and neck, chilling him to the bone, but still he flew on. The wind, he noted absently, was gathering strength; soon they'd have a proper Highland blizzard on their hands – 

Harry looked about, then pulled up on his broomstick handle to slow his flight. Bugger. He'd lost sight of the ground, now completely covered by a mass of fallen snowflakes. There was no sense in getting himself lost in a bloody storm cloud, no matter what his mental state. Shaking his head, he eased the Firebolt downward once more – 

Suddenly, a dark, circular shape loomed out of the darkness. Giving his body over to instinct, he leaned sideways just in time to pass through the hoop without striking the sides.

"Fuck," he muttered, slowing the Firebolt to a crawl. He must have gone completely off-course, and that rankled. Usually his sense of direction was excellent, even under adverse weather conditions. But then, sleep deprivation did not tend to sharpen the senses.

He shivered involuntarily. Nor did hypothermia. Taking out his wand, he murmured quick drying and warming charms in rapid succession. Better. At least he wouldn't be soaked through by the time he returned to the dungeons.

The thought of returning to Snape's chambers filled him with dread. A near-silent meal, followed by the deathly quiet of the sitting room as Snape read or graded papers, and Harry pretended to read, waiting for the next time Snape would deign to speak to him. Certainly, the man was not precisely rude; after all, he enquired after Harry's day, and was forthcoming about his own. But the restrained civility of their exchanges was beginning, even after so short a time, to drive Harry mad. As much as he'd wanted this, wanted the chance to spend time alone with Snape, this wasn't anything like what he'd had in mind. He wanted – he wanted – 

Well. Everything.

After he opened his soul to Snape, he thought they would reach a new level of understanding. Snape now had to know how much Harry loved him, how much he wanted to be with him. And last night, when he looked up from his own reading, he caught Snape's gaze before it shifted away, caught a glimpse of intense emotion buried in the depths of those bottomless eyes.

Harry opened his mouth, hoping that now, perhaps, he could finally broach the subject. Subjects. There seemed to be about a hundred or so. He'd settle for tackling a dozen at a time.

But then the look was gone, to be replaced by the increasingly familiar nothingness, and Harry closed his mouth with a snap, feeling stupid and young and alone.

Not for the first time, a voice echoed in his head, a voice of doubt and shame which hissed to him in the language of snakes.

You should have let him go. He wanted it. Do you call that love, to deny him what he wants? Keeping him here was selfishhhhh – 

Harry swore again, wiping at his face with the back of his hand, squinting against the driving snow as he searched for the ground. He was just tired, tired and out of sorts. And no wonder: three days before Christmas, and he hadn't even bothered to wander up to the Great Hall to look at this year's tree. In the dungeons, there was no sign of the holiday apart from the notable absence of the Slytherin students. Perhaps after he'd put on some dry clothes, he'd head on up for a little while and share a bit of Christmas cheer with the other teachers. The Headmaster had extended an open invitation to visit – 

"Harry!"

Startled by the sound of a voice borne on the wind, Harry whirled in the direction of the sound. There, about twenty feet down and approximately fifty away, he spied the fuzzy outline of a human figure.

Descending slowly, he watched as the outline resolved itself into Snape. He was wearing his winter cloak, but he'd foregone a hat or hood, and snow was beginning to collect in his hair. Harry felt a sudden wave of tenderness wash over him, powerful enough to prick the corners of his eyelids.

He touched down in front of Snape, and belatedly, tenderness metamorphosed into concern. "You shouldn't be out in this weather," Harry heard himself say. "You're still recovering."

Snape regarded him levelly, and Harry resisted the urge to disappear into the ground. "Ms. Hyde's head is currently protruding from my fireplace," he began without preamble. "I would appreciate it if you could answer her questions so that she will remove herself post-haste."

Harry frowned. Normally a caller would simply sever the connection and wait for the other party to return the call. "Is it that urgent?"

"She appears to think so," drawled Snape.

"All right then," Harry said, shifting so that he was straddling the broomstick further forward. "Get on."

Snape stared at him as though he'd just turned into a Centaur. "I – "

"Get on," Harry repeated, unable to keep the edge from his voice. "I won't have you collapsing on the way back to the castle."

Muttering under his breath, Snape moved to obey. Harry felt his unyielding presence against his back. Then he registered the sensation of Snape's arms sliding around his torso, holding him tentatively.

Harry closed his eyes for an instant, then kicked off from the ground, nudging the Firebolt toward the main entrance to the castle.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Frankie watched Harry chew his lip, a gesture she wouldn't have associated with the confident young man she'd met six months ago. But then, she supposed hanging around Snape would make anyone nervous.

"I want to come, but I – it's a little tricky at the moment," Harry said finally, darting a glance at Snape, who sat in the other chair, ostensibly reading a book while Harry and Frankie talked. "I have responsibilities."

Frankie's ears pricked up at that. She'd heard the essential story of Snape's poisoning from Sirius – that was how she had known to contact Harry here – but he hadn't been terribly forthcoming with the more interesting details. Such as what the exact nature of Harry and Snape's relationship was now.

Snape spoke without looking up from the book. "I'm sure I can find another nursemaid."

There's your answer, Frankie thought, embarrassed for Harry's sake as she watched the young man's face redden.

"Well, that's not the only concern," Harry said after a moment. "I'm not exactly in my CO's good graces. I don't know if I can request leave."

Frankie rubbed at the back of her neck. Now she was getting tense, dammit. "I don't want to cause any friction between you and your boss, but I spoke to Sirius before I called you, and he seemed to think a couple of days wouldn't be a problem. After all, international wizarding cooperation and all that, what ho?"

One corner of Harry's mouth jerked upward. "That's a terrible accent. But do you know it'll only take a couple of days?"

Frankie shook her head. "To tell you the truth, I don't. I was hoping that just seeing you would trigger their memories, but I'm not sure." She sighed. "Like I told you, this is all strictly hush-hush. If it leaked to the higher-ups that your friends' Obliviation didn't take, there'd be a lot of questions asked. I haven't been able to talk to anyone but Marilyn about this – she's a Seer and my specialty is weapons. Neither of us has a clue about how to fix this."

Harry frowned. "But if there was a chance the Volanimus would nullify the effects of the spell, why did they go ahead with it at the hospital?"

"Maybe they didn't know about it?" Frankie ventured. "Things were pretty confused the night you were brought in."

"The Healers knew," rumbled Snape, still immersed in his book. "I told them myself, and informed them of the risks. They performed the Obliviation because it is standard procedure."

"I know this much," Harry said grimly. "Re-Obliviation of the same memories could be disastrous."

"Could be, yeah," Frankie agreed. "I think the odds are about one in ten they'll end up with lasting brain damage or mental illness. But that's exactly what the Agents will do if they find out."

"Shit," Harry murmured, passing a hand through his hair. "You're right. I'll have to come."

"You are aware," drawled Snape, looking up from his book at last, "that any half-arsed attempts to 'jog their memories' carry an even greater risk of plunging them into madness?"

Every muscle in Harry's body seemed to tighten up at Snape's words, as though Harry was controlling himself with great effort. "Do you have another solution?" he said quietly, turning to meet Snape's black gaze.

Snape flinched slightly at whatever he saw in Harry's eyes. "I might. There is a little-known potion which can sometimes reverse the effects of Obliviation in cases where it has not been successful."

"How long would it take to prepare?"

Snape waved a hand. "A couple of hours."

"Good. If you're up for it, then, I'll leave here around suppertime tomorrow. Will that give you enough time?"

When he didn't answer right away, Frankie glanced at Snape's face, and was surprised at what she thought she saw there. Uncertainty. It was a new look for him. "It – must be prepared directly before its use," he said, his eyes focused on a point above the mantel of the fireplace.

"Then give me the recipe and I'll make it at Marilyn's," Harry said.

Snape pursed his lips. "Forgive me for saying so, Mister Potter – "

"Don't say it," Harry warned.

" – but this is an extremely sensitive potion. I would not trust anyone fresh out of Hogwarts with its preparation, save perhaps Miss Granger."

"Then I'll call her," Harry persisted. "You're not well enough yet to attempt a crossing."

"For Merlin's sake," huffed Snape. "I am not an invalid. The only reason you're still here is because Pomfrey insists on mollycoddling her patients."

Harry stared at him for a full five seconds, a muddled mixture of emotions ghosting across his handsome face. Frankie's heart went out to him.

"That's not the only reason I'm here," he murmured, so quietly she could barely hear him. "But we'll leave that aside." He cleared his throat, and in a louder voice, said, "We'll meet you in New York tomorrow, then, Frankie. Two o'clock your time all right?"

"Yes, fine," she answered, trying to keep her own expression neutral. "I'll make the arrangements with Marilyn." And without waiting for a response, she pulled her head from the fireplace.

"Fuck," she said to the empty room. "And they say I've got a disability."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

I will do everything in my power to keep you all safe.

The words he'd said to Emmett over six months ago echoed hollowly in Harry's head as he sat behind the curtain with Snape, listening to Marilyn try to explain to three confused men the reason why they had to drink the foul-smelling concoction Snape had brewed.

"Don't get me wrong, sweetie," Emmett was saying. "It's not like I haven't put some questionable things in my mouth over the years. But there's got to be an easier way."

"There is," Marilyn sighed. "It's painless, odorless, and you won't feel a thing."

"Sounds great!" Emmett chirped.

"But there's also a chance you'll end up a partial vegetable."

"So, no big change for you, then," Brian drawled. A moment later Harry heard a dull thwap, and guessed that either Emmett or Justin had hit him.

"Look," Marilyn said. "There are risks with either procedure. With this one, you might remember things you'd prefer not to remember. With the other – you'll forget it all. The problem is, you might end up forgetting too much."

Justin spoke next. "And you're saying somebody tried to erase our memories – "

" – just a part of them – " Marilyn interrupted.

