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Can't Take the Sky

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~* August 16th, 1997 *~

Harry Potter dreamed of flying.

That in itself was nothing new. He had always dreamed of it, long before he'd even known that broomsticks and thestrals and motorbikes could take him high above the trees; above the sound of scolding, scornful voices; out of arm's and foot's and belt's and thrown stone's reach. Up high enough that Little Whinging would only be a grimy sort of smudge on the green velvet patchwork, peaceful under the wide-open sky. Just like those aerial pictures taken from the satellites that Harry had seen in Dudley's contraband National Geographic magazines.

African women with naked breasts never featured in Harry's dreams, but those great, big skies certainly did. In his dreams, he knew the language of clouds and wind. In his dreams, he was never hungry, never cold, and even the dark of night was ablaze with stars and faint music. In his dreams, the moon whispered secrets in his ears. In his dreams, Harry never, ever fell.

This dreaming was different though. This time, the earth below him was a baleful thing, ragged and hungry, and filled with pain. It reached up for him whenever he tired, and its touch was agony. A glint of gold became a woman's screech, a man's howl, a dragon's shriek, a roar of fire and force, and whelming, twisting heat, crushing weight, burning, drowning, screaming, fighting, trapped, dying-

His only escape lay in height, cold, and darkness. He wasn't a coward. He just couldn't think of a way to fight horror that big. So he dreamed of flying with every desperate ounce of his will.

The clouds helped him, soothing his burns with cool, damp caresses, their murmurs meaningless but comforting. They lifted him away from the smothering heat when he was too weary to continue. The moon filled him with a silvery peace, which sounded almost like singing sometimes, and at others it stroked along his skin with a gentle, whispering touch that he couldn't stop -- didn't want to stop -- himself arching into. When orgasm washed over him, and he sobbed his release in steaming breaths to the stars, Harry felt the rattle of thunder beneath him, the brief glare of cloud-rage lightning...

And then he dreamed of rain.

Far below, the fire died with a grinding, hissing roar. Belching steam and spite, the sullen glow folded in on itself and gradually died. Harry watched it go with a sick sort of relief in his belly, too weary now even to fight for altitude as the thick, velvety clouds lowered him to the scorched earth.

"No," he whispered, hearing his own voice for the first time since the dream began. He clutched his fingers tight in the cool, fluffy cloudstuff. "Not yet. Please..."

"Yes," replied the moon at his back. "It's time. Wake up now."

Harry struggled, but weakly. Flying so long had drained him, but to fall toward that grimy little town, toward that twisted, sooty house that smelled of raised fists and angry words and hopelessness -- how could he possibly want that? Why hadn't it all burned up and blown away? Why would the sky leave him there, of all places?

"Why?"

"Because you've slept for nine bloody days now, and your next course of potions must be taken by mouth, not topically," came the irate reply. "Now wake up!" Something pinched the back of his leg, just above his knee -- pinched it hard.

Harry yelped, twisting and kicking. His hands slipped in cold, slick sheets, and he had to fling his whole weight sideways in order to wrench himself around and get his back to a wall.

Snape.

Harry's breath snagged in his throat, and his stomach gave a twist at the sight of the man sitting calmly on the bed, wiping his hands. He glanced wildly around the room, searching for his wand, his friends, some clue to tell him where he was, and why the bloody fuck Snape was sitting there at the end of the bed, looking at Harry like he was something a thestral threw up. Four blank walls stared back at him, grey and grimy and cold. No windows, no glimmer of sunlight. A Death Eater cell? But no, the doorway just visible over Snape's shoulder had no bars. It didn't even look like it had a door in at all. Through it, Harry could see part of an easy chair, and books all up and down the wall behind. Death Eaters would never give him books!

But they'd never give him a bed either, would they? And the mattress beneath him was narrow and hard, but it wasn't the bare floor, or a bloody rack! He swallowed, his eyes drawn to the table crammed into the corner at its foot. Rough-hewn and black with age, it was littered with bloody rags, pots and jars of many sizes, and a drift of bottles that looked to be the only clean things in the room. Turning his eyes back to the man who had probably brewed them all, Harry wondered why he was just sitting there? Why wasn't Snape hexing, snarling, trying to murder him... unless...

Harry glanced back at the empty bottles, and his stomach churned. The rising panic must have shown on his face, because Snape rolled his eyes in disgust.

"Why yes, Potter, I did, in point of fact, repair your broken jaw, cheek, ribs and arm, and re-grow your eye, your fingernails, your hair, and most of your skin purely because I wanted you to be healthy when I poisoned you." He flung his towel onto the table and stood. "Imbecile."

Harry swallowed, mouth so dry that his throat clicked. Then the pain registered: a tight-pulled ache in his legs, belly and face, with a feverish sort of stiffness in every joint, and a pounding just starting up the back of his skull. He looked down, winced to see the shiny mass of scars on his naked thighs and the top of one foot. Then he raised his hand to see more of the same across his knuckles and wrist. He only just stopped himself reaching to touch his face as well.

"What..." his voice creaked. He swallowed again. "What happened? How did-" His hand seized in a sudden cramp, and Harry curled about it, panic returning. Where the hell was he?

"You truly don't remember?" Snape asked, the ugly sneer fading a bit.

Harry was already shaking his head, more refusal than denial, because he didn't know what he remembered. It was all vague, and muzzy. Something about water and fire, and... he swallowed, looked hard at his red, scabbed feet, and tried to piece it together: They had gone after the locket -- the real one. The one they'd found in the curio cabinet at Grimmauld Place and thrown into the rubbish nearly a year before Harry had even known what a Horcrux was. They had found it at another one of the Black family houses, and... He shook his head. He didn't remember any fire there. Just sunlight and roses, and narked off house elves.

"You don't recall breaking into Monkshood Cottage with your two little friends?" Snape went on, sidling closer. "You don't recall blackmailing the house elves to let you search the place?"

He hadn't! He'd only told them to leave him alone, and because he was the Black heir, they didn't have a choice. Hermione hadn't liked it, but none of them knew when Narcissa Malfoy would be coming back, and they didn't have time to arse about. Blinking at the onslaught of memory and hoping he could get Snape to fill in the rest, Harry folded his arms about his shivering chest and drew his knees up in front. He eyed the blanket around the foot of the bed and concentrated on keeping his face impassive.

Snape took another step, and his voice turned nastily pleased. "You don't recall sending Granger and Weasley away without even searching the room to be sure you were alone?" Harry's head snapped up at that, but before he could question, Snape thrust a bottle at him. "Drink this." His smile was as ugly as his voice had been, and Harry glared.

"Not on your life."

"Not on yours either," the man smirked, hand unwavering. "That stage of your healing is past. Your good looks are all that remains at stake now."

"No!" Harry tried to slap the bottle to the ground, but he was sore and slow, and Snape snatched it away with a curse. "I watched you kill him! He was helpless, and you did it anyway! No fucking way I'm trusting you now!" If he thought Harry cared a farthing for another scar or two, it just showed how little he knew about anything. Harry wouldd live with a bag over his head before he'd take anything Snape handed him.

A muscle jumped in Snape's jaw and he blew his breath out hard through his nose. Harry curled his fists as tight as they would go, ready despite the pain, to fight whatever the bastard meant to try. Wand or no wand, he would go down fighting, not begging for mercy!

But Snape did not, as Harry expected, lunge for his nose to cut off his air and force his mouth open. Instead, he smiled -- a cold, loathing thing, -- and pulled his own wand from his sleeve. "Spare me the dramatics, Potter," he said, and tapped his wand against the bottle. The surly reddish potion inside disappeared abruptly. "It's not as though I actually need your cooperation, now you're awake."

"What?" Harry sat up straighter, alarmed. Then that black wand pointed at him, and he felt a sudden, inexplicable cramp, high up in his belly. He swallowed hard, fury rising as Snape's expression turned smug. "Fuck you!" he hissed, and crammed two fingers as far into his throat as he could manage.

"Stop that, you infernal brat," Snape bellowed, yanking his wand back out. Harry lunged at him, knocking it from his grip before the tip had cleared his sleeve, but his hand refused to close properly when he snatched at the wand. It clattered to the floor, and before Harry could dive after it Snape was on him -- a great, grappling weight in scratchy wool robes.

But there was something Harry had learned in his years at Hogwarts: once you took away their wands, wizards were bloody useless in a piss-up. They couldn't run, couldn't dodge, couldn't kick, couldn't take or deliver a punch, and with the exception of the Weasleys, couldn't flat-out scrap if their lives depended on it. Harry could do all those things -- Dudley and his friends had given him plenty of practice at it, after all.

Harry didn't need a wand to make his attacker hurt, and hurt badly, and although he was sore, queasy, and furious, he set out to prove exactly that. Snape was lean, wiry and strong, but Harry was too. And Harry wasn't afraid to bash his head at that great, greasy nose, to kick at Snape's bony knees, to pinch the soft flesh under his arms, to punch at his belly, to bite whenever a hand came close to his face, and to rip at handfuls of that long, greasy hair. He employed every single dirty trick Dudley had ever used on him, and he did it with relish.

Bottles crashed around them, bedding and rags tangling fists and feet, robes and hair tearing as they rolled about the tiny room. Harry'd just got an elbow-jab at Snape's throat, sent him reeling back and gagging, won himself enough slack to almost slither free and run. He was reaching for the bed's leg, when Snape's hand came down like a vise between his legs, and twisted.

Harry's breath fled in a squeak, his vision strobing red as the pain shocked through him. Another crushing yank halted his instinctive kick, and a third destroyed even the slightest inclination to squirm or, in fact, to do anything but curl up tight and whimper. A hand wove roughly into his fringe though, and stopped even that furtive motion, pulling Harry's face up to the light, putting it nose to nose with his enemy.

"Think, Potter, just for a moment or two," Snape hissed, breath hot on his cheek. "If I meant to poison you, I could have done so in a thousand ways before this. Even you must realize that I did not need your cooperation to kill you. If I wanted you dead, would I have allowed you to awaken at all?"

Harry struggled for breath, every muscle tense as he glared at those black eyes and recalled a thousand arguments gone before. "Yes," he gritted, "You would. Voldemo -- Ah!" he yelped at another squeeze, then struggled on. "Vol. De. Mort wants to kill me himself. You know he said so."

Snape made a rude noise. "You heard me say so, to stop Yancey from killing you at Hogwarts, you useless fool!"

"I heard him say it!" Harry leaned in, showing his teeth in fury. "He said it the night-" The night Cedric Diggory was killed. The night Wormtail used my blood to bring him back. The night you went crawling back to him. Harry took a deep breath and tried again. "He said as much the night of the third Tri-wizard trial."

The hand between his legs eased just the tiniest bit. "And what else did the Dark Lord say?" Snape asked, sounding almost curious. He had one leg thrown over Harry's, pinning his knee to the floor, and his body was twisted so that even if Harry could sling his other knee into play, it would at best hit Snape in the shoulder. Not a good enough hit to get free on.

"What, is your memory going, Sir?" Harry jeered. "It's only been two years, but I remember that night in the graveyard clear as a bell."

But Snape didn't take the bait. "I was not there that night, Potter," he said. "I did not answer the summons, as you know, having seen me at Hogwarts upon your return. Now what else did he say?"

Harry closed his eyes and bit shut his lips.

The hand in his fringe tightened and gave his head a jerk. "Potter..." Snape's voice was thick with warning. Harry clenched his eyes shut tighter. Then the grip gave loose all of a sudden, but before Harry could move, Snape grabbed his face in both hands, using his entire body to pin Harry to the floor. "Enough of your secrets, boy," he snarled. "Tell me what he said!"

"Go on then," Harry yelled back, grabbing Snape's wrists. "Rip it out of my mind if you want it so badly! It's not like you ever wanted me to learn how to stop you!"

That gave the greasy bastard a moment's pause, but after a searching moment, the old familiar sneer was back in place. "Grateful as I am for the invitation, I've had enough exposure to what passes for your brain to last me several lifetimes." Harry, beyond fighting rage, finally noticed that his hands were closing properly again. He flicked a glance at his reddened, scar-twisted knuckles, but couldn't tell if they were better than before or not. Snape, saw though, and wiped a thumb across Harry's cheek in a parody of kindness. "I merely wish to understand your reasoning, Potter, assuming you have any," he said. "What in seven hells could have inspired you to break into a house where you knew you were likely to encounter the wife of a Death Eater who has tried to kill you more than once? And what made you decide to steal that particular dark artefact once you were there?"

No point pretending then. Harry took a breath, and met his gaze, straining to focus so close. "Given that you're a loyal Death Eater yourself, Sir, I don't think I need to tell you why I was there, or what I was doing. If you were there, and you know I took it, then you know enough."

Snape hissed, furious. "Oh, I know well enough that you didn't even think to cast the most basic shielding spell on yourself, or containment on it before you made off with it, you bloody idiot! And I know that you tried to get yourself and your little friends killed the very next night, down in the Chamber of Secrets!"

Harry flinched, blinked as more shadows took shape in his mind: icy water, smell of dust and decay in the air, a hunched, shuffling figure that he thought for a moment he knew, Hermione's stifled yelp, Ron's sudden, horrified cursing at his back...

"Tell me what in seven hells made you decide to smash not one, but TWO objects which you knew for a fact were not only dangerous, but deadly!" Snape's face was going red, his voice rising, and his grip on Harry's face trembling and taut. "And to do it with a basilisk's fang, which you knew to be so poisonous that merely handling it could easily have killed you on its own! Has your adoring press coverage convinced you of your own invulnerability, or did you just imagine you were too important to be subject to the basic rules of magic?"

All the pieces fell into place, the memory whole and horrible for one single, freezing moment. Then he slammed most of it behind a door in his mind, and focused on the important part. "It worked," he gritted through his teeth, digging his fingers into those thin wrists, but unable to leverage them away. "It worked. The locket and the cup..." damn. Had Snape known about the cup? Too late now. "They're destroyed. And my blood protected me..." Snape shifted, his bony elbow finding a bruise across Harry's ribs, making him abruptly remember stone serpents crashing to the floor as the Chamber of Secrets filled up with howling flame. "The curse," his voice shook. He swallowed hard. "That's why I sent Ron and Hermione away. The curse, on both the cup and the locket, was cast before... before he took my blood. It couldn't kill me --"

"Your blood protected you?" Snape shouted back. "Your mother's magic didn't do you much good against the interchange explosion, you idiot! Destroying one -- worse yet, TWO dark artefacts with another! Merlin's beard, didn't the Headmaster tell you the first thing about his-"

Harry saw red, this time from a wholly different kind of pain. "The Headmaster didn't tell me much about a lot of things," he shouted, jabbing his fist into the Snape's ribs, just under his armpit. The man grunted, and flinched just enough that Harry could finally get the leverage to throw him off and get to his feet. There was no question as he did that whatever potion Snape had spelled into him was making the scars fade, lifting the bone-deep aches he'd awoken with. It really did seem to be just a healing potion, but that only made Harry angrier. "And thanks to you, now he never will," he added, snatching the blanket from the foot of the bed to cover himself.

Snape only sat there on the floor for a long moment, robes flared out around his legs, hands spread wide on his knees. He looked like he was waiting for something, but when all Harry did was stare back at him, he seemed to come to a decision. He reached beneath the bed, recovered his wand, and jammed it back into his sleeve. Harry let himself drop back down onto the bed then, and began to tug the bedding back up where it belonged while Snape cleared up what had fallen from the table when they'd rolled into it.

The cleanup didn't last nearly long enough to calm the uncertainty Harry felt boiling under his belly. "It did work," he muttered, and told himself it was for his own ears. "They're destroyed. They couldn't have survived that."

Slapping dust from his knees, Snape gave him a considering look, then crossed his arms over his chest: "Yes. They are destroyed. And through luck alone, it seems, you avoided being destroyed along with them. You do realize that Narcissa Malfoy had to leave that house now that you've been there, don't you?"

Harry looked up, confused. "Why? It's not like I burned the place down. She wasn't supposed to be there when we went. Nobody was."

"YOU were not supposed to be there," Snape said, though his voice lacked heat. Then he sighed loudly. "But you couldn't have stopped to think that your presence in her house would give her yet another dangerous secret, could you? Never were one to consider anyone's troubles but your own, after all. Hardly enough that she's unable to live in her own home, or to see her own son while you and the Dark Lord try and kill each other, now she's reduced to-"

"Wait," Harry cut him off, cold and angry. "You are not going to make me feel guilty for taking back something that didn't even belong to her in the first place. Especially when I didn't so much as say a harsh word to her while I did it! If she's got to move house now, well I can think of a lot of people who have it worse, and they didn't even marry Death Eaters!" He slashed his hand through the air, wishing he had his wand just for a second or two. "If her house has to be such a big secret from Voldemort, what were you even doing there?"

"Where did you get the idea to use the fang on the cup and the locket?" Snape fired back. "Was it Granger's notion?"

So that was how it would work. Harry tucked his feet up under the edge of the blanket, and composed his answer. "Second year, when Tom Riddle's diary tried to kill Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets, I stabbed it with the basilisk fang, and that destroyed it. Ginny seemed okay afterward." he said. "If it worked then, I figured it would work again." There. Direct enough, even if it did leave out the desperate retreat when spell after spell didn't work, didn't work, didn't stop him, didn't even make the awful thing bleed. It left out the iron-cold hands holding his head underneath the water, the mad grab for a weapon he could barely see, and the blind luck that made him catch the fang without cutting himself on it. Snape didn't need to know any of that, damn it. Determined, Harry tried his own question again. "What were you doing at Mrs. Malfoy's house?"

"I was bringing her news of her son, and examining her for curse-signs," Snape replied without hesitation. "Her elves were alarmed by her failing health, and came to fetch me about thirty minutes before you broke into the place. You found her locket there on the fireside table because I had already determined that it was the source of her illness, and taken it away from her. How did you know that her locket was linked to the Dark Lord?"

"It wasn't hers!" Harry couldn't stop the anger in his voice. Snape stared at him, all eyebrow, waiting for him to explain. "Kreacher stole it from Grimmauld Place two years ago. He took it to Mrs. Malfoy when he betrayed Sirius, and I figured she'd probably had it ever since."

The eyebrow didn't drop. "One must wonder just what you offered Kreacher to make him overlook his hatred of the Order enough to tell you that."

"He didn't have a choice," Harry admitted, remembering how the surly elf's face had twisted with agony and loathing as he'd fought Harry's command. "He's... he was my elf then. I made him tell me where it was." Snape just kept looking at him, and eventually, Harry sighed. "He didn't want to say, but he wasn't strong enough to fight the direct order. It was too much for his heart though. He died." And begged with his last breath for Harry to mount his head onto the wall along with his ancestors'. And, though he hadn't the first idea how to go about getting it done, Harry had promised the sorry creature exactly that.

"Hmph. No doubt the filthy wretch is more content now anyway," Snape said. "Now, what did you-"

"No," Harry told him. "My turn. If it was you who got me out of the fire, why didn't you take me to Hospital?" Harry held up a hand as Snape's face turned scornful. "And don't give me bollocks about being a wanted criminal, because if you could get into Hogwarts in the first place, you could have got me to the infirmary!"

Snape stared at him for a long moment, as though puzzling him out. "I did not get you out of the fire, as it happens," he answered after awhile. "However, I did remove you from the infirmary." This time it was Snape who put up his hand. "With Madam Pomfrey's permission, and your consent, though I suppose I oughtn't to be surprised that you do not remember giving it. You were far too lucid and sensible to have been rightly yourself at the time."

Harry bit his lips and forced his temper down. "Why? Why would Pomfrey send me with you? Why not take me to St. Mungo's if she couldn't heal me herself?"

"For Madam Pomfrey, I shall not answer," Snape said. "You will recall what happened on your own soon enough, and if not, then I shall show you my memory of it when you are calmer. As for why you are here -- and no, you needn't bother to ask where here is, Potter, -- rather than at St Mungo's, it is that those hacks haven't the first idea how to treat injuries like yours."

"Bollocks!"

"Dark heeds dark more readily than it does light, Potter," Snape fired back. "However no lily-handed healer would have dared to make or apply the potions I did, even if they knew to try. Under their care, the healing you accomplished here in nine days' time would have taken up nine months... Though, by all means, do continue to pick at the scabs if you wish the scars to become permanent." Caught out, Harry glared, but stopped scratching at his arm and folded his hands in his lap. Snape gave a snort, and rolled his eyes. "I might add that the Dark Lord has servants even in St. Mungo's. Oh yes, Potter. There are those who have standing orders, should you ever turn up at that hospital, and once the Order had relaxed its vigilance, they would have acted!"

Harry made a rude noise, but that was all he could really manage. He remembered all too well how Wormtail had got about for years under the Order's noses, not to mention the fake Moody in Harry's third year. He shivered, and chaffed his arms. "Can't you cast a warming spell or something?" he grumbled. "It's freezing in here."

"There is a chilling charm on you," Snape replied. "Once the scars have faded it will cease. Who in the Order knows what you are doing now?"

"Well, unless you owled them to say that you were having me up for tea, none of them."

"Try not to be more puerile than you must be, Potter," he snarled. "Who knows about the horcruxes?"

Harry looked at him for a long moment, undecided. "Didn't the Headmaster tell you about them?"

He wasn't surprised when Snape shook his head. "Regulus Black told me about them, long ago. The implications were not difficult to read, once the diary came to light. Albus'... attempt to destroy the Gaunt signet rendered my suspicions into certainty." He looked up again, and caught Harry's gaze with a bitter eye. "Surely you did not suppose you were the only one from whom the old man kept secrets?"

Actually, Harry had thought exactly that. He examined his foot, which had been wrinkled and shiny with scar just a few minutes past. Now it looked almost back to normal. "His... the Headmaster's hand," Harry ventured. "That was because of the ring?"

"Yes," Snape sighed, looking fixedly at the wall. "He tried to destroy the horcrux with light magic, and it not only fought back, it nearly killed him." Then he looked once more at Harry, and that shuttered-off look turned into pure annoyance. "Now answer the question, Potter; who KNOWS?"

"Ron and Hermione." He answered before he could think of a reason not to. "And Dobby. No one else." Something like relief washed over Snape's features, and it made Harry's stomach grip up again. "You think there's a traitor in the..." he couldn't finish the sentence; the irony of it was so choking thick.

Giving him a disgusted sneer, Snape stood. "Always, Potter. Enough questions. Lie down and rest now."

"No," Harry protested, unfurling his legs from the blanket.

He froze as Snape's wand whipped out to point at his nose. "Lie down and rest," the dark man growled, "or I will bind you down and dose you insensible!"

"No!" Harry shouted, suddenly angry beyond sense. "Tell me why! Tell me why you killed him!"

The wand flickered. Green, vine-like ropes shot out from the bedstead, and wrestled Harry down flat. "If you must ask, Potter," Snape said as the sheets and blanket slithered into place around Harry, despite his struggles, "then you would not understand the answer."

Harry's next words never made it to his lips, so fast did the blackness of sleep whelm him under.

~* August 17th, 1997 *~

He didn't dream of flying this time. There was no wind, no sky, no moon and no cloud to ease the absolute darkness. He could touch nothing, could get no sense of direction, or movement, or depth -- only of time.

