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~*Spinner's End*~

The Aurors on guard at the scene are drinking champagne straight from the bottle -- giddy and rude now that the throng of morbid onlookers has wandered off into the bleak, small hours. The embers of the still-burning house lend a ghastly air to the revels, limning their gleeful, obscene toasts in brimstone and ruin while ash and snow drift back to the earth in lazy spirals of grey.

"To murderers," one shouts, sloshing foam over his knuckles as he raises the bottle. "May they all show such sense, and spare us sending them to Azkaban!"

"To biting off more Death than the old sod could chew," another roars over the chorus of 'hear hear'.

"A hundred points to Slytherin, Mr. Snape," a third sneers, basso vocce as he takes the bottle in his turn and salutes the glowing ruin. "Well done, you old bastard!"

The house's southeastern wall collapses in a rush of sparks and exploding brick. Smoke billows, bitter, black and choking-thick in the predawn stillness, only the fierce updraught wafting it away from he ground, only the firemages wards herding it, chimney-like, aloft.

"Someone's coming," a fourth Auror says into the silence. Over the crackle of flames, footsteps approach, creaking in the shallow scrim of snow.

Their easy camaraderie shatters into a furtive scramble, and the bottle disappears a scant three seconds before Harry Potter strides out of the darkness at the culvert's edge. The Aurors, stunned by their unexpected visitor, manage a cleaning spell or two, but as Potter draws near to their post, it quickly becomes obvious that not one of them has the first clue what to say to the Hero of the Second War.

Potter, however, isn't exactly in a chatty mood himself. His robes are creased and rumpled, his hair a directionless riot, and at least three days' beard shadow his hard-clamped jaw. He looks as though he ought to reek of sweat and whiskey -- and sure enough, there is the glitter of a bottle showing through the twist of newspaper in his left hand. For a long moment, he stares over the Aurors heads at the sullen glow where the ruined house lies muttering and hissing, consuming itself within the fire-wards.

Not knowing what else to do, they let him look his fill.

"The newspaper said he was home," Potter says at last, his voice low and hard. "Where is his body?"

"Still inside, near as we can tell. Ministry's firemages think he let an elemental loose in there given how fast the whole thing lit up. We can't go in until it's exhausted itself. Run out of things to burn."

"An elemental…" Harry turns to look as part of the chimney comes down. "Bastard…" But then after a moment, he shakes his head. "Elementals can burn anything. Soil. Stone. Water. It won't burn out. Someone has to banish it." The Aurors look one to another, shift their feet in the slush, and say nothing. Potter doesn't seem to notice. "How long has it been burning."

"Neighbors said they smelt smoke near three in the afternoon," one of them replies, "Went to flashover quick, they said. The whole bloody place was in flames when Aurors and Firemages got here." Potter's eyebrows lift, his eyes narrow; disbelieving, angry.

The Aurors examine their boots, or the neighbor's gardens, or the column of smoke smudging across the cloudy sky.

Potter makes a disgusted sound in his throat, turns on his heel, and strides across the street, up the walk, and through the fire wards as though there were nothing there at all. He doesn't even pretend to ask the Aurors' approval or permission, and while the Aurors look alarmed at his raw display of power, or annoyed at his clear attitude of entitlement, there isn't one of them who seems surprised.

This is Harry Potter, after all -- he saved the world from Voldemort, so if he chooses to come and gloat over the ashes of his fallen enemy, well, he has a right to a bit of privacy.

Potter skirts the edge of the singeing, gutted garden, pressing close to the Firemages wardlines as the blast of heat ruffles his hair and bells his robes out around his legs. He casts no breathing charm, but the smoke doesn't seem to trouble him -- the updraught's work again, drawing clean air in low while forcing the smoke and soot aloft -- but still his famous green eyes blink and water in the scorching air.

Slowly, carefully, he makes his way to a stone bench in the curling, smoking, cinder-shot ruins of what had once been a good herb garden. It's as close as any sane creature would venture to such a conflagration as this one, and there he stops, and there he sits to stare. His eyes move over the night, mapping the shape of the house which had stood there, its grimy windows, its tilting roofline, the odd angle of its back door.

There is, of course, no elemental. Potter makes no pretense of looking for one as he opens his bottle, half empty already, and drinks a toast to the burning death of Spinner's End.

"So you did it then," he says at length. "Decided you couldn't live with your crimes, and just…" he waves his bottle at the flames, then takes a long pull and wipes his lips on the back of his hand.

"Bastard. You…bastard! Do you think this makes it right? Settles your debt and evens your bloody score?" Potter's voice rises; vitriol, petulance, and smoke making the words ragged. "A life for a life -- yours for Dumbledore's? Is that what you'd tell me? Well in case you can't count, that's TWO LIVES, YOU SELFISH BASTARD! AND HOW ARE YOU GOING TO EVEN THAT SCORE NOW YOU'RE DEAD?"

He is on his feet now, bottle clenched by the neck as is he might throttle it, newspaper a pale crumple in the other hand. "Did you think this would make you some kind of a martyr," he cries. "Dying like this, just because you didn't have the courage to live?" Potter strides forward into the blast, belligerent, uncaring as the heat batters at him. "You're a murderer, Snape! A murderer and a traitor, and a selfish, fucking coward." He hurls the bottle into the flames when he can go no further. "And now that's all you'll EVER BE!"

There's a smash and a flicker of blue as the spirits are consumed, but otherwise, the blaze carries on, unimpressed. Potter drags in a wet breath, chokes twice. He is entirely too close now, but it's plain he does not care. "That's all you'll ever be, Snape…" he gasps, and flings the sad rag of newsprint into the embers.

Or rather, he tries to. The updraught snatches the paper, furls it wide, and sweeps it heavenward before the edges have time to blacken and curl. Potter sags to his knees, head craned back to watch as the paper spirals higher and higher into the darkness and smoke; over the chimney pots and the sullen city trees, until the first breath of dawn tugs it away toward the west.

And still Potter sits there, eyes streaming in the heat, face red and scorched, empty hands limp at his sides. "Coward…" he says, and chokes again. "Coward."



~*Ministry Holding Cells*~

 

Doors crashed down the hall, echoing like certain doom through the over-full cells. Warding spells flickered in confusion, and went out like streetlamps as he strode through, his raw, wild power eclipsing every binding spell in the place. The other prisoners were silent as he passed, and so Severus knew without turning his face from the wall, just who it was that threw his own cell door wide.

Not that he wouldn't have recognized that harsh, angry breath he'd almost grown used to feeling against his shoulder or the back of his ear, or the scent of musk and cheap soap that always clung to the little bastard's skin. His body remembered, with a twitch and a warmth between his thighs, but Severus ignored it just as he ignored the squeak of trainers approaching across the damp floor. He could ignore it. For the first time in a year, he could ignore it, and he bloody well meant to.

"Get up," Potter said. When he didn't move, the brat kicked his cot hard into the wall. Wild magic flung it like a leaf, spilling Severus to the floor, and cracking the sturdy oak frame along with two stones. Potter's hair stood as though lightning-charged, and when he spoke, magic stitched between his teeth in glittering sparks. "I said get UP! I want to see your face for this, you bastard!"

"Go away, and take your stolen power with you," Severus replied, rolling to a stiff-legged seat on the floor. His voice was rough and weak, and he could feel the deep bruise where the bonding collar had been until two days before, when he'd died. He rubbed a finger along the mark he knew it had left behind, and glowered at the Boy Hero. "You've done your worst to me already, Potter, and I owe you nothing now. Unless you've come to kill me properly, I've no interest in anything you might have to say to me."

"I saved your life!"

"You stole my death," Severus replied, "and don't pretend it was anything other than petty vindication! 'You don't deserve to die, you bastard! You haven't earned it!" He smirked at Potter's narrowed glare, "Oh, yes. I heard you, doling out my life sentence like the tin-pot dictator you truly are."

The scent of ozone thickened in the room as Potter's fury went to war with the truth Severus flung at him. His feet shifted nervously as Severus climbed carefully upright, "I am not-"

"I did everything you demanded," Severus hissed, straightening his prison shirt with stiff, pained movements, "The bonding, the collars, I even let you bed me, and all so you shouldn't have to strain your feeble mind to do as Dumbledore had always told you, and TRUST ME."

The magic broke with a crackle like a slap across Severus' face. When he picked himself up and spat the blood from his mouth, Potter was still standing there, eyes closed now, jaw set; wrestling either with the raw power Voldemort's death had bequeathed to him, or else with his own conscience.

Severus found he didn't much care which. "I did what you wanted, Potter. I bolstered your infantile notions of right and wrong with yet another kind of slavery, and I protected you at every turn."

"You stood there. You just stood there and let Ron and Hermione-"

"I protected YOU!"

Potter's eyes snapped open. They stared. Severus wondered if Potter too was feeling the ghost of the Bonding spell's artificial attraction, the hormonal shove it had been giving them toward each other whenever they fought over the past year of spying and betraying and hunting buried treasure.

"I protected you to the death, Potter," Severus said at last, "just as I'd always said I would do. And you repay loyalty with this." He turned his left wrist to the tiny window's light, let the lightning-shaped scar gleam redly between them. "What more do you want from me?"

Potter's jaw clenched. He flickered his gaze along the shattered ghost of the Morsmordre, and Severus liked to suppose the brat was wondering what he could have been thinking, inscribing his own mark over Voldemort's, even as he used the man's death energy to force life back into the heart that had betrayed him to his death. Then again, the layers of irony were probably far too opaque for such a simple creature. It was probably just a momentary flicker of guilt.

Then he boosted his chin and locked Severus' eyes with a steady glare. "You're not a Death Eater anymore," was all he said.

Severus felt the anger drain away in a sudden wash of weary disdain. "And now you suppose you can change history as well…"

Potter surged forward a step, slapped a rolled-up scroll into Severus' palm. His eyes were fierce and unforgiving. "You're not. The Ministry's pardoned you."

Severus glared at the parchment, and the purple wax seal, with gold ribbons in. Very official. Very correct. "A pardon…" He felt ill.

"A life debt," Potter said, not looking away. "I saved their miserable arses two days ago, and the whole Wizengamot knows it. All crimes, known and unknown before today. They're not taking your property, or your freedom. Spinners End is still yours, and whatever you've got in your Gringotts account. Even your pension from Hogwarts. Now you can go and do something-" his lip curled, "worthwhile with what's left of your miserable life. Work on your potions. Write a book. Go on lecture tours. I don't bloody well care, just live. THAT'S how I repay loyalty.

"I don't kill the people who helped me when I needed it, even if I don't like them much." Potter gritted, flicking empty fingers at Severus' prison wear. "And I don't bloody well stand by and watch while other people mow them down, either!"

Severus fought not to move as the rough, cheap cloth flowed across his form, gathering texture and mass until he was dressed in the fine sable ghost of his very best teaching robes. He could even feel a wand cradled snugly against his right wrist. "You knew the timing was critical," he said, straightening automatically under the bracing weight, "I couldn't-"

"I don't care why," Potter gritted, turning. "They're dying. St Mungo's won't even admit them. Hermione's --" he choked, bit the words off and shook his head. "You let it happen, Snape. You didn't even try to save them. I don't even think you considered it." Potter turned toward the door, enough of his anger restored to make his stride long and purposeful. "So yeah, I saved your life, and I broke Voldemort's mark, and now we're bloody well through. So go do something with it while I watch my best friends die."

"Once you're done with the melodramatics," Severus offered, curling his arms about his chest, "You might consider that if you could snatch me back from death, you might just as well do the same for Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger."

Potter's head turned, just enough to reveal a heated, loathing glare, sparking like stolen magic in one green eye. "I've tried," he said. And then he was gone, his disapparation like a rifle shot through the subterranean prison.

Along the holding cells, the captive, condemned Death Eaters began to murmur.

~*~*~*~

~* Diagon Alley *~

 

The mob roared; faces red with fury, mouths distended, wands, boots, and fists flashing. Those who could not reach the object of their hatred shoved close, and screamed encouragement to those who could. And they were without mercy; the righteous fury of the sheep, seeking their vengeance in the streets when the wolves who led them refused to give them the blood they craved.

Severus, curled tight around his vitals at the bottom of the press, held onto himself and endured. Close quarters kept the blows shy of true killing force -- nobody had room to raise a boot or a stick high -- but what room there was, they used to good effect. The screams and curses had faded under the pounding rush of blood and pain and hobnails some time ago, rendering the crowd eerily quiet -- a ridiculous pantomime of scarlet mummer's faces. A few ribbons, and a fiddler shy of a proper Morris dance... Blood for the new-planted fields. He might have laughed, if he could have found the breath to drive it.

For a moment, the blows abated into roaring, throbbing silence. He was relieved, confused, distrustful. He glimpsed lips moving, read their meaning, and lay his head down again. Someone was bringing a rope. Of course -- Traitors hang in England. So now, no doubt someone in the crowd would be conjuring a knife, hooks, and brazier as well. He wondered dazedly if a Grim would come with the alley curs to nose amoungst the gore when these Light Wizards had finally broken his body into pieces for display in Britain's farthest reaches.

'Live,' Potter had said. As though it were that easy.

Rough hands hauled Severus up from his damp knot on the cobbles, prised him open like an oyster. His wrists, they clasped fast behind him, his head held up by a twist of hair in someone's fist, his robes wound choking-tight at the scruff of his neck as they crowded around.

"Where's your bloody Dark Lord to save you now, you bastard," a crow, or perhaps the man behind him, screamed in his ear as they dragged him toward a street-lamp. The rope swung there already, just at the level of his chin.

A tragical comedy indeed.

Severus spat blood, and tried to sneer. "Throwed him out the… winder." Perhaps it was the dangling rope that had made him say it. Someone knocked his head for the joke. Someone else screamed for them to make the Death Eating bastard suffer.

"I don't... want … any supper." Another blow. Severus' knees buckled. Only the hands of his attackers were holding him upright. His ribs ached with a laugh as he wondered if the crowd would throw knuts in a hat afterward.

The noose stretched out, mouthlike, and before he could ask someone to show him how it was done, they'd shoved his head through, snuggled it up tight beneath his chin. I've never been hanged before. That was the line, wasn't it? Will you show me how to do it?

They fixed the knot at the back of his neck, snarled roughly in hair made stiff with gutter filth and blood. He stiffened, unable to recall why that should matter, until the men on the rope gave a tremendous yank and hauled the street from under Severus' boots. His neck did not snap.

That's the way to do it.

This dying was not like the other had been. No sense of floating detachment, no well-earned collapse into gravity -- this death was kicking and fighting. This death was twisting his fingers bloody, nails tearing at his throat for the ghost of a grip on the rope. This death was throbbing with adrenaline and a sudden, blinding rage!

Then magic struck through Severus like lightning; arcing from bloodied crown of his head, through flailing boots and down to scorch the street. For a second, the current seemed to lift him -- the rope's bite became an insignificant thing, the panicking crowd irrelevant. The bloody light surged, demanding. Severus gave himself limply into its grasp, able only to watch as the street, the crowd, the noose and the lamp post faded into a blinding, scarlet roar.

It almost sounded like applause.

~*~*~*~
~* The Burrow *~

 

He fell. Not on stone though, not on the close-packed heads of the howling mob. He fell on a wooden floor; foot-worn but fiercely tidy, and smelling of lemon oil and scouring charms.

Behind him, a woman screamed, dropped a plate of soup. Severus felt it splatter across his back as he lay there, clutching the floor and sucking in breath after unobstructed breath. He couldn't bring himself to care; what was one more stain added to the spit, blood, vomit, trash and gutter-sludge on his robes already? All the mess wanted was a string of sausages, and perhaps a crocodile.

"Sweet Merlin -- Arthur! Charlie! Harry! Come quickly!" Molly Weasley's voice shook the rafters.

Of course... Punch always gets away in the end... The laugh came up like blood between Severus' lips. It hurt no less, but was harder to spit out.

"Snape?" Potter's voice now; close and low as the floor beneath Severus' ear drummed with footsteps. Two hard thuds as he went to his knees. Severus curled tight. "Good god, what happened?"

Hands took hold of Severus' shoulders, reminded him of sticks, rocks, and bootheels. He flinched away before he'd quite realized that he was in no actual pain. Severus arm, the left one, which wore Potter's mark now, gave a shiver as the young man's touch slid away. Scowling, Potter sat back on his heels and allowed Severus the scant dignity of collecting his sprawl on his own.

The room was full of Weasleys by the time he'd managed it; Molly hovering and fluttering like a plover, Arthur staring in alarm at the state of his unexpected guest, and three of their brood crowding the doorway, to glower in silence. The daughter; the grown, unscarred son; a twin. Severus wondered for a moment why there was only one, then he spotted the other, pale and quiescent in a bed beneath the window. Ron Weasley lay across the room from him, face swathed in stained bandages, but clearly awake, and listening hard.

Bellatrix's curse, Severus realized, the one he hadn't stopped. The reason Potter, enraged, had cursed Severus back to life. He closed his eyes, feeling suddenly as if he'd been dropped from one lynch mob to another.

"Snape," Potter said. Severus pressed a hand to the air, stilling him. It had been broken a few moments before, that hand -- crushed under someone's boots, and his wand kicked spinning across the stones. In the gentle light of a Cornwall summer's afternoon, however, it merely looked dirty.

"I heard you," Severus croaked, gathering his torn robe closer. "And I cannot answer. If you did not bring me here for some reason, Potter, then I do not know why or how I have come." A lie. He knew, in the sinews of his left forearm, in the way the scent of Potter's hair (which wanted washing) filled Severus' nose and made him lean subtly toward, as though the bond still roped his will and his body to Potter's.

But the bond had broken with his death. The first one. It had been Potter's scarlet lightning mark which had snatched Severus from that Diagon street corner to the upper bedroom in the Burrow, just as it had snatched him from death's grasp on the field of battle. Potter had saved him yet again, and if the wretch didn't know it, then Severus would not be the one to tell him so.

Potter scowled, reached for Severus' hanging sleeve. "Where were you?" he asked, voice tight and hard. "Where did this happen?"

"Does it matter?" Severus batted Potter's hands and swayed to his feet. "Name a place where wizards gather, Potter, and it might have been there as well as anywhere!"

"Damn it, will you just tell me?" Potter surged to his feet as well. "Do you always have to turn everything into a god damned pissing cont-"

"HARRY JAMES POTTER!" Everyone jumped as Molly's bellow cut the argument in twain. "Don't you dare speak like that in this house, young man! You are not too big for me to wash your mouth out," she cast a ferocious glance at Severus as she bustled into the room, "neither of you are, and I'll thank you not to make me prove that!"

"FINE!" Potter shouted back, "I just wanted to-" then something in her face made him sigh and rake his fingers through his hair. "Fine. I'm sorry, Molly. I'll..." he glanced at Severus, and his voice hardened again. "I'll just go for a little while. Cool off. I'll be back soon, all right?" He didn't wait for her leave before shoving his way through the crowd in the doorway, and thudding down the stairs.

"All right then," Molly said, banishing the spilled soup and broken crockery with a flick of her wand. "You lot stop standing about -- there's work to do. Charlie, get on down to the kitchen and put some more chicken and veg in the soup for dinner." The young man turned without a word. "Fred, you go and fetch me one of your Father's robes," he opened his mouth. She raised her wand. "None of your foolishness about it, either, young man!" With a final glare at Severus, he went as well. "Ginny, leave Harry be for now," Molly called to the girl, who was already heading down the stairs, "You go and draw Severus a bath, then fill up my washing tub for his robes."

"Mother!"

"Ginevra!"

Arthur coughed once, then abruptly stopped dithering, and turned on his heel. "I'll give you a hand, Blossom," he said to the girl. "We can go help Charlie afterward." He gave Severus a nervous smile, and then was gone.

"Right," Molly said, turning her fierce regard on Severus. "Let's have those robes then." She reached for Severus' arm, and he flinched away, then cursed himself for it as her eyes turned kindly. "Well, I suppose you can pass them out from the bathroom just as easily."

Severus shook his head and drew himself up straight. "I'll not put you to the trouble, Mrs. Weasley," he said, keeping his voice even and low. "Only lend me some floo powder, and I'll be out of your home-"

"Nonsense." She took his arm, held on through the twitch he still couldn't suppress, and then urged him toward the door. "I'll not have a guest leave my house in such a state. Not for all the world."

"Mum?" She paused at Ronald's weak call, half-turned in the doorway. "Mum, what's happened? Why's Snape here? Where's Harry gone?"

"Hush now dear," she soothed, and her thumb moved in unconscious circles over Severus' elbow, "Professor Snape's just going to clean up a bit, and then we'll ask him to have a look at your burns. Perhaps he'll think of something they haven't down at St. Mungo's."

Severus swallowed, seeing the woman's contrivance for what it was, and unaccountably relieved at the unexpected escape from charity. He nodded to her, and let his arm relax in her grip.

"Her- Hermione first..." was all the wounded boy managed to say.