" – but they screwed up?"

There was a pause. "Essentially, yes," Marilyn admitted.

Bollocks. This was not going well. Snape shifted beside him, and Harry shot him a look. It was difficult to see him in the semi-darkness of Marilyn's fortune-telling tent; the heavy purple curtains blocked most of the light.

"So how do we know this is going to work?" Brian asked, the bite evident in his tone.

"There's no guarantee. But there's a good chance – "

Harry winced as Snape produced a low noise in the back of his throat. The drag queen was now sailing into dangerous waters, impugning the efficacy of one of Snape's potions.

"Fuck that," spat Brian. There was the sound of springs creaking and of feet shuffling on the Persian carpet. "I think I'll take the nightmares, thanks."

There was more noise, and Harry realised that all three of them were leaving. Bounding to his feet, he was moving forward and pushing his way past the curtain before he quite knew what he was doing.

As he emerged, Justin turned toward him, and every speck of colour drained from his face.

"Holy shit," the blond man whispered. "You're real."

"What an astute observation." Snape's sarcastic comment told Harry that he'd emerged from hiding as well.

"Hello, Justin," Harry said, attempting a reassuring smile. He glanced at Brian and Emmett, who appeared as shocked as their friend. "I know you must all be a bit confused right about now."

"You might – say that," Emmett ventured. He, too looked paler than usual.

Harry took another step toward them, until he could offer his hand to Justin. Justin stared at it for a moment, then took it, and Harry enveloped the other's hand in both of his. "I'll cut directly to the heart of it. The nearest we can figure is this: the five of us survived a very stressful experience together, and that, combined with other factors, made it possible for you to access our memories, our thoughts."

Brian shook his head. "This is Twilight Zone stuff. This doesn't really happen."

Harry took a deep breath and squeezed Justin's hand before releasing it. "Six months ago, I failed you. You've experienced pain, nightmares and sleepless nights because of it, and for that I am truly sorry. But you should know something good has come out of this, because five nights ago you saved our lives." He felt Snape's eyes boring into him, and felt his face heat.

"Jesus," breathed Emmett. "Five nights ago – "

"I know," Justin said, regarding Harry evenly.

Harry nodded. "At first I thought I was imagining it. But then I felt you there, talking to me, giving me strength. I'm not sure that I could have survived without you."

Harry met each of their gazes in turn. "None of us can make this decision for you. As Marilyn said, you'll remember things you won't wish to. And if you do, you won't be able to tell anyone of your experiences, for our safety and for yours. But I believe you've been fighting to remember, to take back what was stolen from you. If that's what you want, I believe we can help you."

"Brian?" Justin turned to Brian, who was staring off into space, lost in his own thoughts. "Brian, what do you want to do?"

The dark-haired man's gaze swung to Harry, who met it steadily. "Will I remember the room with the mirrors?" he asked quietly.

Harry's eyes widened, and he nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I think you will."

"Okay, then," Brian murmured, reaching down to pick up a steaming mug of the potion.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

There was no single malt scotch to be had at Babylon, but this was no great surprise to Snape.

At Emmett's urging, he had settled on some infernal concoction known as a Cosmopolitan, and was now in the midst of his fourth one. Or perhaps fifth. He didn't give a good goddamn any longer. It wasn't as though he had to teach in the morning.

It wasn't as though he had to wake up in the morning.

Or ever again, for that matter.

Since awakening from the coma, his thoughts had been scattered, jumbled more thoroughly than a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. The pain of reliving his father's death had been surprisingly manageable; his past family history was the edge of the puzzle, the pieces easy to identify and link, forming a frame to which the other pieces, like it or not, were all related. Once you were circumscribed by those boundaries, the rest tended to fall into place. And Snape had always been aware of those particular limitations. Whether or not he wanted to admit it, they had dictated every footstep he had taken so far in life.

The puzzle of Harry, however, was much more difficult, and worlds more annoying, to sort out. He was that huge expanse of limitless blue sky, the part of the puzzle whose pure, untrammelled consistency defied one's attempt to solve it. Yet at the same time, paradoxically, it was the most beautiful and perfect expression of the creation before you, for it forced you to rely on shape alone, and at odd moments led you to believe that the pieces might burst their confines and spill out over the table, across the floor, beyond your imagination.

Fuck. Snape stared bleary-eyed at his empty glass, then set it down and motioned for another. What was in these things?

He had spent five days trying to hate the insufferable brat. Trying to hate him for refusing to abandon Snape when Snape had begged him to. Trying to hate him for dragging Snape back to the land of the living with the sheer power of his limitless hope. Trying to hate him for being convinced his greasy git of a Potions master was worth the effort.

Trying to hate him for loving – 

A fresh drink appeared in front of Snape, and he picked it up and took a long swallow. A few more of these and he might be successful. Because up until now he hadn't managed it terribly well. Although, if he was reading the boy correctly, he was beginning to succeed in making Harry hate him.

Yes, that would suit his purposes equally well.

And what purposes are those? a nagging voice demanded. The alienation of the one being who can actually stand your presence for more than five minutes together? The goal of dying alone, with only jars of skinned shrivelfigs and pickled chameleon testicles for company?

Proving Black right?

Snape shut his eyes against the rapidly flashing disco lights. Where the hell had that come from?

"Here, try this. It'll get you there faster."

Opening his eyes again, Snape focused on the smugly smirking face of Brian Kinney. The Muggle was offering some small plastic appliance to him, balanced in his outstretched palm.

"And where is 'there'?" Snape enquired, lifting an eyebrow.

Kinney leaned in close so that he could be heard above the pounding music. "Out of your own head."

Snape set down his drink, then picked up the object and stared at it, turning it this way and that.

"Oh, here," the Muggle huffed, taking it back from him and shoving it in Snape's face. Snape jerked back, startled.

"Hold still!" Kinney laughed. Snape pursed his lips but obeyed. Brian held the back of Snape's head with one hand, then placed the device against his right nostril. "Now – inhale."

Snape flinched as the appliance hissed, then coughed when the substance inside it shot up his nose. The Muggle whacked him on the back helpfully.

"Christ, you're pathetic," he said amiably.

"Bugger off," Snape hacked.

"Come on," Kinney said, throwing an arm around Snape's shoulders and shaking him lightly. "Don't be that way. Why don't you go dance with your boyfriend and forget your troubles?"

Snape shook off the embrace and cast about for a glimpse of Harry. He'd lost sight of the brat somewhere around the third Cosmo.

Oh. There he was, dancing on one of the lighted platforms with Justin. The two of them were smiling and laughing, their arms around each other – 

"Relax," Kinney told him. "He's only got eyes for you." He chuckled. "You Brits love your tales of courtly romance, don't you?"

Snape didn't deign to answer, merely continued to watch as the young man's face was transformed by joy and the sheer delight of living. His body, now completely healed from the injuries inflicted by Riddle, moved bonelessly, undulating in time with the music.

"I'm hardly a knight in shining armour," Snape heard himself say. Anger coursed through him at the slip; obviously the combination of the alcohol and the Muggle drug was Confunding his tongue.

To his surprise, Kinney nodded in sympathy. "Yeah, well, neither am I. But those youngsters still have stars in their eyes." He lifted his chin in the direction of the young men. "He saw someone else when he met me – a different guy, a better guy, if I wanted to admit it, which I didn't. I worked so hard to convince him I wasn't the person he wanted, I almost lost him.

"And then the craziest fucking thing happened. I looked in the mirror one day, and I was that guy. Or as close to it as I could figure out how to be. And it wasn't as bad as I thought."

Snape frowned and looked at Kinney, but his gaze was fixed on the young men on the dance floor.

"Don't get me wrong," Kinney said. "I still think he's a stupid twat for sticking around. But I'm not stupid enough to keep telling him that."

A strange, muzzy feeling washed over Snape; after a moment of panic, he decided to attribute it to the drug, which was no doubt coursing through his bloodstream by now. He turned back to the dancers. Harry's forearms were resting on the blond's shoulders, and they smiled into one another's eyes like lovesick puppies.

No, Snape thought, with a vehemence that startled him. Get your bloody paws off him. He's mine.

He took a step forward and stumbled.

Kinney caught his arm, then arched an assessing eyebrow at him. "Jesus, I was trying to loosen you up, not knock you out. I forgot you're wound tighter than a eighty-year-old nun's – "

"Spare me," Snape spat.

The Muggle laughed. "Okay, Professor, lecture over. I was never cut out for them, anyway. But if you're not as dumb as you've been acting, you'll grab that twink's ass and never let go." He steered Snape toward the dance floor. "And you might as well start now."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Shit."

"What is it?" Harry demanded, hips stilling.

Justin leaned in and grinned conspiratorially. "Don't look now, but our boyfriends are coming."

Harry pursed his lips and resumed his dance. "Is that all?" he breezed.

"Hey." Justin took Harry's face between his palms and stared into his eyes. "You okay?"

Harry stared back for a moment, challenging the young man's gaze, but Justin didn't flinch. Sighing, he murmured, "No. Not particularly." He was not relishing the trip home with Snape, or the ensuing, inevitable brush-off. As he had in June, Snape would doubtless cast him aside again, and Harry hadn't a clue how to stop him. To be honest, he no longer knew if he should. Perhaps this had all been an exercise in selfishness, in self-delusion.

"Don't give up," Justin admonished him, as if reading his thoughts. "And don't disappear again."

"I won't disappear," Harry promised, smiling against the lump which had formed in his throat. "I don't have a phone or a computer, but we can keep in touch through Marilyn."

Justin pulled him into a crushing hug. "Damn! I wish I could be sure you were going to be safe."

Harry squeezed the American back with all of his might. "We're none of us safe – you know that better than anyone. But I'm a fighter, like you. Always have been. We'll see one another again, don't worry."