The one thing of which Harry was certain, was that every second passing, each moment he spent in that darkness, his goal was slipping farther from his grasp. But try as he might, he could find nothing against which to struggle for purchase. He could thrash, he could shout, he could strain with all his might, but the darkness did not so much as shiver around him.

And he realized, as the minutes bled away, that he was beginning to forget exactly what it was he meant to do in the first place.

He woke with a lurch and a shout, heart hammering, sheets stuck clammy and damp to his skin. It was only after several tense moments of searching the darkened room that Harry could remember where he was.

Snape's mysterious 'here'. Healed and unbound, but wandless, and no less trapped than when he'd been tied down to the bed. The only light in the little cell came from the adjoining room; a flickering, yellow glow that made the outline of the doorway dance along the floor. He could see glints of metal bindings on the spines of the books, and the chair had been moved sometime while he slept. Clearly... he could see clearly. Harry blinked twice and touched his cheek, but he didn't find his glasses there. Casting about the room, he couldn't see them anywhere, in fact. The little table at the foot of his bed had been cleared off and there was nothing else except a bare stool and a metal pot, which Harry guessed was meant to serve for a toilet.

Snape had said something about his eyes, hadn't he? Harry shivered, imagining Snape's cold fingers touching his face, then shook it off. Maybe it was a temporary charm, or something to stop Harry stumbling about and breaking things while Snape was keeping him there. It would probably fade as soon as he got away.

Speaking of which...

"Hello?" he called, but there was no reply. Slipping from the bed, he tugged loose a sheet to wrap around him and went to have a look at the rest of 'here' while he could do so without Snape looming over him.

The first room was a study; walls piled high with books whose titles were spelled to shift and blur whenever Harry tried to focus on them. There was only the one regally threadbare chair. A portrait of a dark-haired, somber woman hung over the fireplace, and a book-littered desk beside. Harry tried to have a look at the open books, but they snapped shut as he drew near, so he thought better of trying to pick one up.

The room's one other doorway led to a potions workroom, very much like the one Snape had back at Hogwarts. Only in this one, Harry didn't recognize most of the things floating in their jars. Nor did he really want to. The whole place just felt dark; suffocating, enfolding, crushing.

Panting a little, he backed out and sought the relative light of the study. Dropping into the chair -- which was as comfortable as it looked to be -- Harry made himself calm down and think, stretching his bare feet out toward the fire and drawing patterns in the grubby upholstery's nap. There hadn't been another door -- nothing that didn't lead to one of the three rooms he'd already been able to find -- and that just didn't make any sense at all. Because Snape had to get in somehow, didn't he?

He couldn't just be apparating in and out, because that would be careless. And Snape might have been a murderous, vindictive, hateful bastard and a traitor, but he just wasn't careless. He wouldn't have all this stuff, his books and his potions supplies, his hostage, in a place where he wouldn't be able to get to them if something happened to his wand.

"There has to be a door," he said to himself, eyeing the bookshelves for some sign that one of them might possibly move. They all looked rickety, as though it was only the inward press of the walls, and the weight of the books that was keeping them upright. "There has to be..."

Then he took a second look at the painting. It was big enough, certainly, and if it hadn't been hung nearly six feet off the floor, Harry would have suspected it at first glance. But then six feet wouldn't be much of a jump down for a lanky bastard like Snape, would it? And if he were to push the desk over in front of the fireplace and put the chair just next to it... Harry scrambled to his feet, and began to move the furniture.

The woman in the painting watched him, her dark eyes calm and unsurprised as he clambered onto the stone mantle and came nose to nose with her at last. Harry glanced over her painting, noting the dull grey landscape just visible through her window, and that she, like Snape, seemed to like her library piled in a jumble of books around her. Oddly, her hand rested next to a round bowl of water, like a fishbowl, but without the fish inside. She herself wasn't what anybody would call 'pretty'. It was clear that she'd helped set the pattern for Snape's looks; the high, square brow, the darkly glittering eyes and thin mouth. On her though, the sum added up to something closer to sorrow than the ingrained resentment that seemed to live in Snape's face. She didn't look much like Harry remembered of Snape's mum from that faded newspaper clipping Hermione had dug up, but he supposed she could have been an older relative easily enough.

"I don't suppose you'd mind opening, would you, ma'am?" Harry asked. Courtesy didn't cost anything, after all, and it didn't seem as though she already hated him, like Snape did...

"I'm afraid not, young man," she answered with a shake of her head. "And I'd rather you did not go prizing at my frame, either. You see, I was painted with my wand," she pulled the pale length of wood from her sleeve and displayed it. "And as I've waited quite a few years to meet you, I had really much rather not start our acquaintance out on a hostile note."

"But you won't let me leave?" Disarmed despite himself, Harry stepped back down to the table. It seemed more polite than crowding close to her canvas, after all.

"It isn't safe just now," she explained dismissively. "You'd be seen if I let you go now. It's best to wait a bit."

"Seen by whom?" Harry tried to make the question innocent, but he got the impression she wasn't fooled.

"Seen by Severus' other student, of course. I understand the two of you don't exactly get on?" Her smirk let Harry know he hadn't managed to keep the reaction from his face. "Severus is keeping the boy busy enough to keep him out of trouble, but we both think you'd be a dangerous distraction. One Draco Malfoy cannot afford, with two sides of a war hunting for his head, wouldn't you agree?"

That time he didn't try to stop his snort. "Not really. If Snape's not going to turn him over to Voldemort, then why keep him around at all? I mean if the Death Eaters want him, then --"

"Tsk. Now you're just being thick," she cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Now let me see those eyes, if you please." Wary and annoyed, Harry looked up. She searched his gaze for a long moment, and then her face broke into a smile. It was the kind of smile Harry just knew he would never see on Snape's face -- full of pleasure, satisfaction, a quiet sort of joy, and something like relief as well. "Yes... I thought it would be you."

"I'm sorry." Harry blinked, still confused. "I don't understand. We haven't met, have we?"

She had a quiet laugh, the kind Harry had learned when he was little, the kind you make when you're happy, and you don't want someone else to hear and come take the happiness away. "No. We haven't, and we never will, but for here in this little priest-hole. My name is Eileen Prince-Snape, and I died a year or so before you were born. But I've seen you before, Chosen One," Her long, pale fingers caressed the water bowl, which suddenly looked much more like a gazing crystal than a fishbowl. "I've seen you quite a few times."

More prophesy... Harry felt ill. "Look, um... Ma'am," he sighed. "Please don't take this personally, but I really don't put much stock in all that stuff." He waved a hand at her water bowl, and the deck of cards he could just see in the shadow of her sleeve. "We had to take it in school, you see, and Professor Trelawney's kind of..."

She laughed again, and this time, it was louder. "Oh, believe me, young man, I went to school with Sybil Trelawney, and I wouldn't believe a word out of her mouth either. Especially given that she slept through every accurate prediction she ever made. All two of them, from what I understand." Harry couldn't bring himself to smile at that, given how Trelawney's predictions had made his own life hell, but for Eileen's sake, he tried. "Did you know she once read my palm, and tried to convince me that I'd die in childbirth? At the age of seventeen?" She made a face. "Clearly she missed that mark. However, just as you do not judge all Slytherins by Draco Malfoy, I shall ask that you not judge all diviners by old Yawney Trelawney."

Harry nodded and looked away, embarrassed. "I suppose you're going to tell me what you predicted now?" He wasn't looking forward to it, but he figured he had no choice, unless he wanted the guardian of the only exit narked at him.

He glanced back up when she didn't answer, and found her watching him with a smirk that made her face disturbingly familiar. But her eyes, at least, weren't cruel when she shook her head. "No, I don't think that's necessary. My predictions would only distract you just now, and we can't have that." Her smirk turned into a knowing smile, which Harry found, if possible, even more disturbing. "After all, you didn't need to know about my past predictions for them to be true, did you?"

"What?" Harry asked, suddenly riveted. "What's come true already?"

But his only answer was another flash of that smirk as she turned her head to look behind her. "Oh dear," she said in the most falsely innocent voice Harry had ever heard, "Severus is coming down. Best get out of the way, Mr. Potter, he looks in a bit of a temper..." Harry jumped to the floor and backed away, heart hammering. "The table too!" Eileen hissed, "and hurry up!"

He grabbed the thing, and dragged it back toward its previous place, the sheet slipping off his shoulder and trailing under his feet as he went. But a creak, and a hiss of angry breath from behind him let Harry know that he hadn't moved fast enough. He turned to find Snape standing on the mantle piece, the painting swung aside and empty as books flew from the shelves to form steps down to the floor. He looked about like normal: furious.

"What are you doing?" he snarled.

Harry wrapped the sheet close and stood up straight. "Putting your desk back. And I didn't touch anything else in here, before you accuse me of it, so you can just keep your pants up."

"Damn your eyes." The books stopped flying, and Snape stormed down into the room, banging the portrait shut behind him. "You've no business being in my study!"

Harry had to laugh at that. "I've no business being in your house at all, but here I am." He'd had enough of accusations that weren't down to him, and this was just another one of them. He nodded up at the painting by way of changing the subject. "What's your mother been saying about me?"

Snape stopped, face going white, wand frozen mid-arc as he turned to glare at the painting, whose subject had not reappeared. Then his face went red and blotchy, and he banished the book-steps back to their places with a savage slash of his wand.

Intrigued, Harry pressed. "Well? She said they've been coming true. I've a right to know."

"Divination is a sham, Potter," Snape's voice was cold as lead. "If she could truly read the future in water, do you imagine she would have married her own murderer?"

"Well maybe she did it because she knew it would give her you." The words were out of his mouth before Harry'd even fully thought of them. He'd have grabbed them back and swallowed them if he could have done, but at Snape's ferocious look, he boosted his chin in defiance. "Didn't Dumbledore say that a mother's love is the most powerful magic of all?"

Snape turned away, his back rigid, his arms straight and hard at his sides. Harry wrapped his sheet tighter, leaned against the table, and waited for the verdict. After a moment, Snape took a deep breath, blew it out hard. "If you're well enough to invade my privacy and interrogate my paintings," he said, striding through to the sleeping cell and pulling a cloth bundle from his pocket. "Then you're fit to assist in the final part of your treatment. Come and get dressed."

Harry followed, and picked up the clothes as Snape enlarged them to proper size. The green sweatshirt looked comfortable enough, but he held up jeans doubtfully. They looked far too small.

"Not elegant enough for you?" Snape sneered. "Do pardon me for not hiring a private designer to outfit you as befits the Hero of Bloody Gryff-"

"Oh, belt up and give me the pants," Harry growled back.

Snape raised an eyebrow, then turned and walked from the room, saying, "Get them yourself, Hero."

"What about my wand then?" Harry asked as he pulled the clothes on.

"Still where you dropped it in the Chamber of Secrets, I should think," Snape's voice came back from the study.

"What? You just left it there?"

"I, Potter? Surely you must have realized by now that had I been faced with the choice of leaping into a fiery pit to save you, or leaving you to reap the whirlwind on your own, we would be having quite a different conversation just now."

Yeah. Right. Which was why he'd healed Harry at all, instead of handing him over to the Dark Lord. Harry pulled on the sweatshirt and shook his head. "Then if you didn't get me out, who did?"

"I've no idea," Snape answered. "Though I'd hazard a guess that your Weasley friends, Hagrid, and Headmistress McGonagall were most likely involved. So you needn't worry. They'll have recovered your wand by now."

"But the fire!" Harry yelped, zipping up hastily and rushing after him. "What if it-"

Snape's look of pure disgust stopped him cold. "You're worried that your phoenix core wand might have perished in flames..." He shook his head. "Sometimes, Potter, the depth of your ignorance astonishes even me." Turning back to the table, he put his wand to his temple, drew out a long, silvery thread of memory, and dropped it into a pensieve Harry was certain hadn't been anywhere in the study before.

Remembering the last of Snape's memories he'd glimpsed, Harry turned away to stare at the fire. But the cruel amusement in Snape's voice proved he'd seen Harry's face anyhow. "I'll forbid you to look in it if you prefer," he said, "but as there is a time consideration in play, might I suggest that you simply make an effort to learn what you need to know without playing childish games?"

Harry felt his face go hot, despite all he could do to stop it. "What is it?" he asked. "The memory, I mean; what's it of?"

But the dark man only smirked at him, turned on his heel, and strode into the workroom. "Join me when you've finished," he called back. "There is work to be done, and I'll not have you sitting idle while I do it."

 

~* August 7th, 1997 *~

"Harry's dead!" the ghost wailed, bursting out of the kitchen drain in a geyser of grey, soapy water. Alarmed, Draco scrambled back from the sink, jostling a table half-full of dishes as she made to hug him. "Oh, it's horrible! Whatever shall we doooooo!? He's dead, Draco, and he didn't even stay to keep me company after the horrid dead thing drowned him, and he promised he'd visit, and now he's gone, and-"

"Cease that wailing at once!" Snape appeared, all towering fury in the kitchen's doorway. Myrtle squeaked and ducked back into the drain. "Get back out here!" he bellowed. "Explain yourself at once!"

Still leaning on the little table, white-faced and shaking, Draco gave a loud gulp. "He... Potter's dead?"

"Don't be stupid," Snape barked. "Of course he isn't dead. And what would a bloody hysterical ghost know about it if he was?"

"I saw it! Myrtle's voice came out of the drain with a strange, tinny sort of outrage. "The nasty horrid dead man put him under the water down in the secret room where the drains all come out. He pushed him down and held him there!" She paused for another wail, then worked her head out of the tap to glare. "And then there was an awful bang, and I ran away."

"What dead man?" Draco asked, stepping forward. "Myrtle, what secret room do you mean?"

"What manner of bang, damn you?" Snape shouted over him.

"I don't know," the ghost admitted. "I got scared. Don't shout at me!"

But the blotchy red staining Snape's face made it plain he was going to do just that. Harry, fully well aware that he wasn't even there, took a step back from it. "YOU ARE ALREADY DEAD, YOU ECTOPLASMIC NINNY! WHY THE BLOODY HELL WOULD YOU-"

He might have gone on a good deal longer, but just then something came through the wall, massive and blindingly silver. Harry squinted as the low, bulky shape stood up on two legs, towering to the ceiling, its enormous paws spread wide. It was a bear Patronus, Harry realized, and it was angry.

And it was looking directly at Snape.

"What the hell is that?" Draco squeaked, his back pressed to the far wall, wand in hand.

Snape didn't spare him a glance, but Harry noticed that his skin had gone chalky white and his face quite, quite still. "It is a messenger," he said at last. The bear gave a silent roar and carved the air with its claws again. Harry wondered, suddenly, if Patronuses could attack other things than just Dementors. But before it came to that, Snape sighed and looked at the floor. "Very well," he said, and just like that, the giant silver bear disappeared.

"What do you mean, 'Very well?" Draco asked, his voice squeaky with nerves. "What's going on? What did it want?"

"Nothing that need concern you," Snape answered, leaving the kitchen. Harry scrambled to follow just as fast as Draco did. In the next room -- a much larger version of the study Harry knew he stood in now -- Snape was pulling a traveling cloak from the wall. "I must go for a while. Remember my conditions to your staying here; do not touch the floo, do not answer the door, and above all, do NOT go snooping in my rooms!"

"No!" Draco shouted, drawing his wand. "You can't just leave like that and tell me not to ask! I'm not stupid, you know!"

Harry would have debated that. Snape, though, didn't bother. His wand was out of his sleeve and moving before he'd even turned around. As soon as Harry saw the blankly confused expression cross Draco's pinched features, he realized what he'd seen: Obliviatus as it was meant to be used. Impressed despite himself, Harry watched Snape cast the spell again, this time at the ghost, still weeping in his kitchen drain. Only this time, Harry took special care to watch the wand movement -- just by way of practice, of course.

Then Snape threw a handful of powder into the floo, and stepped in with a savage mutter Harry wasn't close enough to hear. And the shabby, book-crowded room whirled away in a shower of green sparks

When the swirling stopped, Harry recognized the Hogwarts infirmary at once. He didn't have to smell the too-clean air with its faint tang of potions to know it. He'd had time in the past six years to memorize every possible view of the place -- at least what was visible from the patient's cots, anyway.

This particular corner of it though, he hadn't seen. A quick look around it as Snape brushed the soot from his robes, revealed a large, square desk littered with files, and more tall file cases lining the walls, each carefully labeled with student's names. The ones on the desk, unsurprisingly, all read 'Harry Potter.'

Snape gave the little office only a passing glance before slipping out into the infirmary proper. Harry followed him, wondering a little at how Snape could dare to come back here after what he had done. More importantly who would order him to do so, and expect him to obey. But perhaps the way Snape kept carefully to the deepest shadows as he approached the only lighted area of the vast room meant that he was wondering the same things himself.

Harry hung back as well. It was one thing to know he'd been injured -- and if Myrtle was to be believed, nearly drowned, -- but that didn't mean Harry wanted to see himself there in the bed. Especially when he remembered the look of his burn-scarred skin when he'd first properly awoken. He didn't want to see that. Not on anybody, but especially not on himself.

So instead, he looked for other people; Ron and Hermione, Hagrid, Professor McGonagall, Molly, Remus -- SOMEBODY who cared about him should have been there, shouldn't they? But there was only one figure in the vast room besides the dark bundle in the bed, and the looming presence behind Harry, and that was Madam Pomfrey. The bear Patronus had to have been hers then. But why had she sent it to fetch Snape of all people?

After a moment or two, the mediwitch stood and charmed a basin of water to follow her as she left the bedside. Behind it came bobbing a wad of bloody, singed rags which must have once been clothing.

Snape waited to speak until Pomfrey had just passed by his lurking place. "What are you doing?"

"Oh!" She jumped, and the basin sloshed a little pinkish water on the floor. Then she smiled, clearly relieved, and bustled forward to catch Snape's arm. "Severus, it's you. Good, good. He's this way."

"The others?" he asked, resisting her grip and looking around the darkened infirmary, as though he thought the Order might be waiting to leap from the shadows.

Pomfrey shook her head and tugged his arm again. "I chased them all away before I sent for you. Warded the doors, and told them not to even try coming back for at least two days." Then he let her tug him into motion, and she carried on in an intense whisper as she led him toward the light. "Injuries like these, I'd have done so anyhow; I can hardly afford to waste time on questions and commentary with a patient in this state."

"Then I repeat my question," Snape said, tugging his arm from her grip and stopping dead in the middle of the aisle. "You know I am not welcome on this ground, Poppy. Why have you asked me to come back here? What are you up to?"

She gave him such a fierce look even Harry stepped back from it. "I am making a choice, Severus Snape," she hissed. "Now it's your turn. Will you carry on playing the villain to an unconvinced audience, or will you be the man I know you are, and help me save that boy's life?"

Harry followed the vicious jab of her finger through the air; he couldn't help it. He couldn't not look at the thick, lumpy pile of bandages, vaguely boy-shaped under the lights. He couldn't really see any skin, just patches of raw red and bloodless grey between the wrappings that just didn't seem to stay white. His head... nearly his whole head was wrapped up, and he'd have thought it couldn't be him, if he weren't able to make out the ruins of a Weasley jumper and his favorite t-shirt in the rag pile still floating behind the Mediwitch.

It was him. That thing in the bed really was him. God.

Behind him, Harry heard Snape hiss a breath through his nose. "What happened to him?" he whispered after a long moment.

"I'm not entirely certain," she replied. "Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger were not precisely clear with their story. Hagrid said he found Mr. Potter half-burned, face up in some kind of cistern underneath the castle... and there was some nonsense about an Inferius as well. He was apparently clutching that half-melted cup over there, but at that point, I didn't much care to listen to the details." Harry gasped, realizing that the twisted, blackened lump of metal was actually gold. A closer look at it, and he found the split, bulging shape of Slytherin's locket fused into the bottom of it.

It had worked then!

Pomfrey drew the curtains around to shield the cot from the windows and door, and continued. "He wasn't breathing when they brought him to me, Severus. His magic was still present and strong, his eyes... his eye was light responsive, his heartbeat erratic, but not weak. I cleared the water from his lungs, and I tried to treat his burns, but..." she flicked a worried glance at the bed, as though she couldn't bear to look for too long. "But I could tell pretty quickly there was more at work here than just fire. The burns are still developing. I've managed to slow them down to almost nothing, but I can't stop the damage, and I don't know how to turn it back. And through it all, I can't seem to stop thinking of Albus, and his awful accident with his hand last summer..."

Snape flinched just a little, around the eyes. If Harry hadn't been staring at the man, he'd never have seen it. "That's why you summoned me?" he asked.

Pomfrey nodded. "Yes. I want you to do for Harry what you did for Albus."

"I murdered Albus, Poppy," Snape said. Just as cold as you please, not a trace of guilt or contrition on his face, only loathing. He might have been talking about treading on an ant. Murderous rage bloomed into Harry's belly all over again.

But Pomfrey got to Snape first, slapping him so hard and quick he staggered back into the cot. "How dare you?" she whispered as his pale face reddened on one side, and his wand came free of his sleeve. "I have saved your life, young man! I have cleaned you and soothed you and mended your body more times than I can count." She slapped his wand away from her breast and caught his cloak in both hands. "I have held you through Cruciatus tremors that lasted days, and I never exposed your secrets to anyone! Don't you DARE lie to me now!"

Harry had never actually seen Snape at a loss for words before; lips parted over clenched teeth, breath frozen behind. His eyes glittered, but before he could give their malice form, a shrill whistling made them both jump apart.

"What's happening?" Snape demanded, whirling to face the bed as Pomfrey checked her pocket watch and cursed under her breath.

"He's throwing off the breathing charm again," Pomfrey cried, shoving him aside and waving her wand over his... Harry's... the patient's still chest. "Come on, young man," she said. "Don't you give up on me now!" But Harry could see how the spell just slid away, like water across a smooth stone. Again and again, she cast it, but those greyish, waxy lips didn't brighten, the single, staring eye didn't sharpen with awareness.

Harry felt his own chest aching as he watched, and he had to force himself to remember that he could breathe. This was a memory. It hadn't ended here, it couldn't have done. But why was Snape just standing there? Why did he look scared? Why didn't he do something?

Then Snape flinched, gasped, and Harry whipped back around just in time to see the staring green eye... blink.

"Yes!" Harry shouted in relief. But then Pomfrey cast the spell again, her voice beginning to crack with emotion. And again, the pale blue spell just rolled uselessly away to the floor. He wasn't breathing. He wasn't.

"MOVE!" Snape roared, and shoved the mediwitch aside as he dove to his knees. He grabbed that bandaged head by the neck, tilted it far back in one hand while he pinched the nose shut with the other. And then he covered the blue lips with his own, and forced the empty lungs to fill.

Harry gaped, astonished beyond any clear emotion as he watched the man he'd hated more than any other blow breath after breath into his mouth. Saving him. Again. Despite all he'd just said. Harry glanced at Pomfrey, hovering just behind, hands in her apron, eyes filling with tears, and an odd little smile on her face.