"Miss Granger is here?" Severus murmured as Molly led him down the hall toward the sound of running water.

Molly nodded. "Ginny's room, just there at the end. We had to separate her from the others. She wouldn't stop screaming... and the curses all seemed to advance so much faster when they were all together." She opened the door to a cramped, steamy bathroom under the attic eaves.

"She'll be the focus then," Severus mused, brain already digging into the problem as he let her usher him in. "I shall want to see the Healer's reports. You have them here?"

"No, I," she choked. "I'll floo over for them at once." Her eyes were damp as she sniffed, "Thank you, Severus. For whatever you can do to help them."

He backed up, worried, lest she should try and embrace him, but she only gave him a watery smile and nodded at the pile of robes and towels on the sink. "Pass your things out to me when you're ready." Then she left him.

~*~*~*~

 

Half of the twins' bedroom had been turned into a makeshift potion's lab, and once he had managed an examination of the three invalids (impaired by his magic's incompatibility with any wand in the Burrow) it was there to which Snape retreated. Fred Weasley was a competent, if sullen, assistant, and it was not long before his glares and his silence gave way to questions.

"Why George?" he asked, stirring a copper pot full of silvery burn-salve. "If you're right about Lestrange's curse, I can see why it would have taken Ron down, but..."

Severus suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. How could the brat finish his twin's sentences, and still have missed the barely-concealed fancy for the girl? "I cannot tell you why, Mr. Weasley," he said, suppressing yet again the urge to cough against the roughness which had yet to leave his throat. "Merely that; the curse which afflicts both your brothers is linked to Miss Granger in exactly the same way."

"But he was nowhere near them when it happened! And they're nothing alike, the curses. Ron's-"

"Ronald's burns are an opportunistic advancement. The curse expressing itself through available damage, which is absent in your twin." Severus leveled a cool look at the distraught man as he finished chopping the butterslugs and swept them into the mixture. "You watched your father cast the diagnosis spells correctly, Mr. Weasley, and you saw the results. A failure to understand the resultant data does not render it false."

The youth's freckles hid beneath a flush of rage as he smacked the ladle against the cauldron's sides. "You're bloody well enjoying this, aren't you?"

"Enjoying this?" Severus' knife made a quiet, careful click as he set it aside. Nothing like a scream. Nothing like a shout. He caught Fred's angry gaze, and held it coolly until the young man cursed and glanced away. "Destroying a young witch's magic so that it will not kill two wizards who love her? I assure you, I am enjoying this every bit as much as you are, Mr. Weasley."

Fred dropped the ladle, whirled on his heel, and would have stormed away, but Severus caught his elbow in a fierce grip. "This is not about you," he hissed into the reddening ear. "Nor is it about me. It never was. This is about Bellatrix Lestrange, and her notion of a good way to hurt Harry Potter." Fred gave a tug, but Severus held fast. "Now, you may help me to correct the matter if we are not too late, but understand this before you take another breath; I have already paid for the crime of not guessing what she meant to do. I paid with my life. Literally. I will not take on more blame solely for your comfort. Do you take my meaning, Mr. Weasley?"

Fred stared straight ahead, as though his gaze might bore smoking holes in the wall. The scent of hatred and despair rolled off him in waves, but after several rigid moments, he gave a single, sharp nod. Severus released his arm and stepped away, aware, suddenly, that his heart seemed to be racing, his nerves strung tight and brittle. Ridiculous, when faced with a lone, stroppy Weasley.

Severus coughed once, and returned to the bubbling cauldron. Fred stood in the middle of the room, as though waiting for inspiration, or possibly an order. Severus was on the point of sending him downstairs -- for tea, for salt, for a break, anything to get him out of sight -- when the door swung open, and Potter appeared.

His hair was clean and damp, his ill-fitting Muggle clothing traded for a respectable robe and boots. High, cold winds had slapped brightness into his cheeks and nose, and he still wore flying gloves as he angled a large tray of scones and tea things into the room. "Molly said to bring these up to-"

"Ta, Harry," Fred said brightly, slithering around the smaller boy and out the door, "I'll have it in the kitchen." He'd rattled down the stairs before Potter even had time to reply. A dignified retreat that put Severus in some envy.

Potter turned to Severus, all eyebrow. "What'd you do to him?" he asked, sliding the tray onto the last clean corner of the worktop.

Severus closed a fist. Held it tight. "Do to him? Why merely sorted out why his twin and his younger brother cannot respond to any of the Mediwizard's spells or treatments. I daresay he shall never manage to forgive me for it, either!"

"He's just scared," Potter said as Severus took up the abandoned ladle and stirred. "He's got two broth-"

"He's also got plenty of self pity already, and needs none from me," Severus replied. He wanted Potter gone. Merlin, he wanted it. The weight of those sober, green eyes was worse than the lash of boots and fists, the silence more choking than rope. Where had he gone? What had he bloody well done to require changing to wizarding costume when Merlin knew the brat never wore it of his own volition?

Severus forced himself not to jump as Potter poured out two cups of tea. He fixed one exactly as Severus liked, with no sugar, but a lot of milk, and he slid it carefully across the table. A year's worth of furtive meetings; tea when there was no time for food, when words, ideas, and hope failed, when fighting would only wake the bond and chase them unwilling into each other's angry embrace. Tea. The refuge.

Severus ignored the cup. "Was there something you actually wanted, Potter?" he made his voice bitter to ask.

Potter's eyes flashed, the full lips pressed white. But then he choked back whatever retort he'd meant to make, took a deep breath, and swallowed hard. Severus hated that moment of restraint. "Molly told me --" Potter said in a careful voice. "The curse. You've worked out how to…"

"Don't say it."

Potter blinked. "I was going to thank you."

"I know," Severus gritted. "Don't."

"But-"

"I DID NOT DO IT FOR YOU!" The ladle went flying. Burn salve stitched a silver arc across a Quidditch team's startled faces. "I did not accept the damned bonding for your sake, I did not risk my life to find and destroy five horcruxes for your sake," Severus rounded the table, fists clenched so hard they almost didn't tremble. "I did not die for your sake, although for your petty temper's sake, I apparently live now-"

"Look," Potter growled, bracing his hands on his hips and thrusting his chin, "All I said was-"

"AND I am not about to destroy every last vestige of Hermione Granger's magic in order to make you happy either!"

And now, at last, Potter flinched. "Her magic," he said, backing up abruptly, and dropping to sit on the bed. "Do you- Does it really have to be-"

"She was born of Muggles, Potter. And she is the sort of girl who will manage well, no matter where she goes. She does not require magic to make herself useful." Severus reached toward his sleeve for his wand, then flinched, remembering the cracking sound as the boot had come down on his hand that morning. Had his fingers been all that had broken? Shaking off the thought, he wound the full sleeves of Arthur Weasley's Sunday robe around his hands, and manually lifted the cauldron from the flame.

He turned to find Potter's eyes fixed on him, narrowed, considering. Any moment, the accusations would begin. Death Eater. Muggleborn hater. Murdering bastard. Where's your bloody Dark Lord now?

"You've asked her, haven't you?" Severus blinked, as much at the question, as at the even tone of Potter's voice. "You've already asked her about it, told her it's her magic that's killing Ron and George, and she's said yes, hasn't she?"

Severus gave him a disgusted glower. "Aggravating as Miss Granger has always been, I hardly-"

"Yes, or no, Snape," Potter pressed the words out through clenched teeth. "Just yes, or no. Please."

Severus took a breath, hard and whistling through his nose. Then another. Then he pointed at the still-open door. "Leave." Potter sat there though, the corner of his mouth twitching up. Severus wanted to scruff the wretched brat and kick him downstairs for that smug expression alone. "I said LEAVE!" His voice cracked on the shout. The faint noise below stairs stilled.

Potter stood up, palms out, placating. "Look, I know you're helping out here, and I just-"

"I DO NOT CARE WHAT YOU WANT!" The windows rattled. Potter gave a yelp as Severus crossed the room in two long strides and seized his robe's lapels. "You cursed me to this life, damn you! Bought and paid for on the Wizengamot floor, and then you threw me to the-"

"I know," Potter's hands curled over his, strangely gentle on the back of his straining, shaking knuckles. "I've seen the Aurors. Read the report about today. I've filed a-"

Severus shook him, hard. It was either that, or slap him to the ground.

"I have work to do, Potter," he whispered when the brat was silent again. "I do not have time for your meddling, or your questions, or your gratitude, or your protection," Potter flinched as he spat the word, "or your pointless bloody apologies!" He released his hold with a push.

Potter didn't stagger. Instead, he stared at Severus for a long and silent moment. Red, worried Weasley heads began to appear in the doorway as the tableau's gravity pulled them in. Then at last, Potter reached into his pocket, pulled out an ebony wand that called to Severus' soul like a lover. His. His own.

Severus' breath snagged in his throat as Potter shouldered past him to lay his wand next to the knife on the table. Someone in the doorway gave an audible gasp. Someone else snorted.

"It'll probably go quicker if you use this then," Potter said with a careless shrug. "But maybe if you learned to bloody well accept gratitude for the good things you do, and not throw it back into people's faces..." Severus tore his eyes away from the wand to glare, but Potter only returned a shrug and a savage grin. "You never know -- it might help people remember you're more than just an ex-Death Eater, and then you might not have lynch mobs trying to string you up next time you go down Diagon Alley."

"Harry," Arthur protested, mild and aghast. Severus' own clothes, cleaned, mended, and knowing Molly, probably even ironed, lay forgotten in his hands.

"Perhaps," Severus cut the protest off. "However, had I simply died when mortally wounded, the whole matter would be purely academic."

"Tch. You're welcome," Potter sniped, then pushed his way back down the stairs.

The whole ginger collection followed their hero, save for Arthur, who lingered quietly in the doorway, watching as Severus took up the wand with reverent fingers. He managed to suppress a shiver as the familiar magic rushed through him, but only just.

"Supper will be in an hour, Severus," Arthur coughed after a moment. "You're welcome to-" He flushed, then let the pleasant fiction die as Severus shot him a glare. "Stay and eat with us. Please. I know you're not fond of our company, but… well… if you're right about Lestrange's curse, you'll be saving two of my boys, and Hermione as well. We'd given up hope, you see, after St. Mungo's made us take them home." He wiped at his eyes, then edged into the room, set the clothes on the bed. "Molly thinks it would be chary to send you off without a meal, at the very least. I agree with her. Will you stay?"

Severus looked at the black wool and linen, considering. He could brew Granger's potion faster at Spinner's End. He'd be free of Potter's company there. Alone in the quiet, where, now the war was over, Voldemort deceased, and his horcruxes destroyed, Potter had no more call to step foot. Himself and his potions, and his memories.

He coughed, glanced sidelong at Arthur. "It seems poor manners to bring a Death Eater to your family table…"

The man didn't even try to hide his grin. "Then I'd appreciate it if you left any you know of at home," he said, heading for the stairs. "They're not welcome. I'll tell Molly to lay you a place."

He closed the door when he left. Severus stared at the peeling paint for a long moment, but couldn't think of an adequate observation on the idiocy of Gryffindors, so he started another potion instead.

~*~*~*~
~* Godric's Hollow *~

 

Snape.

No.... no... no....

Snape, let me in.

No... no... no... leave me alone...

Shh. It's all right. You're safe now. Let me in... It's Harry. Potter. It's all right.

Go away... please...

You're fighting the healing, Snape. They don't have you anymore. The Crucio's stopped. I have to come in. You know I won't hurt you.

No... no... no... please no. Please. PLEASE!

The walls cracked. Scarlet light gleamed through the breach. He cringed away from it, turned his face to the blackness, but already he was becoming aware of a rocking motion, gentle, slow. And of touch that somehow wasn't pain. A noise, like a grunt, or a gag, over and over and over. Was that him?

He closed his eyes. The touch increased, and with it, the light. The walls of his shelter were crumbling. Outside, he could hear his heart race.

Hush. Easy... easy... Let it go now. More light. More sound. It was his own breathing, because it could no longer be his own screaming. He knew the palm that stroked him, he shivered to its touch. That's right. That's right, you stubborn tit... open up now. There we go... He couldn't hide from that voice. Couldn't shut out the slick, sure slide as Potter breached his mind in an effortless rush.

He clenched around the invasion, but the storming agony he'd hidden from shivered away with the darkness -- no more than a sour smell, retreating echoes, or a ghost's caress. Inward Potter pressed, hot, live, thick and heavy as he brushed away the shards of Severus' prison, and wrapped around his mind like a great, scarlet snake.

Easy. I've got you now, Potter said as Severus surrendered at last, releasing the memory of agony, and letting the gentle invasion carry him over into a sudden, blinding burst of pleasure. He groaned, curling into Potter's arms, accepting the firm, sure strokes that coaxed the last of the shattered Cruciatus out of him by way of his cock.

"Shh, shh, shh," Potter was murmuring, rocking them back and forth as Severus' breathing calmed, and the healing spells worked their will over his abused flesh. "It's over now. It's over."

"No..." Severus managed to croak, "It is not."

Potter's hand stilled, then slipped away from Severus' cock. There came the clatter of a wand, and the rush of magic as he conjured a damp, warm cloth. Severus coughed, because he could not laugh. Magicless cleaning, sexual release to facilitate Legilimency, no doubt Potter would even have the right potions standing by in his cabinets. An obscene mercy pillaged a year ago from the pensieve in which Severus had stored all those memories he hadn't dared risk the Dark Lord glimpsing in an unguarded moment.

"Yeah, well be grateful I did," Potter had the gall to reply as he bundled Severus carefully into a blanket and levitated it off the floor. "At least there's someone alive now who knows how to take care of you when you're under Cruciatus torture."

"Get out!" Severus groaned, still too shocky to enforce his demand, but infuriated at the damned brat's utter lack of shame.

"Not yet," Potter replied, jaw set and face grim. "Who did this to-"

"You've no right! Get out!" Severus struggled pointlessly, nearly clipping his head as they passed into a large, gracious bathroom.

"They can't keep on doing this to you!" Potter's shout echoed off the fine tiles, "They've no right! And if you won't bloody well tell me, then-"

What difference would it make? Potter always found them. Always made them pay, whoever they were. The rentboy with black hair and uncomfortable eyes, who had knifed Severus twenty seconds after sucking his cock in a shadowy Hogsmeade alleyway. The faceless Auror who'd slung a wordless Avada Kedavra at him across a busy London street. The lorry driver. Potter had even tracked down every member of the mob that had tried to lynch him that first day he dared walk back into Wizarding society. Potter found them all, and Potter made them all pay in ways he would never let Severus find out about. Only child. Spoiled brat. Couldn't stand the thought of someone else playing with his toys...

Severus leaned over, awkward and aching in his woolen sling. He beckoned weakly, and Potter leaned close.

Then Severus vomited on him.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Severus took full advantage of Potter's leaving him alone to get himself cleaned up. There would be the interrogation to follow, he knew -- what had he been doing, where had he been going, why had he let himself be caught by people who had every bloody right to want him dead, and suffering first -- and Severus meant to take as long to prepare himself for that as he could. Besides, the door was heavy, thick oak, and had a lock on, and he hadn't had a bath in a tub that was long enough for his legs since he'd left Hogwarts. Potter owed him that much, at least, he supposed.

It was not a proper wizarding bathroom, this confection of cream and gold and white -- not entirely, at least. The mirrors, though tall and wide, were mute mimics to his actions. The toilet never emptied itself properly, but required a button on top to be pushed in order to banish the contents. The bathtub had only two taps, both of which yielded nothing but water in two ridiculously disparate temperatures. Severus found heating charms on a couple of the tiles, along with bubbling, cleaning, and (sweet Merlin) vibrating charms as well, but no strigil, no scouring-charmed brushes, and all of the expected wizarding oils and unguents were missing from the massive tub's ledge -- edged out by an enormous collection of obscenely cheerful rubber ducks.

Trust Potter to neglect the proprieties.

Still, the room was strangely opulent for all its lack of wizarding amenities. The tiles were creamy marble, columns of the same material supporting the ceiling vault that didn't quite match the rest. The lamps were too ornate for the space they illuminated, casting too much light into the room. The towels were large, thick and soft, and the carpets underfoot were passable imitations of Kurdish work. The mirrors were large and framed in gold, reflecting back the window's sweeping view of the muddy plot which would, Severus supposed, one day be a garden, once the workmen building the house had done tramping through it.

The master bath of the rebuilt Godric's Hollow wasn't Potter's doing though -- not entirely. Severus had spent six years teaching the wretch, and another after that enslaved to his will, and all but wrapped up in his shallow little brain. This sort of ostentation wasn't in Potter -- what few objects he cared for were of sentimental rather than cash value. For all his vanity, the Boy Who Lived was not a particularly material man.

Oh, his ownership was plain in the use of Muggle facilities instead of proper Wizarding ones -- Potter always did seem to fear that he'd need to do without magic one day -- but there was another hand behind the extravagant expense which had gone into the place. The touch of someone else who had grown up without money, and now longed to make up for lost time. Someone with a poor child's awkward, overdone taste, proving that she could have the best of everything now, because she'd had to do without it before.

Severus wondered, as he pulled the plug and sent the water swirling away, just how much influence Miss Weasley had exerted over the reconstruction of the Potter house. He knew from the glimpses he'd had of the place when Potter's curse had brought him here before, it was bigger now -- three stories instead of two, nearly half-again the footprint it'd had when James Potter had hidden his bride and brat away inside it. No doubt she expected to need the space for her brood, given the way Weasleys reproduced.

His robes, Severus found in Potter's bedroom, neatly folded across the floral chintz duvet. Like the bathroom, this was the first time Severus had seen Potter's bedroom here -- although really, the chamber better deserved to be called a boudoir, given the number of ruffles and posies rambling all over the place. There was nothing of Potter to be seen in the room, save a couple of trainers beside the door, and a sock draping from the hamper. Amazing how such a tomboy as Ginevra Weasley could become such a princess when it came to bedroom furnishings. Severus could almost muster a shred of sympathy for Potter, having to wake up in such beribboned floral profusion every morning. Still, he had chosen his own fate, even as he'd chosen Severus', so the pity did not hold out for long.

He dressed as quickly as he could -- even facing Potter's interrogation was better than lingering in the Land of Precious a second longer than he absolutely had to.

"-'s doing it on purpose, Harry!" A woman's voice, waspish and loud, overlaid with the hissing crackle of flame. Severus paused on the stairs to listen. "You know he is! It's been five times now, Harry! Five times he's just dropped into your lap from out of nowhere, expecting you to just -"

"Gin, you saw him!" There was a pleading note in Potter's reply, "He could barely breathe this last time. How could he be-"

"In the middle of the bedroom, Harry!"

"He couldn't help it, Ginny! He was bloody well dying!" Potter's shout cut savagely through the girl's complaint. Severus blinked, then smirked to imagine what the pair had been up to when his latest close scrape had scruffed him from death's clutches to Potter's heel.

"That's what I mean," she said after a silent moment. "He's trying to get himself killed. That's why this keeps happening."

He wasn't, of course. Severus had realized the futility of suicide, active or passive, after his first brush with Potter's geas and the mob in Diagon Alley. Severus scowled. Did the stupid bint expect him to stay mewed up in Spinner's End for the rest of his days? There were some things that couldn't be bought via owl, nor delivered by portkey or floo. Some things a man had to venture out himself to procure. Trust a bloody Gryffindor to find the threats to his life inconvenient.

"Gin, stop it," Potter sighed. Severus could imagine him boosting his glasses up to pinch the bridge of his nose -- an affectation the brat had picked up from him in the year of their bonding, and now never seemed to tire of. "He's not doing that. If he was, it would have happened a lot more than five times this past three months. He can't control the spell I set on him. It's like a geas; just brings him to me whenever he's in danger of dying. And it's not his fault that people can't bloody accept that he helped to kill Voldemort. The Ministry's keeping all the other Death Eater trials under secrecy oath, so the public doesn't have any other scapegoats they can see. It's the Ministry that's to blame for it, not him."

"FINE," Weasley shouted, "Then go and make the damned Ministry FIX IT!"

"Ginny, I can't-"

"Harry Potter, I accepted this stupid plan of yours during the war. I kept my mouth shut, and I let you do what you said you had to do -- I let you sleep with him for a whole year, and I didn't say a bloody word about it, did I?"

Severus smirked. He'd often wondered how Potter had sold his idea for the bonding to the Weasleys. He'd suspected privately, that Potter hadn't told them of it at all until it was too late for them to effectively protest. But the spells Potter had known offhand that night he and his ultimatum had appeared at Spinner's End made that unlikely. Granger was the only one of the trio who'd have had the diligence to find such spells, let alone the patience to teach them to Potter. And of course, once Severus had saved the girl from Bellatrix' curse and relieved her of her magic so that she could speak again, she had confessed as much to him. So they had known. But clearly, they had not liked the idea much more than Severus had himself.