"Mister Potter."

Harry shivered at the words, spoken so close to his left ear. Justin released him, looked up and grinned.

The rough voice vibrated against his skin. "You're being a very naughty boy. I think it's time for a detention with your professor."

Harry frowned. That wasn't Snape's – 

Suddenly, he felt a sharp bite on his earlobe.

"Brian!" he yelped. Before he could turn, strong arms wrapped round his waist and lifted him into the air.

"Wh – " Justin waved to him as he was whirled about and deposited neatly on the dance floor below the platform – 

 – directly in front of a rather disheveled-looking Snape.

"Put him to bed, Harry, and then climb in after him!" called Brian, who wrapped one hand around Justin's neck and reeled him in until their foreheads were touching.

"Mishter Potter," slurred Snape in greeting.

Harry frowned, studying Snape more closely. After a moment's perusal, he decided that 'disheveled' was not an accurate descriptor.

Snape looked stoned out of his gourd.

In an unconscious parody of Brian's gesture, Snape's hand landed heavily on Harry's shoulder, and then tugged at him roughly, causing Harry to lose his footing. He righted himself just in time to avoid toppling Snape over backward, but the movement did place them in close proximity. Snape was obviously aware of that much, because his other hand snaked around Harry's hip to grip his left arsecheek. Another tug, and their bodies were pressed together from chest to groin. Harry sucked in a breath as he was made aware that Snape was definitely, achingly aroused.

"You dance like the Devil himself," Snape hissed, as his too-bright obsidian gaze threatened to devour Harry whole.

"Seen the Devil lately, have you?" Harry returned lightly, while his heart threatened to pound its way out of his chest and his jeans seemed to magically shrink in size. Don't think about it, he admonished himself. This isn't him.

"Mmm," purred Snape noncommittally. He then proceeded to stick his nose in Harry's hair and inhale deeply.

"Look," Harry ventured, more than a little nervous now, "it's late. I suppose we'd best be getting back, so I'll just say good-bye to Emmett, and then we – "

Snape began mouthing his way from Harry's ear to his collarbone and back again via every erogenous zone on his neck. "Don't want to leave. I want to stay here." The tip of his tongue darted out to tease Harry's abused earlobe. "And fuck."

"Bloody hell," murmured Harry, every bone in his body melting into a puddle.

"We shan't have to go that far," assured Snape, seizing Harry's arm in an iron grip and dragging him bodily out of the club.


 


 
 

~~ XXVII ~~

 

 

Harry should have been prepared, all things considered.

But he was nevertheless caught off guard when, the moment the two of them had Apparated, Severus Snape wound his arms around Harry's neck and stuck his tongue down his throat.

He placed his hands firmly on Snape's shoulders with the intention of pushing him away, but was stopped by a small, insistent voice which probably originated from the region of his groin. This is what you wanted, isn't it? Just bloody enjoy it.

I don't want it like this, the annoying, squeaky-clean Gryffindor persona replied. Not with him high as a Snitch and twice as dodgy.

Summoning all of his will power, Harry broke from the man's embrace so that he could gasp out a breathless, "Hang on a minute."

Undeterred, Snape ran his tongue down the line of Harry's throat, making Harry as hard as a Bludger bat in two seconds flat.

Harry let the back of his head hit the wall with a dull thud, clearing his thoughts for a few precious seconds. He blinked as his eyes tried to adjust to the darkness. "Where the bloody hell are we?"

Snape paused momentarily in his ministrations to mumble, "Hotel."

Oh, that was a fat lot of help, that was. "Which hotel?"

Harry felt two warm hands steal under the hem of his t-shirt and glide over his skin. "My hotel," Snape growled into his neck.

"You booked a hotel room?" Harry demanded incredulously.

Snape's thumbnails flicked at his nipples, and Harry gasped. "Not exactly," Snape purred. "'S same room from last time."

Occupied as his brain currently was with considering the prospect of incredible, unexpected sex, it took Harry several seconds to process this information. When he did, he cursed and shoved Snape away roughly, then fumbled for a light switch. His fingers found the toggle, and a moment later the room was awash in light.

Harry's heart started beating again when he registered the room was empty. He whirled on Snape. "Are you mad?" he snapped. "We could have Apparated in on Mabel and Murray Muggle, sleeping peacefully in their beds! Haven't you ever heard of calling ahead?" The fright had restored some of his common sense, at least; now that he was no longer thinking entirely with his gonads, he realised that a torrid night of passion with a man zonked on recreational drugs belonged solidly in the realm of Very Bad Ideas.

Snape was blinking owlishly in the harsh light, and Harry regarded him with a combination of frustration, lust and tenderness. The hopeless bastard. Some part of him wanted this, but would that part still be in charge of his body in the morning?

Then Snape withdrew his wand and pointed it at the overhead fixture. "Nox," he commanded, and the room went dark once more.

Shit. Harry reached for his own wand, but was hindered by twelve stone of aroused Potions master suddenly pinning him to the wall. This time, Snape's hands travelled south, sliding past his hips and caressing the globes of his arse with a maddening, feather-light touch.

"Snape, dammit," Harry began, trying to sound stern but only managing breathy. And then Snape's mouth settled over his once more, possessive and hard, and Harry forgot everything that was supposed to follow.

Snape's hands firmed on Harry's buttocks, and suddenly Harry felt himself being lifted up, his back still pressed against the wall. He moaned as Snape used the new alignment to grind their erections together.

"You want this," Snape said, moving in to suckle Harry's earlobe. "You've wanted this for a year and more. Why are you fighting it?"

"I – oh, hell," Harry sighed, wrapping his arms around Snape for balance. "I had a good answer to that a few seconds ago."

At that point, Harry's understanding of the chain of events became somewhat hazy, as various parts of him were kissed, licked, sucked, rubbed, and generally stimulated in a most satisfying fashion. The memory of their lovemaking was still as fresh in his mind as if it had happened yesterday, and as much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, he was utterly helpless in the face of Snape's sensual assault.

Another languid thrust of Snape's hips wrenched an anguished moan from Harry. Much more of this and their 'lovemaking' tonight would be over before they even reached a bed.

"You're beautiful," Snape murmured into his neck. Harry laughed, both at the tickling vibration against his skin and the words themselves.

"Hardly," he said, still chuckling. "You must be confusing me with someone else." His heart plummeted as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Christ, no. But then, it would explain Snape's sudden change of heart if he were too stoned to recognize he wasn't with – 

Snape lifted his head, his night-black gaze spearing Harry like a bug. "I know who you are," he growled. "You're Harry Bloody Potter."

Harry set his jaw. "My middle name is – "

"I know what your middle name is," snapped Snape. "You're named for your father. But you're not him. He's dead."

"Thanks for reminding me," Harry said bitterly.

"And you're alive," Snape continued, undaunted. "More alive than anyone I've ever known."

Harry frowned. Snape leaned forward for a kiss, then pulled away at the last moment. "You are beautiful, Harry Bloody Potter. The most beautiful comet in the sky," he whispered, his lips brushing Harry's until they tingled.

"Wh – whut?" Harry stammered, brain turning to goo. Had Snape just called him a comet?

"No, not a comet," Snape said absently, correcting himself while his lips explored every inch of skin they could reach. "Comets are cold. You're not cold. You could thaw a glacier." Snape's thin chuckle made Harry shiver. "A meteor, then. Molten, brilliant, unstoppable." As he spoke, he pressed a string of shockingly soft kisses across Harry's cheekbones.

Snape's hot tongue tasted Harry's earlobe. "You'll burn me to cinders," he hissed.

"Is that what you want?" Harry whispered. To be burned, destroyed?

Dead?

But Snape hadn't heard him, or was ignoring him. His chest hard against Harry's, he shifted his hands to grip the undersides of Harry's thighs, urging them to lift and wrap around his waist.

Groaning, not quite believing his own actions, Harry shook his head. "Stop."

Snape's only response was to press closer until Harry could barely breathe. The spots where his fingers dug into Harry's thighs were beginning to hurt.

"Stop," Harry said again, though he made no move to break free of Snape's grip. Heedless, Snape continued to ravage Harry's neck and ear.

Tears were gathering in Harry's eyes, though he wasn't sure exactly what or who they were for.

Everyone, he thought. Everything.

His hands bracketed Snape's face, wrenching it upwards until the dark eyes met his own. Snape's harsh, alcohol-scented breath was warm on his face.

"Stop," he commanded.

Snape stared at him, unblinking, his face blank. Harry struggled free of him and slid back to earth, then reached for his wand.

"Modestus," he said softly, and immediately the relaxed lines of Snape's face hardened into their familiar configuration. He'd picked up the Sobriety Charm from Seamus, who'd employed it frequently in seventh year after particularly rowdy Hogsmeade weekends, but he'd never had occasion to use it until now.

Snape stumbled back as if he'd been cursed, and Harry felt the loss of warmth like a blow.

Harry squeezed his hands into fists so that he wouldn't be tempted to reach for Snape, whose eyes had gone wild as a cornered animal's. He took a step forward, closing the distance Snape had imposed. "Is that the only way you can let yourself be with me?" he whispered. "Is that the only way you'll ever be able to love me?"

Snape looked away, severing the contact between them. "How would you have me answer that?" he asked, his voice hollow, but with a trace of that familiar, sarcastic sting.

Harry stared at him, incredulous. Even now, Snape was going to deny his feelings, deny what had almost happened between them. "Honestly, I suppose," he retorted.

Snape's jaw tightened, the muscle convulsing under the skin. "Then the answer is 'yes,'" he bit out. "So if you wish to be fucked on a regular basis, I recommend keeping me well-supplied with whiskey. I prefer the Islay malts, though I'm not averse to eighteen-year-old MacAllan."