There came a soft noise, damp and weak. The Harry on the bed coughed, pushing weakly at Snape's hand until it released his nose. "Ron?" he asked, and coughed again as Snape sat back onto his heels. "Herm... mi'ne?"

Snape looked back at Pomfrey, who dabbed at her eyes and answered. "They're just fine, dear," she said. "You frightened us all terribly though."

"Potter," Snape interrupted, his voice angry and rough. "You will tell me exactly what happened. What the devil were you doing in the Chamber of Secrets? Who was in there with you?"

The Harry on the bed blinked hard, rolled his head in Snape's hand, as though he hadn't the strength to even think of lifting away from the touch. "Dung," he said, his voice creaking and rough. "Fletcher. Followed him... there... to get --" one bandaged hand lifted a little to point at the ruined lump of gold on his bedside table. "Cup... back."

"Impossible!" Snape managed not to shout, but it plainly took some doing. "Albus and I sealed that chamber four years ago, and we searched it first! There was no such cup in the chamber, only the basilisk carcass, and that, we burned to the bones!"

"The horcrux..." Again, that stilted movement. Harry winced to hear the pain in his own voice. "Let him... in. Has a piece of... his soul..."

Pomfrey made a strangled sound, and immediately cast a shielding spell on the ruined cup. "Whose soul, Harry?" she asked, clearly struggling to keep her soothing tone. "This Fletcher fellow's?"

"No..." Another cough. Harry thought he saw Snape's thumb ghost across his bandaged cheek as they waited it out. "Volde -- Ah! Ow!"

"You told that no-account thief your plans?" Snape hissed, fingers clenching as though offering comfort was the farthest thing from his mind. Harry, seized with a bizarrely bi-focused sense of déjà vu, shivered as more of his memory shook free. "Potter, you imbecile! Mundungus Fletcher is a-"

"No!" he gasped, pushing his club-like hand at Snape's chest. "He... stole it from... from me. Last year." Fletcher couldn't have known what it was he'd taken from Grimmauld place, Harry realized with a sickened turn of his stomach. He'd only known it was gold, and therefore valuable. And just like the diary had done with Ginny, the greedy fragment of Voldemort's soul had kept itself close, kept itself secret until it drank away all that had made the ragged beggar who he was.

"And now?" Snape's question was cool and deathly quiet.

"Dead," Harry gasped, and a shudder wracked him. "Dead. He's... was... dead..." The green eye went glassy again, his breath fluttered, then stopped in his throat. Pomfrey's watch made another horrified racket.

Staring, Harry stuffed his knuckles into his mouth and focused on his own breathing. He still had to flinch when Snape slapped him, spread hand coming away with bits of blistered skin clinging to it. Then Snape leaned over him again, pressed his mouth, and took a deep breath. Before he could blow it out though, Harry struggled awake again, his yelp collapsing into helpless coughs almost at once.

"Harry dear," Pomfrey asked as Snape sat back on his heels, and wiped his mouth on his wrist. "Do you mean to say that the man -- the living man who stole the..." she glanced at the golden lump and quelled a shudder, "the horcrux from you had become... an Inferius?"

The bandaged head nodded. Snape swore. "You're absolutely certain of it?"

Harry glared. "Wasn't a ghost!" he managed, "wasn't grey..."

"I do not care if it was puce, you idiot! I asked you if-"

Pomfrey laid a hand on Snape's shoulder and shook her head. "Severus, I found claw wounds, defensive bruises, and even bite marks on the boy, all aside from the burns and crushing trauma. No ghost could have done that. Horrible as it is, he's telling the truth." She tugged Snape to his feet as Harry's eye drifted closed in exhaustion.

"I must go," he told her. "I must be sure he... the Inferius has been properly dispatched."

"Severus."

"Damn it, woman," Snape shook her hand off his arm. "You do not know what you are asking me to do!"

"I know it stopped Albus' death for a year," she shouted back at him. "A year, Severus! When I could do nothing!"

"I do not-"

She cut him off with a slash of her hand. "I am not sure that boy will keep breathing through the night! Buy me the time to work out how to heal him. You owe it to me, Severus."

Harry looked away, unable to stomach the manic loathing in Snape's eyes, the fierce rictus of hatred as he glanced back toward the cot... but then a rustle of movement drew all eyes there. Harry -- the patient in the bed was struggling to sit up, the single uncovered eye blazing a fevered green. Pomfrey rushed over, pressed him back down, but Harry didn't even glance at her. He was watching Snape as though his life depended on it.

"You said... you could stopper death," he whispered.

Snape blinked. "What?"

"You said so. First day." He gasped as Pomfrey's wand flickered above him. Harry remembered the sensation of sudden cold with a shiver. "Brew fame, bottle glory...stopper death," he struggled on. "Wrote it down..." His breathing faltered for a moment, but his gaze sharpened again after only a second. "Do it... Do it, please."

Harry himself though, was watching Snape's face; watching the blood drain from it, watching that glitter -- the same one that he'd seen in Snape's eyes atop the Astronomy tower, just before the green light flew. Did Snape hate him that much? As much as he'd hated Dumbledore? But then that awful look was shuttered away.

Snape set his jaw, straightened his shoulders, and gave one crisp nod.

And then the memory swirled away, like water down the drain.

 

~* August 17th *~

Severus, listening from his workroom, knew the instant Potter raised his head from the pensieve. A gulp of air, a ragged, half-strangled sob, a mumble that might equally have been cursing or prayer. Then a shuffle of bare feet, a slouching thump, and the creak of Severus' grandfather's old reading chair as the boy flung himself into it -- no doubt for a good, long sulk.

Well, let him sulk then. Potter had asked for this -- no matter how shocked he might find the looming spectre of his own death, he had bloody well asked for it, no less than had the meddling Mediwitch. Severus saw no more reason to sugar coat the consequences of Potter's recklessness than he had ever seen for sweetening medicinal potions. Albus' chances had been worse, after all, and he had borne up under the burden.

Severus firmly quashed the shiver which accompanied the memory; Potter was not only better off than Albus had been, he would also have the benefit of Severus' desperate studies and improvised remedies in his mentor's year of decline. Not that the brat would be glad to know it. Most likely, at the first mention of the Headmaster's suffering, the ungrateful wretch would boil over into hatred and accusations, and begin plotting ways to attack Severus all over again.

Severus had more important things to do than to listen to that. And besides, the nature of the spell they were to attempt relied on trust -- or in the case of himself and Potter, on détente and cessation of active hostilities, at very least. Assassination attempts would definitely undermine the potions' efficacy. So Severus decided to make use of Potter's quiet while he had it, and focused his attention on the unsavory matter at hand.

Brewing had always been Severus' meditation: the clack of knife to board like rhythmic counting beads; the rasp of the mortar scraping the pestle's curve like a mantra hissed under the breath; the gurgle of the simmering cauldron like water rolling a prayer wheel over, and over, and over. He brewed to clear his mind, and he brewed to soothe his temper, and he brewed to calm his soul. All of which contributed to his utter hatred of the fact that he had been required to share his beloved meditation with class after class of lead-fingered, fart-witted, mole-eyed dunderheads who hadn't the first scrap of respect for the brewer's art, and would rather be gorging themselves on chocolate frogs and rancid-pus flavored jellybeans than to so much as read the bloody instructions, and get their potions within a stone's throw of correct!

His knife slipped, the charmed blade skidding off his thumbnail and jabbing deep into the board. Severus cursed under his breath. Damn it, what the hell was Potter doing out there, anyway? He took a deep breath and blew it out again, reminding himself to just ignore the boy. Of course it would be a shock, what he had seen. What child Potter's age ever really imagined he could die, let alone stared the spectre of his mortality straight in the eye?

At seventeen, what child could really understand just how far it was possible to fall?

The knife slipped again, this time mangling the hellebore root instead of slicing it cleanly. Severus cursed again, this time well over his breath. Then he slapped the silver knife down onto the board and stormed into his private study.

"Potter," he barked as he caught sight of the boy, sitting like a lump in the reading chair, and staring at nothing. "Accustomed as you may be to having your every need attended to by others, I should think by now you knew better than to expect such indulgence from me. I distinctly recall telling you to join me in the workroom once you had finished."

Potter gave a slow blink, but didn't turn his head away from the fire. "You don't want me in there," he said in a leaden voice. "You never did want me in your potions class..."

Severus clenched his fists, readying a proper setting-down in his mind, but a flicker of movement above the mantle drew his eye before the words won free. His mother was back in her portrait. She watched him in silence, her face set in that expression Severus had come to loathe over the years; the one that spoke of disappointment and forgiveness in equal measures. The one that reminded him that he was acting out of spite. Again.

He took a cleansing breath, took a hard look at the leggy youth, legs curled underneath him, tousled head resting in the cradle of the chair's wing, watching the flames with his eyes full of endings. Unacceptable. Severus flexed his fingers, made the joints crack, and replied. "Nevertheless. I require assistance, and your hands are unoccupied. Your performance in last year's Potions class proved you capable of following instruction when you chose to, ergo you will come and assist me."

He turned on his heel then, and returned to his worktable without checking whether Potter would follow or not. Let it not be said that he had made no effort, at least. Surprisingly though, the boy did come in straight away; quietly, without fanfare or tantrum, but moving slowly, as though he pushed his limbs through deep water.

Severus shoved the hellebore and the knife across the board at him. "Even slices," he said, and pointed at the few he had already done. "Exactly so thick, and yes, it matters." Then he whirled away, and fetched down his sealed, warded jar of dried Carrion Scarabs, their limbs faintly ticking against the glass as he poured three into his mortar for grinding. He had two left over. Enough to send him to Azkaban if they were found, but that was the case with most of the ingredients, not to mention books, that Severus kept down here. Precious and dark and -- as the war loomed closer to every home, and people hid behind superstition and cheap morality rather than facing the complexities of life -- getting harder and harder to find.

The knife made a soft click as Potter set it aside, and Severus looked up. But the criticism died on his tongue; the slices were perfect, every one. With a grunt, he swept the hellebore aside and pushed over the next ingredient, barking his instructions in clear, short sentences, and then watching carefully while Potter followed them exactly. The boy's face showed no flicker of resentment, no petulance, no impatience with his task. In fact, it showed no living emotion whatsoever. His movements were spare, languid and unhurried, and his eyes, unshielded by those ridiculous glasses now that Severus had taken the opportunity to correct his myopia, were calm, blank, and glassy as he worked.

Severus longed to prick that calm, to burst it like a soap bubble. It wasn't spitefulness to stir the boy up a bit, after all, and it most certainly was not envy. The curse needed no help from a teenager's natural inclination to self-obsession and despair. Potter had important work to do, little as Severus liked to admit it, and allowing the boy to sink into ennui would be nothing short of disaster.

"I wonder," he said, "can you actually realize the import of what you have asked me to do, Potter?" There. That, at least, brought a glint of thought to those green eyes. "Stoppering your death is not a salvation, you know. At best, it is a reprieve. Enough of those." He waved his hand at the pile of parsed, husked belladonna seeds. "Put them into the mercury now." As before, Potter's obedience came without comment, and as before, Severus loathed it.

"Toad's eyes," he snapped. "And take care you don't burst them."

"How many?" Well, two words were better than dumb silence.

"Five," Severus said, and slapped the box down in front of him. "It is not... impossible that destroying the Dark Lord may end the curse he put upon his horcruxes, however it is equally likely that it will not. The breaking of this curse, if it proves possible at all, will be an endeavor entirely separate from what we do here today."

One black eye fell loose with a plop, and Potter flipped the dead toad over as though he were not listening at all. Severus clenched his teeth and tried again. "Do you hear me, boy? This will not save you! If you are taking this step out of cowardice," he couldn't help snarling the word, "then you will be sorely disappointed. What I offer is neither immortality, nor invulnerability, it is merely a perpetuation of the time you have left before you die." He set the stirring rod aside, lest it betray how his hands trembled. "The reprieve itself is finite."

"I know," the boy said, looking up at last as he set the eyeless toad aside and reached for another. "I don't expect I'll live much past Voldemort anyhow." The name made Severus' mark twitch, but if Potter noticed his wince, he gave no indication. "It'll be fine."

"Unacceptable!" Severus banged his palm onto the worktop, and at last Potter jumped awake. "I will not waste my time if you intend to simply give up, roll over, and die! You must fight this curse, Potter, harder than you have fought anything in your wretched life, or the time I gain you will slip between your fingers like sand!" He reached across the table, caught Potter's shirtfront, and used it to haul the brat close. "I will not have it! I will not do this again only to watch you succumb without a struggle, do you hear me?"

Potter blinked twice, frowned as though puzzled. "Why?" he asked, as though he truly did not know.

Rage filled up Severus' mouth, but for once it did not come with words. He could not only stare, appalled and furious, at the boy who was not precisely a boy, nor had ever properly been just a boy. Poppy's healing magic and Severus' potions had removed from his face all evidence of the disaster in the Chamber of Secrets, reshaping his cheek and brow to their natural, delicate architecture, smoothing the skin over them to flawless velvet without so much as a suggestion of scarring. Their work had been perfect, and yet somehow they had failed. Failed in a way for which neither magic nor logic could answer. Potter's face was not that of a boy, nor yet that of a tragic angel, nor of a martyr, nor of a hero. It was a face too hard for boyishness, too beautiful for manliness, too timeless for youth, too weary for wisdom; he could have been an Old God's feral child, but for the yawning gulf where his innocence ought to have been. And for his eyes.

The first time he had seen eyes like that, Severus had damned them to his mother's face. And within a month, she had closed them forever. The second time he saw such eyes, he'd damned himself so deeply that he was able to curse his only friend off the edge of the Astronomy Tower. Confronted with them a third time, Severus found he had no condemnation left; only an inexplicable sorrow, and a weariness to his very bones.

It would not do; not with Potter so hollow himself. He took a deep breath and dug deep into his memories of their occlumency lessons, Potter's petulance at Grimmauld Place, his insolence in classes, his sullenness in detentions, his recklessness with Severus' old potions book. Yes. There at last was the spark he needed.

"I am no longer your teacher, Potter, thank all that is merciful in the world," Severus said, rounding the table to catch the boy's arm and frog march him back to the bedroom. "If you want that answer, I suggest you make some effort to discover whether your mother left you her brains as well as her eyes, and work it out yourself!" Then he thrust Potter down onto the bed, whirled on his heel, and went back to work, confident that his head of steam would carry him through the rest of the brewing with ire to spare.

It did not, of course; once he resumed the familiar routines of his meditation, Severus' anger dissipated like frost in warm air. But the confrontation had grounded something within him, something he neither needed, nor wished to examine with more care. He missed no step in his brewing, wasted not a grain of his dwindling materials, counted precisely each stir, each minute, and as usual, produced exactly the desired result. A simple pleasure in the face of what was yet to come, but Severus was glad of it all the same.

Reaching into the hidden pocket of his robes, he found the thimble-sized chalice and restored it to its proper dimensions. He had taken to carrying it on his person at all times the year before, when neither he nor Albus had been able to guess when it might be needed. He'd had it with him on that last, horrible night, when Potter had chased him from the grounds, screaming hatred and half-formed curses with every breath. He might have got rid of it, he supposed. He might have sold it to Borgin and Burkes, for it was certainly as dark and as rare as anything in their shop. Or he might have just melted the damned thing down, ground the onyx cabochons for potions, and tried to forget how it had failed him. How he had failed Albus. But he hadn't. He'd kept it, and bloody lucky for Potter that he had, too.

Severus poured a precise measure of the draught into the leaden chalice, and carried it out with level, measured strides that tipped not so much as a drop over the edge.

Potter, curled once more into the old reading chair, looked up from studying the fire. This time though, his eyes were focused, cleared of their drifting apathy, and suffused with a grim certainty as he stood. Merlin help them all.

Severus offered the chalice, but did not release it when Potter's fingers curled around. Instead, he tangled their fingers together, and swept his wand from his sleeve. Potter jerked back, but wisely froze when the wand pressed its silent warning into the soft v of his throat. The boy swallowed, his eyes darkening with anger.

"Do you trust me, Potter?" Severus asked. The boy flinched again, as though the question stirred a memory that pained him. He flicked his glance away, but Severus gave the wand a little push. "Do you trust me with your life?"

He pressed his lips, eyes narrowed and wary, and Severus smiled grimly. "No half measures here, Potter," he said. "Either you make the decision right now that you will entrust me with your life and your future, or I pour this into the fire and send you back home, and you use the time you have left to try to find another option." An option that neither Severus, Flitwick, McGonagall, nor Albus had been able to discover in a full year's worth of desperate research. An option that, toward the end, Severus had begun to believe might not even exist. An option for which he now had dredge his faith once again -- to hope enough for the both of them, somehow.

Potter's eyes narrowed speculatively, and he looked at their hands entwined about the goblet. "I know what the curse is doing to me," he said at length. "I can feel everything speeding up, while I'm just slowing down, like treacle in the cold. I can feel myself drifting away... not caring." He swallowed and once more sought Severus' gaze. "I need to care. It's the only way I can do it. And I have to do it."

Severus felt his lip curl. "A martyr to the end, I see."

Oddly, Potter smiled at that, and shrugged. "If you like."

"I do not."

"Oh." And he shrugged again, and sighed. "I hate you for so many reasons, Snape," he said after a considering pause. "I reckon you're the last person in the world I'll stop caring about, even if you betray me to Voldemort in the end." A little laugh then, dry and utterly without humour. "At least I'll have the hatred to hold on to."

Severus closed his eyes, took a calming breath. "Do you trust me with your life, Potter," he asked through his teeth. "Answer the God-damned question!"

But Potter shook his head. "No, I don't. But I reckon I can trust you with my death." Severus scowled, but Potter only smirked in reply, and patted his wand hand. "Don't worry, Professor," he said. "I'll be out of your life soon enough."

Severus let him take the goblet, and stood by, dry eyed, to watch him drink.

Surprise crossed Potter's features at his first swallow. He stopped, licking his lips. "Sweet?"

"Life usually is," Severus nodded, "to the dying. Drink it all."

And Potter did, barely finishing the last drops before the cramps hit him. The goblet fell from his fingers as he clutched at his belly, and Severus had to lunge to stop the boy from crumpling to the floor. Easing Potter down, Severus held him still as the tremours coursed through his slight, wiry body. "What..." he gasped, clutched at Severus' hands. "What's happening?"

"It's working." The words were dust on Severus' tongue.

"It hurts!"

"Yes," Severus said. "Living does."

~* August 31st, 1997 *~

 

"Look," Harry cried at last, slamming his fork down and pushing back his chair. "I've told you all I know, all right?" Hermione opened her mouth, but he gave her no time to speak. "I woke up in Charing Cross Station that Friday morning with my wand in my hand and a five pound note in my pocket." He ticked off the points on his fingers. "I came back here to Grimmauld Place. I had a shower. I firecalled Hogwarts and told Headmistress McGonagall that I was home. And since that day, over and over again, I have had to tell you, her, Remus, Shacklebolt, Moody, Ron's parents, Hagrid, Tonks, and everybody else who's come to poke at me that I DON'T REMEMBER ANYTHING ELSE!"

"Harry," Hermione said, her eyes full of reproach. "It's not as if we-"

"I don't remember where I was," he said through his teeth, furious with her bulldog persistence, with Ron's watchful silence, with his own agitation, and above all, with bloody, buggering Snape for putting him in a position where he had no choice but to lie to the friends he wanted most to trust. But Harry knew, as surely as he knew his own name that he did not have the time it would take to make them accept what he had allowed ... well...asked Snape to do to him. And from the moment he'd swallowed his own death, from the moment his stomach had twisted in knots, and Snape's wiry arms had anchored him to his own bones, Harry had not stopped feeling the passage of time.

Idle seconds itched, wasted minutes burned. Having to say the same thing again and again, even after he'd stopped thinking of new ways to say it just made Harry want to scream. "I don't remember who healed me," he growled the lie. "I don't have any idea how they did it, and what's more, I don't actually CARE! It really doesn't matter to me, except that it means I'm not in hospital anymore, so I can get back to finding the rest of Voldemort's horcruxes!"

"How can you say that?" Hermione shot to her feet, hardly noticing as the stack of books beside her plate toppled over. "How can you say it doesn't matter? Harry, anything could have happened to you while you were gone! All the scanning spells say there's something different about you now, and none of them can say what! You were nearly dead when Hagrid got to you!"

He looked away as she dashed furious tears from her eyes. "Yeah. Nearly. But don't you think something like that would change me just a bit?"

"It hasn't before," Ron put in, his voice strangely quiet. "Not like this, anyhow."

"Well maybe this time I fucking grew up a little!" Harry pulled off his useless glasses and pinched at the bridge of his nose. "Fuck. Sorry. I'm just really tired of talking about this when we have more important things to be thinking about."

"But Harry," Hermione came around the table, reaching for his arm, "what if this disappearance of yours turns out later on to be something we should have prepared against?"

"And what if obsessing about this means we don't pay attention to something really important until it's too late to stop it?" he asked in return, quelling the urge to shake off her touch. "Remember first year, when we were all busy watching Snape, and we missed that it was Quirrell who was after the Stone all along?"

"Remember your dreams in fifth year?" Ron asked, finally getting up himself. "You didn't want to pay attention to those either." And Sirius got killed because of it. He didn't add the last part, but all three of them heard it clearly.

Harry looked at his fist, held tight against his side, and concentrated on uncurling his fingers one by one. "Look," he said only when he'd done it. "I know neither of you wanted to leave me alone in the Chamber. I remember how hard I had to argue to get you to go, and I can see how having me disappear from the infirmary after that would scare you. Maybe even make you feel guilty. I know it only means that you care about me, and you want to stand by me, like proper best friends should do." He covered Hermione's hand with his, as much to stop his nervous tremble as hers. "That matters to me, because I do want you standing by me, and I do want to rely on your help. But right now, what you're doing is. Not. Helpful."

"What we're doing?" Hermione cried, "Caring about you?"

Harry shook his head. "Nagging me. Getting distracted from the horcruxes, and getting angry at me when I try to get us back on track."

"That's the problem, Harry! Since you've come back, it's like that's all you think about." Ron threw up his hands. "There's more to life than horcruxes, mate!"

"No, Ron," Harry answered, holding his friend's gaze and trying to push home the truth with every ounce of his will. "There really isn't. Not until the horcruxes are gone, and Voldemort with them. I'm sorry, but I need to focus on them, and I need for you -- both of you -- to let me!"

Ron and Hermione looked at each other for a silent moment, as though discussing his request through the mysterious silent language of those-who-have-snogged-each-other. It was uncomfortably like actually watching them snog, and to stop himself fidgeting, Harry took the opportunity to check his watch. Then he swore. Quarter till eleven. Snape would be there soon!

"What is it, Harry?"

He gave Hermione a rueful grin. "It's nearly curfew. McGonagall's going to give me a detention if I make you late on the first night of classes. I bet she'll come here to make me serve it, too."

Ron laughed, but caught his school robe off the wall hook as he headed out of the kitchen. "Nah. She'll make you serve it on a broom during the first Quidditch game, is what. Number of new players we're fielding this year, Gryffindor's gonna get murdered!"