"Ginny, damn it, I told you why we had to do it! I needed Snape's help to find the horcruxes, and he never would have trusted me without the bond."

Severus blinked at Potter's choice of pronouns.

"You promised-"

"And I told you what it was bloody well like, as well!" There was an angry rustling. Severus imagined Potter pacing on the hearthstones. "Just because we were bonded didn't mean we stopped hating each other, you know. A whole year, with him needling me, insulting me, and knocking my friends and family every chance he got, screaming at me over any little thing that narked him off, even if I didn't have anything to do with it. A whole year of it, Gin; like an endless potion's class and detention all in one, and the sex didn't bloody well help! We were both relieved the moment those fucking collars came off!"

It had helped, actually, Severus mused. They had both hated the feeling of the bond whelming the justified anger under blind, shaking lust -- the loss of control, the groping, immediate need that could, and did, crush even the most important confrontation under its rutting back. The anger and the argument would lie in pieces afterward, along with what dignity they both thought they'd had. Exhausted, filthy from whatever surface on which they'd fallen, and spattered with the evidence of their transmuted hatred, it had been hard to meet the other's eye -- sometimes, it had been impossible. Severus and Potter both had made an effort not to goad, and if goaded, not to rise to it once they worked out why it kept happening.

"You told me it would be over after the war," Weasley didn't give an inch. "You told me you'd be quit of him, Harry, that we'd never have to see him again. You promised."

"And what do you want me to do, Gin? Do you want me to just stand there next time, and watch him die? Am I supposed to let him bleed out when he shows up with a knife in his chest? Or let the Cruciatus turn his brain into pudding while I sit around and drink tea?"

Yes, Severus thought, but knew better. The brat didn't know how to let people die. Not him, not Weasley, not Dumbledore, not Black, nor even his parents. Not anyone. He'd have kept Voldemort alive if there'd been a chance of anything but death stopping him. It was lives Potter hoarded, not trinkets, spells or money. Anyone who bothered to know him understood that.

"That's not what I'm saying-"

"Then what are you saying, Gin? Because it sounds to me like you think it's okay for Snape to be murdered just because he's an inconvenience to you!"

"I'm saying that maybe you shouldn't have saved him at all if this is what you have to look forward to!" Severus could imagine her face, scarlet and speckled. Unbecoming as the Weasleys were when they shouted, one would think they'd do it less.

"Maybe I shouldn't have," Potter admitted in a low voice. Severus blinked, surprised to hear him admit it. "But I did. I saved his life, and now that makes me responsible for it. That's the way this seems to work, no matter what anybody wants. He doesn't like it any more than you do, but it brings him to me every time he's in danger, and I do what I have to do to keep him alive, but that's all. There's no sex, and there's no bond to force us to do it. There's no pensieve where our thoughts can get tangled up together, there's no Legilimency."

Snape's cock gave a twitch at Potter's assertion, as though to remind him of the callused hand which had been there so recently. Was Potter counting that as mercy then?

"Then what is there, Harry?" Weasley fired back.

It was a fair question. Potter had no answer, and the silence deepened until, with a gulping sound, the floo connection cut off. Potter swore savagely under his breath.

"So. I'm an inconvenience to you then?" Severus descended the last four steps and turned the corner into the lounge.

Potter, kneeling once more on the hearthstones, didn't bother to look startled, though he did look chagrined. "Listening at doorways, Snape?"

"Spies do," he replied. "It's a habit." There was a tea set on the fireside table, the pot steaming away under a warming spell. Two cups. No sugar. Severus' wand lay beside the right hand cup -- of course. Potter always seemed to know just where to find the thing, no matter where it had fallen when the spell took him. Severus didn't touch it. "So how long do you intend to keep on patching up your pet before you consign him to a locked kennel and tell yourself it's for his own good?"

Potter's face darkened and he stood, brushing at his knees in short, sharp strokes. "That depends. When are you going to start looking out for yourself properly? And don't bother to say it -- I know you're not being suicidal, but you are being careless. You know more shielding spells, more spying and warding spells than anybody left alive. You're not using them. Or at least you're not using them enough."

"Ahh, yes. And so your revenge is a lifetime of unyielding paranoia then?" Severus stalked across the room, feeling his stomach twist with rage. "You want me frightened, hunted, looking over my shoulder wherever I go. Well, I have had that life, Potter, and it's not worth preserving!"

"No, it's not what I want!" Potter growled, all thrusting chin and blazing eye, "I didn't save your life as a fucking punishment!" Severus merely stared until Potter coloured and looked away. "All right, I did right at that moment, but I was wrong. I was off my nut, and I wasn't thinking-"

"Imagine…"

"SHUT UP!" Potter slashed a hand. Every loose thing in the room rattled. Severus did not step back, watching the boy hero's throat work over a careful, quelling swallow. "I did the right thing. Saving you," he continued after a long breath. "I just did it for the wrong reason. You didn't deserve death for what you did. Dumbledore's death -- that was mercy. What Bellatrix did to Hermione and Ron, you weren't to blame for that."

"And carrying what I'd heard of the prophecy to the Dark Lord?" Severus prodded. "Painting a target over your head, and a coda over your parents' earthly days?"

Potter's eyes narrowed, blazed hatred for an instant. Then he shook his head. "I lost count of how many times you were put under Cruciatus last year, Snape. And I know they used other spells on you, and that's not even counting what Dumbledore and the rest of the Order must have put you through to prove yourself to them. I figure all that was punishment enough for your part in what happened."

Severus' stomach clenched again, and he looked away. "And am I meant to thank you for the exoneration, Potter?"

"No," Potter gritted through his teeth. "I guess I can't expect that. But you might just take a little bit more care, you know? You can't enjoy me patching you up like this, time after time, any more than-"

"So noted!" Severus knocked the cup aside and snatched his wand. "I shall endeavor not to trouble you again!" And he disapparated from that spot, hoping Potter had the sense to be offended at his rudeness. It was a petty salve to his dignity, but beggars could not be choosers.

~*~*~*~

 

Somehow, in the weeks that followed, Rita Skeeter managed to write an exclusive on every one of the Ministry's supposedly secret Death Eater trials -- her coverage included juicy bits of testimony as well as sketches of key evidence. Prophet sales went through the roof, as did the Minister of Magic's blood pressure.

When Miss Skeeter was interrogated over the stories, she refused to disclose her sources. When accused of invading the closed proceedings, she replied that she had an alibi for every one of the trial dates; she had been meeting with one Harry Potter, who had engaged her to write his biography.

This was substantiated when said Harry Potter appeared, solicitor in tow just as Veritaserum was coming under consideration. He posted Miss Skeeter's bond, and the message was clear. Miss Skeeter was let off with a warning, but somehow the stories continued, each one a lurid, fascinating carbuncle of journalism in the public's greedy eye.

The Minister finally surrendered to the inevitable, and opened the remaining trials to the press and public.

Severus, who had stopped taking the Prophet or any other periodicals after the first six exploded on his doorstep, noticed only that wizards on the street seemed as often absorbed in their newspapers as inclined to glower at him.

Justifiably, he blamed Potter.

~*~*~*~
~* Spinner's End *~

 

The shelf fell over when he collapsed. Jars burst all around him, scattering carefully-hoarded ingredients far and wide across his workroom floor. Severus wheezed, dragged precious air into his lungs as he lay, face pressed to the stones. He could feel the crackle of Potter's scarlet leash tugging at him, and enraged, he pushed back against it with all his might.

He wasn't dying. He wasn't. He didn't need Potter's bloody help this time, he just needed to find his damned bezoar! He'd be fine. He'd be fine.

Apparation cracked like thunder through the tiny room, rattling the jars on the still-standing shelves. Red light glittered across the glass-strewn floor as footsteps crunched. "What in the -- SNAPE?!" Potter yelped. Severus winced. His wards had not twitched, had not even tried to repel him. Damn it.

"Fine..." he managed to wheeze.

"Bloody hell, what's happened?" Potter's natty trainers slapped through the mess, and he dropped to his knees, hardly noticing as a wedge of glass slashed through his denim trousers and opened his knee. Idiot. Who knew what had been clinging to that glass? He ought to be casting a healing spell on it, stopping the rush of blood, not rolling Severus into his lap and prising at his damned mouth!

"Christ, your lips are blue," Potter gulped, pressing Severus' tongue down and peering into his throat. His fingers tasted of wax and bitter lemon -- broom polish. "That's cyanide, isn't it?"

It doesn't matter! Severus thought savagely, Just find my damned bezoar, you imbecile!

"You're breathing... no convulsions, but you're not getting air." Potter grabbed Severus' hands, examined his nails. Severus would have given much for the ability to poke the fool in the eye. Potter glanced at him, eyes wide and worried as he rooted deeply in his trouser pocket. "How long ago?"

Bezoar, Potter! Stop arsing about! Severus grimaced as the knuckles bunched and nudged beneath his scalp, and floating black spots chewed away at his vision. Merlin's balls, boy I told you about them on your first damned day in my classroom! Can you remember nothing?

"There it is! Swallow this, Snape," Potter said, and opened Severus' lips again to drop something inside.

If you've fed me a lemon drop... But the foul taste and hairy texture of the lump belied that fear. Potter cast a quiet Ingestio, and Severus felt his throat flex.

At last! Severus thought as the darkness whelmed him, and he surrendered to its power. No point in fighting now. It was only a matter of time.

~*~*~*~

 

When Severus woke properly again, it was to the sound of Harry Potter rampaging about his workroom, snarling cleaning spells and Reparos. Severus turned his head to watch from his vantage on the workbench, and frowned as Potter spelled the cabinet upright again. The glass jars were hazed, still showing cracks in places -- he'd be recasting the repair spells before he tried lifting a single one of them. And who knew what state the contents would be in?

He huffed a sigh, but lay still and let the brat work. He was sore, aching and cold. His ribs felt as though Hagrid had knelt on him, and his stomach was a leaden mass. He just didn't feel like moving, let alone trying to correct Potter's half-arsed mending spells just then. He'd rather just lie there on the table, breathe, and count the spider webs festooning the empty bundling-hooks in his ceiling joists.

The spell had brought Potter to him this time. He wondered about that. Had his resistance been to blame, or was it that his environment was not immediately hazardous when the geas activated? Or was the geas itself weakening? The first time it had healed his injuries, but since then, it had not done, and was it his imagination, or was it waiting longer and longer to activate now? Might Potter's curse be failing now that the hatred which fuelled it was giving way to pity?

What a disgusting thought.

"Where's the rest of it." Potter's face blocked Severus' view of the ceiling. It was scowling, smudged with dust and something grayish green along one cheek, and flushed with exertion and anger.

"The rest of what?" Severus winced as the sound scraped out through his aching throat.

"Your potions supplies," Potter snapped, waving an arm behind him. "Half these shelves are empty. You don't even have bundimun eyes, or lacewings. And your aconite jar's only got dust in. This can't be the lot!"

Severus rolled his eyes, and then covered them with the crook of his elbow. "Potions ingredients can be expensive, Potter," he whispered.

"So you've just run out of everything?" His voice rose, incredulous. "Half of what you're missing are things you could gather yourself, anywhere in England!"

"Don't be naive," Severus gave up on the idea of rest, and struggled upright with a groan. "There would be far more empty jars on those shelves, had I just run out of supplies and neglected to replace them. I told you; potions ingredients can be expensive. Some people will pay quite dearly for some ingredients, especially when there is not a trail of receipts to link them to the purchase."

The green eyes narrowed in suspicion, but before the accusation could fly, Potter turned around, and considered the boarded-up window of the basement workroom as though seeing it for the first time. Wood was more resilient than glass, could be repaired far more often before it simply fell apart into fibers. Also, less expensive.

"People steal from you," he said, and his fingers tightened on his wand. "They break in here and they take your things, don't they? And your books, upstairs? Your personal things? Do they take them as well?"

"Not anymore." Severus pulled himself off the table, staggered for a moment, then righted himself carefully. He couldn't help the satisfied smirk that creased his face at the memory. A hoodlum had chosen one of the cursed books a few months ago, and had been forced to come crawling back to Spinner's End, to beg Severus to lift the curse and remove the boils. Knowing that St. Mungo's would have called in Aurors due to the nature of the curse, Severus had complied, but not before he'd made the wretch crawl for it. Most of his books had been returned after word got around.

Most of them.

Potter steadied his shoulder, looking thunderous at Severus' continued silence. "Look, I'm not going to ask if you poisoned yourself," he said as Severus shook him off and headed for the stairs.

"Not entirely an idiot after all?"

"But I want to know who did," Potter pretended not to have heard. "I checked your food. It was all clean. Your water and your pipes and all your dishes as well."

"Wretch!" Severus threw open the cellar door with a bang. "Who asked you to paw through my belongings?" The cupboards all stood open, and many drawers as well, damn the brat!

Potter ignored him. "Why are they still getting in here, Snape? Back in Hogwarts, you would have crucified anyone you thought was stealing so much as a scrap of boomslang skin from you! Why are you just letting people waltz off with your stuff now?"

"Think, Potter, if it's not too much of a strain!" Severus rounded on the brat, "Think how delighted the Aurors would be to learn that I've injured someone now. Try and imagine what joy they would take in coming here, breaking down my wards and my door, and hauling me off to the gaol I have deserved all along!"

"You don't-"

"I AM A MURDERER, POTTER!" He slammed a cupboard and spun on his heel, stalking across the ransacked kitchen. Startled and angry, the brat backed, step by step until he fetched up against the wall. "A murderer and a Death Eater, and every witch and wizard in England knows it! They write it in paint on my walls and walks. They cut it in the bark of my trees. They scream it when they fling stones through my windows. They shout it when they dump their rubbish in my garden, and trample my herbs past any use. They spit it when they pass me in the street, and when they refuse to take my coin for their goods!" He was looming over Potter now, shaking and queasy with fury. "This is the life you have condemned me to, damn you! You and the Dark Lord and Dumbledore alike!"

Potter's hand flashed out, cracked across Severus' cheek.

He staggered. Caught himself on the door into the library. The silence was denser than darkness as Severus fingered the ache, looked at the smear of red on his hand, and sighed. "Yes. It's like that."

"Voldemort wasn't like Dumbledore," Potter said through his teeth, hot-eyed and ragged of breath. "Not at all!"

It only hurts because it's true. Severus thought with disgust. Aloud though, he only said, "No. Of course he wasn't."

"He WASN'T! And I'm not either!"

Severus looked at the floor. "No, my Lord."

Potter made a noise, small and wet, and low in his throat. He shifted his feet, restless. Severus waited, trying not to wonder whether he would attack, or flee. Strangely, he found he did not much care which. He was tired. He ached still from the poison's caress. He wanted to make himself a cup of tea, drink it, and then go to bed. He could decide about waking up again later; next week, perhaps.

At last, though Potter seemed to decide. He drew himself up straight, and took his wand in hand. "We haven't found the source of the poison yet," he said in what Severus had come to know as his 'I am choking down the urge to strangle you' voice. "I'm going to go and look for it, so this doesn't happen again. If there's anything you don't want me to see, you'd better go and put it someplace safe."

Severus smirked. "Such as in my pensieve?" He shook his head, and pushed open the door to the library. "No, Mr. Potter, I have no secrets to keep from you now. My privacy is yours to molest. Shall we begin?"

Potter only stalked up to him, caught his chin, and held it still. "Listen to me," he said, touching the tip of his wand to the cut on Severus' cheek to wet it with his still-tainted blood, "It isn't a punishment. It isn't revenge. It's your life. Don't you want it to be more than this?" His eyes were very green just then, in the lowering light of the evening, very green, and bright with something quite out of place in that hard expression.

Severus looked out the window and sighed. "It has been a long time since I have expected any similarity between what I wish, and life as it is, Potter."

Potter released his jaw. From the corner of his eye, Severus could see the wretch smile. "What about life as it should be?"

"Quixotic fantasy," Severus replied, bringing his wand to hand. "Now are you going to cast the damned tracer spell, or not?"

Potter's grin deepened, but mercifully, he spared Severus his reply, slashing a ribbon of violet light through the air instead. It reared, snakelike before Severus for a moment, then it turned and began sniffing its way through the house. Wordless, they followed, Potter maintaining the spell while Severus opened doors, lit candles, and levitated anything the spell indicated down to a pile on the library floor.

By the time the ribbon of light was satisfied, the pile contained eighteen books, all of which had been dusted liberally with powdered cyanide, (including one which Severus had been reading when the poison struck.) Also, a letter pulled from the rubbish bin beside the front door, a packet of morning glory seeds, a trunk full of bed linens, Severus' bathrobe, and every towel and flannel in Spinner's End, including the one he had used that afternoon.

Potter eyed the stack with a grim determination; feet planted wide, hands braced on his hips. "You send your laundry out, don't you?"

Severus nodded, and let himself collapse into his worn fireside chair. "I can hardly hang linens in my own garden, Potter. I've better things to do than to wash excrement out of my sheets and towels every day." Such as washing cyanide powder out of them instead. Merlin, what a chore that would be! Severus summoned a bottle of rum from the sideboard, and a mug from the kitchen.

Potter shook his head when Severus proffered the drink, and asked, "Who does it?"

"Does it matter?" The brat's face darkened, and Severus held up a hand. "Edelweiss Stryker. Widow, mother of two grown sons, both Slytherin. Lets their rooms above her laundry in Knockturn Alley. She'll have been paid, or else put under Imperius."

"Right," Potter nodded, waving his wand to vanish the lot, "I'll just go and find out which." Then he turned on his heel, and stalked out the front door.

Severus struggled out of his chair, and followed clattering down the front steps just as Potter was raising his wand to disapparate. "I'll be wanting those back, Potter," he shouted. "Especially the books!"

The brat looked back at him, face spread in a cheeky, and oddly triumphant grin. "Of course, Professor," he replied in a clear, carrying tone, "I'll have the linens and books cleaned, and bring them back myself. Have a good night now!" And with a crack, he was gone, leaving Severus alone under the open-mouthed stares of his neighbors.

He glowered at each in turn, clutching his mug of comfort to his chest, then stalked back inside and slammed his door.

~*~*~*~

 

There was a house elf at Spinner's End in the morning. Testy, she called herself, and flatly refused the sock Snape offered her as soon as she appeared before him. She was a free elf, she said, and she took Harry Potter's coin, not Master Snape's.

Severus cursed her soundly, but she was unfazed, and made him a batch of truly excellent blueberry scones for breakfast by way of reply, without punishing herself in the slightest.

Severus ate them all, and drank the fresh, strong tea she brewed for him, as well. He did not bother to ask Testy where she had come by the ingredients for his meal -- he knew the contents of his pantry to the last ounce of flour and salt, and as of last night, he'd neither blueberries, nor fresh, sweet butter, nor cream for the tea.

For luncheon, Testy brought him a roast beef sandwich with savage mustard on thick brown bread. Bleu cheese, nuts, and apples accompanied it on the plate. For supper, there was stew and almond pastries.

Potter's floo remained closed for the entire day.

At last, Severus firecalled Gringotts, and was informed that a household vault had been opened for the property of Spinner's End, with one Severus Snape, (Wizard,) and one Testy, (Elf,) as key holders. Balance to renew monthly, by automatic transfer from the vault of one-

Severus cut the floo, and glared at the dancing flames for a long time before he called to the elf, and told her to go and find him a bottle of decent brandy. He couldn't decide whether it amused or infuriated him that she had a Beauchant '76 in the pantry already.

He spent the following morning in bed.

In the afternoon which followed, he made three potions; one dose of the magic-suppressant which Hermione Granger was to take every month for the rest of her life, or until a researcher with better resources than he had could work out how to break Bellatrix Lestrange's death-curse. One dose of the burn salve which Ron Weasley relied upon during his long convalescence. But first, he made a rather potent hangover remedy.

~*~*~*~
~* The Burrow *~

 

"Godric's Hollow?" Arthur Weasley shook his head when Severus asked him about it. "You'll need a portkey if you mean to go there, I'm afraid. We all do, even our Ginny, and she goes to visit Harry nearly every day. Simply cannot apparate to the place, no matter how she tries, and nobody else but Harry can either. Nor can they find it walking down from the village. Something about the old house site, we've guessed. Unplottable, unreadable -- Harry can hardly keep a floo connection up for longer than a week at a time, and nobody knows why."

"Surely you are not implying that the Potter's Fidelis is still active?" Severus scowled, pocketing the small bag of coins Weasley handed him. He didn't count them, knowing there would be too many, and not wanting to be distracted by their old argument about charity yet again. "After all this time, and the death of both secret-keepers, it could hardly-"

"Oh, it's a curiousity, and no mistake." Molly Weasley bustled in, setting a small hamper on the table beside Severus. The faint smell of meat pies arose from within, as usual. The woman couldn't resist the mothering urge, it seemed, and the emancipation of her own children merely made her desperate. "Our Harry's had simply everyone by to try and sort out why, but still it keeps on happening. You know, he even had to give all the builders portkeys just so they could find the site from day to day? Slowed things down, you can well believe me. Thank heaven they're all but finished with the place now, though." The gleam in her eye left no doubts as to precisely why the Weasley Matriarch was pleased -- Severus didn't need legilimency to see wedding plans blossoming behind that glitter.