The rage flared in Harry then, so brilliant and white-hot he thought he would be consumed by it. Rage at Snape, at Snape's bastard of a father, at Voldemort, at this war, at his parents for dying, at the Dursleys for being themselves, at everyone he could think of who had ever told him he couldn't have what he wanted, from the time he was dumped on that goddamned doorstep – 

And then he came back to himself, and realised he was the one now pushing Snape against the wall, Snape's wrists pinned beside his head, his own rasping breath loud in his ears. He looked up at Snape's face, and saw that his eyes were closed.

"Open your eyes, damn you," he growled. "And tell me I can't have this. Tell me so I'll understand, so I won't keep doing this to myself."

Snape's eyes opened, but he did not speak. His gaze was unfathomable, and Harry wished he had taken Volanimus so that he could dive into them and disappear, devote the rest of his life to falling. It would be so much simpler than this.

"Tell me," Harry spat. "Tell me I'm stupid, that I'm a child. That I was selfish for wanting you to come back when I knew you wanted to go."

Snape frowned at that, but Harry continued on.

"Because you'd be right, about all of it. I'd seen what happened to you, and I knew what that must have done to you, but I still believed you could love me. And even – " he drew a shuddering breath " – even after I saw, even after I knew how much pain you were in, I dragged you back, even though I knew – " Horrified, Harry heard his voice break, heard himself choke on a sob. "Even though I knew I wouldn't be enough."

He released Snape's wrists and buried his face against Snape's chest. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."

Snape's body went rigid against his. "You're apologising – for saving my life?" he asked, taken aback.

Harry felt hot, shameful tears streak down his cheeks and soak into Snape's shirt, and made to pull away, but found himself hindered by Snape's hands bracketing his shoulders.

Then, to his utter shock, the hands were holding his face, thumbs brushing at the wetness he found there.

"You're crying – for me," Snape murmured, dazed. He withdrew his hands and stared at them, as though he wasn't certain they belonged to him.

And then he leaned forward and tasted Harry's tears.

"Oh, God," Harry pleaded, feeling his knees go weak. Snape's lips moved over his cheeks, soft and devouring, taking and giving. Harry's own hands pressed against Snape's chest to steady himself, and he absorbed the strong, even beat of Snape's heart with his palms.

After a minute or perhaps an hour, Harry's tears dried, and Snape drew back. His gaze caressed Harry's damp, reddened face.

"You're a stupid, selfish child," he said, then wrapped his arms around him and kissed him until Harry started crying all over again.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Snape couldn't remember the last time he lay in a bed and watched someone sleeping.

That's because you never have, his mind observed. And it was true; his own sexual history, despite the fact it surpassed Harry's by over two decades, was hardly more exciting than Harry's, consisting as it had of furtive gropes and meaningless assignations. There had been no moments of tenderness, or comfort, or even quiet contemplation.

Or love.

He took time now to linger over the young man's features, made younger still by the calm of an exhausted sleep. The strong chin which told of his infernal stubbornness, the rebellious hair which stuck out from his skull at alarming angles, the dark eyebrows which provided the frame for those extraordinary eyes, the curl of his lip which promised laughter and mischief – every particle of the dratted boy screamed his identity to Snape.

Here I am. Harry bloody Potter.

Molten. Brilliant. Unstoppable.

And the crowning glory, the brand which spoke as much of his mother's love as a madman's hatred – that was his most recognizable feature, but not his defining one, Snape realised now. He was not the Boy Who Lived, seeking fame and notoriety. Nor was he a copy of the boy Snape had been so foolish as to worship aeons ago. He was entirely his own creation, rising from the ashes of his parents' memory and the neglect of his upbringing to stand on his own two feet, brave, beautiful, and alive.

No, not the Boy Who Lived.

The Boy Who Lives.

And now he wanted to teach Snape how to live.

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings – 

Merlin, he thought. What am I doing?

You're quoting poetry, some part of him answered. You barmy old fool.

Harry stirred and yawned expansively, and Snape lost himself in the study of the double rows of even, white teeth. No, not quite even; his left incisor was crooked, lending him a slightly damaged air.

The brat opened his green garnet eyes and smiled up at him, then murmured in a soft, sleep-roughened voice:

" – (now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)"

Snape stared at him. "What's that?" he demanded.

"The end of the poem you were quoting," mumbled Harry, and Snape belatedly realised he'd spoken aloud. "Didn't know you knew cummings."

"I don't," said Snape, frowning.

"Hm," grunted Harry. "But I do."

Snape's eyes widened. The Volanimus. It had to be.

Harry grinned. "You think I'll be any better at Potions now?"

Pursing his lips to keep the smile off them, Snape brushed the hair back from Harry's brow. "One shouldn't expect miracles."

Harry swatted Snape's hand away playfully, then reached for it once more and gripped it tightly, bringing it to his mouth. Snape closed his eyes briefly to shut out the sight of Harry Potter's lips pressing against the skin of his palm.

"Oh, bloody hell," gasped Harry suddenly.

Snape opened his eyes and raised his brows in a silent question.

"I just remembered last night."

Snape's smile fought to escape. "Yes?"

Harry buried his face in his hands and rolled to his side. "Bloody fucking hell."

"Mmm," purred Snape, enjoying this immensely.

"I fell asleep," Harry groaned.

The smile – more of a smirk, really – gained its freedom. "Yes, I admit I was rather disappointed. I'm thinking of trading you in on a more...energetic...model."

Harry removed his hands from his eyes and regarded Snape balefully. Snape absently resumed his stroking of Harry's hair.

"After all," Snape drawled, "what's the sense of having a teenage lover who's lacking in stamina?"

Before he'd drawn his next breath, Snape found himself flat on his back, pinned under Harry's lithe, warm body, Harry's mouth a hairsbreadth from his own. "You evil git," he growled, and Snape felt the vibration of the words against his lips. "I'll show you stamina."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

God, it felt good to kiss him again.

And it felt incredible to kiss him and be rewarded with his instant, unbridled response: a slight tremor in the body beneath him, a faint groan, and then, a hand clamping down on the back of Harry's head, and Snape's mouth opening wide under his, tongue stabbing upwards, invading him with abrupt force. A stark contrast to the tenderness of last night's tear-soaked kisses, it aroused Harry beyond reason.

Breaking Snape's hold on him, he sat up abruptly, looking about for his jeans. Snape made a frustrated noise and reached for him again, but Harry evaded his grasp, bounding off the bed to retrieve the condoms Justin had given him. He wasn't going to interrupt the proceedings at the critical moment as he had the last time.

"Confident, weren't you?" Snape said, arching an eyebrow at him as he scrambled back onto the mattress and straddled Snape once more.

"Hopeful," corrected Harry, slipping the condoms under the pillow and leaning forward to kiss Snape enthusiastically.

They were already both naked to the waist, so Harry reached for the waistband of Snape's pants, teasing the soft skin of his hip by slipping his fingers under the elastic and caressing it with a light touch. He was rewarded with a hiss of breath and another delicious tremor.

"Like that?" he whispered, burying his nose in the juncture of neck and shoulder.

"Insolent brat," gasped Snape, his own hands trailing down Harry's back to grip Harry's arse under the cotton of his Y-fronts.

Harry responded with a sharp bite to Snape's neck, which earned him another groan. "Admit it," he said. "You missed this."

"Yes," whispered Snape. Harry raised his head and stared at Snape, shocked at his candour. Snape's hands left his buttocks and traced lazy patterns on his back. His eyes – for the first time Harry had ever seen – hid nothing. They were brimming with desire, humour, and – 

 – Oh, God, please, thought Harry.

Deciding to take advantage of the moment, he met those expressive eyes and murmured, "You missed me."

Snape's hands stilled, then resumed their motion. "Yes," he said, his gaze shifting to Harry's mouth.

Before he could censor himself, Harry blurted, "You love me."

Snape's eyes slammed shut at that, and his fingers convulsed against the skin of Harry's back. Too much, dammit, he berated himself silently. Too far. Harry's stomach roiled unpleasantly, and he opened his mouth to speak, to try to take the words back – 

 – when suddenly Snape took hold of his shoulders and flipped them over, reversing their positions. Harry shivered as talented fingers stripped him of his underwear, and watched avidly as Snape bared his own body to Harry's gaze. And then the lean form was pressed full-length against his own, and Harry could feel the delicious, warm weight of Snape's torso holding him down, Snape's silken-haired legs tangling with his, Snape's hot, hard erection branding a promise into his belly.

Snape swivelled his hips, and Harry moaned, his mouth open and pleading. Snape's mouth slowly descended to his, then glided against it, as softly as gossamer. His tongue stroked back and forth over Harry's lips until they were overloaded with tingling sensation; his teeth nipped and devoured wherever they could find purchase. Almost frantic now, Harry tried to counter the assault, but it was a hopeless rout; Snape darted out of reach until he lay still again, until he allowed himself to be claimed.

Snape's hands shackled Harry's arms against the mattress as his mouth worked its way downward, pausing to savour the skin of his neck, to lick the line of his collarbone. Harry shook his head in helpless abandon as Snape's lips closed around his left nipple, drawing it in rhythmically until he wanted to scream. His larynx tried to obey, but all it could produce was an annoyingly high-pitched squeak. Snape gathered the meaning, however, and shifted his attention to the right nipple, this time attacking it with pointed jabs of his tongue.

When Snape's mouth reached his bellybutton, Harry heard a voice, jagged, wanton, begging. Snape heard it as well, for his body shuddered against Harry's thighs, and his mouth trailed a path of exquisite fire all the way to Harry's aching cock.

No force on earth could hold Harry then, and he arched off the bed, his spine bowing, his hands clutching at the mattress to anchor himself. He wailed out his pleasure as he felt himself being engulfed, welcomed.

Loved.

Stunned at the realisation, he looked down at Snape, and sucked in a breath.