Following, Hermione snorted. "She ought to make you come to the Great Hall for dinner, to be sure you actually eat something instead of just moving your food around your plate." Harry rolled his eyes, and as expected, she rose to the bait. "No, it's not just nagging, and you know it. You're really starting to upset Dobby, and that's just not fair to him."

"Yes, mum," he said, turning on the library threshold to accept a hug from her. "I'll try, I promise."

"We'll bring you something from Honeydukes on Saturday," Ron offered, steering Hermione toward the fireplace, and digging one-handed in the floo jar. "They've got some brilliant new caramels. You'll love them. Gryffindor Tower!" He threw the powder in while she was still tutting, and dragged both of them into the spinning green flames.

Harry took a deep breath as the fire gulped, fizzled, and spun them away. It was a guilty relief to be alone at last, to be able to relax the ferocious grip he'd been keeping on his focus so that he wouldn't drift away where his friends could see him. He closed his eyes, let the air and the wire-strung tension leak away, hands braced on the reading chair's back so he needn't worry about balance.

He didn't feel sleepy as such, just... quiet, calm, and very, very still. No thoughts, no emotions, not even idle musings in the back of his brain as he stood there and just breathed in and out again. This must have been what Snape meant, back in fifth year when he kept telling Harry to 'clear his mind'. He'd been utter pants at explaining it though.

Breathe in... That had been funny, hadn't it?

Breathe out... Perhaps a little.

There was a rushing sound, light flaring green through his closed eyelids.

Breathe in... He ought to look...

"Potter, I told you to be sure you were alone before eleven! The timing of the dosage is absolutely critical, you idiot! What did you mean by keeping me waiting so long?" Oh. Only Snape, then. Breathe out...No need. "Potter, answer me!"

Breathe in... Answer him... answer him... answer...

"Bugger," Snape growled. His boot heels rang across the floor. Harry distantly felt himself caught by the shoulder, whipped around, and bent backward. One wiry arm supported his shoulders while a hand pried his lips apart and thrust something cold between them. His mouth filled up with cold/heat and for a moment, even the breathing stopped.

In the hallway, the grandfather clock began to toll. One... two... three... four...

"Swallow it, boy," Snape growled in his ear, closing Harry's mouth and stroking his throat so gently that he felt the liquid go down before he even realized he had obeyed. "Good."

Eight... nine... Harry's eyes flew wide as the draught hit him -- a dash of ice water over the head, with a firewhiskey kick in the belly. He screamed, knees buckling, hands catching at Snape's robes as pure, refined life jolted through his body.

But Snape didn't let him fall. His grip on the back of Harry's neck was a painful comfort, the weight of his palm on Harry's belly both a ground, and a torment as Harry's cock hardened like iron in his pants. Mortified, terrified, Harry could only close his eyes and try not to rut against the tight bind of his own flies. It tasted sweet, like before, and the pain was like he'd remembered, but nothing like this had happened!

"Relax, boy," the dark voice murmured in his ear, as though Snape had been somehow reading his thoughts. "It means nothing more than that you are still alive." Pushing him upright, Snape held Harry steady until his legs agreed to take on the burden. "I'll assume you'd like a moment alone?"

Harry groaned and put his hands over his face. But the floor did not open wide and swallow him down, nor did Snape curl up and die right there on the library carpet, nor did the straining, painful erection disappear. At last, Harry mustered every scrap of dignity he could, turned around, and walked stiff-legged to the toilet.

If Snape laughed, at least he did it silently.

Inside, Harry shut the door, turned the taps on full, and wasted no time in taking himself in hand. He leaned against the door and tugged at his prick, too humiliated and desperate to even spit into his palm first. He just wanted... he wanted... There -- Ah! He bit his lip, threw back his head, and gave himself over into the bursting relief. No thoughts, no fantasies, no images conjured up behind his eyes to help him take a healthy interest. No, it was purely animal, hot and hungry, and so bloody hard Harry thought he might fall over with the force of it.

It took him longer to catch his breath than it had taken to come.

"Bloody hell," he grumbled, looking up at his reflection as he washed the thick, sticky spunk from his fingers. His lip was swollen where he'd bitten, his cheeks were flushed, his hair even more tousled than usual. "Means nothing," he told himself. "Just means you're alive..."

"You keep telling yourself that, dear," the mirror smirked.

Harry groaned. "I'll bet Dumbledore didn't have to deal with that when HE did this!" Then he shuddered and did up his trousers as quickly as he could. "Right. NOT thinking about Dumbledore wanking. Definitely not!" A warning glance at the mirror. "Not. A. Word..." His reflection mimed locking its lips and chucking the key down the bog. Harry slapped off the taps, and went back to face Snape while he could still bear the thought.

He found the man just where he'd feared he might -- standing over the library desk, looking down at the maps and books he, Ron, and Hermione had left out when Dobby called them in for dinner.

"Hey!" He stormed across the room and pointedly started slapping the books shut. "That's private!"

Snape made a rude noise in his throat. "Oh, do forgive me, Potter. I know how highly you respect all matters of privacy, after all-"

"No, stop it," he insisted, rolling the maps up and shrinking them to fit the cigar box. "This isn't some stupid contest, Snape, I mean it. I can't let you see those kinds of things, and you bloody well know why!"

Black eyes narrowed, blazing. "Let us pretend I know no such thing, shall we?" He folded his arms over his breast and towered. "Explain."

Harry rolled his eyes. "You can't know what we're looking for or where we're going next, not while you're taking his orders!" Snape's lips pressed, but Harry cut off the tirade with a slash of his hand. "Look, even assuming you didn't intentionally betray us, he can't drag it out of your mind if you don't know it, right?"

The glare didn't waver. "As I recall, Potter," Snape said after a long glower, "it is your occlumency you ought to be worrying about, not mine." And then, as he'd half expected it would, that glare turned smug, as if Snape were remembering Harry on his knees.

And Harry, who hadn't ever really forgot it himself, fetched up a gloating smile of his own, and picked up the last book on the desk. It was a slim volume, just the right size to grip between Harry's thumb and first two fingers, which he took care to spread wide as he brandished it in Snape's face. Wouldn't want to obscure the title, after all.

Snape's fingers twitched. "Where the devil did you get a copy of Kokoro no Mamogaru?" Confused, Harry turned the book and read the title again, but it looked like Guardian of the Mind, just as it had when he'd first found it. "And it's under a translation charm as well, isn't it?" Snape's voice rose in outrage, and the monster in Harry's chest just purred.

"Reckon so," Harry shrugged, not bothering to hide his grin. "You know, one thing the Blacks did right was their library. I found it over here, with all the rest of the dark mind magic references," he said as he tucked the book into place. "I guess you don't have a copy of your own, then?"

Snape's face twisted with loathing, but for once, he decided not to say whatever poisonous retort he had sprouting on his tongue. Instead he choked it down, boosted his chin, and swirled out of the library in a flapping black dudgeon.

"Where are you going then?" Harry called after him. No harm being polite, after all, was there?

"Tea," the reply came back, and Harry had to smile. Apparently he wasn't the only one who had missed Grimmauld Place's ever-full, ever-fresh tea tin while at Shape's place. He used a quick locking spell on the desk drawers, shrunk and pocketed the cigar box for good measure, then followed along to the kitchen.

He winced as he came to the door, however -- the sink was full and several of the cooking pots were industriously washing themselves, but Dobby remained out of sight. He had also pointedly left the plates on the table, in protest of how little Harry had eaten. And to make matters worse, now Snape was looming there glaring at Harry's still-full plate as though it had insulted his mother.

"Elf," he snapped at the scrubbing sink-full of pans. "Tell me what Potter has been eating?"

The washing stopped and the kitchen was silent for a long moment. Harry closed his eyes with an inward groan. Maybe Dobby would just keep quiet?

But no, of course Snape had to push buttons. "Clearly it isn't much," he drawled, "So what exactly have you been trying to feed him?"

Dobby pinged into view, ears back, eyes wide, quivering with nervous outrage. "Dobby cooks all Harry Potter's favorite thingd for him," the elf squeaked. "Dobby knows what Harry Potter likes to eat!"

Harry could just see Snape's lip curl. "Clearly, Dobby does not, or else Harry Potter would actually be eating."

"Oi," Harry cried, rushing into the kitchen and grabbing for the chip-pan. "Stop it! Dobby, put it down right now! Stop hitting yourself! And you," he turned on Snape and brandished the frothy pan at him, "You leave him alone! It's not Dobby's fault!"

All eyebrow, Snape waved a hand at Harry's plate. "Then explain this."

"I just..." Harry sighed and slung the pan back into the sink. "It's not that I'm not hungry. I'm always hungry..." He shrugged and stuck his hands in his pockets. "It's just that nothing tastes good since... you know."

Snape rolled his eyes. "Potter, surely you did not imagine Hogwarts students were served food and sweets in such quantities because of the Headmaster's indulgent nature! Your magic must come from somewhere, and sugary food is the best source of fuel you..." his eyes narrowed, and suddenly he had his wand in hand and pointed at Harry's grumbling belly. "Wretched brat, don't you dare vomit that potion back up," he snarled.

Harry swallowed hard and reached for a glass of water. "Then quit talking about sweets," he managed once the hot, acid sick had retreated from his throat. "I can't even stand the smell of... that stuff any more." Dobby burst into noisy tears against his leg, knocking all his hats off at once. Harry gingerly patted his wrinkled head. "Sorry Dobby. Look, it's not your fault, okay?"

"Elf," Snape cut in, banishing the remains of Harry's dinner along with all the rest of the food on the table. "Go and procure a small, very fresh fillet of beef. Cook it blue-rare, with absolutely no salt, and bring it at once."

Dobby raised his head from Harry's thigh, and gave Snape a watery glare. "Harry Potter likes beef cooked well!"

"Just do as I have said!" Harry cleared his throat, folded his arms over his chest, and glared. Snape rolled his eyes. "Please." Dobby blinked, then looked up at Harry for confirmation. He nodded -- not from any hope of it working, but because he didn't think he could take any more tears -- and Dobby's ears pricked up at once.

"No salt," Snape barked when the elf disappeared. "Remember that!"

"This is because of the curse, isn't it?" Harry asked after a long, uncomfortable moment of silence. "Because of what it's... how it's changing me? Dumbledore didn't..." he shook his head, tried again. "I mean, he still..." he tried a sip of water. "The lemon drops and all, you know?"

Snape held Harry's gaze levelly, and nodded. "It is the most likely conclusion to make, yes."

Somehow hearing it put so plainly almost made him feel better. "So, what now?" he gamely forced a grin. "I've got to eat brains, do I?"

That steely gaze didn't even begin to smile as Snape came around the table, sliding his wand back into his sleeve. "Potter, you have got to eat. Full stop," he said, leaning around Harry to reach down the tea tin and china teapot. "Finding what you can eat is a simple process of elimination. If you find yourself revolted by the details, then I suggest you leave the matter to your elf and I. Just make an effort to eat what is put in front of you without indulging your damnable curiousity."

"No," Harry mused, watching the dark leaves pour off the spoon. "I mean, I guess it's not all that different to eating sausages, is it?" Snape did that eyebrow thing again, and Harry shrugged. "You know, all the bits that nobody but a Scot would eat whole?" He couldn't fight down a shudder at the thought. "Maybe I should just stick with sausages though. It'd have to be easier to eat those kinds of things ground up..."

The noise Snape made might almost have been a laugh. "It is an option, so long as certain spices are not included," he said, pouring hot water over the tea leaves. "Although you might not much enjoy the texture of undercooked sausage." Harry took another sip of water to quell the nausea that idea brought on, and Snape definitely snickered at him then. The bastard. "In the meantime," he went on, setting the teapot aside and turning to face Harry, "I shall send you some specialized nutritive potions by owl. The curse is depleting your reserves too much already, and you cannot afford the luxury of squeamishness."

If Snape had moved faster, if his eyes had glanced away, if his face had shown one trace of the hatred Harry was used to seeing there, Harry would have ducked. He would have backed up, batted Snape's reaching hands away before they could take hold of his head and tip it up to the light. As it was, Harry bunched his fists tight and held his breath while that dark, intense stare examined him.

"Perhaps a mild soporific as well," Snape said, but not as though he was talking to Harry. "There is more than want of food at work here. Sleep deprivation will make the drain faster."

Harry could feel his pulse pushing against Snape's thumb just by the hinge of his jaw. His touch was strangely soft for as strong as Harry knew Snape's hands to be. His fingers felt hot and smooth against Harry's scalp and neck. Harry took a nervy, shaky breath as he felt an appalling jolt of interest below his waist.

Just the potion. Means nothing. Christ, don't let him look down.

"Are you going to check my teeth too?" he asked when he could stand no more.

Snape's mouth twitched, but he didn't let go. "I am considering it," he said, his breath stirring Harry's fringe. "Why, is there a reason I ought to do?" Harry glared, but before he could push away, Dobby reappeared with a ping and a wafting scent of hot, bloody meat.

The smell of the food hit Harry like a storm. His mouth filled up with it, his eyes stretched wide, his very skin quivered with want. He felt a tugging at his hands, and realized that he'd wound his fists into Snape's robes. Embarrassed, Harry let go and backed up, smoothing his damp palms on his thighs.

"Go on, then," Snape huffed, but not as though it really bothered him.

Harry wasn't quite able to stop himself lunging for the table, but as soon as the first bite hit his tongue, he no longer cared a thing for dignity. Snape could sneer about his table manners all he wanted, so long as he didn't get in Harry's way!

But he only snorted and left the kitchen as behind Harry's chair, Dobby burst into joyful tears.

 

~* September 14th, 1997 *~

 

He stood nose to nose with Potter, fists wound tight in the brat's shirtfront, wand an unyielding knot between fabric and fingers. His heart and head pounded too hard for even the shadow of a spell to form in his mind. His breath was a storming fury through clenched teeth. Severus teetered on the far edge of a very bad night, stared Potter in his too green eyes, and waited to see which of them would fall first.

"You," Potter managed to force words through his teeth, not yielding an inch despite the thrumming tension under Severus' hands, "are really, really starting to piss me off, Snape."

Starting? They had been screaming insults at each other almost from the moment Potter had swallowed the bloody draught! And worse yet, they were ostensibly squabbling over shoes, mud, and bloody carpets, while Severus could hear the unspoken echoes of two weeks' fruitless searching for the Dark Lord's horcruxes between every word the idiot said! How dare he blame Severus for the fight?

But before he could form the words, Potter flexed his fingers loose of Severus' robes, and continued. "Thank you for bringing the draught, but I don't appreciate being your whipping boy now any more than I did when I was in your classes. I don't know what's up your arse tonight, but-"

Severus gave him another shove. "Up my arse, you-" he gave Potter a shake, pulled him to his toes. "Shall I show you then? Give you a glimpse of how I spent my pleasant evening whilst you were wasting time playing with your-"

Potter's brows drew down, and he gave a fierce wriggle, driving the point of his knee into Severus' thigh -- a deliberate miss, but enough to shock loose his grip on Potter's clothes. "AND, since we happen to be in MY house," he went on, planting both hands against Severus' chest as though he meant to shove. "I think YOU probably ought to get the fuck out, before this goes somewhere it shouldn't go!"

Oh, it should go, Severus thought through a haze of red. He caught Potter's wrists and squeezed, felt the bones creak. Let him try and wriggle loose now. Should have gone there years ago. The words wouldn't come. His breath was too thick, filling up his throat, filling up his mouth, leaving no room for anything but --

"You want to know why I don't trust you with my life?" Potter hissed, not flinching. Then he broke their stare, looked down at his own trapped wrists, and back up. "Well there you go, Sir."

It was like taking a bucket of cold water over the head, or a kick to the belly. It was more than a bad day he was teetering on, Severus realized; it was the Rubicon, and what swam in its depths, he was unprepared to discover. Especially at the expense of his draught's power to save Potter, himself, and the Wizarding world from Voldemort's notions of social improvement.

Severus closed his eyes and gentled his grip, but did not release it. He took a deep breath, then another, and a third before he allowed himself to answer. "It... may have been an error in judgment to come here after leaving the Dark Lord's assembly," he managed.

"But... the potion. You said I had to take it every two weeks, exactly."

"It could have been administered by your elf, I suppose," Severus said, releasing Potter's wrists at last. "Or Granger. Even Weasley, if your faith in them remains unshaken-"

"No."

Severus blinked, as much taken aback by the lack of rage as by the denial in itself. Potter raked his hands through his hair and turned to sling himself onto the library sofa. "They can't do it," he sighed. "They can't know about it. You know they can't. They'd stop everything to try and find a way to break the curse. They'd never let me do what I..." the green eyes blinked up to meet his gaze. For a second, Severus thought he saw a plea in them.

But only for a second. "Look, would it help to talk about it? The meeting, I mean?" Severus stared at him, and the idiot nodded toward a chair. "Well, if you're going to unload on me, I'd like to know what's really bothering you instead of fighting about your muddy damned shoes."

Unaccountably, Severus found himself sitting down. But he did not smile, nor did he feel the urge for long, once he began to speak. "The Dark Lord is going mad." He shook his head when Potter's lips quirked upward. "No, not in the way he has always been; not cunning, not the madness of genius and guile. He... his fears become certainties, his whims, obsessions. And his taste for suffering..." Severus could not quell the tremble which came with those scream-tinted memories. "It is the madness of a rabid dog with him now; as like to savage friend as foe."

"Is it the horcruxes?" Potter asked, though his voice revealed that he knew already.

Severus nodded and scrubbed at his face. "He has forever lost pieces of himself which were never meant to be detached. On some level he must surely sense his soul's destruction. He is so far from human now, one can hardly perceive what once he was."

"Then why? Why the hell do the Death Eaters stay with him if it's that bad?" Potter proved his ignorance with that one, ingenuous question. "Why the hell do you stay?"

"He who would ride the tiger may never dismount," Severus said by way of an answer. He was weary now, in the wake of their earlier screaming match, and tired of the way his hands trembled and his right eye twitched at the corner. He rolled his head back against the chair and stared at the coffered ceiling while Potter chewed the thought down.

"So nobody wants to be first," he said at last. "And I'll bet he's good at turning people against each other, too. I'll bet you Death Eaters don't trust each other any more than you trust him, do you?"

Severus let go a mirthless laugh. "So you can be taught. Imagine."

"Yeah, I was kind of surprised myself," Potter shot back. "But apparently when I get a teacher who's any good, and not just out to humiliate me, I do pretty well." Severus shot the brat a glare, but Potter was staring at the ceiling. "I don't suppose you could arrange for him to kill Bellatrix Lestrange, could you?" he mused, settling deeper into the sofa. "Maybe with some torture first? Oh, and Wormtail too, while you're at it."

Severus snorted. Between Bellatrix' graceless attempts to curry his favour and Wormtail's sly sniffing after his heels, Potter's suggestion did have merit. Still... "Settle your blood grudges yourself, you hypocrite. I am not your assassin." Albus Dumbledore's assassin perhaps, but not yours... He shut that thought away, and turned the tables. "Quid pro quo, Potter."

"What?"

"Tit for tat. Your turn. What had you so unreasonable earlier? Other than your lamentable housekeeping and stain removal skills?"

There was a long silence, then a gusting sigh. "There was an Order meeting yesterday," Potter said to the ceiling. "Remus was here."

"And?"

"I had to lie to him. Again."

"Well yes, I daresay he would have enough experience to find elements of the curse familiar," Severus said, sitting up straight and stretching his muddy boots toward the fire. "Being a dark creature himself surely must lend itself to recognizing a fellow curse-bearer." Potter stayed as he had been, staring upward and pressing his lips closed. "Though, of course, he could not have guessed at the true nature of your condition," Severus mused, watching the boy's face. "I rather doubt he has ever seen a living man beset by the Inferium curse, after all.

There. That brought the loyal twit upright again. "Why wouldn't he? He was a really good teacher, you know."

"If Lupin had been as good a teacher as you claim," Severus pricked that righteous anger with the truth and a smirk, "you would have known that he could never have seen a curse-reaction like yours, because Inferium is not supposed to work on the living.

"But Dung was, and Mrs. Malfoy too, you said --"

Severus waved him silent. "Yes, yes, and yes. But this effect is an aberration. Just as the living do not manifest as ghosts, the living are not supposed to become inferi."

Then a strange, still expression settled over Potter's face. His lips neither twisted, compressed, nor chewed, his eyes slid into focus on eternity as he murmured. "And neither can live while the other survives..."

Bloody hell. Not more prophesy! Eileen's portrait had been smug beyond the telling of it, ever since she'd met the other half of her insane fancies. Severus had begun to give serious thought to the question of whether wizarding paintings could be obliviated, but he didn't hold out much hope for it. He toed Potter's knee to shake him out of it. "What are you wittering on about?" he growled when the boy looked over.

Still looking a bit queer, Potter only shook his head. "It's nothing. Look, what should I tell Remus about it?" he deftly dodged the question. "He's sure to ask again the next time he sees me."

"What did you tell him yesterday?"

Potter shrugged, and stared at his shoes as though they were fascinating. "Stress. Insomnia. Nothing specific, really."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "And he believed you?"

"Not really. But I don't think he wanted to push."

Severus let his lip curl at that. "Of course he didn't. He never could manage to do anything that might make someone uncomfortable, after all..."

Potter gave him a filthy look and thrust himself out of the low sofa. "Yeah, as if you'd act any different if it was Draco Malfoy turning into a zombie under your nose!"

Then he turned on his heel and stormed from the room, slamming the door so hard it rattled the pictures on the walls.

"There is a difference, you ignorant wretch!" Severus shouted after him. As he'd expected, the pounding on the stairs ceased, giving over to a brittle, waiting silence.

He schooled the smirk from his face before following Potter out into the hallway, but only out of deference to the draught's need for harmony. The boy stood on the landing, stiff-backed, staring at the photographs that ranged up the ascending wall. His fists were knotted and trembling at his sides. "Is there?" he asked in a colourless voice. "Guess I hadn't noticed."

"You idiot," Severus put on his lecturing voice and braced his arms over his chest. "The two are markedly different. It's no wonder you've-"

"No, really," Potter cut him off without looking back, though his voice turned bright and sarcastic. "We're just the same, far as you're concerned; both just cardboard cutouts, standing in for our fathers. Only difference is that you wish you could have killed my father yourself, while his, you just wish you could have fucked."

Severus hissed a breath through his nose, unsure where his outrage should begin. Something in Potter's bearing stopped him though, something was teetering on an edge in that unruly head, some door opening that had been shut before this. With an instinct born of long years' handling of delicate, volatile potions, Severus chose his approach.

"I did, actually," he said. Potter whirled, eyes wide and blazing, his wand rising as Severus went on, unmoved. "Fuck Lucius Malfoy, that is."

Potter froze, blinking as the words sank in. "You..."

Severus nodded, and refused to look discomfited. "Strategy, Potter. I required strong allies to defend me against strong enemies. Being valuable to Malfoy was a good way to gain that."

"Then you didn't really..."

Severus smirked. The boy had actually been about to admit he was capable of love? Miracles abounded, but he managed not to laugh. "Regardless of any feelings which I might have had, Mr. Potter, it did not take long to realize that Lucius Malfoy was too dangerous not to keep close by. Tell me, do you know what a sociopath is?"