Severus choked down a sneer and turned to Arthur. "And what has Potter done about this situation then?"

"Well, Harry does like his privacy..." the man replied, picking idly at a fraying cuff.

"And he has been very busy, you know Severus," Molly put in. "I'm sure he'll see to it before too much longer."

Before it's you who has to use the portkey in order to meddle in your son-in-law's life, that is. Severus thought, keeping his most neutral scowl in place as he nodded.

"If you like, we could send Pigwidgeon to Harry," Arthur said. "We could ask him to send a port-"

"No need," Severus shrunk and pocketed the hamper. "I can owl him as easily myself. Now remember;" he tapped the jar of burn salve with a broken fingernail, "No one is to apply this to Ronald except for George or Miss Granger." Arthur nodded, though Molly looked positively mutinous at his denying her the caretaker's right. Severus had neither mercy, nor pity for her. "Until the burns are completely gone, there is a chance the curse could be communicable, and I'll not be blamed for it if your whole brood drops over from familial adoration, woman. Do you understand that, at least?"

"You needn't take that tone with me, Severus Snape," she replied, huffing off back to her kitchen. "I daresay I know how to keep my own safe!"

Do you? Severus thought, fingering the line of his throat where, for a year, a bonding collar had laid, cold and insistent against his skin. I wonder...

Outside then, but rather than apparating from the Weasleys garden, Severus chose to walk out. Across the field he went, past the muddy quarry where the stones seemed still to ring with the memory of generations of ginger-haired children; over the stile to the road that wandered down toward the Muggle village over the hill; and there at last, in the hawthorn hedge's shadow, he stopped.

He rolled up his sleeve, exposed his twice-marked arm to the weak autumn sunlight. The branching scrawl of Potter's mark overlaid the shadow of the old Morsmordre, sundered the previous mark of ownership in a jagged lightning brand. There were places where the scar was still swollen, and Severus supposed it would be years before it faded from red to white... assuming it ever did so.

You are mine to protect, the words of his bonding oath arose in his mind as he traced the scar with his finger. Mine to shelter. Mine to shield. I vouchsafe my silence, that you may secure yourself in me.

"You are an utter fool," he addressed the mark with a scowl. "A completely useless tit, and you deserve every scrap of misery this asinine plan of yours heaps onto your head."

The mark made no reply, but since his arm was growing chilled, Severus decided not to wait for one. "Very well then," he said, drawing his wand and setting the tip against the lightning-scar, "Take me to him -- his garden, if you please. No need to distress the Weasley chit any farther then needs be."

Strangely enough, his disapparation did not sound so much like a crack to him, as a sizzle.

~*~*~*~
~* Godric's Hollow *~

 

"GYAH!"

Severus had been at work in Potter's garden for a solid two hours before he heard the brat's startled yelp. The next sound was a muffled squeak, a thud, and a watery slosh, so Severus didn't bother to look upward at the bathroom window. Potter could bloody well work out for himself what Severus was doing there, he decided, and went back to banishing nettles from along the wall.

Potter was striding out of the house's back door five minutes later, hair wet and heavy, steaming the last heat from his bath into the chill twilight. "Snape," he said, drawing alongside. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Your garden," Severus answered. "You have gnomes."

Potter blinked. His glasses were fogging, giving him an even more gormless appearance than usual. "Gnomes..."

"Just there." Severus pointed at three small holes under the roots of a tall elm. "They'll have to be got out now. If you let them winter, they'll never go."

"Oh..."

"Quite. Also, your wintering charms have not been set yet. You may plan to start from bare earth in the spring, but those roses there," he pointed to a pair of leggy, nearly leafless bushes alongside the gate, "will die if you let the frost get to them. You're lucky they've lived this long to begin with."

"Snape," Potter pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, I'm grateful for the advice, but truly you don't have to do-"

Severus caught him by the shirtfronts, and hauled the brat to his toes. "I. Am. Not. Your. PET." He said, in very careful tones that barely fit through the clench of his teeth.

Those wide, startled eyes flinched, then cut to the side. "If it's about the money, I can assure you-" he staggered as Severus released him with a shake and a sneer.

"No, Mr. Potter," Severus hissed. "It's about my life, and it's about your garden, and it's about your bloody," he poked the brat back a step with a finger to the chest. "buggering," another poke, another step. "gnomes!" the final poke set Potter on his arse atop the low stone wall that bordered the garden. Somehow he managed to look infuriated, humiliated, and chastened all at once, damn him. Severus turned away with a grimace. "Now; do you prefer poison, or traps?"

"Snape..." A warning.

He ignored it. There was no bonding collar to stop him now. "Or, given your lingual abilities, you might consider buying a runespoor or some other venomous snake to set on them. Only that will need care after it's done its job as well, so perhaps you oughtn't to. The poor dumb animal wouldn't survive the winter any better than your roses."

"Damn it-" Potter surged to his feet.

"Harry?" A voice floated down through the blue gloom; feminine, bewildered. "Harry, are you out here?" Ginevra Weasley leaned out of the open bathroom window, the light glowing through her gauzy, wildly impractical nightdress, limning her curves with amber. "You said you were going to draw us a bath..."

"He's down here," Severus called to her, and was rewarded with a backward scramble and a mortified shriek that was the equal of any he'd witnessed in his Hogwarts days. This one came with a splash at the end.

"WHAT," the girl's bellow betrayed both ancestry and breeding, "IS HE DOING HERE!"

Potter shot Severus a glare as he shouted back. "THE BLOODY GARDEN!"

And then he stalked inside, and Severus went about his work until the night grew too dark to properly see. Then he went home to an excellent dinner, and the rest of his brandy.

But he went back to Godric's Hollow the next Friday evening, and that time, he took gnome traps with him.

~*~*~*~
~* Spinner's End *~

 

"Severus?" The athanor spat green flames through its vents and a perplexed voice echoed hollowly within. "Severus -- this is your floo, isn't it? Have I got the right--" a thud, and a grunt. Severus poured off the last of his ladle into the phial, taking care to spill not a drop as Arthur Weasley continued to try and shove his head and shoulders through the squat furnace.

"Ouf! Severus, please! If you're there, it's important, and I-" The metal lid gave a rattling clang, nearly dislodging the empty crucible atop it. "Ouch... What the devil is wrong with this thing?"

Smirking, Severus put the stopper in his phial, and then used the fire hook to unlatch the athanor's door. "Nothing," he said, squatting to put his face at the level of the flame grate. "What is it, Weasley?"

Arthur's viridian face blinked owlishly at him for a moment, before looking around at the fire-blasted cylinder. "I say... what sort of a floo is this meant to be?"

"An illegal one," Severus replied to the back of Arthur's scalp as the man turned to gawk. "It's called an athanor, I use it to distill certain types of potions, and it is a safer floo connection than a fireplace through which an adult human's body can fit."

"Cunning," Arthur beamed. "Say, where does that-"

"Chimney," Severus replied, pinching the bridge of his nose. "And that pipe connects to the crucible for distilling gasses into solids, and the void beneath the burn plate is for ash rarification, and alternately for a secondary fire source when required, and did you have an actual reason for firecalling me, Weasley?"

Arthur came about with an embarrassed cough. "Yes. Well. I take it you've seen the Prophet today then? Or do you take the Quibbler, because it's there as well, though thank Merlin young Miss Lovegood's the one who wrote it up instead of that co-"

"NO," Severus cut him off, using the fire hook to snag a footstool and drag it near. Clearly this was not going to be a brief call, and already his knees were protesting the crouch. "I do not read fiction these days, and I certainly do not have it delivered to my home."

"You don't?" Arthur blinked. Then, at Severus' glower, he scrambled back out of sight. "No, I suppose you... hang on... got it right here..." A second later, an arm snaked up through the green flames, waving a spindle of newspaper under Severus' nose.

He snatched it away before it could whack him in the face, then sat back to unroll the paper. The photograph told all of the story Severus could have needed: Ginevra Weasley, red and screaming up into Potter's rage-pale face, her finger jabbing him like a dagger in the breast, over and over and over. Potter unmoving, back rigid, his robes expensively tailored, but plain and dark, whereas Miss Weasley's robes made her look rather like a sequined meringue with flowers on top. Caught in frame behind the couple was the main lobby of the Ministry offices . Molly Weasley wept into her handkerchief while onlookers gawked. Arthur and Charlie Weasley were attempting to draw Ginevra away, while Miss Granger tried in vain to impose herself between the two 'lovers'. Remus Lupin 's scarred hand hovered over Potter's rigid shoulder, but never quite touched down.

Severus took a moment to scan the text before deciding he would learn nothing new. He set the paper aside and found Arthur Weasley watching him again, his green-lit face set in that mild, absent mindedly expectant expression which never failed to put Severus on his guard. He could never trust a man who tried that hard to be underestimated.

"That was not my fault," Severus said at once. Guilt he could bear, but he'd enough of false blame for one lifetime.

Weasley blinked. "What? Oh no, of course it wasn't. That is, Harry -- he made it clear from the start that the whole thing was his, er, doing. And you could hardly have, well. After You Know Who died, and. Well. Not your fault at all." He coughed and shook his head emphatically, or as though trying to convince himself. "Of course Molly is heartbroken. But after all you've done for our boys and Hermione, well, we'd hardly... Nobody could have guessed the betrothal charms would refuse to take when they tried to sign the documents, I'm sure," Weasley's blush looked strange in floo-green, Severus decided, almost as though the man was queasy instead of embarrassed. "It's just, our Ginny... well... she has a temper, you see, and she sometimes says things she doesn't mean when she's angry."

"Imagine..."

"Well Severus, it's not as though you haven't ever let your temper get the-"

"As the possessor of such a temper, I am qualified to pass comment, Weasley," Severus cut him off, waving at the abandoned newspaper. "However, if you are not blaming me for this debacle, just why, exactly, are you in my damned floo to begin with?"

"Oh, didn't I say?" Weasley blinked owlishly. "Dear me, I thought I had done. Sorry, it's been a bit mad around here this morning. It's Harry."

"He is not here," Severus replied, rubbing the ache in his left arm absently.

"What? Well no, of course he isn't. It's just that he's gone off somewhere. Home, we suspect. Godric's Hollow. There's been... well... things arriving from there all morning, you see -- furniture, and clothes, and dishes, and. Well. Things. Just popping in, as though they could apparate on their own. Merlin knows how he's doing it, but... well. Harry's disenchanted all of the portkeys he'd left us, and we can't get his floo to work at all, so none of us can tell him it's not as bad as all that." Weasley sighed, looked over his shoulder, and dropped his voice to a whisper. "I'm worried about him, Severus. He took it hard, this morning at the Ministry, and now... well... we just need to know that he's all right. That he hasn't... isn't going to..." Weasley trailed off into a horrified silence as Severus unbuttoned his cuff and rolled up his sleeve.

"He hasn't," he said, turning the red lightning scar to the light. He refused to speculate on what Potter might do though, no matter how earnestly Weasley stared at him.

"Er," the man gave up after a long moment. "That is. Do you think you might look in on him, Severus?" Weasley wore the same patient, long suffering demeanor Severus had seen him put on in the face of his wife's shrillest opinions. Severus found both the expression and the comparison profoundly aggravating. "Please. Only, you see Ginny... mentioned that you didn't seem to have the same trouble finding Godric's Hollow as the rest of us -- you turning up at all hours to tend the gardens and whatnot. And Ron and Hermione are simply mad to talk to Harry, but of course they can't get to him. If you could maybe just pop 'round and have a look...perhaps let him know we're... well, we're not angry with him. Not really. Ginny will come 'round, I feel sure, and Harry shouldn't think we... don't love him."

So you won't say to my face that you think me responsible, and yet you expect me to resolve the matter and make your peace for you? The idea brought a sneer, and Severus did not even try to resist it. Exposed to the air, the itch/ache in his marked arm was growing. He knew it for the summons it was, of course, and even if Potter wasn't tugging on his leash intentionally, Severus' experience with such marks told him the sensation would only grow more maddeningly intense the longer he waited.

Still, a man had his pride, tattered though it was.

"I suppose I might take him a letter," Severus allowed grudgingly, buttoning down his cuff. "I had meant to take over the last of the annual herbs from my garden, and install them in the greenhouse at Godric's Hollow once I have finished filling out Slughorn's potion orders for the week."

"Oh...how long d'you suppose...?"

"He's ordered extra Pepper-up and Boneset -- apparently heavy sellers for the holiday merrymaking," he pretended to muse. "Two hours, at the least. I daresay you shall have until nightfall to compose your missive. Perhaps Miss Granger can be of help to you -- she does love to be useful."

"Severus!" Weasley's cry drew Severus up short before he slashed the floo connection. "Severus, we do love Harry. He's been like a son to us for years, and we want him to be happy."

Happy? By his definition, or yours? But aloud, Severus only said, "If wishes were thestrals, Weasley, then beggars would fly."

Then he cut the connection, and went back to his cauldron.

~*~*~*~
~* Godric's Hollow *~

 

It was not difficult to deduce that Potter was in the lounge -- even from the greenhouse, which had become Severus' habitual apparation locus over the winter months, he could see that every other window was dark, every other chimney dead and cold. Only the lounge's mullioned windows glinted with sullen, orange light, as cast from a fireplace grate with no recourse to candle, lamp, or Lumos.

The kitchen door opened to his Alohomora with an accommodating snick, but locked itself again as soon as Severus let go the handle. The cupboards stood open, empty but for the occasional plate or chipped mug, the drawers likewise bereft. Severus imagined a towering pile of china, crystal, and silver in the Burrow's back garden, and he had to smirk. In Potter's kitchen, it seemed that only the food remained.

The other rooms Severus passed in his brief tour of the ground floor were likewise gutted. Conspicuous gaps and dust voids alone showed where once had stood sofas, chairs, cabinets and tables. Pity, though, that Potter hadn't thought to get rid of all the fussy curtains as well.

The lounge, however, remained mostly intact, so far as Severus could recall from the few times he'd seen it. The solid, simple tables and un-fussy chairs remained in place, the photos still on the walls, the books still on the shelves, and no doubt still dusty with neglect. Potter's sanctuary, Severus supposed as he approached soundlessly through the long hallway, the one, cupboard-sized room out of the whole reconstructive fantasy which had truly been his. Little wonder it should be where the brat would go to lick his wounds.

"What do you want, Potter," Severus barked as he strode through the door, hoping to startle the man out of his glowering slouch.

Potter did not move. Elbows planted on the arms of his chair, whiskey glass cradled against his lips, eyes fixed on the lowering flame in the hearth. "Nothing," he said at length. The word sounded hollow and tinny against the glass's rim.

"Then why," he sneered at the ranks of empty and half-empty liquor bottles along the hearthstones at Potter's feet, "- has this damned mark you put upon me been itching all bloody day?"

Potter's only answer was a one-shouldered shrug. The firelight made his glasses opaque with flickering reflections as Severus rounded the chair to face him. "Potter, far be it from me to interfere with your championship sulk," he growled, "but if you will drag me here to watch you sitting in the dark, you might have the basic courtesy of tendering an explanation for it!"

"What's to explain?" he asked, shifting the glass to one hand and taking a drink. "I'm sitting here." The hand flashed white and quick through the gloom, and the glass exploded against the fireback in a brief roar of blue flame. "In the dark." The blaze lasted long enough for Severus to see that the grate was littered with hundreds of gleaming razored shards. Perhaps the crystal hadn't all gone to the Burrow after all.

Severus caught the twitch of Potter's wand against his leg, and so had just enough warning to snatch the pair of glasses that came flying through the lounge door. From the dining room, he remembered, where the only piece of furniture had been a bar cabinet. The glasses were Waterford, and still had the stickers on the bottom.

Potter looked up at Severus, perplexed. His quick, Seeker's hand raised and empty. Severus smirked at him and set one of the ridiculously expensive glasses into it. "Alone?"

Potter lurched forward in his chair, snagged a bottle at random from the line at his feet, and sloshed alcohol in. "Am I ever?" He thrust the bottle at Severus, and went back to staring at the fire.

Severus considered the proffered bottle for a long moment, thinking of a score of nights during the final year of the war when he would have given his left arm for a chance at bottled oblivion, for the surcease of a drunken stupor, and the soft, careful hibernation of a well-earned hangover the following morning.

Instead he had made do with a much-bitten tongue, and obsessive revisiting of every possible flaw in every upcoming plan. A tense fuck on a hard bed, and a thin sleep which usually evaporated in the cold blue dawn -- face to face with the lax, exhausted visage of a boy hero who had married him so that he wouldn't have to kill him.

"Everyone's alone, Potter," Severus took the bottle, filled his glass, and sat. He kicked his legs out straight, toed off his boots with rough deliberation, and leaned deeply into the chair's comfortable embrace. "Everyone."

~*~*~*~

 

"You hated her," Potter grunted, yanking at his trapped hand until the button tore from his wrist cuff, and the shirt dropped away. "Always hated her... bastard. Know you did."

"That would make you feel better, wouldn't it, Potter?" Severus raised his lips from Potter's plumped, reddened nipple, but only enough to growl. He bit the nipple again, worrying it with his teeth as the drunken sot whined and arched into him, nearly tumbling them both down the stairs. "Blame me for it, and pretend you didn't know all along just what it was that turned your trophy bride on."

"Fuck you, oh... fuck you, stop it!" Potter wound both hands into Severus' hair to press his face closer. His hips thrust as Severus rolled the heel of his hand over Potter's bulging fly, "Greasy...bastard. She waited for me, ever since... place. Chamber. She loved me, and..." he sobbed a breath as Severus got his fly buttons open, and took his weeping prick in hand. "She loved me, I know she did."

"She loved power, Potter," Severus hissed, using Potter's gaping belt to haul the skinny bastard up two more steps to the landing. "Yours, Tom Riddle's, Dumbledore's -- Any man who could take her away from a future of grinding poverty!" Potter collapsed when Severus slung him down on the carpet, eyes screwed shut, teeth clenched, head rocking side to side as his bare feet kicking limply at the stairs. His prick, scarlet and angry, was the only thing with the strength to stand erect.

Severus fell on it without mercy.

"Liar!" Potter yelped, thrusting his hips, pressing his cock deeper into Severus' throat, "Liar, liar, liar... could've had anybody. Didn't have to wait for me... she...Ohgod!" He kicked weakly as Severus stripped his trousers and pants away, and flung then down the stairs with the rest, sucking hard all the while. "Could've..." Potter said around the fist he'd shoved between his teeth, "anybody...she wanted."

"Fool," Severus ran his tongue under the foreskin to still his babbling. "Never said she didn't want you; the Great Harry Potter, richer than any pureblood, most powerful wizard alive-"

"Shut up..." Potter let his knees fall to the side, covered his face with both hands. "Oh, god, please shut up!"

"Every wizard's hero, isn't that you? But also that lost little orphan who will give his heart away to anyone who shows a scrap of affection," Snape paused to suck wetly on two of his fingers, his other hand working the buttons of his own flies, "Guileless little lamb, was that how she thought of you you, Potter? Her own good boy? Her dog?" Severus leaned close over Potter's prostrate form, pressing his fingers in as he took that scarlet, twitching cock into his mouth again, and sucked hard.

"No. No..." Potter groaned, but bore out against the invasion, clawing deep furrows in the carpet at his sides as his legs curled around Severus' shoulders.

"No?" Severus panted, twisting his fingers about and crooking them upward just to watch Potter jump. "Then you must have been her... noble knight. Her Lancelot who'd do anything your Guinevere told you... buy any favour, best any foe..." Severus pulled his fingers back, spat on the knuckles, then shoved in deep once more. The raw, desperate sound Potter made as he thrust down toward the invasion was like music to Severus' ears. He chuckled, and gave Potter's cock another slow lick. "Riddle's horcrux could hardly have made her a sweeter offer than that, you know."

"Don't care..." Potter gasped, rolling his hips upward, "She loved...Aahgod!" The wiry body gave an awkward wriggle, one arm reaching high. A moving flash of white, and Severus had to lurch backward to avoid the jar that Potter thrust at him. Lubricant. Cheeky bastard!

"Loved... wanted... used...fucked," Severus hissed, slathering his fingers, and returning to Potter's grasping arse with three. "Hardly matters now, does it? Now you're elbow deep in guilt." The body under him went abruptly still, so Severus knew he'd hit. He didn't bother to wait for the denial. "Because no matter how you tried, no matter how you spent your money, you couldn't buy-"

"Shut up." Potter's voice was thick, low, and deathly quiet.

"Oh, I don't believe I will," Severus scooped out another handful of the lubricant, and greased it cold and thick along his own turgid prick. "You've wanted someone to tell you this for nigh on a year now, and it's no good your playing coy at this point, Potter!" He spat the name, ground it deep into the clenching, silky arse with all four fingers.