Snape was watching him, his eyes blazing with the answer to Harry's question.

Harry reached out to brush back a strand of Snape's hair which had fallen in front of his face. He wanted to see this, wanted to feel it, because if that was the only way Snape could tell him, it was enough.

It was enough.

Quite without warning, his entire being collapsed in on itself, approaching critical mass. But just as he reached the point of no return, before he could explode into a million shattered fragments, Snape released him with a final lick.

Harry did scream then, but in abject frustration; his limbs stiffened as if shot, and he collapsed back on the bed with an audible thud. He looked up to see Snape's bemused face hovering above his.

"Why did you – " Harry wheezed. His skin felt two sizes too small for his bones, and his eyes refused to focus. Dazedly, he wondered if Snape had managed to pop his contact lenses right off his eyeballs.

"Because," Snape growled, taking one of Harry's hands in his, "I have – plans." And with that, he guided Harry's hand over his own hip, and further back, until his fingers were – 

The moan escaped him before his mind understood what Snape was asking. "You – you want – "

"Yes." The coal-black eyes became slightly shadowed. "If you do."

"Why?"

Snape looked away. "Does there need to be a reason?"

Don't push, Harry admonished himself. Aloud, he whispered, "No," and reached up to pull Snape's head down for another kiss. Snape complied eagerly, and Harry shuddered at the taste of himself in Snape's mouth.

Harry urged Snape over onto his back, and this time he partook of some exploration of his own. Despite the cheeky comment earlier, he'd not had the faintest notion anything like this would happen, and he was overwhelmed by the gift Snape was giving him. Several times he became lost in the unexpected softness of Snape's skin, or the sheer, living heat radiating from his body, or the sounds of his mounting excitement wrested from his reluctant throat. He opened his mouth more than once to tell Snape what this meant to him, but each time, he suppressed the impulse to speak of it aloud.

It's too soon. We've plenty of time.

Harry paused in his worship of Snape's body to absorb this concept, and to marvel at the change. When had the desperate fatalism of the last year of war left him? How had his concept of the future extended beyond the next five minutes to include a rose-coloured faith in the possibility of happily-ever-after?

"Harry?"

Looking up, Harry met the glazed, heavy-lidded gaze of his lover.

A fond, foolish smile gained possession of Harry's face, and refused to give it back.

Harry shook his head, then leaned in to kiss him softly. "It's all right," he murmured. "Everything's all right." He glided his hands down Snape's lean torso once more, and Snape gasped out his pleasure as they parted his thighs and began to – 

"Oh, bugger," whispered Harry.

"I believe," gasped Snape, "that was the general idea."

"No, I mean I don't have any – " Harry waved a hand ineffectually.

"Oh," said Snape. He flung out an arm. "My trouser pocket – check there."

"What?"

And then Harry was astonished to see Snape blush. "I'm not certain," he muttered. "It was after he gave me that hideous drug."

Harry slipped off the bed and padded over to the chair, where Snape's pants lay folded neatly over the back. He stuck a hand in the pocket and retrieved a small tube, then stared at it, incredulous. "Brian slipped you lube?" He frowned, thinking, then shrugged. "Well, it is Brian we're talking about, isn't it?"

Snape gave a contemptuous snort. "Always prepared for action. Like your benighted godfather."

"Actually," Harry said, wiggling the tube between his fingers as he returned to the bed, "I thought he rather reminded me of you."

Snape stared at him. "You're mad. We're nothing alike."

"Oh, no?" Harry asked, moving to straddle Snape once more. He began ticking points off on his fingers. "Tall. Dark. Sarcastic, insufferable bastards." He grinned lasciviously. "And sexy as hell."

Snape blushed a shade darker and averted his gaze. "You are mad." But the corners of his mouth twitched rebelliously.

"Not to mention," continued Harry, groping under the pillow for the condoms and grazing his chest against Snape's in the process, "you both had the smashing good taste to find yourselves young, randy lovers."

"I 'found' you, did I?" enquired Snape, his fingers sinking into Harry's hair. "My version of events seems to differ from yours."

"All right, then," Harry murmured as the strong hand cupped the back of his skull and pulled him closer. "I found you."

Snape's lips caressed his. "Better."

"I was a nuisance and a pest."

A brief, hard kiss. "Quite accurate."

"So I should be on my way, then," Harry said. "And stop bothering you."

While one hand continued to hold Harry's head captive, Snape's other arm snaked round Harry's back, trapping him against the long, hard body.

"Harry. Bloody. Potter," Snape whispered harshly, each word a puff of breath against Harry's lips.

Harry's answer was to seal his mouth over Snape's until they were both gasping for air.

When Snape loosened his grip, Harry reared back on his haunches and tore the condom packet with his teeth. Laying the rubber aside for a moment, he unscrewed the cap on the lube – 

 – and stopped.

Words he'd said to Snape months ago suddenly came to him from so me unknown corner of his brain.

It's not that you don't trust me enough. You think I don't trust you enough.

And all at once, Snape's unexpected request made sense.

Allowing his instinct free rein, Harry picked up the condom again and placed it over the tip of Snape's cock.

"Wait," Snape protested. "I said – "

"And we will," Harry assured him. "Soon. But not today. Please."

Snape frowned darkly. "Why?" he demanded, his tone suspicious.

"Because I trust you," Harry said quietly. "And because I want to show that you don't have to prove it to me." His other hand reached down to caress Snape's face.

Snape's eyes widened, and Harry held his breath, waiting for his answer. After an eternity, Snape gave it: his hands cupped Harry's and helped them guide the condom over his own erection. Harry seized the lube and spread it generously over the surface of the rubber, then lifted up, suddenly unable to wait any longer for that connection of flesh and blood to be made.

"You haven't – " Snape began, but Harry was already positioning the slickened head against himself.

"I'll – go slowly," Harry gasped, wincing at the initial burn. He bore down carefully, willing himself to relax, to open to the sweet invasion. Beneath him, Snape drew a harsh, shuddering breath, and his hands clutched at Harry's hips. Focusing on his own breathing, Harry felt his body stretch, loosen, and finally accept, and he sighed in bliss as it yielded inch by inch to Snape's hard length.

When Snape was completely buried inside him, Harry paused for a moment to savour the incomparable feeling of fullness, of union. Snape seemed to feel it as well, for he entwined his fingers with Harry's and lifted their joined hands, offering him added leverage and stability. Harry smiled down at him, and was surprised when a matching smile curled Snape's lips.

He began to lift up, but was stilled by a near-painful squeeze from Snape's fingers. He looked a question at Snape, whose smile had faded, to be replaced by a kind of fierce determination. Snape breathed once, twice, then captured Harry's confused gaze with his own.

"Yes," he said, simply.

Harry's heart threatened to hammer its way out of his chest. Tears welled in his eyes, but he angrily blinked them away.

When he had mastered himself, he nodded. Snape's hands relaxed, though they still held his firmly, anchoring him and liberating him at the same time.

Almost of their own volition, Harry's thigh muscles tightened, as though gathering his body for a plunge into deep, fathomless waters.

And then he dove.
 

 

~~ XXVIII ~~



Lunchtime at the Liberty Diner on Christmas Eve wasn't nearly as busy as a typical weekday, which was about the only thing keeping Debbie from keeling over on the spot. Usually, this was her favorite time of year, but a cold had dropped a ton of bricks on her Yuletide mood.

She stuck her latest order on the board, taking a moment to lean against the counter as she did. One more hour and she'd be able to get the hell out of here, rest her feet and knock back a couple of gallons of Neo Citran. Thank God Vic was doing turkey duty tomorrow. And if she looked pathetic enough, maybe wore the worn-out pink slippers with the holes in the sole, Ben and Michael'd volunteer for cleanup.

"Debbie, honey, could you grab table two's order for me?" Kiki asked on her way by, laden down with half-finished plates. "They've been waiting for a few minutes already, but Six is giving me grief about the canned cranberry sauce – "

"Sure, no problem," Debbie said, unable to keep the weariness from her voice. Fifty-three fuckin' minutes...

Pulling out her pad and pencil, she shuffled toward the front of the restaurant, only to be surprised by the sight of Brian, Justin, Emmett, and Mysterious Marilyn sitting together at booth two. None of them noticed her approach, huddled as they were over a pile of papers spread over the table.

"I can tell you right now you won't be gettin' a discount if you bring your own placemats," Debbie cracked, sidling up beside Brian. At the sound of her voice, the men started almost guiltily, and Justin scrambled to gather the papers. Frowning, Debbie looked more closely at them, and realized they were covered with drawings. "Hey. Whatcha got there, Sunshine?"

"Just a new project Justin's planning," Em said quickly.

One of the sheets escaped Justin's grasp and went flying off the end of the table. Brian made to grab it, but Debbie beat him to it. The artwork, she saw, was divided up into four panels, like a comic book, but each individual drawing was different, more...artistic.

So I don't have the right word for it, Debbie thought irritably. What am I, a fuckin' critic?

"This the new edition of Rage?" she asked aloud.

Justin shook his head. "It's going to be a graphic novel." Debbie raised her eyebrows at him, and the young man added, "A fancy comic book." He held out his hand for the sheet, but Debbie waved him off and continued to study it. There seemed to be two main characters: a dark-haired kid with a squiggly mark on his forehead, and an older guy with a big nose and a long, flowing cloak. Debbie felt a strange tingle in the back of her brain as she stared at their faces, and all at once it occurred to her that they could walk right off the page and talk to her, if she only believed in them enough.

Jesus, she thought, now I'm hallucinating. She glanced at her watch. Forty-nine fuckin' minutes...

"Shit," Debbie gasped, pointing to the last panel. "Who's this?"

Justin pursed his lips. "He's the arch-villain. I haven't come up with a great name for him yet. "

Debbie chuckled in spite of herself. "How about Snake Eyes?" She shook her head to clear it. "I don't know where you artists get your ideas."