Potter tilted his head, but Severus had an odd feeling the boy wasn't considering the question at all. "A sadistic bastard who doesn't care who he hurts, so long as he gets his own way?" He descended a step at that. "A prick who was born with neither a conscience nor a shred of decency?" Another step, his face coming into the light now, so his eyes gleamed dangerously. "A sick fucking son-of-a-bitch who thinks its funny to use a little girl as his weapon, almost get her killed doing it, and not even care?"

Ah. So they came to it at last. Severus nodded and uncrossed his arms. "So you had a visit from Miss Ginevra then." It was not a question, and he did not bother to pretend it was. "I take it the Headmistress' allowances for weekend visits have extended to the girl as well?"

A muscle jumped in Potter's jaw and he looked down, silent for a long time. "Ron and Hermione snuck her out." His voice had gone flat again. "They wanted to surprise me. Cheer me up." Severus waited for the rest, but he didn't have to for long. "It was... awful. She couldn't bear to look at me, let alone come near, and-"

Severus hissed alarm, storming up the steps to catch Potter's arm in a crushing grip. "You told her? You bloody idiot!"

"I didn't have to." Potter said, unresisting. "It was like... like she already knew. Like she could sense it on me." A shudder coursed through him, and the boy turned his face to the shadows again. "She... she told me I felt different to her. She said I felt like ... She said-"

"Potter," Severus gave his arm a shake, just enough to center him, to pull him up from his spiral. "She had prolonged contact with Tom Riddle's diary and it nearly killed her. Miss Weasley could no more have emerged from that unchanged than could you after the cup and locket nearly killed you. Do you not remember me telling you that dark heeds to dark?"

Potter flinched. "No! I'm not-"

Severus gave him another shake. "No, Potter. No more hiding, no more equivocating; you asked me for the potion, and you drank it, and it changed you! I refuse to allow any kindly delusion regarding what that means!" Potter tugged harder, tried to back up the stairs again, but Severus held fast. "You felt hunger for her, didn't you? You wanted her, and not in the way you did before; not in any fumbling teenaged sort of passion. Not this time."

"No!" Potter's eyes were hunted and wild. "I didn't want -- I didn't want her to touch me!"

"No, you wanted to tear her apart, and she knew it!" Severus wheeled the boy to face him, caught his other shoulder, and tugged him close. "You scented the dark on her, Potter; the spoor Riddle's soul-shard left behind in her core, and you hungered for it!"

Breath coming fast, eyes wide and pale with panic, Potter clutched at Severus' robes. "I didn't," he gasped, shaking his head. "I didn't touch her! I didn't! I wouldn't! I WON'T!"

Severus gave him another shake, just enough to quiet the building hysteria. Potter stumbled, his knees giving way all of a sudden, so that Severus' hold on his arms was all that stopped him tumbling down the steps. Severus grunted at the impact, but quickly changed his grip, wrapping his arms around to pin Potter to his chest until he stopped hyperventilating.

"You hungered for the soul, Potter," he said, his palms making restive circles on the thin jersey shirt. "You wanted the horcrux, not her. That is the dark taint you craved." Potter made a tiny noise down deep in his throat; a fragile sort of noise, thin and afraid. A child finding proof at last that there were monsters under his bed after all. A hero learning the cost of daring just exactly too late.

"She will always bear the taint of Riddle's touch, Potter." He made his voice as gentle as he could, trembling just a little as the boy's head dropped against his chest, and he made that sound again. "And likely, you will always be aware of its shadow, even as she will always scent the shadow of a hunter in you, even if... even when the curse is broken, and you no longer live your life in sips."

He released Potter's shoulders warily, but the boy did not move, did not even startle when Severus caught his face in both palms, and tilted it up. "In the meantime, I suggest you reconcile yourself to this hunger, and use it! A sensitivity to disembodied fragments of the Dark Lord's soul could be quite a valuable tool, if a questor were not too squeamish to take it up."

Potter drew a breath, and gradually took his weight back onto his own feet. "There is no right and wrong, only power, and those unafraid to use it." The words had an air of quotation to them, but that made them no more comfortable.

Severus nodded all the same. "He became the Dark Lord for more than just his power and ruthlessness. Not all he said was wrong. Not all he did was evil." Potter's face clouded over, and Severus released it with a sigh. "Spare me the outraged dogma of Light if you please," he said, turning away. "I might have known you were too young to understand."

"Well, given that you're measuring out my life in two-week doses, I don't see how I can really help that." Potter snapped, following Severus to the hallway, where a great armoire had been installed over the slashed ruin of Walburga Black's portrait. "I mean, it's not like I'll be able to look back on this from a hundred and fifty years old and suddenly understand it all better!"

Severus snatched his traveling cloak from Potter's hand with a roll of his eyes and a disgusted snort. "Oh, do stop feeling sorry for yourself! Might I remind you that Ginevra Weasley and Narcissa Malfoy are both still alive, and in excellent health despite their horcrux infestation?"

Potter stopped dead, Severus' scarf between his fingers as he worked that through. "But what about being prepared for my death, and this being only a stopgap measure?"

"Oh, for Merlins's sake!" He snatched his scarf away and put it on. "Potter, until such time as you make the transition from 'mostly dead, aggravatingly thick Harry Potter,' to 'fully dead, past tense, buried and pushing up the daisies ex-Harry Potter,' kindly do me the favour of assuming that anything could happen. Especially given the forces of chaos which dog your footsteps."

"So... it's not over until the Fat Lady sings?"

Remembering the Gryffindor portrait's penchant for coloratura soprano in badly accented Italian, Severus winced. "I promise, Potter; I will make absolutely certain you know it when you are finally, actually, and irrevocably dead."

The boy nodded, raked his fingers through his hair again, and nodded again. "Guess that's one way of trusting you with my death," he said, turning back toward the stairs, subdued, but no longer quite so hag-ridden. "Good night, Snape," he said, then stopped on the landing, and turned back consideringly.

"So... what was the difference?" He asked, blushing at Severus' look, but holding his ground all the same. "You were going on about it earlier, and I guess you weren't talking about the difference between Draco Malfoy and me, so... what did you mean?"

"I was referring to the difference between the Zombi and the Inferi, of course," he replied, buttoning his rain cloak down. "The Inferius is, as you know, a corpse reanimated through the use of dark magic, whereas the Zombi is a living Muggle rendered temporarily into a state of mental and spiritual thralldom through the use of certain psychotropic components which mimic a deathlike state for some time, until... what the devil are you laughing about, you cretin?"

But Potter only shook his head and continued up the stairs, chuckling all the way.

 

~*~

Going back to his own home did nothing whatsoever to improve Severus' mood. Especially as, upon coming back into his lounge at Spinner's End, he found the room cold and lightless, with the remains of Draco's supper stacked on a pile of books, and two empty wine bottles just nearby.

Severus took a deep breath and banished the dishes to the kitchen, carefully checking his books for stray crumbs or dribbles. Then he took himself upstairs to kick the sleeping dragon's skinny little arse up around his ears.

"Mr. Malfoy!" he bellowed as he came to the top of the rickety stairs and flung the second bedroom's door wide. "Perhaps you would like to explain to me exactly what part of "You may not eat or drink near my books," escapes your understanding?"

Only Draco was nowhere to be seen. His room was a tip, bed unmade, clothing flung haphazardly about. Books which ought to have been downstairs lay piled up on every flat surface, and it looked as though half of Severus' plates, cups, and flatware were stacked on top of them. But no rangy blond sulked there amongst his hoarded mess.

For a moment, Severus' heart raced as he imagined Draco, bored, sullen and too frightened of his own helplessness to dare leaving the house, stumbling upon the entrance to the Priest Hole. The books alone could get Severus sent to Azkaban, let alone some of the potions ingredients he had stored down in those warded chambers. But more to the point, some of them, books and ingredients alike, could destroy an unwary mind, heart, or soul if taken up without caution.

A boy like Draco, who had gambled all and lost it in one throw, would be easy prey for their like. But even as Severus was turning on his heel, he checked himself. Eileen would never let anyone but him into those rooms. Never. And nobody who was not of her own blood could compel her, even should they burn her canvas down around her.

No. Either Draco Malfoy had finally arisen from his emotional collapse, remembered that he was a spoiled, egotistical, and pampered brat, and set off to start getting his own way... or, as was more likely, he had simply found a new place to sulk. And given the way the boy had gone white as milk whenever the topic of his aunt, or the Dark Lord came up, wise money lay with the sulking.

Severus set his wand into his palm, already weary of the matter, but as he turned to cast the 'point me' charm, he spied a glimmer from beneath another door down the hallway. HIS bedroom door, in point of fact, which he had left locked and warded every day of his adult life.

Counting to twenty in Greek calmed him only just enough that he was able to kick the door open instead of blasting it from its hinges.

Sure enough, Draco Malfoy lay sprawled across Severus' bed, his shoes on Severus' pillow, holding the photograph from Severus' bedside table over his face at arm's reach, and staring. He did not even glance at the door.

"Did you love my mother?"

Severus stopped in his tracks, his anger and his headache crystallized, solidified, and set firmly behind his sense of self preservation. He put his wand away just to be certain he didn't accidentally murder the boy, and chose his words carefully.

"No," he said, perching on the footboard. "I keep that photograph as a reminder of simpler times." There. No need to mention that those times had been not only simpler, but unclothed, and involving the other Malfoy pictured within that frame.

Draco rolled over and handed the photograph to him. "But you don't keep any others. Your family, other friends from school... and you helped her. You promised her you'd help me. You must have-"

"No, boy, I do not now, nor have I ever been in love with your mother. And now I'll thank you to get out of my-"

"Why not?" Draco waved at the frame again, a whine in his voice scraping the nerves behind Severus' eyes. "She's so beautiful! She's the most beautiful witch in England, and she likes you, I know it--"

"Draco." He put the photograph back into its place. Lucius and Narcissa posed gracefully in their Yule Ball robes, while his younger image glowered from one side. "Your mother will be fine. She is a resourceful creature, and Slytherin to the core. She neither requires a protector, nor would she welcome such attentions from me." Let alone that Narcissa, knowing Severus himself to be as queer as a brass galleon, would find no end of humor in such a suggestion. "Now surely you did not invade my privacy on a night on which you knew I would be lying to the Dark Lord regarding your whereabouts, and would predictably return home in a particularly ungenerous mood, simply in order to convince me to pay court to your mother."

And there, at last, the boy had the grace to look cowed. "No... That is... no."

Severus sighed and dug deep for his patience. "Your father is neither dead, nor likely to die, you know."

"I know." He rolled back to stare at the ceiling again, looking for all the world as though he intended to remain there on Severus' bed and continue his sulk, despite having been caught out.

"Then I suppose you were looking for something. Perchance your aunt has paid another visit whilst I was busy?"

Draco cut his eyes, but did not look at Severus. "No, I haven't seen her. And I wouldn't do what she... anything she said she wanted me to anyhow. I know she'd only hand me over to..." His narrow throat worked, and he wet his lips. "I just wanted... I wanted to find something that would tell me why you're doing it. Following the Dark Lord, I mean."

Weathering an odd sense of deja vu, Severus pushed up his sleeve. "He who would ride the tiger, may-"

"No, that isn't what I mean!" Draco lurched upright, and made a wreck of his bed, scrambling around to face him. "That is..." he spread his hands, fingers splayed as though he could comb the words he needed from thin air. "It was different at Hogwarts, wasn't it? Serving Him? Now that I see you in this dreadful place..." he sneered vaguely at the walls around them. "And the Dark L-- he isn't helping you at all, is he? None of the others are either. Back at Hogwarts, all the Slytherins knew; we looked out for our own, but they're not... he doesn't..." The question fell unfinished between them, and Severus let it lie.

Taking his silence for agreement, Draco sniffed, put his feet on the floor, and nodded. "He wouldn't come if the aurors found us. And he wouldn't send any of them to help either. He might come if Potter showed up and tried to kill me again, but it wouldn't be because I needed him, it would be because he wanted Potter." A shaky breath. "He could have stopped Father being sent to Azkaban, but he didn't care. Everything Father did, all the ways he'd served, everything he sacrificed... it didn't matter. I understand that now. But..." he looked up, sought Severus' gaze with watery grey eyes. "But I can't understand why you're still doing it."

Neither can I.

He shook his head and sighed. "It would do you no good to know what brings my feet to the floor on any given morning," he said, casting a wordless lumos to banish the maudlin ambience. "One man's motivation is another's mockery, and you have known since your first year in my House that I expected you to find your own way."

Draco nodded, scratching idly at a scar that peeked above his shirt collar. Gone was the insouciant, languid young man asking prickly questions from the half-darkness. In his place, Draco was pale and frightened, and almost as empty as Potter had been after watching Severus' pensieved memory.

Yeah, as if you'd act any different if it was Draco Malfoy turning into a zombie under your nose. the ghost of Potter's accusation whispered in Severus' ear, but he pushed it down. Draco was not turning into a drugged and mindless zombi. If he was turning into anything before Severus' eyes, it was a Death Eater; dragged along the left-hand path purely by the momentum of a denser mass of family name falling before him. Not so much fanatic, as just criminally lazy.

In all, Severus would have preferred the first; he knew what to do about zombi. A course of strong purgatives to chase the stupefying poisons out of the afflicted Muggle's bloodstream, a mental touchstone around which to rebuild the victim's core of personality, and even the walking shadows could live again...

He searched the narrow face in the harsh light, taken with a sudden notion. "Were your intentions toward Miss Parkinson as they appeared last year, Draco?"

Well that startled him out of his sulk. "Pansy? We... that is..." He waved his hands vaguely. "It doesn't matter now, does it? Her family would never allow it. Not with Father in prison, and --"

"For god's sake, boy, I did not ask for the sociopolitical implications of the arrangement, I merely asked if you liked her as much as you seemed to do?" Severus cut savagely through his prevarications, relishing the alarm growing in Draco's eyes. "Surely you can separate your own heart from your family interests long enough to answer that question!"

The startled look grew wary, then feral as Severus waited out the boy's dignity with an unwavering stare. "Yes, all right?" he spat at last. "I like her. I still like her, and if I hadn't screwed up last year, I might even still be able to say I'd marry her, but -- HEY!"

Catching Draco's shirt at nape and shoulder, Severus dragged the boy off his bed and frog marched him to the door. "Parkinson is in love with you, you self-absorbed fool," he snarled as he thrust Draco out into the hallway. "With you, not with your fortune, or your family, or your damned forearm! And if she marries anybody but you, it will be because you did not care to exert yourself to win her!" And yes, that spectre roused up the Malfoy fire to those icy cheeks again, didn't it? Severus fed the flames with a derisive snort. "What kind of a Slytherin are you, to surrender your heart's ambition at the first sign of difficulty?"

Draco lunged at the door as Severus swung it to. "But she -- but her --" He pressed both hands flat to the wood, as if in supplication or caress. "Professor, please!"

Scenting victory, Severus offered only a cold smile through the crack. "If you wish to marry Miss Parkinson, Draco, then it will be the woman herself, not her family, who accepts or rejects you. If you wish to have influence over her decision then, may I recommend that you apply what wit and guile you can muster to the matter of becoming the sort of man whom she might wish to accept?"

He did not wait for an answer before shoving the door to, and warding it closed.

There. Perfect. The boy would meditate on it, he would consider it, and Severus was certain he would decide the matter with his groin; boys his age always did.

And thus the siren lure of sex would steer Draco safely out of the Dark Lord's shadow. Parkinson would get the Malfoy name, the Malfoy cash, and the Malfoy scion by the short hairs, and Severus would get his room back to himself without having to murder his oldest friend's only child.

In all, not a bad way to end what had been an utterly wretched night.

 

~* September 20th, 1997 *~

 

Ron was so shocked at the news, he actually dropped his sandwich. "You're bloody kidding me!" he cried. "That ferretty little bugger actually had the nerve to firecall McGonagall?"

"Ron!" Hermione's protest at the language was reflexive, at best. Her eyes were just as wide and shocked as Ron's. "Harry, you're sure of this? And she's actually considering meeting with him? Because we've heard nothing at all about this, and-"

Harry brandished the letter and the shortbread biscuit tin in which it had come through the floo. "I checked it over three times, Hermione. The writing's hers, the warding charms are hers, and when I flubbed the first decoding charm, it started to transfigure itself into a haggis." He swallowed, still not entirely comfortable with that whole affair, or his stomach's reaction to it. "It really is her. She wouldn't lie to me about this."

"But why tell you?" Harry gave Hermione a look, and she blushed. "What I meant to say, was that why would she think you'd care? I mean you and Draco Malfoy were never close-"

"Except for when you were knocking his guts in," Ron added with a grin of fond remembrance.

"So it's not as though she could expect you to give her advice on dealing with him, or what he might do," Hermione went on with a glare. "She knows you hated him as much as he hated you. So why would she make a point of telling you?"

Harry sighed, dropping his glasses onto the desk, and rubbing his eyes. "You mean why'd she tell me, and not you," he accused. "I don't know, Hermione, really. It's not like she said 'Here, Potter, you tell your friends about this, since they're bound to be unreasonable about it, and I'd rather they get all their protesting done before they come back to school this evening because I don't want to listen to it." He shoved the letter at her, and she covered her embarrassment by reading it, as though she could glean out clues invisible to Harry's eye.

"Look," he went on. "MacGonagall knows he could be trying to set her up. She knows he could be just trying to get into the Order to betray it -- I don't think she's forgotten that Wormtail came from her house, after all."

"Then why would she even pretend that the Order would accept him?" Ron wondered, squinting fiercely off into the middle distance, as though laying the problem out on the chessboard of his mind. "Even if she lured him in, he's a total coward. He'd never make a good spy... Oh." His gaze focused on Harry so suddenly that he almost had to stifle a flinch. "That's why."

"What's why?" Hermione asked, waspish.

"It's because of Snape," Ron grinned, and for the first time in a week, his blue eyes were approving when he met Harry's gaze. "She knows Malfoy was with Snape when he buggered off Hogwarts last year. She's just letting Harry know that she might get the murdering bastard's hiding place out of Malfoy soon."

Harry managed not to flinch, but he couldn't manage to smile at that. Because something inside him still curled in anger when he thought of how Dumbledore had died, pleading and helpless at the end of Snape's wand. Because part of him still shook with self-loathing every time he stopped to think about what it meant that he had let Snape into his house, that he had accepted -- no, asked for Snape's help. That he was trusting Snape. Trusting Snape like Dumbledore had trusted Snape.

And that he was probably going to die the same way: at the end of Snape's wand.

Hermione took one look at Harry, and pushed back from the table. "Harry Potter, you promised! You promised you wouldn't go looking for revenge!"

"But what if Snape knows something about the horcruxes?" Ron argued back. "What if Dumbledore confided in him before he proved what a traitor he was, and he knows what we're trying to find? Hermione, don't we have to find that out if we can?"

"He didn't," Harry cut off the building fight between the two. "Dumbledore didn't. He wasn't even really sure of it until I got that memory from Slughorn, and after that... he said he didn't want anybody but me and him to know."

Hermione tilted her head and gave him a hard look. "But you told us."

"Because he told me to." That part wasn't a lie, at least. "He said I should trust you two, and tell you..." everything. Only I can't tell you everything now. It's too late to begin. We haven't time. I'm sorry...

"Then I want you to promise me you won't go after Snape," she pushed onward.

"Hermione, that's not-"

"WE ARE NOT MURDERERS!" She shouted Ron down. "Justice is not up to us, and if we start pretending it is, then we'll be no better than the Death Eaters!"

"Well, what if nobody else will see justice done?" Ron jumped up, white scars showing through his flush as he banged his fist on the library table. "Then it has to be up to us, doesn't it? If it's not, then the bastard gets away with it!"

"If we're the only ones who think it's justice, then it's NOT! It's only revenge, and it's only about making ourselves feel better about what happened when we couldn't stop it!" Her eyes sparkled with angry tears as she began snatching her quills and parchments from the table and stuffing them into her bag. "I will help you find the horcruxes, Harry, and I will help you get to them, and I will do everything I can to help you against Voldemort and the Death Eaters, but if either of you care one tiny little bit for me, then you will NOT ask me to condone murder and vigilantism."

Harry stood, caught her elbow and held it until she calmed enough to look him in the eye. "Hermione, I can't promise I won't go looking for him," he said. "Snape's got some important things to answer for, and people need those answers. But I don't intend to murder him even if we do wind up fighting again."

She closed her eyes, then wrenched free of his grip and shouldered her bag. "Fine," she said.

"What's wrong with you now?" Ron yelled after her as she headed for the floo. "He just gave you what you wanted!"

"No, Ron," she turned on the hearthstone to reply. "What I want is something totally different, and Harry can't give it to me! What I want is a break! What I want is not to have to spend every bloody night of the week worrying about schoolwork, and then spending every night of the weekend worrying about which of you two I'm going to lose first! Which of us is going to make a mistake that gets the others killed! Which one of us is going to be the first to have to actually kill someone else!" She sobbed, then stepped back from him as he reached for her.

"No, don't. I'm angry. I don't want to be crying!" But she couldn't stop the next sob, or the one that followed. "I'm only seventeen! I should get to go on dates, and read new books just for fun, and worry about my classes, and whether you're still watching Lavender Brown's bum in Defense class, and whether Ginny will ever tell me why she's been hiding in her room for the past week, and trying to pretend she isn't crying!" She drew a mighty breath, shaking with the effort of quelling herself. Then she reached for the floo jar.

"I'm sorry, Ron. I'm sorry Harry, but I need a break. Just for today. Please."

Harry, who had covered his face with his hand, nodded. "Yeah. I think we all need a break. It's okay." Just saying the words rang like a warning bell under his heart, but he knew she was right. Dumbledore had used up his time fighting against the horcrux problem; Harry didn't want to burn his up fighting his friends.

"Why don't we meet up in Hogsmeade?" he asked, putting his glasses back on again. "We could have lunch at the Three Broomsticks, and then just..." he ended with a shrug, to hide that he didn't know what else to suggest. But Hermione's watery smile suggested that she already knew that.

"Harry, I think I'd like some time alone today," she shot a glance in Ron's direction, and smirked just a bit. "And then I'd like a date with just my boyfriend this evening. Not that I don't love you, it's just..."

And Harry found a smile for her. "Just that you want to be seventeen today, and I make you feel old. It's okay. I'll be fine on my own." She looked guilty, and a little like she might cry again, so he turned away, pocketing the letter from McGonagall and clearing up their research materials.

"Ron?"

"In a bit," Harry heard him say, low and soft, as if he spoke in her ear. "I want to talk to Harry first. I'll look for you in the common room after tea, all right?"

She made no reply, but a moment later the floo roared, and she was gone. Harry went on shelving books and rolling maps and let the silence settle over them like a thick, damp blanket.

Ron let it lie for exactly one minute. "Are you going to tell me what happened between you and Ginny?"

Harry closed his eyes, put his palms flat to the table, and sighed. "What did she say?"