"Shut up, Snape," Potter hissed, rolling his hips up into the impact. His eyes blazed, clearly green despite the gloom -- an eerie legacy of the life force he had taken up when Voldemort died. A saner, shallower, more sober man might have heeded the danger when Potter's growl shook the house from roofbeam to doorsill. Snape only dragged his fingers across the wretch's prostate, and made him hiss, "I mean it!"

"You still can't face it, can you?" Severus sneered down at the brat, yanking his fingers away, and settling his cock tight against the flinching, grasping hole. "You're still hiding. How drunk will you have to be to admit it, Potter?"

"There's nothing. Aah!" Potter rolled forward, gripping Severus by his shirtfront, and not-accidentally, forcing the cockhead past the clenching ring of his arse. "Nothing to... admit!" The house shivered again as Severus slid home, hot and slick, and hard to the root.

"They are dead, Potter," Severus ground the boy back down into the carpet, pinned him, one palm pressed hard over his heart, the other gripping his prick as he pounded the truth in deep. So deep it could not be ignored. So deep it could not be forgot. "You can rebuild their house. You can destroy their killer. You can avenge their betrayer. You can enslave their rival, and you can even marry a red headed girl your first year out of school." Potter's chest hitched under Severus' hand, but he didn't blink away the tears that welled into his furious eyes. "But you will never save them, Harry. Never!"

Potter groaned, deep and despairing in his throat as Severus fucked him, fisted his cock and shattered his world. His despair was pure, and it was perfect, striping down his cheeks like lambent silver as sweat and static made his hair cling to his face. It was the most beautiful thing Severus could remember seeing in all his life.

He leaned close, licked the tear from Potter's left cheek, and murmured, soft into his ear with every punishing stroke. "You can't. It's too late." The silken flesh around him rippled, clenched, and Severus gasped to feel it. "No matter. What you do, Harry," he panted, "James. and Lily. Potter will still! Be! Dead!"

And then... oh, then, the impossible; Potter surrendered. The fight went out of his tight-strung form like blood from an opened jugular. Though his cock was still a bar of rigid iron pressed in the slick hollow of their bellies, his clenched fingers released their hold on Severus' shirt, his straining legs fell lax, his spine softened into a helpless roll as his ribs hitched around ragged, panting breaths.

Severus pulled back enough to stare, to fill his eyes with the sight he thought he'd never see. He ran a thumb under Potter's damp lashes, pressed the wetness to his lips like a salty benediction. Potter's haunted green eyes flickered open, stunned, shattered as Severus smoothed his cheek once more.

"You're all that's left of them," he said, rocking slower now into Potter's gentle heat, and trembling to feel the fire curling up along his spine. Potter's green, green eyes fluttered at the sensation, and his soft lips parted in a sob. "You're what they left in the world. Their legacy...but still not them. Only you, Harry Potter..." Severus rolled into him, easy now that the fight was gone, smooth surge and pull, dragging Potter's cock in long, damp lines across his belly, rolling his supple hips like a gentle, insistent tide. "There's only you...and you know it, don't you?"

Potter nodded, those wide devastated eyes still locked on Severus' own. Yes. The word shaped of silence, and the damp gleam of lips. Potter wound his hands around Severus' shoulders, timidly clinging as he spent himself with a shudder.

The hot, slick bloom between them; the escaping hiss of breath that went on until there was nothing left but a rattle; the fiercely hungry, clasping heat around him; the press of Potter's damp fingers into his shoulders; the boy's legs twining about his waist; that salty tear still clinging to his lips. Severus buried his gasp in the curve of Potter's shoulder and poured his own release into the quivering, clinging boy beneath him.

~*~*~*~

 

It wasn't the sweaty tangle of limbs that awoke him later, nor the unfamiliar sensation of a heartbeat against his right shoulder, nor the uneven breath gusting the sour ghost of firewhiskey past across his cheek. It wasn't his own stealthy arousal, creeping into his slumber on the scent of spunk and tears and desperation, or the ache in his friction-burned knees where they pressed into Potter's sweaty legs.

It was the damned bed.

Severus had vague memories of having transfigured the thing back together when he'd dragged Potter's limp body into the wreckage he'd made of his bedroom. At the time, all he'd wanted was a level surface upon which to dump the unconscious wretch, so that he could go have a shower and drink a few sobering potions. Somehow none of those things had actually happened. Somehow, he'd wound up flat on his back as the fluffy monstrosity mended itself, with Potter sprawled across him like a bony duvet.

The damned bed hadn't been so lumpy then, Severus was certain of it.

Potter, of course, noticed nothing, curled as he was against Severus' chest, one loose fist under his chin, breath hitching softly, unevenly, as though even in exhaustion, he could not properly weep. Somehow his hair still managed to fluff like thistledown against Severus' throat, tickling maddeningly until he reached across to smooth the mess down flat. Potter made a child-sized whimper somewhere in his chest, and cuddled closer, his thigh pressing against Severus' filling cock with perfect innocence.

He allowed a moment's weakness, pressed into the slick, soft flesh as he thought about taking the boy again -- for, power, stature, physique and age aside, when would Potter ever be anything but a boy to him? He'd never done so before; their year of forced intimacy through those damned bonding collars had set the artifice of dominance into the inexperienced hands. Potter had always done the taking, even when he'd had to have the mechanics explained to him. Still, Severus suspected, all along they had both known it would have been better like this; with Potter yielding, opening to him, accepting Severus with eager heat and hungry passion. It should have been like this all along... Severus froze as the bed creaked a warning.

Potter made that noise again, but Severus held him still. "You'll bring the damned bed down," he murmured, searching through the knotted linens for his wand. "Let go of me, you damned brat."

Potter did not let go. Severus could see the first pale glimmers of dawn through the shredded draperies. The soft light sketched the long, graceful arch of Potter's shoulder, limning even the bruises at his jaw and throat in gentle silver. Severus traced the shape of his teeth against Potter's collarbone. "Release me. I need to get up."

Potter shifted. A hand curled timidly over Severus' ribs, a familiar cock tapped meekly at his belly. Severus caught his breath. "Let go..." Potter's knee gripped tighter around Severus' calf, but beyond that, he did not move.

Severus frowned. He could see his wand, stabbed through the padded fluff of the headboard he had not bothered to fix the night before. It was exactly too far for him to reach, and he knew beyond question that Potter could not possibly sleep through a wandless accio to summon the thing. He swept the black thistledown from Potter's brow, and tried a new tack. "Dumbledore is dead because of me, you know. I killed him. Let me go."

Nothing. "I have made you miserable at every chance for eight years now. You hate me, and you always have done. Let me go." Potter's breathing did not change.

"I betrayed your --" but no, Severus thought, eyeing the black wing of Potter's eyebrow, his scar the merest glimmer of white through his fringe above it, he oughtn't to bring that up now.

Instead, he leaned close, put his lips next to Potter's ear, and whispered, "I do not love you." As though the words were a pry bar, they gave Severus just enough leverage to slide himself out of Potter's grasp and roll carefully to the edge of the bed. Miraculously, neither collapsed.

Plucking his wand from the headboard, he picked loose a bit of fluff that stuck to the tip. Then, not wanting Potter to wake in a panic at the first use of magic, he cast a stealthy Somnus. Potter tensed once, twitched a seeking hand in Severus' direction, but then relaxed once more, his breath evening, his fingers soft against the ragged, ridiculous duvet.

The morning light was easing through the room, revealing the absolute destruction Potter had wrought upon the place before Severus had arrived. The delicate, girlish furniture had been reduced to white-and-gilt splinters and sprays of wicker cane; mirrors smashed; squashy chairs gutted and flung about like discarded toys in a nursery; great, gaping holes in the plaster; wallpaper ripped away from them like curls of skin from a flayed man's back. The dozens of pillows from the bed lay scattered, bleeding feathers over every inch of the place.

Standing carefully, Severus turned about, surveying Potter's ruin with cold, sleep-crusted eyes. Then he hunted out his shirt and trousers, and shook the down fluff from them. Once dressed, he slung his jacket and robes over the door, rolled up his shirt cuffs, and got to work.

The furniture was first; levitated upright, or in the case of the worst damage, sent out the back door to the kindling pile in the garden. Repaired where possible, but mostly transfigured into less ridiculous shapes and sizes. The mirrors, he banished altogether -- wizardkind had never had a spell for repairing those.

The bed had been too large from the start -- two could sprawl wide in it and never touch each other. Severus brought it in, made it thicker, sturdier, adding four posts and a canopy to it almost as an afterthought. There. A proper bed that wouldn't threaten collapse at the slightest jostle. The wreckage supplied ruffles and flounces in profusion to transfigure, so soon the bed had thick velvet curtains -- charcoal grey, with not a single floral pattern or lacy frill to be found upon them.

Which, while soothing to Severus' nerves, only made that duvet more of an atrocity than before. Severus frowned at the thing, and slashed at it with his wand. It became a tapestry of greens, silvery blues, greys and browns, in fabrics that looked and felt a good deal more welcoming than chintz's chilly caress. The dozens of tiny pillows, he couldn't be bothered with, so he transfigured the lot into two or three of respectable size and fluffiness, then sent them winging across the room to plop gently against Potter's huddled form.

Potter's only response was to seize one and roll it into a fierce sort of cuddle. It made Severus' back ache just to watch, so instead, he turned away and did something about the wretched carpet. Mauve, indeed!

He was in the middle of patching the holes in the walls before he caught himself short with a scowl. The sun had cleared the trees and was streaming golden light through the windows, and there he stood in rumpled, feather-speckled robes, making up Potter's bloody bedroom! And he'd not even had his tea yet!

He shot a glare at the brat, but could detect no trace of smirk in his lax face.

"You are an idiot," he said to the room at large. The cabbage roses on the wallpaper stared back at him, pink, beribboned, and smug. "Dumbledore is dead because of me," he said to them, voice steady and cold. "I have made Potter miserable for eight years. He hates me, and he always has done."

Severus took a breath, then another. A cardinal fluttered to the snowy branches outside Potter's window and began to sing.

"I do not love him," Severus said. Then he banished the damned roses and went to have a bath.

 

~*~*~*~

 

The floo spat grudgingly, made a grinding noise, and then finally disgorged three travelers into the lounge. Severus noted with interest that of the trio, Ronald was the only one not to stagger upon arrival. Ironic that it had taken the permanent loss of his sight to finally make the youth settle in and develop some control over his lanky frame.

"You took long enough," Severus made use of his best point-taking voice as Granger and the twin picked themselves up off the lounge carpet and dusted soot from their knees. "I firecalled you two hours ago."

"We're sorry, Professor," Granger jumped in before either of her lovers could reply, shifting a large, teal blue duffle bag higher onto her shoulder. "We had to unpack some boxes before we came. We didn't know if we'd be able to go back to the apartment for fresh clothes once we got here."

Severus snorted. "I daresay that will depend upon how you get on with Potter, but yes -- there's every chance the floo will refuse you, should you attempt to leave and then come back here on your own." Of course it went without saying that the floo would refuse Granger, who hadn't the magic to make it work anymore, and Ronald, who would need several more years of training with the St. Mungo's therapists before he could attempt any travel magic safely. But Severus fully well suspected the twin would get himself locked out at least twice while he was testing the boundaries of Potter's paranoia and rejection issues.

"Where's Harry?" Ronald asked, scanning the room.

Severus did not bother to wonder how he knew the wretch wasn't there. "Upstairs, asleep. Whole, and sound of body," he added in answer to the twin's suspicious glower, "if not of mind."

The man's face reddened further still. "What have you done to-"

"Aside from saving the wretch from alcohol poisoning and a probable death via vomitus aspiratus, you mean?" Severus replied with every ounce of venom he had. "Why clearly I took advantage of Potter's vulnerable state to force myself upon his helpless person, and bugger him soundly on the floor whilst insulting his parentage, Mr. Weasley, what else! Afterward, I debated whether to strangle Potter, smother him with a pillow, or drown the wretch in the bath, but ultimately decided that I did not care to make the effort, so I left him to sleep it off on the bathroom floor, while I went to call you and your roommates into the matter!"

"George, please," Granger laid a hand on the twin's sleeve. "We talked about this."

"I know, but -- damn it," the man replied through his teeth, "he doesn't even care what he's-"

"George, this isn't about Ginny, it's about Harry, all right," she replied in the same tone.

"I know, it's just-"

"I want to see him," Ronald cut his older brother off, turning to face Severus, and adding, "please," into the resulting hush.

Severus, grateful to the younger Weasley for sparing him from the impending parlour drama, managed to avoid the obvious reply. "Upstairs, as I've said," he nodded to the stairway behind him. "There is a sofa to your right, and a low table five feet ahead of you, but no other obstacles between you and the doorway."

Severus didn't miss the grateful look the Granger chit flashed him as Ronald nodded, and picked his own way across the empty room. Severus waited only to be sure the wretch would clear the desk before turning and beginning his ascent, Granger and Weasley-elder continued their spat in the lounge below.

"You didn't really, did you, sir?" Ronald asked when they were halfway up the stairs.

"Didn't?" Severus glanced back. "Ten more steps."

"Thank you. Didn't leave Harry on the bathroom floor, I mean. You put him in a proper bed to sleep, right?"

Severus ground his teeth. "Because clearly the rest is so very plausible, you needn't question my word on it?"

"Because if you'd really gone and treated Harry like that, you wouldn't have called Hermione, George and me here to pick up after you, you greasy old git," Ron snapped back. "And don't pretend we don't know how hard you worked, keeping Harry alive all these years. Now you've gone and saved us three too, and we know you didn't bloody well do it for Hermione or me, so you don't have to go on acting like all you do is hate him anymore."

"I do hate him." The instant those words left Severus' lips, he regretted them. Doubly so when the blind man had the temerity to smirk at him in reply.

"I thought Slytherins were better liars than that."

"You thought?" Severus managed through clenched teeth, "Did you injure yourself in the attempt?"

"Harry," Ronald reminded him, his smug grin undimmed by the lingering curse scars. "He's where?"

"Four steps forward, then along the wall to your right," he sighed. "Mind the glass underfoot. Potter smashed some picture frames up here." Severus let him pass, the better to keep an eye on the staircase, now that the voices from the lounge had dropped in volume.

"Pictures?" Ronald hesitated, half turned. "Of who?"

"Whom. And I've no idea. He burned them as well." Severus nudged him back into motion with a touch to his shoulder. "Pass this door. The next as well. It's rather a marvel that Potter didn't manage to burn this place down around his ears before I arrived, you know. No, leave that; it's a linens cupboard."

"It wouldn't let him," Ronald replied, trailing his fingertips along the wall as he walked. "It likes him, this house -- it likes you too or it wouldn't let you come and go with no trouble. But I don't reckon it would let you hurt him, any more than it'd let him hurt himself. Not really, I mean." He paused, as though he could feel Severus staring, and a blush crept across his neck. "Just a feeling…"

"It is a house, Weasley," Severus replied, leaning around him to open the door, "not a Familiar."

"So's Hogwarts," he shrugged, catching Severus' elbow by way of hinting that he wanted a guide. "It sort of fancied Harry. And you too."

"Nonsense," Severus sneered, leading him to the comfortable leather wing chair he had transfigured out of a squashy monstrousity and placed beside the bed. "Hogwarts put Potter in danger on a regular basis, and it was hardly more solicitous of me over the years."

"Well it never let either of you get killed either, did it?" Ronald shot back, settling into the chair.

For a moment, sleeper notwithstanding, an argument on the topic seemed imminent, but then a brown, bushy head appeared in the doorway, sporting a determinedly cheerful smile. Just visible down the hall, the other man was opening doors and inspecting the rooms with obvious displeasure.

"Professor," Granger managed to chirrup quietly, "Which room should I put our things into?"

"I could not care less," he replied in his normal tone. Potter, of course, did not stir, nor would he until the dose of Dreamless Sleep potion Severus had given him wore off. By which time, Severus fully intended to be well and truly quit of the matter. "Whichever of them still has furniture not burned or smashed beyond the scope of transfiguration, I suppose."

"Smashed," she blinked, alarmed, and at last seemed to take in the fundamental changes which Severus had wrought in Potter's bedroom. "Oh...Molly was so certain…" she said in low, awed voice, "when Harry didn't send the bedroom things to the Burrow, she felt sure it was because he meant to take Ginny back again."

"Not even Gin believed that," Ronald replied. He had hunted out Potter's limp hand, and gathered it into his own. "Not when he sent all her clothes. But if Harry smashed this room up, was it you that put it all back together again, Snape?"

Severus flushed, and resisted the urge to brush lint from the bed curtains. "I suppose I might have just left Potter to sleep off his excesses in a shredded pile of ticking and feathers, only I suspected you and your lovers might take it amiss." Damn the wretch, did he actually just smirk at Granger?

"It's really nice, sir," the girl replied, schooling her face at once as he glanced between the two, "I'm sure Harry will think so too…

"You oughtn't to imagine I care," Severus snarled, shouldering past.

"Sir," Granger's hand on his sleeve ruined a perfectly good dramatic exit, damn the chit. "If Harry should need you-"

"He won't."

She blinked. "But if he asks after you-"

"He won't."

Ronald looked up at that, frowning. "Why wouldn't he? You haven't done something to his-"

"Mind?" Severus scoffed, "I should hardly know where to look for it."

"Memories," he finished with a growl.

Severus took a breath. A deep one, thin and hissing through his nose, held it until the urge to spit with rage passed. Granger, seeing something worrisome in his face, moved out of the doorway and lifted her hand from Severus' sleeve, but he found no comfort in the token respect.

"I have not," he said at length, each word careful and precise. "Nor would I recommend any of you make the attempt. The magic Potter absorbed from the Dark Lord's demise is less volatile than it was before, but I daresay no less defensive when provoked." He took two steps away from the doorway before he had to turn again. "And for Merlin's damned sake, Weasley, do not let any of your blindly well-meaning kin pressure him to bring Ginevra back here, unless you wish him to turn the lot of you out and never let you into his house or his confidence again!"

Then, aware that he had said precisely too much, Severus pointedly did not look either one of Potter's cronies in the face as he turned on his heel and made good his escape. The weighty snap of his robes around his ankles was a comfort, but a small one.

"Oi, Snape," George Weasley leaned out of a doorway to call after him, all eyebrow and snide cheer. "Which one of these rooms is yours then?"

"The Greenhouse," Severus shot back, already halfway down the stairs, "So I'll thank you to leave it the hell alone!"

 

~*~*~*~
~* Auror Headquarters *~

 

If Shacklebolt was surprised to see Severus walk into his office at Auror HQ, he managed to cover it reasonably well. He offered tea, which was dreadful, and biscuits, which were surprisingly good, and Severus made a point of taking both hospitalities without any show of reserve. He did note with interest, however, that once they'd got down to the business of his proposal, Shacklebolt did not have to call for an aide to deliver Severus' rather thick, and supposedly sealed records. He had the file ready to hand, right in the drawer of his desk.

"It's just that I'm not certain it's wise," the Auror equivocated once Severus had made his pitch.

Severus was having none of it. "Bollocks. It makes perfect strategic sense, and you know it. You were never missish about using me or my connections before, Shacklebolt."

"Dumbledore's -- The Order of the Phoenix was a different sort of game, Snape. You know that." Shacklebolt shook his head, but it was thought rather than denial. "Your pardon was very well publicized. The Death Eaters who slipped through the net couldn't have missed it. You can't think they would confide in you, or imagine that you're the least bit sympathetic to their cause now that Potter's said outright how you'd been with the Order all along."

"You don't need me to seduce them, man, you need me to locate them." Severus managed not to shout, though it was purely an effort of will. "You need me to tell you how they think, what places they have always considered safe, what their tastes and habits are." He waved a hand at the tackboard behind Shacklebolt's desk, where a solid dozen familiar faces glowered at him from beneath their pushpins. "I assure you, Shacklebolt, I have no interest in crossing paths with the Dark Lord's escaped faithful in person."

"Then why do this at all," he fired back, his dark eyes frank and steady, making no secret of his suspicions. "You could sit at home, make your anonymous potions for Slughorn's new shop, let Potter's hired elf feed you, and never have to turn your hand to this mess again. There's plenty of people -- on both sides of the war -- who'd just as soon you did."

Severus returned the stare with a glower, not bothering to acknowledge Shacklebolt's tacit admission to having had Severus watched. "When have you known me to care what other people wished me to do, Auror Shacklebolt?"

The tableau held a few beats, and then Kingsley looked away with a chuckle. "Well, there is that. Still, you're asking me to turn you loose with my best team, in a very sensitive investigation. Misinformation could easily get my field agents killed, and you're just clever enough to make that happen without incriminating yourself. So if you want me to trust you, Snape, you'll have to give me something more."