"You'd be surprised," murmured Brian.

Debbie shrugged, then handed the paper back to the young man. "It's beautiful work, sweetie," she said warmly. "So what are you all doing for Christmas?" she asked.

"I'm – flying – back to New York tonight," Marilyn said.

Debbie gaped. "I can't believe it!" she exclaimed. "They're making you work the holiday? Christ, even I get tomorrow off!"

"I don't mind," Marilyn said, smiling faintly. "There's lots of work to be done. And it is New York, after all."

"You know," Debbie mused, "you never ended up telling me what it is you – "

"Well," Emmett interrupted, "I'm working tonight." He stuck out his tongue. "I'm catering a soiree later."

"Oh, yeah, I remember. Vic said he'd be heading over to give you a hand. Who's it for, anyway?"

Emmett waved a hand. "Nobody special. A guy named Deakins, I think."

Debbie's jaw dropped. "Mayor Deakins?" Emmett's gaze sparked, and he nodded. "Holy fuck!"

Emmett chuckled. "And then, to keep my feet on the ground, I promised Terry I'd fill in for him again at the clothing store on New Year's Eve."

Justin made a face. "I thought you hated working there."

"Well, it's a humbling experience," Em said thoughtfully. "And besides, sometimes you meet the most interesting people there – " He smiled, then glanced up at Debbie and trailed off.

Debbie reached out a hand and patted Emmett's shoulder affectionately. "Well, honey, if you're not too partied out tomorrow, dinner's at four."

Emmett placed his hand over Debbie's and gave it a squeeze. "Thanks. I might just take you up on that."

Debbie turned to Brian and Justin. "Well? You two gonna be up for turkey too?"

Brian smirked up at her. "That's not the kind of stuffing I was planning on enjoying tomorrow."

Justin punched him playfully on the arm, then blurted, "We're leaving for Bermuda this afternoon. A whole week of sun and fun on the beach."

"Not the whole week. I'm not that interested in contending with the sand factor."

"You never told me about that!" Debbie exclaimed, ignoring Brian.

"That's because we didn't know until yesterday." Justin wrapped his arm around Brian and nuzzled his hair. Brian rolled his eyes, but didn't pull away.

Debbie stuck her hands on her hips. "How the hell did you manage it on such short notice?"

Justin's eyes darted nervously. "Ah – "

Brian arched a devilish eyebrow at her. "The thanks of a grateful – OW!" His smug tone turned into a yelp of pain as Justin bit him on the ear. "Fuck," he growled.

"Loose lips sink ships," Emmett said primly. "Or give lousy blow jobs. I could never keep that saying straight."

Debbie bit her tongue, then smiled her best Christmas smile. "So, what'll it be?"

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

On that same Christmas Eve, Severus Snape stood on the massive stone steps of Hogwarts castle. His arms were folded, his back was rigid, and his eyes sparked with his most forbidding glare, the one usually reserved for only the most idiotic of first year Gryffindors.

"You are over two hours late."

The Ministry courier dismounted from her Thestral and shook the snow off her cloak. "And a happy Christmas to you too, guv," she said cheerfully, seemingly unaffected by Snape's threat display. Moving to the back of the cadaverous black beast, she began untying the huge saddle bag. One of the straps let go suddenly, and the courier lunged forward to keep it from falling.

"Be careful with that!" Snape bellowed.

"Relax, Perfesser, relax," grunted the young woman as she lowered the massive pack and its contents to the ground. "I've been doin' this job for two years now, never lost nuffin' yet." Straightening, she mused, "Well, unless you count that time in Abergavenny – but that wasn't never my fault. Y'see, there was this Welsh Green got loose from the preserve, an' it – 

Hastily, Snape dug into his robes for change. His fingers closed around a few coins, and he extracted them and pressed them into the woman's gloved palm without bothering to count them. When she cooed in delight, Snape imagined he had gravely overtipped her, but he couldn't have cared less at this moment. He only wanted her gone – and the package safely in his quarters without anyone seeing him.

"Thanks, guv!" exclaimed the woman, pocketing the tip and mounting the bat-winged creature in one surprisingly graceful movement. "Next time you need a courier, be sure to ask for Eliza Shunpike!" And with a sharp cry and a yank of the reins, she urged the beast into the air. Snape stepped back just in time to avoid being kicked by one of the Thestral's hooves as it rose.

Taking out his wand, Snape murmured a spell, and the large box levitated off the stone step. Another wave, and the left front door swung open sufficiently to admit both Snape and the cumbersome parcel. Peering inside, he was relieved to find the entrance hall deserted. Now, if only he could get the blasted thing down to the dungeons before – 

"Ah, Severus! There you are."

Snape whirled round at the sound of Dumbledore's cheerful voice, to see the old man standing directly behind him. Shock at the sudden appearance of the Headmaster caused Snape's concentration to slip, and one corner of the parcel dipped dangerously toward the ground.

"Oh, dear," Dumbledore said, swiftly withdrawing his wand and flicking it at the box. Snape watched as the heavy package righted itself, then hovered serenely mere inches from destruction.

"Thank you, Headmaster," Snape said tightly. "I believe I can manage from here."

"Allow me, please," the old coot said earnestly, aiming Snape's parcel in the direction of the dungeons and marching along behind it. Snape stared after him for a moment, then followed, fighting down the temptation to hex the man on the spot. For approximately the thousandth time, he wished, uselessly, that the damned thing had been Reducible. Then it could have been shipped by owl post, discreetly, and no one would have been the wiser.

Oh hell, Snape thought, doubtless Albus would have found a way to put in his oar no matter what.

In a matter of minutes, they were inside Snape's chambers under the east wing of the school, and Snape had offered Dumbledore tea, because that was What One Did. As he passed the cup to the Headmaster, he tried not to allow any emotion other than a blank, benign boredom to show in his expression. Perhaps if he provided as small a target as possible, he would be less likely to be shot at.

Of course, that did not dissuade Dumbledore in the slightest. Sipping at his tea, he walked slowly around the box, reading the inscriptions etched into the wood with the utmost interest. "You know, I'd heard of these, but I've never seen one."

Snape ignored the thinly-veiled request inherent in that statement. "I won't have it long, I'm afraid," he said offhandedly, sipping his own tea.

Dumbledore appeared lost in his study of the box. "Eh?" he asked, distracted. "Oh, I imagine Harry will wish to keep it here. Those Auror quarters in Hogsmeade are quite cramped, and this way he can enjoy it with you."

Snape's mouthful of hot tea nearly changed direction and passed through his nose. As it was, it merely stoppered his throat on the way down, causing him to cough uncontrollably.

The Headmaster was beside him in a thrice, whacking him helpfully on the back and murmuring some sort of soothing nonsense. Snape drew in a couple of gasping breaths, then waved him off. He was conscious of Dumbledore's concerned gaze on him, but couldn't for the life of him think what to say next.

Albus knew. Of course, Snape had been forming vague plans on how to best break the news to him, but, well, damn it all, he'd hoped to at least enjoy one bloody Christmas before having his gonads hexed off his body and the rest of him fed to the Giant Squid.

Snape cleared his throat. Best get it over with. "Headmaster, I – "

"Severus," interrupted the old man, "I owe you an apology."

Snape stuttered to a halt as he absorbed the other's calm statement. And when it had finally sunk in, all he could do was stare stupidly.

Thankfully, Dumbledore filled the gap in the conversation. "I fear I have caused you and Harry a great deal of unnecessary pain these past few months," he murmured. "I suppose I should have spoken to you directly about it before this, but while you and I have enjoyed a close relationship over the years, I know you have never been comfortable discussing matters of the heart. Furthermore, you have always been – reluctant – to listen to the imprecations of that particular part of your anatomy.

"And, if the truth be known," Dumbledore continued in a quiet voice, "I always felt that I shared some responsibility for that reluctance."

Snape shook his head in confusion. "Why?" he managed, utterly at sea.

Dumbledore's ice-blue gaze captured his own. "Because I acceded to the request of a very hurt, very proud young man many years ago, a young man who was more familiar with pain than joy, and I have regretted it ever since."

Snape stared at him for another full minute. Then he downed the last of his tea and set it aside before the cup slipped from his nerveless fingers. He turned back to the old man, trying to ignore the churning sensation in his stomach, heralding the revival of a maelstrom of self-loathing.

Who do you think you're fooling? he thought. It didn't need reviving.

Aloud, he said slowly, "Are you telling me that in order to assuage your guilt, you offered up Harry bloody Potter for my exclusive use?" His jaw muscle leapt, and he clenched it tightly. "I commend you on your sense of irony in the choice, at least."

Dumbledore sipped his own tea, seemingly unruffled by the Potion master's words. "I am afraid I can claim no credit for the choice, or the irony. It had been obvious for some time before his American escapade that Harry loved you deeply. And while I knew you did not see him in that light at first, I had faith in Harry's powers of...persuasion."

Snape squeezed his eyes shut. "You knew, and still you sent me to Pittsburgh."

"I did," the old man said firmly. "But not to assuage my guilt. To do my part in righting a wrong."

Snape's eyes snapped open. "That wrong was perpetrated a quarter of a century ago. He had nothing to do with it; he bore no responsibility for its resolution." The blood was roaring in Snape's ears now. He'd suspected the old bastard of having an ulterior motive, but to hear it spoken aloud pricked at his pride and fed his nagging doubts about his own actions. "I endured without your meddling then, and I would have continued to do so."

"The wrong I speak of," Dumbledore countered gently, "is loneliness. And you have endured it long enough, Severus."

Snape opened his mouth, but no sound emerged.