"That isn't what I asked you," Ron growled, and Harry could imagine his big Keeper's fists knotting at his sides as he crossed the room. "I want to hear from YOU just why she flooed home to the Burrow in tears that night. Home, Harry, not just back to Gryffindor Tower! She didn't come back for three days, and now she won't come down to meals, and she hides away in the library, or the room of requirement all the time and won't talk to anyone, and I want to know WHAT HAPPENED!"

Cold blossomed in Harry's belly, and he raised his eyes slowly. "Nothing like that, Ron. I swear it." He held that blue gaze until Ron gave him a grudging nod. Then he blew out his breath again. "I never touched her in any way that you haven't seen us do in the common room, and I'll take a Wizard's Oath on that if you want me to. But..." Harry shook his head and shrunk down the last of their maps into the cigar box. "I can't explain what happened. I just can't. All I can tell you is that you can't bring Ginny back here again."

"Harry..." One word held threat, warning, reproach, and plea at once.

Again, he shook his head, then he locked the box and went to flop onto the sofa. "You can't bring her back here," he said, once he was sure his voice wouldn't shake. "You just can't. Not until it's over."

Ron was silent for a long time, his glare a solid weight on Harry's neck. Then his Cannons jersey rustled as he folded his arms across his chest. "No," he said, shaking his head when Harry looked up again. "I reckon we'd better not."

Harry felt some of the chill weight lift from his belly. He summoned two butterbeers from the kitchen, setting both onto the table. But Ron didn't sit. He didn't move, in fact, just stood there by the fireplace, staring at Harry with his chessman's gaze.

"Do we still need to talk about this?" Harry asked at length,

He looked away then, rubbing a hand through his hair in that way which always made Hermione try to smooth it back down afterward. But when he looked back again, his mouth was twitching upward. "What are we, girls? Gimme that."

Grinning, Harry did, then settled back and propped his feet. "So how's Slytherin's team look this year?"

 

~* September 28th, 1997 *~

 

As soon as he could stand up straight again, Severus apparated to Grimmauld Place. The cool dank of the cellar closed out the choking stench of wood smoke and panic, and he coughed hard and long. Coughed until his throat bled again, and recalled the taste of screaming to his tongue. Coughed until the only thing keeping him off the grimy stone floor was disgust and the wall under his shoulder.

His eyes, still dazzled with curselight ghosts, utterly failed to resolve the umbrous landscape around him, but the mere thought of casting a lumos to guide his way to the stairs was enough to make Severus' head throb. But the monitoring charm in his pocket was spiking waves of cold alarm through his leg -- somewhere in the house above, Potter's breath was failing. His limbs were going still, his wit and his will and his unnerving green eyes surrendering to gravity.

He took a deep breath, wiped sweat and grit from his cold face. "Elf," he rasped out. "Cobby, or whatever your name is..." There came no answer, and Severus swore under his breath. "Your master needs my help, elf! This is no time to be shy!" There. His voice was beginning to steady at last. Perhaps he could dredge up the strength to find the stairs after all.

Luckily, he did not have to try. There was a ping, and a sparkle of magic across his aching eyes, then knobby fingers wrapped around his wrist and dragged him forward. "Dobby is not liking this," the creature whined. "Harry Potter is not well, not at all, and Severus Snape is coming late with Harry Potter's medicine, and Dobby is not liking things at all!"

Severus was still mustering up the energy to snap at the elf when he stumbled, and found himself toppling into a dusty armchair. "Damn your eyes," he sputtered. "There is no time for games! Take me to where Harry Potter is, AT ONCE!"

"Dobby does, Dobby does!" A finger pop, another fierce sparkle, and the chair gave a shiver and skittered forward. Unnerved, Severus tucked his feet up underneath it, and clung for dear life as the blasted thing trotted up the stairs. All told, he'd rather the elf had summoned him a broom but he was too spent to muster an argument, just so long as the makeshift sedan did not drop him and shatter the precious ampoule in his pocket.

"Elf..." Severus gulped and closed his eyes as the chair lurched up the main staircase. "Cobby, do you have access to the house's medicinals?"

The elf, two landings above, turned and gave Severus a glare as the chair caught up. "DOBBY is a free elf. Harry Potter's house does not recognize Dobby, or give Dobby access to private things unless Harry Potter orders it," he sniffed. "But Dobby would not trust potions in this house anyway, Severus Snape Sir. This house likes hurting."

"The house might like hurting, but I do not!" Severus grumbled. "I require a strong nerve tonic, a muscle relaxant, and a nausea reducer, and I am not particular where they come from, so long as they work. Can you procure them?"

Dobby paused outside the last door down the hall. "Dobby can be going to the infirmary at Hogwarts," he allowed grudgingly.

Severus hauled himself out of the animated chair with a grunt, staggering until he managed to grab the doorsill. "Then do so, and quickly!" The elf gave him a mulish glower, and it was all Severus could do not to knock the wretch out of his way when he moved to block the handle. "Potter will be the better for it, I assure you, only you must go, before it is too late!"

That decided the matter, apparently. Giving the door one last worried glance, Dobby pinged himself away. The door clicked open in his wake, and squealed slowly back to the wall. Firelight shadows thwarted Severus' sore eyes for a moment, but then the dazzle resolved and he caught his breath at the sight awaiting him.

Potter lay on his side in the bed, half-dressed, disheveled, limp and lax as if he had fallen there from a great height. One arm draped bonelessly off the side, his wand a pale streak on the carpet directly below, one shoe half-removed, the other toppled at the bed's foot. His chest and shoulders gleamed with sweat in the chill room, unmoved by even the shallowest of breaths. Severus could just see pooling silver in the hollow below his unblinking eye.

Severus pushed off the doorsill and allowed momentum and gravity to propel him across the room, fetching himself up against the bedstead's tall, thick column. Potter did not stir, though Severus' impact jolted the heavy bed against the wall. His eyes, fixed and gleaming, did not twitch in Severus' direction, but there was an air to Potter's silence and a weight to his unblinking gaze which bespoke a terrified, helpless awareness.

"I'm here." Severus dropped to his knees beside the fallen wand, turned Potter's face so the boy's eyes could focus on him. Unresisting, that gaze, desperately open, nearly dragging him into the green. Severus needed no legilimency to read their silent screaming. "Be calm, Potter. I've got you now."

He fumbled the ampoule and goblet from his pocket as another tear slipped free, this one slicking hotly along his palm where it supported Potter's head. Through the cooling skin, Severus could feel a pulse, irregular and slow, but it was something. "Hush, boy. You aren't dead just yet," he whispered, enlarging the goblet and pouring the potion in one-handed. "I said I'd tell you, didn't I? Roll back now...there."

Severus thumbed open Potter's bluing lips, but hesitated. Just the touch of the draught would make the boy breathe again, but supine as he was, he would aspirate it with his first gasp. Severus had not dragged his aching bones all the way here just to drown Potter now.

He set the goblet, along with his wand and Potter's, onto the bedside table, and gathered all the pillows to prop the boy up. However manhandling ten stone of completely limp, utterly unresponsive boy was more than his exhausted body could manage. Even using magic to heft him up onto the pile proved useless: when the spell's support was cut, Potter slumped at once. Finally, Severus banished his filthy outer clothes, and wearing only his underpants and vest, he clambered into the bed himself. Pulling the boy against his chest, Severus tipped his head back poured the draught into his slack, open mouth.

Potter swallowed at once, gasped a tremendous breath, and screamed; spine arched hard, head thudding against Severus' collarbone as he clawed the air and kicked like a man on the gibbet. Severus did what he could to hold the boy still, but his arms trembled with nerve-shock and exhaustion, and he was no match for the convulsive rebirth which wracked Potter now. He worked his arms around Potter's chest, and smoothed his palms over the hard-locked, twitching muscles, up and down, again and again.

"Easy... Easy now," he heard his own voice through the screaming, faint and muzzy, as from a far distance. "It will pass soon. Breathe, boy... just breathe with the pain. That's right..." A part of him cringed to recognize both words and tone, but he pushed it away; the boy writhed in pain as great any cruciatus, and he had neither gentle mother, nor wise old mentor to see him through it. Snape would have to do. "There. There. It passes, you see?" he whispered as Potter's slick, sweat-chilled back sagged against him, and the screaming ceased for a span of panting breaths.

Potter made a sound, one that could have been a sob or a name on parched tongue and cracking lips. Then in another convulsive wriggle, he turned in Severus' arms and clung, trembling now as the pain eased away and shock set in. Severus could feel Potter's lips snagging against his shoulder, could feel the boy's late-night stubble scraping where his jaw fretted back and forth in a near-silent litany.

"Thought I was dead, you didn't come, couldn't breathe, couldn't move, thought I was dead, thought you were dead, oh god-"

Severus smoothed a weary hand in Potter's static-wild hair, and summoned the duvet from beneath them. "Be quiet, boy," he said, suddenly aware of Potter's turgid prick grinding into his thigh as the weighty warmth settled around them. "Clearly I did not abandon you to your fate. Calm yourself... breathe." His own cock gave a feeble twitch of interest, but the curse-pain still lingering in Severus' joints was too much for anything more profound.

A pity, that. Sex was an effective tonic for near brushes with mortality, and Severus had never found any potion quite so bracing as a good, hard shag when one found ones self unexpectedly not-yet-dead. Having it off could have been just the thing to halt Potter's panic, and reaffirm that he lived yet. But given the way the boy hovered on the edge of hyperventilation, perhaps they were both too rattled to manage just now.

Eventually, Potter's breathing leveled and the galloping pulse in his temple slowed to an easier pace. The clutching hands turned soft, and then began to stroke; utterly devoid of sexual intent, making damp, smooth circuits of his neck and shoulder, as though Potter sought his own comfort by offering it. Seemingly in no hurry to move, he sniffed and whispered, "Wood smoke...you washed the blood off."

It required an act of will for Severus to resist tensing against the implication hidden in those soft words. He lifted his hands away, but Potter ignored the hint. "I saw."

"You saw."

A minute jerk of the head, as much flinch as negation. "Scar. Not all though. The last bit. When you fell." Potter's breath felt cold, sucked along Severus' collarbone. "Then he walked away, and I didn't know... I didn't know if he'd killed-"

Severus swallowed, phantom pain invoking a shudder as he let his hands settle once more. "He does not do his own killing," he offered, noting absently that Potter's skin was warming. "And he knows when to stop his... disciplines."

"Why was he-"

"No," Severus stopped the question with two fingers to Potter's dry lips. "Do not ask me that. He is mad, Potter. That is enough."

Again, Potter nodded, and pressed his head back down. "I ought to have killed him by now," he whispered, shivers easing as exhaustion crept near. "... Should have stopped it. Set everyone..."

"Don't be ridiculous, boy," he said, setting his wand aside and settling into the mound of pillows. Potter's weight was solid and easy overtop of him, his warmth soothing the lingering aches away. Severus felt eyelashes sweep down against his throat, once... twice... and the third time they did not rise again.

"You'll manage," he whispered, once Potter's breath had been even and slow for long enough; once sleep had crept close and steeped syrup-thick through his guard; once the words felt simple and safe in the darkness. "I will not let you fall."

 

~* September 29th, 1997 *~

 

Harry dreamt of flying. The sky was twilit grey, stained with sunlight in the distance, but all curling, musky clouds close by, warm as cauldron steam and soft as morning linens wrapped close around him. They grumbled with a distant thunder and he could hear the wind, but felt only a gentle rise and fall in the mist beneath him, and his own aching hardness pressing down into the warm vapour.

He took a deep breath and smiled. A half-waking stretch rolled his hips down, made his cock scrape against... against a leg?

Harry froze, confused. But then the cloud nudged him over a bit, and a delicious pressure braided up his spine. He groaned aloud, shivered as he rocked into the breeze again and felt something rise, solid and urgent against his...

Someone's hand was cupping his bum.

The flying dream shattered. Harry was scrambling to the far side of the bed before he even managed to open his eyes. "Oh fuck, I'm sorry, Snape! I don't know what I -- you -- oh God, I'm not used to sleeping with you! I mean people! I mean anyone! OW! Hey!"

The bony fingers digging into his arm eased just a bit. "Calm yourself before you fall out of bed and break something, Potter," Snape's voice was gritty with sleep, and his scowl looked only half-formed. "I will not set any broken bones before I've had some tea, at least." He dragged Harry back from the brink, and only let go his arm once Harry had settled trembling back into the edge of the warm hollow they had made in the bed.

Then Snape yawned and stretched, and the duvet, kicked askew in Harry's frantic escape, slithered fully off the bed. Harry shivered, mortified to realize that his underpants were tenting straight out, the damp spot at the waistband proof of just how close he'd come to... well, coming. Coming all over Snape.

Who was still lying there, staring at Harry. Not quite smirking, though yes, there was amusement in the quirk of those lips, but there was something very different in Snape's eyes; something that made the weight of them almost a tangible thing. Harry fought against a blush, and fidgeted, trying to nonchalantly get his morning wood into a less obvious position. Then Snape laughed. Not much of a laugh, really; just a little huff in his chest, and a toss to get his rumpled hair out of his eyes, but still.

Harry felt his cheeks burn. "It's not..." He took a breath and tried again. "It's just -" Another breath, and he tried closing his eyes. "I guess it doesn't ever happen to you then?" He ladled all the sarcasm he could muster into the pointless question, but somehow his dignity didn't feel much soothed.

Especially when Snape laughed again. "If you think not, then Pomfrey and I clearly need to have another look at your eyes."

"What?" Harry glared. "What's that supposed to..." A movement drew his gaze down along Snape's flexing elbow, to the two fingers he was stroking up and down along his... Oh.

Oh wow.

Snape made a humming noise, deep and thick in his throat, then he reached for his wand, and a moment later, his underpants and vest were gone. There was nothing but air and astonishment between Harry and that long, purpling cock, sliding against Snape's belly with every teasing stroke. A salty, musky scent filled up Harry's nose, flooded his mouth and made his cock throb. He swallowed hard. Then again. His erection jumped in the confines of his pants, envious of the freedom Snape's was enjoying. Or envious of the attention.

Riveted, Harry could only watch as Snape's fingers gathered up a bead of clearish fluid welling from the tip, and spread it over the head where it peeked out of its tight-stretched foreskin. He swallowed again, told himself to stop staring, but didn't. And he also didn't move back when those two fingers reached out across the distance, hooked under his chin, and tipped it up, and God there was that smell again, only stronger now, and filling up Harry's head so he could barely even breathe!

Snape didn't look the least bit grumpy when he searched Harry's gaze then. "You're hungry," he murmured, and with only those two fingers, drew Harry closer.

Harry had to swallow again before he could answer. "I don't understand." But his hand fell onto Snape's thigh. Then he felt crisp hair rolling as his fingers slid against the grain, muscles jumping beneath, quivering to hold still.

"Yessss," Snape's eyes rolled shut as Harry's hand closed around his cock. The fingers under his jaw softened into a snagging caress over his morning-stubbled cheek, luring his quivering lips open with that potent scent. One finger slipped inside, smooth and long over Harry's tongue, and fuck, but he couldn't stop himself sucking on it. "I think you do," Snape murmured, and pulled his finger free.

Harry could feel Snape's pulse through the hard length in his hand -- pounding and urgent, but patient in some way he couldn't define. He gave it a squeeze, comparing the prick in his grip now to the one his palm knew better, and ... oh wow. He sucked in a gasp, and flinched as Snape did too. Another bead of fluid gathered in the slippery, winking eye as Harry watched, and he could not resist a stroke. Just to feel. Just to know how it would be different. How it would make Snape...

Oh wow!

"Potter..."

Harry snatched his hand back. "I'm sorry," he said, scooting backward again. "No, really, I am. I had--"

Snape made that humming sort of growl again, and then he lunged. Harry yelped, but didn't have much traction to struggle as 12 stone of adult wizard bore him over and pinned him down in the rumpled linens. "Wait, no, I didn't- Aaa!" Snape's knees prized his apart, snuggling his cock and Harry's together in the tight, heavy press of their hips, stealing Harry's breath with pressure.

"Oh fucmph!" The savagery of the kiss shut Harry's protests down at once. His hands knotted in the sheets as that tongue, Snape's wicked, evil, poisoned tongue lashed and twined with his own. Blood thundered in his ears, but harder in his cock, and something very hungry indeed raised its head inside Harry, growling its want. Harry gave in and rutted upward, wincing, whining in his throat as his underpants chafed between them.

Snape broke the kiss with a curse, then leaned a little, grinding his hips so hard that Harry saw stars, but rutted back all the same. Something clattered to the floor, and then... oh, then it was all skin between them, heated and sweaty and smelling of sleep and a night with no toothbrush, but that didn't matter when Snape's hips did that, and his tongue dared Harry's to track it, to tame it, to pin it down.

He gripped Snape's back, felt shoulder blades flexing, felt ribs, felt scars glide under his palms, until he felt the subtle swell of arse. Snape's arse. He was fondling Snape's arse...

Oh holy FUCK!

With a muffled wail, Harry came, winding his legs, his arms, his tongue, every part of him around the overwhelming force that had driven him to this glorious orgasm. There was nothing in the whole world so important as the hammering throb of his release, the rolling surge of weight that crushed each burst out of him, the spreading slickness that made each rocking spasm a little better, a little closer to heaven.

Then the rocking stopped. Snape tore his mouth away, reared back on his hands, and the grinding weight was suddenly almost too much for Harry to bear. He gave a shudder, and Harry felt his mouth drop open as he felt Snape coming against him. Every hot, sticky burst, every pulsing jerk of that cock against his own, the hard clench of Snape's hairy bollocks around the base of his own still-twitching cock. He felt the short, panting breaths Snape stole through his wide-open mouth, felt stomach muscles trembling to hold them together.

He felt alive! And all he could do was take hold of Snape's arms, drink the feeling in deep, and hang on.

It seemed to last forever, but Harry still couldn't stop the grunt of protest when Snape rolled away, leaving him tingling, sore, winded and sticky. The whirring brush of a cleaning charm wrung another spasm out of his dwindling cock, and Harry whimpered. He'd just had it off with Snape.

With SNAPE, for fuck's sake!

He felt the bed dip, heard bare feet creaking across the floor, then the hall door creaked open. He didn't look, still struggling to identify the storm of emotion in his belly. Why wasn't he scared? Why wasn't he disgusted? After a moment, he heard water falling into water, and a bit of his tension eased. Only to return a moment later, as Harry asked himself why the hell he should be relieved that Snape had only gone to the toilet, and not left altogether.

He shouldn't care. Why should he care? Snape obviously only slept there because he was exhausted, and Harry was pretty damned useless last night, and it was just nature, right? It meant nothing except that they were both still alive, right? So it also meant nothing that Snape came right back in after he was done having a piss, naked and unashamed, pausing only to collect the duvet from the floor before rolling right back into Harry's bed.

It was only when he scowled and asked, "What?" that Harry even realized he was staring.

"Er..." Harry sat up a bit, trying to tug at the duvet, but only succeeding in dragging himself closer. "That is..." He swallowed. "Why?"

Snape, who had been nestling himself back into his pile of pillows, opened one eye to glare. "Potter, tell me you aren't one of those obnoxious creatures who wants to talk after sex."

Sex. Oh fuck. They'd had sex!

Harry tried to hide his blush under a scowl, but couldn't maintain it. "No, those are girls, sir. Pretty sure I'm the other sort." Snape huffed that laugh again, and Harry relaxed a little. "I just want to know... you know. Why."

"Will you shut up and go back to sleep if I tell you?"

Probably not, given the electric buzz going on under his skin, but Harry nodded his head anyhow, and Snape sighed.

"I did it for exactly the same reason as you let me do it: because we both wanted it."

"But I was asleep!"

"You were horny. You wanted reaffirmation of life, and I had an erection that wanted seeing to. Both wants were satisfied, and that is all there need be to it, Potter." Snape punched a pillow and flopped his head back down. "Now kindly stop whinging like a maiden defiled, and go back to-"

Across the room, a shower of green sparks leapt from the fireplace, spinning and flaring on the hearthstones. Snape had his wand in hand before the last of them glimmered out. "What the devil?"

Harry lunged from the bed, tripping and sliding in his haste to find what had happened to his clothes. "Floo extension," he panted, dragging his jeans from behind the chair and shimmying into them. "Can't hear the library floo from up here, so- FUCK!" Hopping, he picked a twist of bramble from between his toes and tossed it back at Snape's clothes. Where the hell had he gone last night, anyhow? And more importantly, where was Harry's shirt? He'd only the one left clean, unless he wanted to resort to his school uniform or Dudley's castoff's...

Dobby appeared in the room with a ping, worrying his hands. "Harry Potter has a visitor-"

"I know, I know," Harry yelped, diving after the glimmer of scarlet under the bed. "Whoever it is, fix them some tea and tell them I'll be right down, okay?" He dragged the shirt over his head, and looked around frantically as the elf pinged away again. "Where are my glasses?"

"You don't need them," Snape growled, gone back to sprawling in the bed. "I corrected your astigmatism and myopia when -"

"Yeah, I noticed, thanks," Harry snapped. "Keeping that a secret, okay? Call it an edge. Accio socks!"

"Hmph," Snape growled, and twitched his wand at Harry. Deshabillius." Harry shivered as his clothing suddenly steamed itself flat and neat, then toppled into his chair as his socks and trainers literally swept him off his feet. A comb even came rocketing in from the loo down the hall, and attacked Harry's head like a hummingbird while the trainers were cinching themselves shut. "There," Snape said, smacking his wand back down onto the night table. "Now kindly cease blundering about like a drunken quintaped, and let me sleep!"

Harry hesitated at the door. "Aren't you curious who it-"

"Whomever it is, Potter, they are not here to see me."

And that was that, wasn't it? It had to be someone from the Order, and this early on a Sunday morning -- the grandfather clock in the entry hall was just whirring up to chime a quarter to five -- it couldn't be good news. Dobby would have said if it was Ron or Hermione or Remus, after all.

"Sorry," he cried, skidding through the parlour door. "Sorry to make you wait, Professor McGonaaah..." he pulled up short, struggling to place the stern, silver-haired woman on his parlour sofa. The green robes, the bright red handbag... oh. That hat, he could never forget, especially after seeing it on Snape! "Ahm, Mrs. Longbottom?" he managed, offering his hand. "So good to meet you?"

"You'll be Harry Potter then." She took his hand in a grip just as fierce as her face was, but turned her wrist and cocked it so her hand lay atop Harry's at arm's reach. It took him a moment to realize she expected him to kiss her knuckles.

"Er, yes. That's me," he said, and did so.

"You're up late," she observed, taking back her hand and resuming her seat with a flounce. "You're not one of those rakehells who drink, gamble and whore all night, then sleep the day away once you've satisfied your carnal appetites, are you?"

Harry shook himself once he realized he was staring. People's Grans weren't meant to say words like that! "Er. That is, no! No carnal appetites here, ma'am. Just me... you know..." he waved vaguely in the direction of the library. "Burning the midnight oil and all."

Dobby appeared just then, with the answer to Harry's prayers steaming away between two china cups, and the sugar and cream. Buttered crumpets too. "Would you like tea?" Harry asked in desperate relief.