The hell of it was, Severus considered doing so. He actually thought of admitting to the man that he wanted to earn the absolution that Potter's fame had bought for him. That after sixteen years of cursing the idiocy of children and wishing for time to himself, he was coming to loathe his own company, to find the silence of owl's wings as oppressive as the stealthy pinging of that damned elf. He thought of admitting that he did not dare seek out his own kind for companionship, conversation, or even simple animal comfort, for fear of being snatched from Death's doorstep and dumped on Harry bloody Potter's. He was on the verge of admitting that he had come to crave a life that was his own, not merely doled out of Potter's excessive sense of charity.

Instead, he let his eye fall on Bellatrix Lestrange's photo, ranting and pouting by turns on the wall. She would never ask him why he allied himself with her enemies. She would know at once who had crafted her downfall, and would never have to ask him why.

Then Severus stood up, brushed his robes flat with short, fast strokes, and walked out of Shacklebolt's office.

He had made his offer, and they both knew Severus would neither explain his reasons, nor make it again. Shacklebolt did not even try to stop him leaving.

~*~*~*~

 

The next morning, a letter arrived from Harry Potter. Severus burned it unopened, and told the snowy owl not to return.

Four days later, a letter arrived from Hermione Granger, saying only "He does want to see you, sir. Please come." Severus burned that letter as well. Then he reconsidered, and replied with a suggestion that if Potter was lonely, he ought to get himself a kneazle.

A week later, an owl arrived at Spinner's End from Auror Shacklebolt, inviting Severus to speak to the Behavioral Profiling Office's Death Eater task force at the end of the month.

Severus' reply was a single word: When?

He kept that meeting, worked long hours into the night with the profiling team before returning to his home… under Auror escort. Shacklebolt made it clear that, should his information check out to their satisfaction, they would be calling upon him again. Severus slammed the door in his face.

That night another owl appeared from Potter. Again, Severus burned it unread. The owl bit him, and he hexed its white feathers green as it flew away.

But he did go back to the Task Force when summoned two weeks later, and that time he negotiated an agreement that, when the captured Death Eaters were tried and convicted, his cooperation with the Aurors would become a matter of public record. If the Auror team raised eyebrows at that, they also took it for a clear sign of Severus' intent, and listened to his information with better interest.

Letters from Potter continued to arrive over the following two months. Severus continued to burn them for a while, before finally deciding to simply scrawl "Get a cat!" on the parchments and send them all back. The letters began to peter out after that, but Severus did not fail to notice that a new set of wardlines appeared around Spinner's End, and that no spell of his was strong enough to banish them. Nor did he fail to notice that his scarred arm tickled whenever he crossed the lines to come or to go.

The break-ins at Spinner's End ceased entirely.

Three months to the day after he'd last left Godric's Hollow, George Weasley approached Severus in a Knockturn Alley herbalist's shop. The young man was subdued but polite, making a clear effort not to rise to any of Severus' casual baiting as he asked him to lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. "I reckon we ought to talk," he said, and Severus, finding himself with a solid hour before his scheduled meeting with Slughorn, and intrigued at the extortion Granger and his brother must have leveled to get Weasley to approach him, accepted.

The looks from the Diagon shoppers as they made their way toward the tavern were a mix of astonished curiousity, disapproval, and speculation, but Severus was mildly surprised to note an absence of open hostility. He supposed that there might he some benefit to the Weasley twins' reputation as harmless, fun-loving clowns, after all. But he kept his wand in hand as they walked, all the same.

"I hear you're working with the Aurors," Weasley offered as they were seated. Severus gave him a blank look. Surely the idiot could not be that dense! But no, he continued to fish for a reply. "Erm, that is, Percy said something about it on Sunday. Said Fred and me might want to pick up some brewing for old Sluggy, seeing as how you've been busy lately, and when Ron asked-"

"And how is your sister these days, Mr. Weasley?" Severus overrode the blather before the idiot could casually divulge even more information that could be used to destroy him.

"Look," Weasley frowned, "I'm just trying to be polite here. You don't have to-"

"She's planning to travel a bit, didn't the paper say," Severus growled, cutting his eyes at the tables nearby, most of whom were not bothering to conceal their interest in the conversation, "Trying to ease her broken heart with a tour of the Continent?"

Weasley followed his glance, blue eyes widening as he noticed their audience as well. "Africa," he coughed after a moment, taking the hint, though not pleased with the direction. "University of Thebes. She was just accepted for winter term. She's going to study cursebreaking."

"Mm," Severus smirked as Tom arrived with two pints of bitter, and two identical plates of the Tavern Stew. Never any point in asking for something else for lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, seeing as how the kitchen didn't open until after tea. Still the stew all came out of the same pot, and that made it a safer choice than many Severus had when dining out. "I suppose it stands to reason that bat-bogey hex of hers would take her farther than her brewing skills."

He thought it a perfectly adequate peace offering, actually. He didn't even speculate how the silly bint might very well stand a better chance at genuine happiness now that she'd stepped out of her mother's shoes and reached for a future as something other than a brood mare, but Weasley's eyes narrowed all the same. The tavern girl came by with bread, which Severus elbowed to the edge of the table, out of easy reach.

"Harry's paying for it," Weasley challenged, setting his spoon down and reaching for the bread. "Did you know?" Severus refrained from pointing out that there was no reason he should care, and simply shook his head, ready to fetch out his bezoar, should the idiot begin to turn blue. "All four years," he went on, chewing obliviously, "Books, bed, and board."

Severus took a bite of his stew and waited for the point.

After a long, tense silence, Weasley sighed, and came around to it. "Look, we all know you never liked her. You didn't take the piss out of her the way you did Harry, but it wasn't hard to tell what you thought, the way you kept him away from her that year in school. But she deserves this -- what Harry's giving her. She had every right to be pissed about the mess this business has made out of her name."

Severus opened his mouth to reply, but Weasley forestalled him with a raised palm. "You didn't hear what they were saying about her, Snape. In the papers, and those stupid magazines; "Potter's Pumpkin Tart, that was one of the nice ones. They all but called her a whore, just because they didn't get married before Harry built his place. His 'flavour of the week,' when they bloody well knew he didn't go about with anybody else but her. And then any time a reporter offered to let her tell her side, all they wanted was details about their sex life. You know, those bastards even printed that the only reason they did try and register the betrothal was because Ginny was pregnant?"

Severus blinked. "Was she?"

It was a fair question, given the girl's sudden decision to study abroad, but Weasley shot him a poisonous look anyhow. "Not anybody's business if she is, that's the point," then he picked his spoon up, again. "Only I suppose, in a way, it is your business, since it was you that came between them, so no; she isn't pregnant. And what's more, they found out when they tried to register, that Harry never could get her pregnant, on account of that… other spell… with you."

Severus rolled his eyes, but Weasley didn't give him time to comment. "You came between them, Snape. Whether you wanted to or not. No, I'm not blaming you for it, but I just think you ought to try and have a little sympathy for what all this has done to my baby sister, is all."

It was a long moment before Severus could speak past the knotted anger in his throat, but that strangled outrage gave him time to think, time to consider, and time to conspicuously lay his left arm, palm up on the table. The jagged end of Potter's lightning mark traced down his wrist like angry slash marks, and it was some small comfort for Severus to watch the Weasley brat try not to look at them -- try, and fail.

"Sympathy does not come readily to me-" Severus said through his teeth, but the rest of his cutting remark was drowned in a hard jostle to his chair, and a sudden slosh of lager across his shoulder and lap.

"Oi," Weasley shouted, surging from his chair, "Mind where you're going, you pillock!"

"Tripped," came the reply, as unapologetic as the rain of knuts the man tossed onto the table as he turned for the door.

"Here, you!" Tom called from behind the bar, "Who's going to clean that mess up then?"

"Get him to do it," the man replied, jamming his hat onto his head and stepping out into the rain, "In't that what his sort does -- cleaning up after the bigger wizard?"

"Tit," Weasley sputtered, reaching for his cloak as though he meant to follow. Severus merely sighed, and ran a cleaning spell over his clothes.

"Leave be, Weasley. It's hardly the first time, and I daresay I've had worse spilled on me."

The red haired menace gawked, and Severus could see him struggling to reconcile the point-stripping terror of Slytherin House with a man who let such insults pass without exacting revenge. Trust a Gryffindor not to understand the concept of Choosing One's Battles.

"Harry's right," he said, resuming his seat and taking up his spoon. "You really aren't the same at all."

Severus frowned, and finished his stew. "Potter does not know me, Weasley. Neither do you."

"I think Harry knows you better than you want anyone to realize," Weasley countered. "He really wants you to go to the Hollow, you know. Just to talk to him, even just for tea or something. He's worried about you --" Weasley glanced about, then added, sotto vocce, "about your plans. Says he doesn't think it's safe, and he's afraid you'll get hurt. We think -- Ron, Hermione and me -- we think you ought to talk to him again. He needs you, Snape, and it looks like you need him as well."

Severus dropped his spoon with a clatter into his empty bowl. "Tell me then, Mr. Weasley, how are your family coping with your rather daring relationship with Miss Granger and your brother?" The brat's face paled first, then went red as Severus' false cheer grated on. "Coping with it well, are they? I daresay your parents are thrilled to have all three of you sharing one roof here in London rather than mewed up in the Burrow where they can keep their eyes on you, but I wonder what your twin feels about it you abandoning him."

George paled, "That's none of your-"

"How interesting Sunday dinners must be now at the Burrow," Severus mused relentlessly, "the family all trying so very hard to show their support to you and your pet invalids, and all of them secretly wishing you could all be just a little more..." Severus let his lip curl, "conventional."

"Snape," Weasley growled.

"Though you could certainly have done worse than to net not one war hero, but two," Severus pushed his empty plate away, and dabbed at his lips with the dingy serviette. "Tell me George Weasley, how well do you deal with the perils of celebrity?"

"Haven't had anyone try and hang me in Diagon Alley yet," he said through his teeth.

Impressed by his audacity, if not his delivery, Severus allowed the point. "Give it time, I'm certain they'll come around to it," he said, taking a long pull from his ale. It wasn't often he could eat in company, and therefore be sure enough of his food to indulge in a pub's brew. Severus didn't mean to let the opportunity escape him. "You'll let me know how it works out for you once they do, won't you?"

Weasley stared at him as though he'd gone mad, and then finally barked a laugh. "You're a real piece of work, aren't you?" He shook his head, reaching past the scattered knuts for the bill. "You're happy as a lark to have the whole world hating you, but just let someone try and love you, and you can't give an inch, can you?"

Really, it was too easy.

"An inch, Mr. Weasley?" Severus asked, pushing back his chair and reaching for his cloak, "Why should I, when giving a foot is so much more satisfying?"

Weasley rolled his eyes, laughed again, and flung one of the coins from the table at him.

It struck Severus squarely in the chest.

Then the portkey activated.

George Weasley's horrified expression was the last thing Severus saw before the taproom disappeared in a sickening lurch, and left him falling into darkness.

~*~*~*~
Lestrange Estate

 

"Thought you said Potter'd try for him." Floating on a haze of shock, his pain held firmly on the other side of wakefulness, Severus let his head loll brokenly toward the sound, listening hard over the breath gusting in his ear.

"He always does," a voice growled in return. Severus caught the sudden fume of burning tobacco. "Read the reports; his pet Death Eater takes a lick or two, and Potter puts his nose in."

Not Death Eaters. He'd known they weren't, despite their masks and robes; Death Eaters would have killed him straight away, tortured with Cruciatus, not knives, whips, burns, rapes... Death Eaters would have been smarter.

"Aye, and one of our own gets the blame for him getting what's coming to him." A spitting sound. The glob smacked against Severus' cheek, winning an 'Oi!' from the man thrusting between his legs. "Stalking horse. That's what he is. You keep those wards up, you hear?"

Hostage. Severus managed to keep the thought from stiffening his spine, but only just. Scapegoat? More likely. The one grunting above him rammed in hard, once, twice, then released with a groan. Well past pain after the first hour of such abuses, Severus only felt the change in pressure as he pulled out. A sickening twist in his guts, an urge to void or vomit. He quelled both, and went on listening.

"Ain't gonna come." The first voice again. Severus cracked his eyes open the merest sliver; the fat one, the tall one, and the short one stood together next to the table. That meant the left handed one had just finished. The stupid one would be next, but not until they thought he was awake again. After two hard days, their pattern had become predictable.

"He don't ever step in till after, does he," the fat one went on, cleaning his fingernails with a knife. Severus could see a rag of fatty skin clinging to the blade. "Angler don't care if his worm gets et, does he?"

"Cold bastard. He really is just alike, and nevermind his pretty looks," a high voice, bitter as only a woman's could be. The short one. Severus watched her pull her hood off, and a glimmer of fear pierced his haze. Faces revealed. No fear of a witness' memory. Death, or the lightning now, whichever got to him quicker. "Set a Dark Lord to kill a Dark Lord, that's what they say," she went on, her face prettily twisted. "And he's the nerve to go judging us does he?"

Fool, Severus wanted to laugh, Potter judges everyone -- he's a damned talent for it! But he kept the thought off his face, hiding under the pretense of a dead faint while he waited for his chance. His wand was gone, broken and burned before his eyes, his ankles broken shortly after, to stop any idea of his fighting loose and running. The wrist manacles bore a clear, and very dark anti-magic ward, and his captors had carved another ward into the flesh of his chest. Severus could feel the weight of it, like miles of sodden wool around the pores of his mind. He thought it might have been her delicate fingers on the knife that put it on him, and had to wonder if she had been amoung those who watched Potter's scarlet lightning snatch him from the noose that first time in Diagon Alley.

"Well, he'll bloody well have to care once they find Chuckles nailed to the Ministry door tomorrow, won't he?" The tall one followed the woman's lead, tossing his mask to the floor, where the porcelain shattered with a sound like a bell. Severus closed his eye, and schooled his breathing as the man turned, shards grinding under his boots, and came to loom over the table. "Yes," he said after a long moment, "This'll do. Darby, get the axe," he barked over his shoulder. "I want that arm with the mark on sent to the Prophet's chief editor."

Not a hostage. Severus pictured the damage; bruises properly dark now, broken bones swollen and grotesque. No questions along with the torture -- chosen, he realized coldly, for the marks it would leave, rather than for its effect upon him. No, not a hostage, not a surrogate, not even a proper captive.

He was their message.

An open palm cracked across Severus' face, shattered his thoughts like birds. He blinked, met cold blue eyes, untouched by the toothy grin below them. The tall one yanked his head off the table by his forelock, dropped something cold and jangling around his neck, then dropped him with a thump and a blaze of stars.

"This has been fun, Professor, but it's time you were on your way." First words spoken to him in two days. Now cold, angry understanding worked its way through his guts, leaving something ashen, bitter, and thoroughly hateful in its wake. There was no enduring this. They had meant to kill him from the start -- the torture had been for the benefit of those who would find his corpse. His life -- the sacrifices, the mistakes, the triumphs, and heartbreaks boiled down to a piece of parchment, upon which they meant to scribble a warning. Nothing more.

His magic, still smothered by the wards, gave a surge as one of them seized his broken left hand and stretched his arm out tight, but it could not break loose. The tall one's hand raised up high, steel glinting. No severing spell to be traced to his wand. Perhaps he was hampered by the wards as well? They had not secured Severus' legs. His ankles were broken, but his knees were very sound.

It was enough of a chance.

He rolled hard as the axe flashed down, drove his knee hard into the tall one's side, and felt the satisfying crunch of ribs breaking under the impact. A roar of pain, sharp and loud as thunder. The dim room eclipsed in pounding red. The shouting went tinny and far-away. Breath shuddered into his lungs, buzzing, rattling like wasps, like blind, murderous fury, arching his shoulders hard away from the scarred, sticky wood, stitching pain and rage across his flesh.

The wards held. His rage built.

Someone hit him from the side, drove the breath from his lungs, tried to hold him down. Someone else seized his legs. And then, in a glorious burst of pure, incandescent fury, Severus felt his endurance shatter. He surged upward, smashed the woman's pretty nose in with his forehead. She howled, reeled back and fell as scarlet stitched across the vaulted ceiling.

The tall one, wheezing and bloodied, crushed him down to the table, dug with smoking fingers under Severus' chin to yank the chain strangling-tight. Another crash, another roar. This time Severus saw the curse-light fling the assassins off him. Wood crunched under a body to the left, metal chiming, spinning on the stones. Something huge and heavy thudded into the passageway as the curse fought to snatch him away once more.

The chains held, biting deeply, wetly into his wrists, into his throat. He fought them, fought the strangling wards, fought the sizzling curse with every ounce of his will. Time splintered down into heartbeat flickers; red light cracking through the ceiling. Smoke and dust billowing upward into the starry night. Steel glinting in a bloodied hand. Impact. Shock. Shudder. Hot, hateful blue eyes in a twisted face, eyes that saw him now. Saw him. Hated him. Feared him.

Yes.

With the last of his strength, Severus lunged up hard, mouth breathless and wide, sank his teeth deep, deep into the man's throat. Blood sprayed, hot and hard across his face, sheeted down his naked chest. Lightning roared, screamed, cracked across the night. The man struggled, clawed, emptied. Blackness ate his vision in large bites. Bone and gristle twisted in his jaws.

Crash of stone. Rattle of thunder. Potter's bellow, enraged through the sizzling gloom. Wandlight, sketched between graying static as the body fell slack. Breathless, remorseless, Severus spat it out like so much garbage.

His lips felt cold.

There was another crash, not so loud as his own heartbeat. A shuddering rattle through his bones, and Severus was rolling from the table, tumbling into Potter's arms and then to the floor. Fingers dug at his throat, slipping on blood-coated chain as Severus watched the stars go out.

"...m trying... Christ, it won't... It's spelled, damn it. Hang on," a lurch. Potter was beneath him, digging about for his wand.

"Getitoff." His voice. A broken whisper.

The wand's touch was like a knife through the blanketing wool, a blaze of icy air through his bloodied lips, magic slashing out of its prison at last. Severus arched into it, shaking for want of voice to scream. Potter held him, rocking, shushing until it passed.

"Get it off." Severus wheezed again. Potter's robe was over his shoulders, smelling of butterbeer and broom polish, blood, and hours of worry.

"They're off. The chains. I can't," he gulped, firelight flickering raggedly along his cheek and shoulder, "Your chest. I can't heal that one. I'll have to get you to St-"

Severus grabbed his throat. An empty threat -- he hadn't the strength to hang on, much less squeeze it shut -- but it stilled the inane babble. He thrust his arm, marked, branded, bloodied and bruised, under Potter's nose and snarled, "Get. It. Off!"

Potter's neck flexed under his palm. "They would have killed you, Seve-"

"GET IT OFF!" His voice broke on the screech, something torn ragged in his throat.

Potter stared at him, and the firelight hid his eyes from view, but Severus knew what they would contain anyway; pity, horror, guilt, worry. Something nameless and horrible twisted under the bloody, aching glyph carved into Severus' chest -- something jagged, sharp and mean, something that had him dashing his knuckles across Potter's face between one breath and the next.

But he was weak, shaking and slow. Hatred could no longer fuel his rage. Potter caught his arm after the first blow, tugged the other hand gently away from his throat, and gathered him in. Severus struggled, weakly furious, panting as he began to shudder, but Potter's arms only furled closer around him, swans wings, iron bands trapping him against the boy's racing heartbeat.

"I can't," The words moved against Severus' bruised, filthy temple. He felt more than heard them. "I can't. I'm sorry."

~*~*~*~
Godric's Hollow

 

Severus glowered at the pensieve on Potter's bedside table. The pensieve stared back, solid, smug, expectant. Someone's wand lay beside it, and lurking behind the lot, a bottle of the same potion he'd been making for Granger since the summer.

He could hear the hired mediwitch arguing quietly with Potter out in the hallway, tones of muted concern and smooth rationality sparring with clipped, hard monosyllables. Severus did not bother to listen to the debate. Potter would win it. He always did. People never knew how to argue with the wretch, to look past those desperately earnest green eyes and prick the scarlet truth to the surface of his thick Gryffindor hide.

Instead, he watched the pensieve. It wasn't the first time he'd been faced with the request. Pomfrey had tried it each time he had dragged himself back to Hogwarts, shaking with shock, blood loss or palsy from whatever discipline the Dark Lord or his followers had meted out. "Just put the damned memories in the bowl, so they won't counteract my work," was her constant argument. "You don't like wasting my time anymore than I do, and I don't want to have to fight your stubbornness, your injuries, and your memories all at once!"

But he never had done. There had been a dozen reasons, flung about, dusty and tired with each repetition of the debate: the Dark Lord's legilimency, and the need for memories he'd expect to be present; the possible breach of security, and the chance that Severus' memory could be stolen and used to convict him; the queer itch of his brain when memories were out of it, rendered down into facts rather than experiences, as though he'd read of it somewhere rather than lived it himself.

But the real reason -- the one he never spoke aloud to any living soul, was that Severus needed those horrible memories. He needed to remember those wounds as fresh, aching, bleeding. He needed the horror to keep him resolute and absolutely certain that he was doing the right thing. He didn't dare take the memories out of his skull, for fear that he might never, ever put them back again. And without them, the reasons to keep fighting began to pale.