The old man smiled then, though his eyes lacked their customary twinkle. Stepping forward, he laid a bony hand on Snape's cheek. "You and Harry have shared similar disappointments in life, and now you are sharing the burden of a terrible war. How can it be sinful for you to want to share joy as well, if you have been so fortunate to have found it in one another?"

Snape took a deep breath, then let it out. The blasted man knew him far too well.

"I know you don't as yet," Dumbledore murmured, "but my fondest wish is that someday you will believe you deserve this. Because you deserve it more than I can say." With a final, soft pat, he slid his hand from Snape's cheek; meeting his gaze, Snape was shocked to see the blue eyes bright with unshed tears.

"Well," the Headmaster said, setting down his teacup, "I'll leave you to your preparations. Please tell Harry he'd be most welcome at Christmas dinner tomorrow."

Snape nodded mutely, unable to do anything else, and Dumbledore turned away. When he reached the door, Snape found his voice again.

"Happy Christmas, Albus."

The old man turned back to him and smiled. "A very happy Christmas to you both," he replied, and then he departed, leaving Snape alone with his thoughts.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harry never thought he'd be this grateful to be bored out of his skull.

Although they knew better than to be lulled into complacency, the forces of light were currently enjoying one of the quietest times of the recent war. Harry had heard today that the boffins at Bletchley, Hermione included, had been working furiously on a coded message retrieved from a downed Death Eater owl last Wednesday. If they were successful, they might be that much closer to discovering the state of Voldemort's health after Harry's encounter with him a week and a half ago.

Of course, Harry and Snape had both delivered extensive reports on their experience, but neither of them had been able to guess at the Dark Lord's condition. Certainly, Harry and everyone else would have liked to believe his bid to save Snape's life had had the happy side-effect of snuffing the evil bastard, but their hopes weren't high. More likely, Voldemort was spending the Christmas hols in a dank cave or handy enchanted forest, licking whatever wounds he may have sustained. For Harry's part, he hoped they were extensive and excruciatingly painful.

Even if it proved temporary, the peace was still welcome. The last few days had been spent in overdue long-range planning sessions, endless policy and training briefings, and the occasional reconnaissance op, following up on tips from the wizarding public concerning suspicious activity. Every one of these last were turning out, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your perspective, to be false alarms. Yesterday Harry and three other Aurors had flown to Fife on an estate agent's report of a Death Eater orgy in a vacant cottage; they had found an overly vocal ghoul determined to repel any potential tenants. Auror MacDougall had been so furious, she'd set its arse on fire with a wave of her wand, sending the thing screaming over the moor, fanning madly at its backside all the while.

To say Harry was looking forward to a couple of days' leave was an understatement. Even boredom had its limits.

As he headed down the tunnel which would take him to his quarters, he couldn't help but smile foolishly at the memory of Snape asking him to spend Christmas Eve at Hogwarts. The invitation, though couched in Snape's diffident manner, had warmed Harry all the way to his toes; he'd flown clear through a snow squall yesterday and never even felt it. And now, the thought of coming home to someone was a new, treasured possession he clutched fiercely to the most secret part of himself. What made it so precious, he supposed, was that it was his and his alone. It was no battered hand-me-down: this time, the limbs were intact, the paint fresh, the finish not worn by rough use and neglect. And if he had anything to say about it, it would stay that way.

Harry reached the door to his tiny flat – actually a windowless bed-sit and bath lodged fifty feet underground – and pulled out his wand to unward the door. He murmured the appropriate incantations, then turned the handle.

"Hello, Harry."

Harry started at the sound of the gravelly voice coming from directly behind him. Fighting to master his emotions, he turned to face his godfather.

"Sirius," he ventured, aware of the lack of warmth in his tone, but unsure of what to do about it.

Sirius heard the tone as well, and his shoulders slumped. One long-fingered hand rose, as if reaching toward Harry, then dropped. "I, ah," he began, his own voice small and defeated. "I – "

Harry sighed. "Come in," he said, throwing the door wide and waving his wand again to raise the lights. Obediently, Sirius followed him inside. Harry motioned to one chair, then flopped down in the other. His face the picture of pained awkwardness, Sirius copied him.

"I was just talking to Sarah," Sirius said after a strained pause. "About yesterday's raid."

Harry snorted. "Yesterday's farce, you mean."

"Yeah," he agreed, rubbing nervously at the back of his neck. "Smart girl, really, if a bit impulsive. She knows the importance of wizard-creature relations. Told me she went back on her own this morning to apologise to the ghoul."

Harry raised his eyebrows. Ghouls weren't usually a lot of help to them, but the odd one had taken a fancy to harassing Death Eaters, so it wasn't bright to piss them off. "And?" he asked.

"Dumped a bucket of cow dung on her head."

The laugh barrelled out of him without warning. "Just goes to show that apologising to a ghoul can be hazardous to your health."

"Not only a ghoul," murmured Sirius.

Harry speared him with a glance.

"I'm sorry, Harry."

Harry shook his head. "You didn't do anything – to me."

"Yes, I did," Sirius said wearily. "And if I were to apologise to you until the end of time, it still wouldn't make up for it." He ran a hand through his hair. "Because all the apologies in the world won't bring them back, won't give you the happy childhood you should have had."

Harry's heart flipped in his chest. This wasn't the conversation he'd been expecting.

"I've been running this thing around in my head for months," Sirius continued, his gaze locked with Harry's. "Cause and effect, though I know it doesn't work that way, not entirely. But I keep coming back to the same inevitable conclusion: my choices affected you. Changed your life. Hurt you. And I – " he took a deep breath " – I can't seem to stop – hurting you, even now."

"Oh, Sirius," Harry murmured. Reaching out to him instinctively, he laid a hand on Sirius's where it rested on his knee. "You live with the memory of what happened to my parents every day of your life. And yes, you made some choices you regret now, but at the time you were doing what you thought best. I have to believe they knew that. I do, too."

Sirius' face crumpled at his godson's words. He turned his hand palm-up, then squeezed Harry's tightly. "I love you, Harry."

"I know," Harry assured him.

"It's all I've got to offer you," Sirius choked out. "I know it's not much – "

"You're wrong," Harry said. "It's everything."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

That same afternoon, Hermione Granger stepped from the Floo in the kitchen of the Burrow into light and warmth and laughter.

God, she needed this.

Hermione's mum and dad followed along behind, with Ron bringing up the rear. Her parents had never been here before, since the war had made her nervous about putting them in even the slightest jeopardy, but the last week or so had been quiet enough that they were finally able to accept the Weasleys' invitation. Considering their daughter was to marry into the family in a week's time, it was a meeting long overdue.

Molly Weasley enfolded each of them in turn in a crushing hug, and Hermione allowed the warmth and love to wash over her, rejuvenate her, lend her much-needed strength. She'd always been a strong person, but now she had an even greater need of it.

Poppy and Ron were the only people in the world who knew, but after tonight the circle would be expanded to included the souls in this house, in this place and time. She was both terrified and exhilarated at the prospect of telling them, because she understood that the telling would inspire worry as well as joy. But there was no time for doubt or fear now.

There was only time to live.

Ron stepped up behind her and grasped her round the shoulders, gentle yet at the same time fiercely strong. How she loved him for that contradiction.

"You all right, old girl?"

"'Old girl?'" she squeaked, indignant. He always knew how to get under her skin; she loved him even more for that.

He nuzzled her hair, and she fancied she could feel his smile. "Would you prefer 'Mother'?" he whispered.

She glanced around nervously, but it appeared no one had overheard him. "Not until they've had dessert, thank you," she told him primly.

"You realise Mom's going to pitch a wobbler," he murmured against her ear. "Then she'll get up and start offering us advice for the rest of our bollicky lives."

Hermione smiled and leaned back against him. "I think I'll listen."

"What?" he demanded, chuckling. "You mean you don't believe a book would be better?"

Hermione turned in his arms and planted a kiss on his wide, foolish, beautiful mouth. "I believe she knows more about love than any book on Earth. And if our child grows up to be half as fine as the man standing in front of me, I believe we can be very, very proud."

And at that, Ron cupped her face between his big hands as though she were the most precious thing in the world, and kissed her without benefit of mistletoe.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

On Christmas Eve, Frankie Hyde raised a martini to Harry and Snape, and all the other gallant heroes of wars past and present, as she sat in the quiet calm of her book-lined study overlooking Central Park.

Then she raised one to the portrait over the mantel.

Great-great Uncle Franklin smiled back at her, and saluted her silently with his own glass.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Bugger!"

The word, and the ensuing crashing sound, carried quite well through the four-inch oaken door of Snape's quarters. Fear gripped Harry, and he knocked loudly at the door at the same time as he reached for his wand.

"Come in, come in!" shouted an irritated and definitely breathing Snape. Before Harry could reach for the handle, the door swung open, and he stepped inside.

"What happened?" demanded Harry. "Are you all right?"

At the sound of his voice, Snape did several things in rapid succession: he whirled about so quickly that he nearly overbalanced himself, his eyes widened alarmingly as he registered Harry's presence, and he lunged sideways to cover some sort of black box that was laying on the table behind him. Considering he hadn't fully recovered from the whirling, the lunging caused him to stumble.

"Y – you're early!" Snape exclaimed, arms flailing in an attempt to regain his balance. Harry noticed Snape was as casually dressed as he’d ever seen him, his shirt sleeves rolled up once or twice, revealing his pale, bony wrists.

Home, Harry thought, his face cracking in a no-doubt stupid grin.

Aloud, he said, "I suppose I am. Did I interrupt something?" His eyebrows arching mischievously, he tilted his body as though trying to look behind Snape.

Snape opened his mouth to reply, then snapped it shut with an audible click. Harry watched his expression darken precipitously. "I – oh, blast and damnation," Snape muttered. "I shouldn't have even bothered."

Harry frowned. "Bothered with what?"