She shook her head. "Far too late for tea, boy," she said, then snapped her fingers at Dobby. "Ruby port, if you please, and don't be stingy about it. Now." She turned back to Harry as the elf pinged away again. "You'll indulge me to be direct, Mr. Potter, but I should like to get straight to the matter at hand."

Harry nodded, sinking into the chair opposite hers. "Yes please, ma'am."

"Augusta, boy," she said with a sniff. "You're Potter Primus now, and that makes us peers of a sort, though see you don't think to take liberties with me on it." Harry shook his head immediately. "Good. Now then; I understand that two of your friends went to my Neville with some cockamamie tale about his new wand belonging to You-Know-Who, and I want to know what the devil you think you're on about!"

Harry, dizzy already, bought himself some time with the tea things. Neville's new wand? He vaguely recalled something about it being one of the last ones bought before Ollivander disappeared... wait. Harry put the teapot down with a clatter, remembering suddenly that they'd talked about how most of the wandmaking techniques in use today were the same ones that Rowena Ravenclaw herself developed, back in the time of the Founders. If Neville had somehow wound up with Ravenclaw's wand...

"It," He blinked, took a sip to collect himself. "It could be, ma'am. Not that it belongs to Voldemort exactly, but that it's involved with him. Did Ron and Hermione say-"

"And what is it, exactly, that you're supposing is wrong with this wand, boy," Mrs. Longbottom cut him off. Dobby appeared with her drink, and she caught it and the decanter up from the tray without even seeming to look. "Tell me straight now, because I'll not have any arsing about."

Harry stared at her for a moment, weighing his options against her sharp blue stare. Finally, he gave up; he'd never convince her without the truth. "Do you know what a horcrux is?" he managed to ask.

She scowled. "A what?"

"It's..." God, how to sum it up? Harry sipped his tea and chose his words carefully. "It's one of the things keeping Voldemort around. Before he died the first time, he hid a piece of his soul in that wand, you see?" Harry shrugged hopefully. "If he's to be killed properly, it will have to be destroyed."

"So," she mused with a scowl that gave Harry a much deeper understanding of Neville's nervous disposition. "You're wanting to destroy my Neville's wand. Is that it?"

"Not really, I don't Ma'am," Harry said, hoping he didn't sound as pathetic as he suspected he did. "I just want to destroy Voldemort, is all. But if Neville's got a horcrux, it'll be hurting him, don't you see? My gir-" he coughed, and took a sip of his tea. "My friend Ginny had another one for awhile when she first came to Hogwarts; a diary. It nearly killed her." He set his cup aside and wiped his palms on his thighs. "It drained off her life force and magic, trying to reincarnate the piece of Voldemort that was inside it. You don't want that to happen to Neville, do you Ma'am?"

"Of course I don't, you impudent thing!" She slapped her glass down, and Harry winced, expecting it to shatter. Then she folded her arms across her breast so the fox's head crooked under her jutting chin. "All the same, I won't have you breaking Neville's wand over this poppycock. That's a valuable piece of craftsmanship there, not that a youngster like you would appreciate that in this day and age. It's also one of the last wands Ollivander sold, and it is most certainly NOT keeping that Lord Thingy on this earth."

"But-"

"No." She shook her head. "Out of the question."

"But ma'am, I remember Ron saying that Neville was looking really pale when he ran into him in Diagon Alley last week," Harry pressed onward. "The curse could already be-" Harry blinked, startled as he caught sight of Snape in the hallway mirror. Apparently he'd been curious enough to slink down and listen at the door after all. From the look on his face, Harry didn't need legilimency to guess that Snape was already making plans to find Neville and personally terrorize the wand out of his hands.

"Nonsense," Augusta waved Harry's implication away like a bad smell. "He's always a bit sickly after the summer, is all. It's not his wand's fault." She tapped the table insistently and glared. "Now you're to leave him alone about it, do you understand me, boy?"

"No, ma'am," Harry admitted, shaking his head. "I really don't." Her face clouded over, and he rushed to explain. "Look, Voldemort's followers tortured your son and daughter! How can you not want to destroy that wand if it's part of what's giving him power?"

The witch gave Harry a smile that sent a shiver down his spine, and reached for her handbag. "Because that wand is not the one giving the Dark Lord power," she said, pulling another from her purse and slapping it onto the table. "This one is. Or it would do, if it could manage it."

And it was. Harry could feel his mouth water, could feel every magical particle yearning toward that grubby, twisted wand under the old woman's fingers. His heart raced, blood thundering in his ears as he reached for it. "How-" She rolled it back out of his reach, her grim smile almost daring him to try and take it.

Harry swallowed and folded his hands around his teacup instead. "How did you-"

"Come by it? Found it in my Frankie's vault after he and his Alice were attacked, poor lambs," she said smugly. "The goblins were most relieved to have me take it away, I can tell you! They knew there was something quite off about this wand."

Suddenly that cast an entirely different light on the Lestrange's attack on Frank and Alice Longbottom. From the stunned expression on Snape's face, he was adding things up to the same sum. But there still was something that didn't quite figure.

"But if you've had it all this time," Harry ventured, searching for a way to ask it. "And it's definitely a horcrux, then why haven't you-"

"Died?" She gave a grim laugh. "Well I daresay I might have done if I hadn't had myself turned the minute I recognized I was being cursed."

"Turned?" Harry blinked. In the mirror, Snape did too.

"Vampire." And she poured out another measure of port. "Undead, boy. No life force for the damned thing to steal, eh?" She sipped her drink, then laughed at Harry's gobsmacked expression. "What, you didn't think I wore this great thumping hat and veil because it suited my complexion now, did you?"

"But ..." Tea. He needed tea. "You don't..." Harry waved his hand, still searching for the words. "How do you...?"

"Spit it out if you're going to be so rude as to ask, boy."

"What about the blood?" he managed, suddenly very much aware that he brought his own wand downstairs with him. "You don't... attack people, do you?" Snape's reflection put a hand over its face, and Harry fought another losing battle against a blush, cursing all but one of his Defense teachers.

Augusta only laughed. "Potions, boy." She toasted him and sipped her port. "Oh, Nevvy helps when I need a drop or two, but these days that's hardly often. And in lean times, of course, animal blood can supplement the potions."

"Oh." Harry couldn't think of anything else to say, really.

"Quite." She nodded, and leaned over the table. "Now hear me clearly Potter; I took this step because someone had to stay and look after Nevvy when my Frankie and his girl got hurt. This business has naught to do with me wanting to live forever, or take over the world, or hunt the mortal kine. And now that you've pinpointed the source of the problem, I want your word on it that you'll do the right thing when the time comes."

Harry felt his face go cold. "You... you want me to ... stake you, ma'am?" he asked.

She shook her head. "No, Nevvy's going to do that bit: he's sworn to it." She finished her port, and set the glass aside with a flourish. "You're to finish that so-called Dark Lord once and for all, young man, so that I can go to dust knowing my family's finally safe."

"I'll..." Harry swallowed. "I'll do my best, ma'am."

"You swear it?" Hadn't he heard something about not letting vampires get eye contact? Or was that just Snape? Either way, there was something in Harry that wouldn't let him flinch from the old witch's steely gaze as he nodded and held out his hand.

"I do."

This time, she shook his hand properly. "Then the Ravenclaw wand is yours," she said as she slapped it into Harry's still-outstretched palm and stood. "Have a look there on the handle before you destroy it, by the way, and you'll see her sigil. I spotted it years ago, but it makes more sense now, to go along with your story." She gathered up her hat and handbag, and headed toward the library as though she'd known the way for years. Harry, remembering his manners, stood and offered his arm, but she waved him away.

"I'll show myself out, thank you. Good morning to you, young man," she said, leaving no reflection as she swept past Snape's hiding place. "And you as well, Professor."

 

~*~

"All right then," Potter growled, flinging the priceless book aside and propping his feet on the sofa like a sulky child. "If you're such an expert, how would you destroy it?"

"Well, for a start, I most certainly would not repeat the idiotic stunt which nearly killed you last month," Severus growled, slapping Potter's hand away as it crept toward the wand on the table between them. "And I would, in your particular case, stop trying to bloody well fondle the damned thing every twelve seconds! You know there is a sentient presence in there, idiot!" A twitch of his own wand sent the horcrux across the library to the mantle, entirely out of reach from Potter's chair.

Potter swallowed, tracking the wand with catlike intensity. "I know," he said. Severus readied a stupefy, but Potter thought better of going after it. "I can feel it in there."

"And it -- he, most likely, can feel you." Severus emphasized his point with a jab of his wand, but Potter did not notice. "It is a very safe bet that this horcrux would not be above launching a preemptive strike, should you afford it the chance."

"It was different before," Potter said, tearing his gaze away at last. "With the cup and the locket, I was different. I thought that was the whole point of stoppering my... my death."

Severus rolled his eyes. "No, Potter, the reason for stoppering your death was that you were dying. These further exploits of yours merely deplete the resources upon which you draw."

"Well there has to be a way!" Potter shouted, standing to pace. "Destroying the horcruxes is not exactly an optional thing, Snape, it has to be done!"

"And of course, because you are the center of the universe, it naturally follows that it must be done by you?"

But as usual, Potter did not appreciate the well-crafted bon mot. "Well, if not me, then who?" the brat demanded. "Are we going to ask for volunteers? 'Step right up, who'd like to have their magic turned against them, so they can die a horrible death unless Voldemort's soul possesses them and turns them into an Inferius first? Come on now, don't be bashful!'" Potter pinned Severus with a glare. "And don't even suggest we try and get some poor idiot to do it without telling them the risks, because that'd be the same as murder, and I won't do it!"

Severus raised an eyebrow. "How intriguing that you were the first of us to think of the notion." He didn't bother to keep the scorn from his voice -- Potter couldn't expect better if he was going to act like an ignorant cretin.

"What?" True to form, the brat stormed back to loom over Severus' chair. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Severus settled, kicking out his legs and crossing them at the ankle -- not-incidentally making Potter jump backward to avoid them. "It means that some day it will occur to you that Gryffindors are fully capable of imagining and implementing heinous evils without having Slytherins to blame for it. And when that finally does sink into your head, I intend to be there to accept your apology, you sanctimonious little twat!"

Potter's face went a truly hideous colour, but before he could dredge a reply from the hormone-addled murk that served him for a mind, the fire flared up with a roar. They both jumped, quarrel forgotten as the flames turned green, and a feminine voice called out. "Harry! Harry, we're coming through! We've got amazing news!"

"Wait!" Potter cried, waving a frantic summoning charm at the entry hall. "Wait just a moment!" A bundle of silvery cloth came winging into the room, and Potter caught it one handed.

"Put it in your pants, Mate," a male voice this time, boyish with excitement. "This news can't wait!"

Severus, on the point of trying to disapparate right through the house wards, froze when Potter snapped the silvery drape out wide and slung it over his head. "Sit still and be quiet!" the boy hissed as he hastily tucked the invisibility cloak down.

"Potter, you-" Severus bit back the rest as the fire roared again and spat out Granger and the Weasley boy on the hearthrug.

"Oh Harry, it's brilliant! You'll never guess it!" Granger babbled, not even bothering to wipe the soot from her nose. "We've done it! We've really-"

"They're going to get all of them, Harry!" Weasley nearly trampled the chit in his rush to thump Potter on the back. "All the bastards in one fell swoop!"

"We're not going to do anything of the-"

"All right, all right," he complained without his oafish grin diminishing one watt. "I meant the Order's going to, of course-"

Potter, looking as much befuddled as bemused, shook his head. "You do realize neither of you are making any sense, don't you? NO! Don't sit there!"

Frozen on the verge of what would likely prove the most traumatic moment of his young life, Ron Weasley glanced at the fingers Potter was digging into his arm. "Why not?"

"I... er... think that chair's..." Potter glanced his way, and licked his lips. "Hexed." If Severus had dared, he would have kicked the brat.

"Really?" Weasley peered at the chair with renewed interest. "It was fine last-"

"I know," Potter said, tugging Weasley out of danger. "But it, er, tried to bite me earlier. Better just use the sofa instead." They did so, and Potter himself hovered awkwardly at Severus' arm, clearly reluctant to take the facing chair, and risk having no obstacle between his seen and his unseen guests. Severus would have been grateful, he supposed, if the little wretch had managed to get off a silencing spell on him before the idiots came through. As it was however, he was mostly just annoyed.

"So!" Potter yelped as Severus rustled his wand gingerly free of the fabric. "What are you two doing here? I thought McGonagall wasn't going to let you come except on weekends."

"She let us come just for this," Granger said, her eyes shining as she reached for Potter's hand. "So we could be the ones to tell you the news. Draco Malfoy's been captured!

Potter flung himself into Snape's lap, keeping him in the chair as nothing else could have done. "They found him?" Potter asked, pinning Severus' wand hand under his thigh, and pressing back against his chest.

His idiot friends seemed not to notice his forced tone however. "No, he surrendered," Weasley said with a loathsome grin. "Seems what he and McGonagall were bargaining over all this time was the terms."

"Get off me! Granger is staring!" though Severus' whisper was nearly silent, he knew Potter must have heard. A fidget freed Severus' wand hand enough for him to cast the illusion that Pottter was sitting properly in the chair. He would have preferred to pinch the brat hard and dump his skinny arse on the floor, of course, but that would have to wait.

"Malfoy said he'd turn himself in to the Aurors," Weasley nattered on, oblivious, "and he would give up the safehouse locations to as many Death Eaters as he knew if the Order would agree to keep his mother safe from You-Know-Who. Ow!" he lurched in his seat and pulled his arm out of Granger's reach. "All right, Voldemort. Happy now?"

Severus' mark gave a painful twitch at the name, and he couldn't stop himself flinching. Potter gripped his knee hard, as though he'd any right to warn against indiscretion. "Did he know where Snape's hiding?"

And of course, rather than simply answering the entirely valid and relevant question, Granger took the opportunity to scold instead. "Harry, you really can't keep on with this vendetta! He'll get his when Voldemort falls, you know." Severus hissed through his teeth, and wished the next idiot who said that bloody name would burst into flames. "You can't let this petty vengeance distract you from what's really important-"

"Damn it, Hermione, will you just answer the question?" Potter cut her off. "Is the Order going to get Snape, or not?"

"I don't know for sure," she replied with a disapproving sniff. "But probably. Draco must have known where to find him, and I know the Headmistress wants Snape in custody as much as you do, so I can't see her letting Draco off without it."

Damn the bitch, did she have to be right all the time?

"And about bloody time that traitor paid for what he did, too." Weasley, of course, couldn't resist grinding salt in.

Granger, the hypocrite, gave him a reproving frown. "Ron..."

"Stop. Both of you," Potter cut the pair off not an instant too soon for Severus' tastes. "I've got a headache, and I really don't want to listen to you fight, okay?"

"Headache?" Granger leapt on the word. "You mean it's -"

"No, not that kind, just a tired headache." Potter said, rubbing unconvincingly at his temples. "So do you have to get back to the school right away?"

Please, merciful Merlin's ghost, let them go! Potter had the boniest arse Severus had ever encountered!

"Not just yet," Granger beamed in sadistic glee. "You see Harry, that's the other thing Draco Malfoy gave up when he surrendered: we know who's got the fifth horcrux! It's-"

"Me, actually."

"No, it's Neville." She blinked. "Wait, what do you mean, 'you'?"

"Ravenclaw's wand; the first wand ever made in the modern style," Potter said, pointing. "It's right there on the mantelpiece, beside the... er... statue thingy with the eye. Neville's gran brought it after you talked to him at school. And thank you, by the way, for telling someone I didn't even know how to find my house!"

They both protested the accusation, and were probably not even lying. Most people untrained in legilimency would not even notice such a detail being plucked from their heads once they'd made eye contact with the vampiress. Being undead usually had a profound effect on a witch or wizard's legilimency skills -- which might just make Potter's occlumency worth a fart if he applied himself to it.

"All right, all right." Potter raised both hands to calm the storm of reproach. "It was just a bit of a shock, her turning up, is all. So... what say we go have some tea in the kitchen, and we can decide how to destroy it?" Severus bit his lips to restrain a groan as Potter shoved off his bloodless legs at last.

"Well we're not stabbing it with a basilisk's fang this time," Granger huffed, following Potter out of the library. "That was one of the stupidest ideas ever!"

"Too right," Weasley chimed in, bringing up the rear. "Say, got any of those almond scones Dobby does?"

Severus, wrapped in the invisibility cloak he had cursed to hell at Hogwarts, was up the stairs, and out Potter's bedroom floo extension before the kettle sang.

~*~

He found Spinner's End empty.

Every stick of the furniture, gone. Every page from the shelves, every crumb from the pantry, every thread from the windows and floors, gone. Even the attic and root cellars were bare to the walls. Not so much as a matchstick or a turnip left.

His life was gone.

Through the vague, echoing horror in Severus' breast, it occurred to him that he had never seen the place cleaner.

He took a breath, considered swearing at the top of his lungs just to hear the echoes shouting back at him, but then thought better of it. The Ministry had not done this. They would not have been so complete. Someone had set elves to the task; someone who knew that Severus would value the contents of his house far more than he did the house itself.

"Draco," he turned in the hollow shell of his library and snarled at the grimy silhouettes where his shelves had stood. "I will murder you for this!" Then he remembered the priest-hole with its cache of illegal texts and potions ingredients, and his blood ran cold. If her portrait had been stolen...

Heedless of his dignity, Severus ran for the kitchen and slapped his hand into the corner beside the pantry cupboard. Generations of Princes had layered so many protections onto the hiding place that it had developed a crude sentience of its own, and now only responded to the Prince bloodline.

The corner stretched, shimmied, and unfolded another plane between its 90 degrees. Severus held his breath, heart hammering as fiercely as ever it had when he'd used the hole to hide from his father in his youth. When the picture frame shimmered into view, its canvas whole and unmarred, he actually felt lightheaded.

"They couldn't get in," his mother told him in that voice she always used when she didn't want him to know she had been frightened. "It's all still here, but I could do nothing about the rest. I'm sorry, love."

"Who?" Severus had to fight to get the question between his teeth.

"The Malfoy boy," she said, and quirked an eyebrow. "Did you not view the memory he left in his room?"

Severus had already begun to turn by the time her teasing tone registered. Damn her, how did she always manage to reduce him to fumbling about like a clumsy child? He cast a summoning spell -- silently, so as not to sound as much an idiot as he felt -- and caught the tiny cologne bottle as it came flying down the stairs.

"Well now you've got it," she said, "you had better gather up what's left while you have the chance. Who knows how long it will be before Aurors come? Better save that for after you've got to someplace safe."

He gave her a glare and swallowed down the dense weight in his throat. "What makes you think I will go anywhere at all?"

"Oh, Severus..." She laid her palm against the canvas. He hated that tone of her voice!

"The hole has proved safe enough in the past. I see no reason why-"

"They will burn it down if you stay, Severus," she cut him off. "Why do you think I have always told you to find your safety elsewhere? Because I do not want you to make our family's priest-hole your crypt! You must go back to the boy now, and quickly."

He closed his eyes, bunched a fist and breathed as carefully as he could. Not thinking. Just breathing.

"Severus, he will give you house-room. You know he will."

The laugh that escaped him was a ragged thing. "Why? Because you have 'seen' it?"

"No, stubborn child," she cried. "Because you have seen it! Each time you go there and look him in the eye, and you need no cartomancy nor legilimency to know it!"

"No," He stormed down into his sanctuary, breathing fury with every step. "The house of Black will never be 'sanctuary' for me, and Potter will never-" The narrow stair was dusty, making his breath too sharp in his throat. He coughed, then swore. "Under no circumstances will I..." He couldn't even say it. The entire notion was beyond ridiculous.

"Your fantasies were enough to divert you from the disaster that was your own life," he managed once he'd spelled the fireplace alight. "But I have neither time, nor stomach for self-delusion on that scale. Between Potter and myself, there is mutual loathing, distrust, and obligation. Nothing more. Nor will there ever be!"

A flick of his wand transfigured the cot and table into trunks, and another set the books leaping into them, snarling and flapping as they shrunk to the size of matchboxes. "Narcissa Malfoy is in obligation to me now," he said aloud, as much to himself as to her. "I hid her from Potter and his friends, and I removed the cursed object-"

"Oh yes. The locket. The one you let the boy take away with no warning, wasn't it?" Her question was mild, and deadly sharp. "The one he nearly died trying to destroy? Are you really so spiteful that you would let him fall in order to prove you cannot love him?"

He whirled, wand shaking and sparking. A thousand furious protests crowded for space on his tongue, but what finally won free surprised even him. "It meant nothing."

She blinked, and her eyes softened with sadness. Then she smiled just a little, and in that second, Severus knew he had blundered. "Already then?" she asked softly, but not as though she expected an answer. "Oh, my darling. No wonder you're afraid."

The noise he intended was derisive, scornful, harsh enough to put an end to the ridiculous matter once and for all. The noise he actually made was thin, and rather shrill. "I am not afraid, mother!" He directed a packing spell at the workroom as the books finished fighting for space and settled down. "I have been far more intimate with others, and never imagined myself to be in love. Sex is an urge, like sneezing, or yawning. Satisfying it means no more than-"

"Stop, please." Again, she raised her palm to the canvas, but in supplication this time. "I don't want to hear you cheapen yourself any further. Not in the name of blind obstinacy. Go where you will, to Narcissa Malfoy's home, or to some hotel or tavern where you will be recognized and sold to your enemies within a week. Do what you feel you must do to escape this notion that your heart might function to do more than push your blood about, but-"

"Merlin save me from romantic bloody codswallop!" he cried.

"BE QUIET!" His mother had rarely shouted, in life or afterwards. That she should do so now silenced Severus as nothing else could have done. "You do as you will do, Severus, but allow me to request one kindness of you first." Unnerved and suspicious, he nodded. She took a great breath in, and stared out her painted window a moment before replying. "Please do not send my portrait to Gringotts. Take me to Mr. Potter's house before you go."

He was utterly unprepared for the feeling of shocked betrayal that ripped through him at that. "To... For God's sake, woman, why?"

"Because the boy will need someone there with him after..." Severus was certain she hadn't intended him to see how she flinched when her gaze swept over her scrying bowl. "After you go. He ought not to die all alone."

He wanted to shake his head. He wanted to laugh the words down. He wanted to catch a flicker of mocking smile on her painted lips. He did not want to feel his belly twist inside him, or to hear his own nerveless voice whispering, "What have you seen?"

She laughed, and dashed the tears from her cheek. "Do not ask me." He frowned, but she matched it easily, her eyes as hard and fierce as any gorgon's. "Do not ask me, until you are ready to hear the answer, you headstrong, obstinate, spiteful boy!" Then she pushed away from her reading table and stormed out of her frame.

After several shaking breaths, Severus reminded himself that he did not believe in divination. Then he busied himself with the delicate items left in his workroom.

She had not returned to frame by the time Severus was finished, and when she did not respond to his call, he realized that it didn't matter whether he believed in her visions or not; he was going back to Grimmauld Place anyhow.

Someone had to show Potter how to dispose of dark magic artefacts lest he manage to kill himself, and doom them all.