"-said he doesn't want to, and you're not pushing him into it." The door cracked open, Potter speaking over his shoulder. "You're already taking his magic away for the duration of his cure. There's only so much you can ask!"

"Well, if he wants to recover-"

"If he can stand to do it the hard way, then you can as well. It's what I'm paying you for." Potter cut the nurse off again, striding into the bedroom and closing the door on her reply.

Severus offered him nothing as he padded across the room to hover beside the bed. Not a look, not a word, not even the pretence of being asleep. After a moment Potter sat carefully beside Severus' hip, steering clear of the great, squashy pillows that were lifting the duvet away from his ankles. "How do you feel?" he asked.

"Numb," Severus croaked, hating afresh the wreckage of his voice.

Potter's wince agreed with him. "That's the potions. Violet said it's only until-"

"She turns me into a squib. Whose wand is that?"

"Temp. Two or three uses before it falls apart, she said. I can't…" Potter looked down, fiddling a corner of the velvet bed curtains. "I haven't found yours. Yet. I'll keep-"

"You won't."

"I… Oh." Severus closed his eyes, shutting out Potter's bedroom and his horrified expression at once. "I'll… We'll get you…" his voice thickened, tripped over a cough. "God. Sorry. I'm sorry."

For a long moment, there was silence, then Potter tried again. "Kingsley wants to talk to you. I've told him he can't see the pensieve… I mean, if you were going to use it. Kind of pointless anyway. The two they have in custody rolled over on the two who got away, and there's plenty of evidence they found at the scene, so they don't need to-"

"Yes."

"What?"

"Shacklebolt." Severus reached for the wand with still-swollen fingers, fumbled a bit, but managed to catch it on his own before Potter could help him. The pensieve was too heavy for him though.

"You don't have to," Potter said, even as he moved the silver bowl to the mattress at Severus' side. "I know you don't-"

"I don't," he said, placing the wand carefully at his temple. "Have to. Shacklebolt. He's here?"

"No. I told him I wouldn't call him back until tomorrow. Violet wanted to have you asleep today. The cuts… your skin is going to hurt a lot, growing back." Severus resisted the urge to rub at his bandaged chest, knowing that the itch was his imagination, and that the scabbed, crusted ward couldn't be paining him through the potion's barrier.

"Fine," Severus said. "Tomorrow. Now leave."

The weight on the bed didn't shift. A sharp glance at Potter showed those famous green eyes fixed somewhere miles beyond the mossy carpet. A muscle in his jaw ticked, a strand of his feather-light hair drifted across his cheek. His hand, still grubby with smoke, dust, and blood, hovered over Severus' knee for a long moment, fingers almost trembling, almost reaching. Then he closed his fist, and dropped it back to his side. "All right," he said. "I'll send Violet in when you're done."

~*~*~*~

 

That night, he dreamed of nothing.

 

The next day, his skin was whole -- pink and raw, to be sure, and crossed with all the old scars he'd earned in his misspent life, but none of the new ones. The glyph on his chest could still be read, though the Mediwitch assured him it would fade, given a month or so. Sooner if he allowed himself to get some sun on the flesh.

Severus did not bother to disabuse her of the notion. So long as it no longer interfered with his magic, it would be just another scar. He did not expect he would care about it for long.

Shacklebolt came in around noon, all severity and righteous, quiet outrage. He did not ask to see the pensieve underneath the bed, and Severus did not offer it.

"You have spoken with George Weasley?" he asked when the Auror began his ever-so-tactful questioning.

"Of course," Shacklebolt replied, "He was the one who reported the kidnapping. I took his statement that very day."

"Then you know how it began. Have you questioned the Mediwitch?" A nod. "Then you know what happened. Have you spoken with Potter?"

Shacklebolt sighed, and set his quill aside. "Not yet. I'll talk to him after we're finished here."

"He will tell you how it ended. Or your captives will. You need nothing from me."

"Snape…" the man pinched the bridge of his nose. "Second hand testimony won't convict. Not with Aurors standing accused."

"And you imagine a pensieve memory from an admitted Occlumens will help?"

"No, but you could-"

"No. Not even you can be foolish enough to suggest that I take Veritaserum and present myself to the Wizengamot for questioning!" Severus' voice cracked warningly. The Mediwitch put her head around the doorframe to glare, but they both ignored her.

"We think there were more than just the five who did the dirty work," Shacklebolt replied at length. "Someone on the Death Eater task force has to be involved. Nobody else knew you were working with-"

"Then I recommend you get a Legilimens to help you clean your house," Severus replied, rolling over to face the wall. "Potter seems the logical choice."

"Snape-"

"I am retired, Shacklebolt," he said, low, steady, certain. "Find another spy."

There was a sigh, and then a creak of the chair as the Auror got up. "We caught the Carrows," he said. "Muggle library, just as you'd said. And we're fairly certain we've got a line on Greyback, living in a Manchester bedsit. Across the road from a school, and down the way from a daycare, as you suggested, again."

"You're bringing in Lupin?"

There came the rustle of a nod. "For the final identification. We wouldn't have-"

"Keep the damned wolf away from me then," Severus cut through the unwanted thanks, and threw his arm over his eyes to sleep. Shacklebolt sighed again, and closed the door behind him.

 

An hour later, when Granger and her two Weasleys came in, Severus pretended to sleep until they went away again.

Potter stopped sending up visitors after that. Or perhaps no more came.

~*~*~*~

 

That night, the faint sound of a softly weeping child pierced the caul of Severus' potion-induced oblivion. He dreamed of the sea, and a close, small boat that rocked him gently back and forth. The boat was a warm curve against his spine and shoulders, just big enough for him to curl onto his side and rest, safe and soft beneath the weeping skies.

The Mediwitch woke him the next morning, determinedly cheerful. Severus' back was aching with cold, but he could still almost feel a tentative weight curling across his side to nestle against his heart.

Severus did not see Potter until well into the afternoon.

"You're resisting the calcifix," the mediwitch accused, lifting the sheet and frowning petulantly at Severus' legs.

"Nonsense," he growled in reply, scratching idly at his left wrist.

"Well, what do you call this then?" She gave his right toe a twist and a shake that made his rubbery bones wobble like a jelly under his skin.

Severus hurled a pillow at the cow's head. "Stop that, you idiot," he yelped. "And I call it poor brewing. You put so much ficus sap into the calciflux potion, I daresay it's a miracle you haven't liquefied my skeleton all the way up!"

"My potion was bloody well perfect!" she snapped, covering his feet again. "You must be allergic to horsetail -"

"You've taken my magic, you bloody simpleton! If it WERE an allergy, I'd be out in spots, or dying of asphyxia, not watching you botch resetting my damned ankles! Merlin's arse, woman, if you want me a cripple for life, why don't you just cut them OFF?"

Her face went red and blotchy. "Look, you utter-"

"Violet," Potter interrupted smoothly from the doorway, "the Professor's got a visitor. Why don't you take a break? Have a cup of tea and a bit of a rest?"

The look she gave her employer was positively filthy, but she stormed obediently from the room all the same. Severus smirked at her retreat without reserve, and did not feel the least bit repentant at Potter's long-suffering sigh. "Do you have to goad her so? You know she's only trying to help you."

"Incompetence is its own reward," Severus replied, his good mood evaporating as he watched Ollivander follow Potter into the bedroom, his thistledown hair glinting in the afternoon light. "What have you brought him for?"

Potter cast a startled glance at his guest, but the aggravating elf's eyes only crinkled in a smile. "Well now, Mr. Snape, it's not as though Mr. Potter could choose your new wand for you, is it?"

"It's not as though I'll be able to choose my own until this squib potion wears off, is it," he shot back. "You might just as well have sent another wand of the same make as my first, and spared yourself the bloody trouble."

Ollivander tsked, sweeping a strange, glassy rod out of his sleeve and waving it over Severus' supine form. "I daresay you wouldn't send a generic brew of a soul-sleep draught via owl without doing a personal examination," he said, his winter-ice eyes crinkling with something that only looked a little like a smile. "You are not the same boy who chose unicorn tail in ebony all those years ago. Your wand grew up with you, and now it's gone, there'll be no replacing it with an untried infant." The rod gave a flicker of violet as he swept it over Snape's heart. Ollivander hummed, and moved it onward. "You'll be wanting something established now."

"I'll not use a dead man's wand!" Severus objected, stomach chilling at the idea.

Again, the white haired man clucked his tongue. "Of course not. But have you considered a staff?" The rod glowed a strange sort of yellow over his knees.

Severus shook his head. "Constant mockery about my appearance is bad enough, thank you, I do not care to add speculation about compensation to the list." Potter made a choking noise, staring at Severus in disbelief. Severus challenged with an eyebrow, and Potter blushed at once, then found something to stare at in the snowy garden outside.

"Ahh, dignity; mistress of us all," the elf chuckled, waving his now-blue rod over Severus' left arm before giving a nod. "Right then, young man; I know just what you'll need from here," and he slipped the glass rod away into one pocket while drawing a leather covered box from another. This, he lay on the duvet beside Severus' left hand.

"Oh, go on, then," he urged, grin displaying curiously pointed eyeteeth as Potter ghosted back to the bedside to stare. "I've not made a bad choice yet, you know. This is the one you want."

Severus tugged the box open, and hesitated, fingers hovering over the slender, white rod within it. "This... this is not wood..."

"It was once," Ollivander replied, "Ivory. Thirteen inches."

"And the core?"

"Diamond." A cat could not have purred the word more smugly.

"Diamond?" Potter wondered, leaning close to stare, "But that's-"

"Unique. Utterly basic. Elemental." Those ancient eyes gleamed as he watched Severus carefully trail his fingers along the warm, smooth length. "The stone of all creation, encased in the bark of time itself. Ideal for a man who's magic has suffered so many invasive threats over his life."

Severus swallowed, picked up the wand in reverent fingers. "I can't feel it." He tried not to be disappointed. The potion, the concussion, an alien wand -- had he really expected anything else?

"She can feel you though," the elf grinned and dusted his hands. "Go on then, give her a flick, why don't you?"

"His magic won't return for another day," Potter began. Severus quelled the brat with a glare, and pointed the wand at his own legs, and cast a wordless Reparo.

The agony knocked his breath away, which was good -- he'd done enough screaming in front of Potter for one lifetime. But the pain was almost beyond belief. Bad idea, he told himself as his rubbery leg bones set themselves. He was sure the breaking hadn't hurt half so much. But at least it's over quickly. Blinking tears of pain and triumph from his eyes, Severus managed to draw cold air into his lungs at last.

Potter and Ollivander were speaking beside the window, tones hushed, heads close.

"-solutely not, Mr. Potter," Ollivander shook his head. "It simply is not done."

Severus blinked against the snow light's glare, then grit his teeth as he spotted the money pouch in Potter's hand. "Look, what happened was my-"

"Regardless, you are no blood kin to him, and there are proprieties to uphold. The Professor's credit is sound with me, and today it is much better tender than those galleons in your hand."

"But-"

"Mr. Potter!" Severus threw back the blankets, used the bedpost to haul himself up, shaking with fury. "If you mean to humiliate me, at least have the courage to do it to my face!"

Potter blanched, then blushed furiously. "I'm not trying to-"

"Am I your whore then? Your thrall? Your property?"

"NO! God, no!" Potter took a step, hands out beseechingly. Behind him, Ollivander watched with pale, inscrutable eyes. "Never, I promise. It's just. I'm only trying to fix what I ruined, all right? What they did to you -- that was because of me, and I just-"

"Yes," Severus hissed through his teeth, the ivory wand dripping brilliant white sparks across the front of his nightshirt, "It did say "Potter's Pet" on the tag of the choke chain, didn't it. Taking that to heart now?" The green eyes shocked wide, hurt. Something vicious raised its head from inside Severus' guts to sniff after the pain. "It is not enough that you shoved life down my throat," he seethed. "Now you must shove shame down after it?"

"I just want to make it right." Potter said through his teeth, and yes, there was the old familiar mulish glower. Severus had wondered how long it could conceal itself behind the show of contrition. "Why can't you see-"

"See you announcing to the world that Severus Snape is a man enslaved," he clung to the bedpost as his knees gave a warning shiver, damned if he would say those words anywhere but on his feet. "I see that plain enough, Potter. Why can't you?"

"You're NOT a slave!" Potter shouted, "Why doesn't anybody get that? You're not a slave, and you're not a damned criminal, and what the hell is wrong with me wanting people to stop treating you like you're nothing but a Death Eater?"

"Idiot! I am a Death Eater!"

"No! Damn it, you're not! You've been pardoned-"

Severus' raucous laugh cut him short. "You may hold my chains, Potter, but not even you can make me innocent! You cannot purify me, sanitize me, or make me fit for polite dinnertime conversation! I am what they hate, and the more you whitewash me, the more they will come to hate us both!" Potter blinked, white lipped and drawn short. Severus grit his teeth at the wretch's startled expression. "Your parents will always be dead, you will always be the Boy Who Lived, and I will always be a Death Eater! When will you cease trying to unmake the past?"

"When will YOU stop trying to re-live it?" Potter screamed back at him. "You're so caught up in being the Death Eater, that you won't be anything else! You won't be the genius at potions, you won't be the defense expert, you won't even be the worst damned teacher I have ever had, because you're so busy being Dumbledore's murderer you don't have TIME for anything else!"

For a second, there was silence, awed and stricken. The sound of a line being crushed underfoot. Severus took a breath, and not even he was sure what words it would turn into, but he knew they would be terrible.

Potter beat him to it. "Why won't you let me help you?" His voice was tight, even and careful. It did not quell the rage in Severus' blood, but he rose to its dare all the same.

"Why will you not let me help myself?" He replied in a tone no less restrained, for all it felt as though he was forcing the words past the strangling chain again.

Potter closed his eyes. "Because you won't," he said. "You'd let them kill you if I didn't stop them. You've said so, but they haven't the right. The war wouldn't be over if not for what you did! They don't have the right to judge you, and-"

"And you fancy you do?"

"Gentlemen," Ollivander's voice was calm but weighty, clipping neatly through the argument. "Illustrative as this debate is, it is also moot. Mr. Snape will make his way to my shop in Diagon Alley in his own good time, and he will pay for his own wand at that time. And you, Mr. Potter, must accept the weight of wizarding tradition over your own good intentions."

For a moment, it looked as though Potter might argue, but an eloquent eyebrow shut his mouth into a petulant sulk again. "Of course, Mr. Ollivander," he managed, "I'm sorry for-"

"Tut. You were raised by Muggles. How were you to know?" Ollivander shrugged the well-deserved apology away. "However, you might consider, when a wizardborn tells you that a thing isn't done, asking why before you simply throw cash at the problem."

Potter blushed. "I wasn't-"

"You were, Potter," Severus cut him off, dropping back down to sit on the bed at last. "Stop digging, can't you?"

"As though he were the only one here with a shovel," Ollivander laughed, twitching his robes straight as he headed for the door. "Such a muddle, you mayflies are; anger, and love, and treacle, and tinder and pride and passion and words and words and words. No wonder you're confused, poor things." He shook his head, and his laughter floated back up the stairs. "Lord, what fools these mortals be..."

Potter spared Severus one earnest, achingly uncomfortable glance before turning on his heel and following Ollivander down to the floo. Severus collapsed back into the bed, grimacing as the retreating footfalls pounded like thunder in his skull. He lay his new, strange wand across his breast, closed his eyes and waited for the pain to ease.

~*~*~*~

 

Severus' magic returned to him along with a fever, wringing the rest of the day into a sweaty welter of half-dozes, strange, senseless dreams, and the mediwitch's regular pestering. She said it was to be expected, nothing to worry about, and over soonest if he slept it out. He could not be bothered to argue as she plied him with cooling charms and weakly drugged tea.

Potter did not return. Severus did not ask after him.

Sometime after moonrise, when the fever had evaporated into a proper sleep at last, a furtive tickle of magic whispered across Severus' sleeping mind. With a hiss, he lurched from his doze; awake, alarmed, ivory wand in hand.

"It's me," came Potter's low voice at once. He raised both his hands, let the invisibility cloak drip off his shoulders as Severus whirled. "It's only me. I was just transfiguring the chair."

Severus squinted in the gentle Lumos Potter summoned; the chair in the corner by the window had become a narrow cot, a bit fluffy, but still recognizable. Potter wore only the bottom half of a thin pair of linen pajamas, clinging softly to his narrow hips. The scars on his chest and shoulders glinted, pale in the moonlight.

"Why?" Severus asked.

Potter blinked. "Er. Well, it's only I haven't..." he shrugged, chaffed his palm across his shoulder. "There isn't another bed, and I can't ever sleep on the sofa in the lounge -- not with the floo right there. And I didn't realize you'd feel the magic so soon, or I woul-"

"Why are you bothering with the chair," Severus clarified, slipping his wand back under the pillow. "You did not yesterday."

If he had doubted his conclusion in any way, Potter's stunned silence, and the blush that spread from his ears halfway down his chest would have put it to rest. "I didn't want- Didn't mean to-"

Severus folded his arms across his breast and lay back with a smirk. "You slept under that damned cloak, just to be sure the Mediwitch wouldn't see you, didn't you?"

"You were..." Potter's hands made small, fluttering motions, as though hunting for some defense in the gloom. "I didn't think you would-"

"Oh, stop dithering, fool," Severus replied, lifting the blankets aside. "Sometime tonight, if you please," he snapped when Potter hesitated. "The air is cold."

The bed dipped, sheets rustled as Potter slipped between. Severus felt the tension in his careful, delicate fidgeting, in the way he tried to take up as little space as possible, took every care not to let his flesh brush even the trailing edge of Severus' night shirt.

Severus sighed, tugged the garment off and threw it onto the floor. Then he turned on his side, put his back to Potter, and curled his knees up. There was no sound but breath, tense and shallow for a long moment, then Potter rolled over as well. Severus could feel a clinging chill in the bare chest that did not quite touch his shoulders, and after another silent moment, closed that distance himself.

Potter gasped, a near-silent draught of breath across Severus' shoulder. Severus shivered -- the wretch had been too damned cold -- and reached back to capture Potter's wrist, resting shyly on his thigh, just barely not-touching while it pretended to be perfectly at ease.

"Sna-" Potter's breath hitched, and he let his arm be drawn across, caught under Severus' arm, and settled against his breast. "Severus..." No sound to the word, just the shape of his name, brushed with soft lips against his neck. The skin burned, as though marked by the silence.

"Be quiet," he said, and settled his hips more firmly into the bend of Potter's body. The boy was not hard, but a twitch of interest was not long in coming. Potter tried to edge back, his chest heating against Severus' shoulders, but Severus gripped the captive arm tighter, twined their fingers, and did not let him run. That interested twitch became a lurch of swelling flesh, pressing through the linen against the crack of his arse. Potter's groan might have sounded pained, but Severus knew better; Potter was silent in pain, and anything but silent in passion. "Shhh," he said, and rocked back against that growing tumescence once more.

A shake of head -- no more than a rustle, and an eiderdown brush of tickling hair on his arm. "Severus... I ca -- you can't." Potter's lips pressed a damp apology to the back of his neck. "Not yet. You've only just-"

Sweet Merlin's arse, would the wretch never be silent? Severus rolled hard to the right, while tugging Potter's arm to the left, bringing them nose to nose, and with a hard jostle of his knee, cock to cock as well. Then he shut Potter up in the only way that had ever worked reliably.

His mouth was softer than Severus remembered -- less of snagging teeth and crushing lips now, and more of that gentled tongue, sliding timidly along this own, twining hungry and clinging, even when their lips parted to snatch damp breaths from the night. Potter did not scrabble for control this time, did not resist as Severus wound his hands into that thick, soft hair to adjust the angle of his kiss; did not rut impatiently when Severus slipped his hands inside his pajamas, and filled his palms with Potter's arse; did not groan and scramble for friction as Severus set them both into an easy, rocking pace.

"Ohgod!" Potter pulled away from the kiss to gasp, breaking stride to press back against Severus' seeking finger. "Yesssss..." And a moment later, he'd broken away altogether, letting the chilly air gust deep into the bed as he scrambled to get out of his pajamas, and back astride Severus' hips as quickly as he could. Severus caught his shoulders, dragged him back into place with a growl and a jutting of his hips. "Please," Potter whispered, seeking along Severus' throat with needy, sucking kisses. His thighs trembled to hold the hungry bend of his body. "Please let me-"

"Hush now," Severus murmured, stroking his palms along that arching back until the trembling stilled, until the boy's full weight came gradually down on his chest, arms and knees alike curling tight to his sides. Clinging, with all the strength he dared to use. Potter's head turned, nuzzled carefully under Severus' hair to press three silent words in the hollow behind his ear.

"Hush," Severus answered, though his cock gave a hungry throb, and his heart a sideways lurch to hear.