Snape flung out an impatient arm, as if he were indicating the universe. "This! Christmas! Presents!" The arm jerked toward Harry, and when he next spoke his voice was nearly a whisper. "This."

Approaching him cautiously, Harry attempted a smile which belied his apprehension "Surely it can't be as bad as all that."

Snape dropped his arm and shook his head, then stepped aside, revealing the thing he had been hiding. "See for yourself," he said bitterly.

Eyes straying from Snape's face, Harry finally registered the identity of the object on the table. "It's – a telly!" he breathed, stunned. "Wherever did you get it?"

"I contacted Ms. Hyde, and she had one couriered through the Floo."

"It's wonderful!" Harry crowed, grinning. "Now we can watch Monty Python together."

"It's a disaster!" snapped Snape. "I can't get the infernal thing to work! I've been trying all day." He reached for an inch-thick book on the table and shook it in frustration. "This bloody – manual – is incomprehensible. It was obviously written by someone whose understanding of the English language could be surpassed by a mentally deficient mountain troll. And the diagrams!" Snape flung the tome across the room.

Harry tried to look sympathetic, but his grin simply wouldn't fade. The warm feeling engulfed him, making him giddy. "I take it you've never heard of 'It's the thought that counts.'"

Snape scowled at him. Apparently he didn't think much of that adage.

Harry tried another tack. "I was planning to call Frankie tomorrow to wish her a happy Christmas – perhaps she might have a solution. At any rate, I'm sure we can get it running one way or the other."

Snape's scowl deepened. "That's not the point. I – " He trailed off abruptly and stared at the fireplace.

"Then what is the point?" Harry asked.

Snape's jaw clenched. "This proves I'm no good at – " Another pause. "Relationships." He spat the word as though it were poisonous.

Moving close enough to touch him, Harry stroked tentative fingers over Snape's right forearm. "No, you're not," he said softly.

Snape's gaze swung back to him, confusion revealing itself for the first time.

"You must think I'm a dunderhead if you imagine I didn't know that from the first," Harry said, a wry smile curving his lips. "And if you recall correctly, you may remember I told you I wasn't particularly good at them, either. But I also said that once I've made that connection with someone, I was stuck for good. So if you want to get rid of me, I wish you luck. You'll be needing it."

As Snape watched him warily, Harry glided his hands up Snape's chest until they linked behind his neck. "And if you give me a broken-down telly each Christmas and birthday for the rest of my life, I'll consider myself the luckiest bastard on the planet."

After a pause that seemed to last an eternity, Snape's own hands rose to tangle themselves in Harry's hair. "Has anyone ever told you you're completely off your chump?" he murmured fondly.

"Oh, millions of times," Harry answered, his fingers teasing lightly against the nape of Snape's neck.

Snape shivered in response. "Lucky for me, I suppose," he said. "Or you'd never have been so mad as to find me attractive."

"I must have been mad," Harry muttered affectionately, his hands becoming more insistent, "to have fallen in love with a git who'd rather talk than kiss."

Snape's eyes blazed furnace-hot at that; then slowly, teasingly, he lowered his mouth to Harry's.

When they were a breath apart, some devil in Harry made him speak. "Of course," he drawled, "we can still enjoy Monty Python without the telly."

Snape jerked upright and frowned at him.

Harry smiled wickedly. "We can act it out instead. Life of Brian. The skits. You'll have to do the Silly Walk, though. I was never very good at that. Legs're too short, I suppose."

Snape frowned some more.

"I know!" exclaimed Harry, releasing Snape and darting over to the chesterfield, where he snagged a pillow. "Holy Grail!" With an evil glint in his eye, he advanced on Snape. "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" he said, in a nasal, high-pitched voice.

Snape's mouth twitched, but other than that he showed no sign of reaction. Harry brandished the pillow and held it like a rather bulky sword, wiggling it at Snape at odd intervals. "Our chief weapon," he cackled, "is fear – no! Our chief weapons are fear and surprise – bugger! Our chief weapons are fear, surprise...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope!"

Snape's eyebrows shot into his hairline. His mouth was twitching dangerously now.

"Talk, I say!" Harry cried, shaking the cushion under Snape's nose.

The corners of Snape's eyes were actually crinkling, Harry observed. That was a definite crinkle.

"Stubborn, eh? I'm going to have to poke you with the soft cushion, then." He mock-glared at the pillow. "Drat! First I've got to get the stuffing all up one end. Hang on – "

Before he could manage the stuffing problem, strong arms wrapped round both him and the cushion, crushing it between their bodies.

Harry had been right. Snape's laugh was definitely worth waiting for. But his kiss was even better.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"D'you want your present now?"

Snape looked up from where he was tracing patterns on Harry's taut belly with his fingertips. "I'm not sure. I haven't had much luck with presents this – lifetime."

Harry reached up and dragged him down for a long, languid kiss. "Well, your luck's about to change," he murmured when they parted. Rising on one elbow, he touched his wand where it lay on Snape's nightstand. "Accio."

Snape watched as the small silver-wrapped package flew through the door to the sitting room and into Harry's outstretched palm. "Happy Christmas, love," Harry said softly, holding it out to him.

Snape tried not to let the trepidation show on his face as he fumbled with the ribbons and paper. When he lifted the lid of the small wooden box he found inside, he was surprised to be greeted by a stack of photographs. He removed them carefully; the top ones showed the exterior of a two-storey stone cottage in wintertime, and the rest showed various empty rooms, supposedly in the same house. Snape peered at them stupidly.

"Yes, I got you photographs of a house," Harry drawled, the mirth evident in his voice. "Makes the telly look pretty damned good, doesn't it?"

Snape regarded him steadily, one eyebrow raising in a silent question.

"It's about five miles outside Hogsmeade, on the Wyndham river. Mid-Victorian, but it's been renovated to death over the past few years, so it doesn't need a lot done to it. A bit of paint, a few curtains and some furniture, and Bob's your uncle." He hesitated for a moment. "There's even a full basement with tons of usable space. And almost half an acre of established gardens."

Snape shook his head. "But – "

"It's ours," Harry added softly. "If you want."

Snape frowned; his brain seemed to have temporarily shut down, because he was suddenly incapable of coherent, logical thought. "You want to – move in – "

"I know what you're going to say," Harry interrupted hastily. "It's not safe. And you're right, it isn't, not yet. But I was talking to Sirius, and he thinks there may be a way to make it Unplottable. The Bletchley people have been doing wonders with the new security measures. And we could connect it to the Floo in your chambers, so you could commute in the blink of an eye. I'd hate to deprive you of your nighttime prowls through the castle." His green eyes gazed up at Snape, an eager hope lighting them. At the same time, Snape caught the shadows of doubt and fear lurking in those beautiful eyes as Harry awaited his reply.

Snape would be damned if he'd intentionally make Harry feel that way ever again. Certainly, he was not so foolish as to believe he wouldn't continue to have doubts and fears of his own, but he would do everything in his power to avoid burdening Harry with the same handicaps. And if he allowed himself to be happy every now and then, it just might become a semi-permanent condition.

In fact, he realised, he was pretty bloody happy right now.

Imagine that, Snape thought, a long-dead sense of wonder snaking its way round his heart.

"It's a wonderful gift," Snape murmured, leaning in to brush Harry's lips with his own. "Thank you."

"But if it's not what you want," said Harry fervently, "I'll understand. Real – "

Harry's words were crushed by the pressure of Snape's mouth against his own. After a moment of tension, he felt Harry relax under him, and he thrilled to Harry's groan as his mouth opened to Snape's invading tongue.

He couldn't remember anyone having cared much for what he wanted, on Christmas or any other day. Then he remembered his own words, spoken many months ago.

There is nothing I want, because wanting is an exercise in futility.

Snape was shocked to realise he didn't even recognise the man who said that.

Gasping, he tore his mouth from Harry's. "I want – " he whispered, his eyes slamming shut.

"What do you want?" Harry said gently, stroking Snape's mouth with a fingertip.

"I want – your faith." He opened his eyes, and his fingers glided through Harry's impossibly soft hair. "Your courage."

Harry smiled up at him with a tenderness which nearly broke him. "You have them," he said. "Because you have me."

Snape caressed his lover's face reverently. "And that," he said, his voice hoarse with emotion, "is the greatest gift I will ever receive."

 

 

 

 
 

~~ Epilogue ~~

 

Four Months Later

Jeremiah Blotts, co-owner of Flourish and Blotts Fine Booksellers', unrolled the poster and inspected it carefully. He wasn't sure about this Muggle-inspired nonsense, but the witch in the marketing department at Obscurus told him it would sell faster than One Thousand and One Uses for a Dried Yak. And nothing had ever sold faster than that.

"'Graphic novel,'" he muttered, holding it up. "Balderdash. Picture book, more like." However, despite his reservations, Blotts had to admit the subject matter and characters would be hugely popular. Severus Snape and Harry Potter had been the talk of the wizarding world for weeks now, and tongues wouldn't be likely to stop wagging at any point in the near future. Imagine the two of them moving in together in a cottage outside of Hogsmeade without so much as a by your leave. Of course, they were fighting for the Light, and so were arguably entitled to a few liberties, but really, one would think they could have curbed their...urges...for the duration. His dad had once gone six years without a single night of connubial bliss for the sake of a purifying ritual, although Mother had divorced him after three...

Sighing, he laid the poster on his desk and began rummaging through drawers for his roll of Spellotape. Might as well get it up in the front window before he opened the shop; after all, there was no denying it was in the service of a good cause.

A very good cause.
 

Obscurus Books is proud to present

a new graphic novel

simultaneously published in North America by

Hands Across the Sea Books

"When Lightning Strikes"

art by

Justin Taylor

story by

Justin Taylor, Brian Kinney

and Emmett Hunnicutt

Allies of the Light

All proceeds to be donated to

St. Mungo's War Orphans Fund

- On To Victory -