Potter did not say it again, but he traced the meaning in tiny licks, like a cat along the cords of Severus' throat, sang it in a wordless mewl as Severus' fingers delved warmly into him, hissed it through gleaming teeth when Severus grazed the hot, urgent swelling inside him. And when Severus' cock breached him, Potter reared back, sleek as a seal in the darkness, lips stretched around soundless scream. His fingers scrabbled on Severus' chest. His cock wept pearly tears on Severus' belly.

"Shh," Severus whispered, breath stuttering out between his teeth as he arched up into that softly, fiercely grasping heat. He reached, filled his hands with Potter's lambent, sweat-slick skin, and pulled him down again, close, heavy, panting with want. He rocked up into Potter's body, animal-needy, dazed with the wanting of him. He put out his tongue, tasted the slick, salty flesh of Potter's collarbone, woke another hungry sound from the throat he had to kiss as they surged together. Neither of them driving, neither guiding the other, neither commanding, but both succumbing to the momentum of the nameless thing between them: to the building glow caught in the sliding hollow of their bellies; to the salty, sobbing breaths they stole from beneath the tangle of bedcovers; to the glide of skin to skin, tongue on tongue, pulse on pulse and magic on magic; to the press and drag of kisses without teeth, of teeth without blood, of passion without fury, of surrender without defeat.

Breath coming hard now; racing, heated gasps in the bend of Potter's shoulder. Severus reached one hand between them, took Potter's cock in hand, curled the other in his hair to pull him down, to slip his tongue between the damply parted lips, and to lose his breath in the urgent tangle.

Potter said it again; a desperate, eloquent, pleading whine. His cock jumped, pulsed slick heat over Severus' fingers. His body rippled, clenched and flexed around Severus' cock as he came in thrumming shockwaves of pleasure. Teetering on the edge, Severus could only plunge into the maelstrom over and over until the tight-coiled need burst from his bollocks, and he fell headlong into a desperate kiss, a breathless clutching embrace, and a thundering blaze of white fire behind his eyes.

~*~*~*~

 

Afterward, they lay entwined. Another first; limbs going slowly numb as the sweat and spunk dried on their skin, breath sharing rhythm still, so that even the pulse of blood in the hollow of Potter's throat made a tiny hissing sound beneath Severus' ear. His cock softened by slow degrees, slithered from Potter's body, and at last the boy sighed. With that tiny fidget, the spell was broken.

Severus flexed his arm, clenched and spread cold, numb fingers. "Potter-"

"No," he clung tighter, ducked his head down to nuzzle into Severus' hair. "Please don't. Just... please."

Severus wound his fingers into the wretch's hair, scruffed his head upright with a jerk, and made him look at the mark. Made him see the branching scrawl of red, from elbow to wrist, how it had grown from a single streak of red into a webbed network that spanned his arm like a grotesque, lacy sleeve. "Damn you, Potter, it is time," taut and quiet, the words, but the boy flinched from them like a shout. "You put this mark upon me, you stole my death more times than I can count, and I am tired of it!"

"No," a low moan, Potter's fingers brushed the mark as though it did not burn them both. "It doesn't have to be... I don't..." He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, not trying to shake Severus' hand off. "I might have wanted you to suffer for your crimes when I cast it, but I was wrong. I don't want you to suffer anymore, Snape..." Potter moved his hand upward, to twine their fingers together. "Severus. I don't. But I don't want you to die either."

"It is not your right to-"

"Isn't it?" Potter yelped, sitting up, tearing free, leaving fine, dark strands clinging to Severus' knuckles. "Isn't that what a fucking life-debt means? That you have to take responsibility for the life you've saved, not just kick the other person away like they don't matter?" He shook his head, restless hands bunching and grasping in the empty air. "I mean it's a life-debt, but what you've been doing -- that isn't really living, is it?"

With a roar, Severus surged up, knocked Potter sprawling into the tangled blankets, and scrambled astride to pin him down. "WILL YOU LISTEN TO ME FOR ONCE, YOU SELFISH, EGOTISTICAL JACKASS?" He dug the point of his wand hard under Potter's chin, forcibly dragged his tone back down; a growl instead of a shriek. "I do not care what Harry Potter bloody well wants," he said, "I am tired of being a slave -- my father's, Voldemort's, Dumbledore's, yours! Tired of being told what to think and what to believe, who to trust, who to forgive, who to hate, who to kill -- what to bloody well FEEL!" Potter flinched, eyes wide -- horrified, hopeful, trembling in sympathy that made Severus' stomach clench to see. "You haven't the right," he whispered, sliding away, leaving Potter sprawled, sticky and pale against the sheets as Severus bound his knees tight against his chest, and wrapped his arms around to quell the urge to shiver. "You haven't the right," he said again, as though by repeating it, he could make Potter listen.

For a long moment, Potter's only reply was silence, and a piercing regard of the bed canopy. "I know," came the ashen reply at last. "But it's all I can do. I just... I'm afraid. To lose you. I mean, I know you don't like me, and you don't want me around, and you made that plain, but-" he rolled suddenly, peered earnestly up into Severus' face. "But we can find a way to change it. You don't have to even see me, just... please. I need there to be a Severus Snape in the world. Even if I can never be with him... can't you understand that? Just a little bit?"

Something in the beseeching tone found a crack, wormed its way in, threading regrets and second guesses, and... Severus dropped a hand to Potter's downy hair, a rough caress as much as a push away. "It is not you I cannot live with, Harry," he heard his own voice say the words before he had even realized they were truth. They curled, sour and clinging on his tongue as Potter looked up, the perfect image of despair. He could almost hear the 'what if's' and 'should have's' ticking behind those green eyes as Potter climbed to his knees and faced him.

"If ifs and ands were pots and pans," he said, proffering his marked arm once again, "there'd be no work for a traveling man." Potter blinked. Severus rolled his eyes in disgust. "It means, stop whinging about things which did not happen, face your fear, and do the right damned thing," he snarled. "Are you a bloody Gryffindor, or not, man?"

"Don't much feel like one just now," Potter sniffed, taking Severus' hand in both of his own, and inching forward until the knuckles just brushed his belly. "I'm... I don't actually know how to break this," he admitted, staring fixedly at the scar.

"You did not know precisely how to make it, either," Severus somehow kept his voice level. "That did not stop you before. Just break it."

"If I do, will you promise..." he swallowed dryly. "Will you please just not do anythi-"

"Break it, Potter. Take your chain off me, and let me go." He reached out, caught the pointed chin, and forced it up, forced Potter to look him properly in the eye. "Take your wards off Spinner's End. Stop the Gringotts payments. Send the damned elf away." He rubbed his thumb along the hinge of Potter's jaw, feeling the muscle jump beneath his touch. "No more lurking, Potter. No more spying. No more skulking about and protecting me. The debt, the obligation, the slavery; it is over as of now."

Potter closed his eyes, drew such a breath as seemed it might break him. "All right," he said. "I'll do it, if you can look me in the eye, and swear that you don't love me."

Severus shook his head. "You know perfectly well that I can lie with utmost sincerity, Potter, even to my Lord and Master."

Potter's eyes only flinched a little at the title, and he swallowed, still clinging to Severus' hand as he replied, "Yes. I know you can. It's just that I need to hear which is the lie."

Severus stared at him. Just stared, for a long, twisting moment, a million barbed words tangling themselves to silence in the pit of his throat. Then he chose the three which would do more damage than any others.

"I love you."

Potter closed his eyes, gasped as though he'd been kicked in the belly.

"That was what you wanted to hear, was it not, Potter?" he asked, eyebrow raised, voice a twist of the knife. "That I love you, cherish you, desire you above all other things? That out of all the world, there is only one to whom I would cleave, only one whose presence in my life might bring me something like joy, and that one can only be you?" He warmed to his topic, and his voice went from steel to velvet, lowering, deepening, until the resonance was nearly tactile.

Potter shivered, shook his head, but Severus had no mercy. Not now. Not anymore. "Do you want me to tell you that you are the Sunday in my every week? That you are more beautiful than any creature the likes of me could have dreamed of touching, and the memory of you in the throes of passion warms my coldest nights? That when you look at me, I can almost believe in such a thing as forgiveness? That I could entwine the rest of my life with yours, live with you in this house, and never look backward if only-"

"Stop," the sound was very like a sob in Potter's throat. "I... I get it. Just. No more."

Severus took his hand from Potter's grasp, cupped the cold, soft cheek into his palm, and made the wretch look up. "Were I to tell you all those things, and make you believe them true," he whispered, "I should still tell you that I would a hundred times rather chew my own arm off, even though it destroy us both, than to remain in this pretty trap."

Potter reached up, caught his hand again, and pressed it to his face a little harder. The boy was trembling -- a spine-deep shudder that rippled with each breath through his corded neck, taut stomach, clenched jaw. It wanted only a peep of sound from him to turn it into wrenching sobs, but Potter, as always, was silent in his pain. He turned his face, pressed his lips to the hollow of Severus' wrist.

There was a burn of magic, a sizzle and a searing ache, twisting through Severus' trapped arm and then his entire body. His heart pounded, lungs seizing against the pain -- deep as his bones, coursing in a soundless, shapeless yearning, an ache in his soul just at the threshold of cramp. Were it not for Potter holding his arm outstretched, Severus would have curled up tight around it.

But then Potter did let go, lifted his face from Severus' clean, pale wrist, and let his hand slide from his tear-striped cheek.

Severus took a breath, loud and sobbing as the strange, empty pain settled into him, spread out, and faded to an echo. Both marks were gone. Both.

"My clothes," he managed, once he was sure of his voice. "Where are they?"

"There aren't," Potter coughed, looking small and cold. "You didn't have. I'll get you some in the morning. First thing, I promise."

"No," he clambered from the bed, swept Potter's invisibility cloak from the chair and draped it across his shoulders. "I'll get them myself."

Potter flinched, fixing his eyes determinedly on Severus' face, as though afraid that he would disappear with the first blink. "Please. You don't have to go. Not right now." He took a step, naked, pale, his reaching hand trembling in the chilly air. "You could wait. Just until morning."

"You know I will not," Severus cast a warming charm over himself -- Spinner's End would be cold after a week unoccupied.

Potter made a ragged sound, and turned away. "Your pensieve." He went to his knees beside the bed, reached underneath to draw the silver bowl out. "There are still memories in-"

"Keep them," Severus did not bother to look. "Watch them if you want, or pour them down the toilet -- I do not care which. It means nothing to me. I prefer it remain so."

"Then there's nothing..." Potter drew another breath, and nodded. Firm, certain. He had faced Voldemort with no less resolve. "Of course there isn't. Could you, though..." Potter's throat bobbed, as though swallowing down something jagged and heavy. "Could you please just let me kiss you one more time?" And there, at last, his voice cracked under the strain. "Just to say 'goodbye'?"

"Don't be absurd," Severus replied, and turning on his heel, he strode from the room. Behind him, the Hero of the Wizarding World turned his face to the wintry pre-dawn sky and sought his silence once more. Alone, like everyone else in the world.

 

~*~*~*~

 

He went home and cleaned his house.

Scrubbed it, attic to cellar, with spell and brush and broom, as though there had not been a house elf living there for months. He hunted out cobwebs and dust-mice, smudged paint and floors to be scoured, windows to be cleaned with wads of newspaper and mail he couldn't be bothered to read.

He stopped for food when he was hungry, eating whatever was in the pantry that would require no cooking. He stopped for sleep, rolling himself onto his lumpy sofa as readily as his bed, or fireside chair. Whichever was closest did service.

He broke down his potions laboratory, transfiguring trunks from the benches and worktops, and filling each with bottle after gleaming bottle. Not quite so many empty now, as before Potter's elf had come, before he'd begun to brew for old Slughorn's shop. Severus put the old Slytherin Head's name on the trunk labels. He'd know what to do with it all, and given that half of it had been paid for by the man's signing bonus, it seemed only fair.

And how often, really, did Severus get to be fair?

He sent other things here and there as he found them; A note of hand to Gringotts, making Ollivander full payment for his new wand. A painting of his mother, attic-bound this thirty years, sent to the wizarding portrait gallery, her maiden name restored to the brass plate. A cursed raven's quill, a necklace of silver and opals, and his Death Eater mask and robes to the Malfoy estate. His Order of the Phoenix medallion to Hogwarts, along with a request that it be displayed in the trophy room -- the only mark of triumph the Snape name would ever bear. To Lupin at Grimmauld Place, a lone silver goblet, dented on the rim. To the Hogsmeade joke shop, a revised formula for Granger's monthly potion.

All this done in a certain calmness of spirit, a quietude that owed nothing of itself to grief, or depression. As though a snowfall had blanketed the jagged landscape of his mind while his body did the work of it, and not even the old, familiar ghosts left prints in the silent whiteness.

He wondered, as the last of the owls took to the air in a gusting whisper, whether the calm he felt was something akin to that often described, never believed-in state of Grace. But really, de profundis was more for the likes of him, wasn't it? He loosed an alien sound, staccato bursts of white into the chill darkness of the winter's night, then he closed the attic window and took himself back downstairs.

To Godric's Hollow, he sent nothing.

Not being a wasteful man, he carefully packed up those books which had not yet been stolen or sold, and under cover of darkness, moved them to the garden shed. They would, he supposed, be safe enough there until they were found, but not being a careless man, he still cast a web of elaborate protections upon them before he left.

The pensieve awaited him on the kitchen table -- no smug, polished medical artefact this. No, it was a veteran of every secret which might have got him killed this past four years. Debriefing meetings with Dumbledore swirled in its scarred depths, braiding together with Order meetings, Occlumency lessons, the pact Potter had thrust upon him, the Bonding, a handful of horcruxes, found, stolen, destroyed, a hundred fights between them, all ending in sweaty, sticky, shamefaced silences.

A battered witness to his most private terrors, and closely guarded truths; in many ways, the pensieve Dumbledore had given him was the only friend Severus had ever fully trusted.

And of course, Potter's mark lay there as well. The wretch never could be bothered to control his impulses or emotions, and so... it had been necessary. Critical to remove the memories Potter had of Severus' duplicity, at least until either he or the Dark Lord had killed each other. It had made sense. Had been the only way to be sure, and so of course Severus had loathed with every fibre of his being the idea of sharing his pensieve with the damned wretch.

Severus had not looked into the pensieve since the war ended. Hadn't wanted to review those pages he had torn from his mind. They were past and gone, and it seemed better by far to leave them swirling there in the bowl than to have the emotional wreckage of that time turned loose in his brain. Facts were orderly, but memories were sloppy, emotion-riddled things. Facts were easily quantified, contained, hidden from prying eyes. Facts happened, that was all, and how anyone might have felt about them was purely irrelevant.

But now, he supposed it was fitting to look again -- in the spirit of completion. One last look. One final time. But still, he sat for a long time there in the darkened kitchen, silvery flickers glinting across his face. The pull of it was profound, and he knew how easy it would be to just let himself fall headlong into the past -- gory, grotesque, or glorious, it still had the comfort of being complete. No guesses to miss, no pitfalls to trigger, no horrible answers to dreadful questions one never knew to ask until it was far too late. Nothing left to wonder.

Except possibly why.

At length, he did look. And in looking, saw very much what he had expected -- and feared -- he would see; a hero who was alone behind his eyes, no matter how many friends and allies surround him; a boy who believed in nobody but himself, and all too often could not even manage that; a soul bound tight in constant, bitter expectation -- empty and brittle, hollowed by betrayal and war; a man who held the hope of dying as his only reason to live.

Memories clung wetly to his cheeks as he returned to himself, cold and cloying in the long light of a winter's day. He had been submerged all night, and to judge by the thin rind of sunlight on the countertops, all morning, and into the afternoon as well.

He dashed the wetness off his face with a swipe of his sleeve, and filled his lungs until his ribs creaked. Spinner's End was cold through, bitter for want of fire or charm to force it warm. And it seemed to Severus, as he rose from the battered table, that it might always have been thus, hearth fires and heating charms notwithstanding.

The parlour looked grimy, despite -- how long? Three days of cleaning? Five? Thirty years? Severus shook his head and raised his new wand.

"This has gone on long enough," he said.


The updraught snatches the paper, furls it wide and sweeps it aloft before the edges have time to blacken or curl. No cinder lights it, no spark takes hold in its twisting, writhing ascent. Harry sags to his knees, head craned back to watch as the paper spirals higher and higher into the darkness and smoke; over the chimney pots and the sullen city trees, until finally it is caught by the first breath of dawn, and tugged away toward the west.

And still Harry sits there, eyes streaming in the heat, face red and scorched, empty hands limp at his sides. "Coward…" he says, and chokes again. "All I wanted was for you to give me a chance -- to give yourself a chance. Why was that so much to ask? Coward..."

"Don't call me coward." He had said that before, hadn't he? Shouted it over the roar of another burning home, with the weight of a murder still resonating in the shocked hollow of his chest. That weight is gone now. There is no rage to sharpen the edge of his tongue, no loathing to twist in his throat and make him hurl the words like daggers. They come conversationally -- low, private, a confidence between strangers in the deafening roar of a life's end.

Across the garden, Harry surges to his feet, gulping the scorching, smoky air, wobbling as he spins about to search the shadows. Eyes wide, face bloodless beneath the soot and stubble, his wand a pale tremble at the end of his hand. "Who's there?" he asks, voice a tight-wound squeak that grinds into wracking coughs as the smoke and heat overcome him at last. "Snape?" he manages as his knees give, and he pitches to the ground.

Severus catches him, as always. Plucks him up in a sling of magic and levitates him away from the pyre without bothering to answer. Harry snaps his bindings the instant his feet touch the ground anyway, lashing about himself, open-handed and choking, until he catches a fistful of the invisibility cloak and pulls it from Severus' shoulders. The whisper of that silvery fabric as it slithers to the ground is louder than any shout.

And there is a moment, suspended there between their locked gazes, strung between Harry's wheezing, and Severus' measured breaths, in which neither one of them know what will happen next. A hundred actions hover there, one atom's breadth from actuality -- a blow, a kiss, a hex, a tear, a clinging unto, a turning away. A million words huddling together in the hush so dense it swallows all sound.

At last, Harry stands upright, closes his eyes, and fills his lungs. "Thought you were dead." The words slip out with the air he exhales. He takes off his glasses and wipes the back of one fist through the streaks on his face, smearing the soot.

"I know," Severus replies with a shrug. "I thought I might, but I decided not to."

And there is no disguising the barely-restrained hope in Harry's still-wet eyes as he takes a step closer and asks, "Why?" in a careful, casual voice.

Severus tucks his wand into his sleeve with a smirk. "It was my life I hated, Potter. Why should I destroy myself? Besides, " he says, leaning against the stacked trunks and folding his arms across his breast, "I wouldn't give you the satisfaction of surviving me."

Harry lets go a laugh, a damp little thing that holds equal kinship to a cough and a sob, and takes another step. "Guess not," he says, and looks up into Severus' face. His eyes gleam a smile, his cheeks are smudged with soot and tears, his lips parted and soft -- a clearer invitation has never been sent.

"Here," Severus says, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and snapping it open. He presses it into Harry's palm. "Blow your nose -- you look a disgrace."

Harry laughs again, the sound growing stronger now. He puts the handkerchief to its intended use, and even manages to smear the grime on his face about a little with a clean corner. "Better?"

Severus catches his chin, tilts it this way and that, so that the fire's glow caresses the planes and angles of this face which has become so maddeningly familiar to him over the past eight years. How strange now, to look at Harry Potter, and see just Harry there. Not Potter, not a catalogue his unforgivable mistakes, not a damnation embodied in a glint of green eyes, a tousle of black hair, and a scar; just a young man who, for some reason not even Merlin could make sense of, seems to want him.

"It might be," Severus allows, wrinkling his nose, "if you did not smell like whiskey, burned rubble, and three days' unwashed sweat. Have you not bathed since I-"

Laughing, Harry kisses him. A burst of joy against his lips, awkward, jubilant, careless. A fierce embrace, that speaks of welcome rather than holding, trapping, keeping. Severus catches that wiry body, holds him close, kisses him back, and does not particularly feel like running. All the furies that have pursued him from sin to sin throughout his life are collapsing to ash behind him -- not even a pack of cards anymore. Nothing to flee. Not with such promise kissing a heated, wet stripe along Severus' jaw to whisper in his ear.

"Can we go home now?"

Severus cuts his eyes at the silvery puddle of invisibility cloak, snagged in the twiggy branches of a witch hazel bush. "You'll want that, won't you?" And while Harry scoops his treasure up, Severus shrinks his own down to matchbook size and slips the lot into his pocket.

"Ready?" Harry asks, holding out his hand. And for a moment, it is on Severus' tongue to offer up 'That's the way to do it'. But he is fairly certain Harry wouldn't understand. So he takes his hand, pulls the young man in against his side, and gives him a nod.

The crack of their disapparation sounds nothing like thunder at all.

~* Fin *~