 

~*~

 

Harry wasn't surprised to find Snape coming back through his floo that night. He had been lying in bed, reading a book on curse breaking, and waiting for it, in fact.

What did surprise him was that two huge trunks burst through the bedroom floo first. Scrambling from the bed, Harry levitated the trunks aside as the flames roared green and spat out the man.

"Wow." Harry said the first thing that dropped into his mouth. "You brought your things." Snape's face was fiercely white as he spelled the soot from his clothes, but Harry put up both his hands to forestall the rant. "That came out wrong. Do you need a place to stay?" He'd expected Snape, and expected him to stay, but it had never occurred to him that Snape might drop a hint that he needed the welcome.

It was kind of charming in a weird, misanthropic sort of way.

The black eyes narrowed, and a muscle jumped in the corner of Snape's jaw, as though he were biting back a hundred scathing retorts. Finally he settled on, "Obviously. Not that it's any concern of yours-"

But Harry was already directing the trunks out into the hallway. "Dobby and I figured with the Order still turning up here for meetings, it'd be safest to put you at the top of the house." He snagged a toweling robe from the hook by his door as he passed. "They're the servant's rooms, but you'll have access to the whole attic for brewing, so that's a lot of space, really. And that way the fumes won't filter up through the house."

"Potter," Snape's growl sounded more perplexed than actually angry. "Have you any idea what an idiotic notion it would be, me staying under your roof?"

Harry grinned, throwing open the stairway door. "Yeah, whatever. Hey, since you know that spell for making paintings into doors, we could put yours here, and nobody at all would bother you then."

Snape just stood there in the hallway, scowling at Harry with his arms braced over his chest, while the two great trunks bumped their way up the narrow staircase on their own. He had that look Harry remembered from Hogwarts; the one where he just knew Harry was pulling something, and he was determined to glare until he'd sorted out what.

Unable to account for the strange, giddy feeling in his belly, Harry folded his own arms and aped the glare for a second. Then he had to snicker. "Look; it's not like the rooms are getting used anyhow. And Grimmauld Place is much safer than anyplace else you could go. Plus, you already know I can't betray you to anyone -- you're like my Secret Keeper, only more so. So I can't see any reason why you shouldn't at least let me pay you back for the potions this way." He cocked his head considering. "Or I could charge you rent for the place if you'd rather..."

He grinned when Snape's already thunderous expression drew another step closer to explosion. "Okay, see, I didn't think you'd go for that. Come on." He headed up the stairs without looking back. "It's up this way."

The butler's room was the largest, right on the west-facing end of the house, so they'd set that one up as the bedroom. The housekeeper's room became a sitting area, and removing the narrow cots turned the maids' room into a washroom. "Dobby said it would take him about a week to get a proper toilet and shower in up here," Harry explained as Snape prowled through the place, trying the taps on the new sink and grunting to find that they worked. "Until then, there's the bathroom on the floor just below."

Snape grunted again, and walked out. Harry found him between his trunks, glaring at the sitting room's little fireplace. "That is floo-connected, I presume?"

Harry shrugged. "Don't think so. But you can just use one of the..." The ferocity in Snape's sudden glare made Harry reconsider his words. "I guess we can try it if you want." Tipping a nod at the two trunks, Harry tried a change of subject. "So, I guess you left the rest behind?"

Snape's silence might have warned another man off, but not Harry. He stared at the rigid profile, and pushed. "Come on, I know your place had to be bigger than that tiny little apartment you kept me in," he said. "You had Draco Malfoy in there with you, and I bloody well know he wouldn't have settled for sleeping on the sofa!"

Still no answer, and beginning to worry, Harry made a guess. "Were the Aurors there already? Was this all you could get to? Because I could try and talk to Tonks, or Kingsley. Moody wouldn't listen to me, but I'm pretty sure I could get the others to-"

With that, Snape's frozen scowl cracked apart into a bitter chuckle. "While the idea does have certain entertainment value, Potter, I'm afraid your celebrity status will not have much pull with the Parkinson family, or its loyal elves."

"Pansy?" Harry blinked. "But why would she rob you?"

Snape gave that laugh again, and turned his back on Harry, spelling open both of the trunks, and sending the contents leaping onto the makeshift shelves Harry and Dobby had attached to the walls. He let the spell stop when a pensieve, shrunken about to the size of an ashtray, leapt out into his hand. He set it on the mantle, and turned to Harry with a look so determined, Harry couldn't stop himself stepping back.

"Just this once," Snape said, taking a small bottle out of his shirt pocket, and uncorking the memory. "I shall cater to your addiction for prying into my privacy." He poured the silver fluid in, and enlarged the bowl, then gave Harry a pointed glare. "Do not become accustomed to it."

Then he swept away through the bedroom, leaving Harry alone with the pensieve.

Harry stared at it for a long moment, chewing at his lip. He hadn't liked what he'd learned any of the times he'd looked at Snape's memories, and the most recent had been the worst so far, but Harry wasn't at all sure there couldn't be worse to come.

But if Snape didn't want to explain himself, then Harry's only answers sat swirling in that shallow basin. He wiped his hands on his trousers and took a deep breath.

What the heck. It was only a memory, after all. Putting both hands on the rune-carved rim, Harry took another deep breath, and jumped into the past.

Draco was talking to a bunch of House elves in a library that looked a lot like the one Harry remembered from Snape's 'here', only much larger. "You're to take everything," he said to them, every bit the arrogant prat Harry remembered him being, even though his robes weren't perfect and pressed, and his hair wasn't styled like he'd just come from the barber. "Take it all, even if you don't know what it's good for. Pack it all carefully, and put the trunks into the attic of..." he glanced at someone, and Harry followed the gaze. Pansy was coming through from a tiny, greyish kitchen, a look of faint horror on her face.

"Take it all to the Summer House," she told them, taking Draco's arm," Put it in the attic, behind Uncle Knickknack's things." She smiled up at Draco, but it was clearly hard work. "Nobody will even know to ask about it there."

Draco nodded. "The Professor will be coming for them soon though, and you're to give these things to nobody else but him."

"But Miss," one of the elves stepped forward, already twisting its ear. "What if Master or Mistress asks us? Or Miss or Misses sister or brother? What does we do then?"

"You lie," she informed them coolly, "and if you don't hate that enough, I'll be very cross with you all afterward if it does happen. So I'd suggest you get to it quickly, and do the job well, so there'll be no reason for anybody but me to wonder!"

The elves pinged out of sight almost at once, and all around him, Harry started to hear the sound of things moving about, quiet flutters, muffled thuds and creaks, as though the walls were whispering, one to another. If the Slytherins noticed it though, they gave no sign. Instead, Draco pulled the curvy brunette into his arms, and tucked her hair behind her ear. "I wish we had more time," he said, and kissed her.

She kissed him back fiercely, threading her fingers into his hair, and holding on tight, as if she feared he might float away. Shivering under a strange sort of deja vu, Harry looked away from the couple, and tried not to think of his own farewell to Ginny.

"We will," Pansy's voice emerged from the muffled gasps after a while. "When it's over, we'll have all our lives." Then she sobbed. Harry didn't need to see her to know. "You're to look after yourself, do you understand me, Draco Malfoy?" she said. "And if you get any nasty tattoos in prison, I reserve the right to chain you down and scour them right off your hide once you're free again!"

Harry turned, watched Draco thumb a tear from her cheek, his own eyes suspiciously bright. "No tattoos," he said, and kissed her again. Then he chucked her under the chin. "Don't let the garden boy knock you up while I'm gone," Her hand tightened on his sleeve, but then she let go, stepped back and reached for the floo can. A brilliant gem glittering from her left hand as she threw the powder into the fire. "Hogwarts!" she called. Then she stepped forward, and was gone with no further goodbye.

Draco stared at the fire for a long time after she went, not seeming to notice as the shelves emptied around him, and the furniture began to disappear. At last he picked up a small, familiar bottle, and turned to face the fireplace mirror.

" I made my choice, Sir," he said. "And that choice isn't you. I don't know why you do it, why you serve Him when he doesn't do anything to protect you, but I can't pretend to do the same. It's too costly. Father didn't work all these years just to have the Malfoys become a line of slaves. He may have lost sight of that, but I haven't. I'd rather be a prisoner of the Ministry than be a slave to someone who holds my life less worthy than a house elf's."

The packing stopped for a moment, and then went on a bit faster. Draco didn't seem to notice. Instead, he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "I gave old Mac the coordinates to the Lestranges' safehouse, and the Carrows' farm, and the place on Skye where the werewolves are gathering," he said, defiant in a way Harry had never seen him before. "I also promised the coordinates to this place, but that was my last condition, so once they take me into custody, I'll have to give it to them. I'll... I'll try and stall for all the time I can, of course, but I have no doubt you'll have enough time to get away before they come for you.

"I'm not going to apologize. You taught me what it means to be a Slytherin... and you taught me what it means to be a man. I know you'd have done the same if our positions were reversed. But I will say that maybe if I knew how you do it... how you can serve the Dark Lord and still not be a slave... maybe I'd have made a different choice. But I don't."

Stunned to see evidence of Draco Malfoy respecting anyone other than himself, Harry could only watch in amazement as the blond checked his pocket watch, then straightened the points of his waistcoat with a tug. "They'll be waiting for me, I suppose," he said, giving a longing look at the door. It didn't take legilimency to guess that he was thinking of running away again. " I should go," he said at last, turning back to the mirror and squaring his shoulders. "I hope you get what you want, sir. And I know you understand."

Then he set his wand to his temple, and the whole room stretched to the side, then popped like a soap bubble, spitting Harry back out into the arms of the threadbare wing chair he'd last seen in Snape's 'here'. Things were still thudding about heavily on the other side of the attic wall, reminding Harry oddly of the House Elves from Draco's memory. He shivered at the odd synchronicity. Then a cough from behind startled Harry right out of the moment, and the chair with a yelp. He whirled, wand ready, but no one was there. Then the stairway door swung shut, and Harry found himself facing Eileen Prince's portrait again.

"Oh," he said, straightening. "It's you. Er. Hello."

She laughed that quiet, secret laugh again, but gave Harry a smile that was warm as the sun. "That is is," she said, wiping at her eyes a little. "Come, sit back down, Harry, and tell me how you've been lately."

 

~* October 26th, 1997 *~

Potter breezed into the kitchen barefoot, half-naked, and whistling. His damp hair stuck out in every direction, dripping gleaming trails down his pink-scrubbed neck and shoulders. He stopped short when he caught sight of Severus at the kitchen table. "Oh! I didn't know you were in," he said, and flicked a summoning spell back the way he came.

"I turned the clock," Severus replied with a frown as one of Potter's shapeless, oversized shirts came flapping to hand. "As per our agreement."

"Oh," he said, covering all that rosy skin in faded flannel. Pity, that. "Must've been in the shower when the chimes rang then."

"You were." Severus closed his book and pushed the teapot toward him. "I heard you caterwauling to yourself as I came down the stairs. One might think you had never heard of a silencing spell."

"Huh. Late night then?" Potter did not rise to the goad. Instead, he got a mug from the cupboard, and came to take the seat next to Severus. "I guess you heard about the Carrows then. Was it bad?" The boy snorted at his glare, and shook his head. "Well, obviously it's been worse, considering you made it to the kitchen on your own this time. It's just, after losing the Lestrange brothers and Dolohov, he can't have been best pleased."

Severus heaved a sigh and scrubbed one smoke-reeking hand over his face. "Well, we did not pass the evening playing Exploding Snap, if that's what you're getting at." He pushed off his chair and went to search the cupboards. Not so much because he was hungry, but because he knew he needed to eat, and was in no mood to tolerate Potter's cheerful damned elf.

"Expect he'll call you again tonight," Potter said, as though discussing the weather. When Severus cast him a scathing glower, the boy's gaze was fixed on the tabletop. "The Carrows are cutting a deal," he said without looking up. "They've already turned over financial information and the names of every Death Eater Draco hadn't already given us. The Goblins are cooperating too. By evening, they'll have started rounding people up."

No need to ask whom Potter meant by 'they' -- this would be the bone the Order threw to the Ministry. Genuine Death Eaters, captured by genuine Ministry Aurors. The headlines would be spectacular, and the photo-coverage orgiastic. Minister Scrimgeour's triumphant visage would be everywhere for weeks.

Suddenly, Severus found himself even less hungry. All the same, he located a box of Weetabix and brought it back to the table. Oddly, it was the crumpling of the package that made Potter look up at last. He watched, sphinx-eyed while Severus smeared marmalade and crunched into the grainy square, all casual disinterest with a faint tint of disdain. The way he looked at Severus' hands sometimes when they passed on the stairs, at the Firebolt, which always hung beside the garden door. The way he looked at anything he wanted, but would not ask for.

His belly though, had no qualms in voicing the grumble for him. Potter tried to hide his blush in his teacup, and Severus smirked, taking his second bite with rather more relish. He knew Potter was not in need, after all; he had administered the draught last night, before he'd been summoned, and the boy's response had been just as fervid as Severus had come to expect. All told, breathless desperation was a better look on Potter than that hollow-eyed vacancy. And post-coital mortification didn't look half-bad either.

Severus took another bite lest he be caught in a smile and adjusted his trousers under the table. Then Potter's stomach spoke up again, and Severus rolled his eyes. "Your elf is less than attentive this morning," he observed. "Or have you tired of yet another devoted soul anticipating your every desire, and sent him away?"

Oddly, the boy flinched at that. "Dobby's... busy," he said, stealing a glance at Severus through his eyelashes. "And anyway, I'm really not in the mood for dead, raw..." he waved vaguely as the rumbling noise filled the air again. "Anything."

"Potter..."

"I know," he said. Severus glared until he sighed and spread his hands in defeat. "I know. I'll eat something later, when the others get here."

Oh. The Order, of course. They'd need to convene to discuss their next step, and to congratulate themselves for being clever enough to exploit a frightened child's surrender. He didn't bother to quell a sneer.

The boy, however, had gone back to staring at the table. "You know what I miss most?" he mused. "Bread. Just plain old, everyday bread."

"Then have some."

Potter made a face. "No, I mean I miss liking bread, you know? Right out of the oven, so the crust is almost too hot to hold, and the centre's still a little bit doughy... you put the butter on, and it disappears right away..." Potter's gaze went maudlin for a moment, and then he shook his head. "Sorry. I never thought I'd actually miss bread, back when it used to be just about all I ate."

Not at Hogwarts, it hadn't. But Potter blithely ignored Severus' dubious glance. "So. What are you working on?" he asked with an artificial smile, and a nod at the book Severus had been reading. It was a volume from the Black library shelves, an autobiography on one of the more notorious necromancers of the fifteenth century, pages of Severus' notes curling out in profusion over its binding.

Too tired to equivocate, Severus turned the book so Potter could read the title. "You," he said, and finished his breakfast.

"Oh... well..." The smile faded, then returned, just as hollow. "How am I coming along then?"

"I'll let you know after you've found and destroyed the remaining pieces of the soul that's cursing you," Severus replied, tempted to ask what had Potter in this nervy, chatty mood. Four weeks of barely cordial greetings as they crossed paths had set the standard, and it was one to which Severus had become quite accustomed -- barring the occasional semi-delirious frottage, that is. He hoped the boy was not intending to try and become ... friendly with him just because they occasionally got each other off.

Still, in light of Potter's news, he supposed it merited asking. "How are you coming along?"

Potter looked away too quickly, then he gave a one-shouldered shrug that was anything but nonchalant. "It's... going well. Shouldn't be too much longer now."

Just like that? Severus frowned at the lie. Potter's falsehoods were normally far more plausible -- or at least more audacious. Then again, Severus had made a point of not asking questions about the hunt for the Dark Lord's horcruxes since that first time, when Potter pointed out the obvious; what Severus did not know, he could not be tortured into revealing.

That still held true now, however much he longed to slap Potter down for his unsubtle evasion. He settled for attacking the boy's ego instead. "And you think yourself ready, do you?"

Potter laughed at that, but not as if he were amused, and not for long. "I try not to wonder. When the time comes, I have to be ready, and that's all there is to it. It's just a question of keeping myself together for long enough, right?"

"Thank you for that stunning vote of confidence." With that growl, Severus found his conversational skills entirely tapped out. He stood, swept the book from the table, and turned for the door. "Good morning, Potter," he said by way of a farewell.

"Snape, wait. I-"

Severus did not wait. He wanted a shower, a wank, a dose of Dreamless Sleep potion, and his bed, in that order. Potter, his clumsy overtures, and his teenaged woes figured nowhere into the ranking, damn him.

What he did not want was a moment of epiphany coming hard on the heels of his exhausted release, or for the tingle of orgasm to be eclipsed with the burning need to write the idea down before the potion overtook him.

Dawn's first light found Severus propped up in bed, surrounded by books and scribbling frantic additions to his research notes. His potion was stronger than his will, however, and the quill slipped from his nerveless fingers just as the birds began to sing the dawn chorus.

That he must tell Potter at once was his last thought before surrendering to sleep.

His first thought upon awakening, though, was that his Mark was burning with summons, and if he were the last to arrive, he would be the first Death Eater under the Dark Lord's wand that night.

Severus flooed away without telling Potter anything at all.

 

~*~

The young man fell to the ground with a high, thin scream, his body rigid and awash with scarlet light. His mask, dislodged in the fall, rolled like a dented coin across the floor and wobbled to a stop against Severus' boot. He didn't kick it away, did not so much as twitch a glance down at it, lest his inattention to the performance be noted.

"This is not a democracy, Mr. Flint," the Dark Lord said, letting the spell drop as he stood from his chair and came to loom over the gasping youth. "You seem to have forgot that you belong to me!" He kicked out, and Flint's head rolled limply from the impact. From the shadows, a dry rasp of scale on stone announced Nagini's approach. "I have raised you to an exalted state," he explained in the most reasonable of tones. "I have marked you, tempered you, cherished you. I have made you better than the common, filthy herd, and you repay my generosity with sedition and shallow greed?"

Flint tried to roll himself over, flinching as the massive serpent reared and hissed at him. But then Voldemort's foot tapped impatiently, and the young idiot tried again to make a proper obeisance. He reached past the snake with trembling fingers, blood and snot and futile apologies dribbling from his lips. The red light felled him again before his fingers brushed the hem of the Dark Lord's robes.

"You will not take Gringotts over anything so common as gold, Mr. Flint," the madman said over the screaming. "I shall accept their gold as my proper tribute at the Ministry's surrender. You are going to Gringotts only to retrieve what was stolen from me seventeen years ago!"

Severus closed his eyes, silently cursing Bellatrix for not killing the Longbottoms before their memories of the Ravenclaw wand could be winnowed out of their madness. It had taken all his guile to divert the idea of a direct attack on the Longbottom boy at school. To judge by the Dark Lord's reaction to Flint's (absolutely correct) observation that the Goblins would savagely protect their vaults, there would be no dissuading him from this plan. None of the twenty either Death Eaters assembled would dare object now.

Merlin but Lucius did not know how lucky he was to be safely tucked away in Azkaban!

At last, whether weary of maintaining the spell, or of the screaming, Voldemort let the Cruciatus drop. Then he turned to the assembled 'faithful', clearly oblivious to their severely depleted numbers as his face spread in a benedictory smile. "If there are no further objections...?"

Predictably, Bellatrix sidled forward, her beatific expression made plain in her voice. "I will see your will done, my Lord!" Her voice was high and proud, even as her knees bent, and her spine curved low to the dirt. "Only give me leave to choose between these cowards, and I will bring your prize home to you!"

Nagini hissed a clear warning at the woman pawing at her master's robes, but as usual, Bellatrix had eyes for nothing but her obsession. Voldemort, ever greedy for flattery, allowed her fawning for a few moments, and then shoved past her. "Put your cunning little minds to the matter, children," he said, stepping over Flint's unconscious form as he retreated into his private rooms, his familiar following close upon his heels. "Let no soul leave this place until you have presented your plans to me."

As though bound to the words alone, the anti-apparation wards slammed down around the manor so hard that every Death Eater flinched at the crash. Not even a portkey could get through now, and Merlin help the poor bastard who tried to walk across the ward lines. For a moment, there was silence, breathless and dungeon-thick. And then the muttering began, lower than the rustling of their robes, but present all the same.

Bellatrix began shouting orders at random: a table brought, maps of the Goblin bank, chairs and ink and parchment at once. And in a general rustle of helpless apprehension, the Death Eaters broke rank; some to do her bidding, others to seek quiet corners where they might divorce themselves from the coming disaster. Greyback put his back to the corner and watched with a sneer, but made no move to help. Wormtail took upon himself the onerous task of repeating Bellatrix's orders in short, simple sentences, and an adenoidal twang.

Not one of them acknowledged Flint, collapsed in his own filth in the middle of the floor -- not even when they had to step over him. Severus watched to be sure his breathing was regular, and that his bleeding nose and lip drained out onto the floor, not down his throat, but did not risk his perceived neutrality with any further show of sympathy. Severus did use his foot to roll the boy onto his front, however, so at least he'd continue to breathe until he woke.

And so we are truly all slaves, Severus mused, feeling the cold settle into his belly as he looked around the shadowy hall. Real men would have mutinied by now! Even the fearsome Greyback, king amoungst his own wolves, had become no better than a beaten dog, hiding from its master's wrath with his tail between his legs. By Merlin's hoary beard, Potter had better get about the business soon, or there would be nothing left worth saving!

"Severus!" Bellatrix's voice cut through his reverie like glass on slate. "Come here. I need your-"

He turned, a sigh restrained in his throat. Then the doors at head and heel of the room exploded in a hail of splinters. Nagini, airborne and furious, sped overhead, knotting frantically against the empty air. A coil as thick as a tree trunk knocked Bellatrix sprawling, and the frozen tableau shattered into a rain of Death Eaters diving for the floor.

Severus alone kept his feet, wand trained on the flying snake. A fleeting glimpse of a familiar trainer against the ceiling shadows froze the curse on his lips, and the heart in his breast at once.

Potter! Merlin's arse, what was the reckless idiot doing there? And what the devil did he want with the bloody snake? Nagini's head bashed against the doorsill, and Severus slung a wordless disillusionment spell where he thought the boy must surely be. His arm seized up in a sudden, wrenching cramp just then, and it was all Severus could do to hold on to his wand. Shouts and yelps filled the room as every Death Eater felt the alert. He clutched his arm to his chest and hissed as his head brimmed over with the Dark Lord's screaming voice.

"CATCH HIM, YOU FOOLS! BRING HIM TO ME!"

Greyback shoved off the wall with a savage roar, treading on Death Eaters without a glance as he scented the air for his prey, and charged from the room. Bellatrix leapt after him, cackling like a hag and firing spells at random into the air. Of Wormtail, there was no sign except a flicker of scabrous fur disappearing into the wall.

Grinding a curse between his teeth, Severus hauled the nearest Death Eater to his feet, and began barking orders. "You five! Outside, and split up! You and you, to the conservatory. One man to each fireplace, you there, by the door; choose them and go!" He split them apart, hoping to keep them all underfoot and in the way, and hoping against hope that one of the ignorant incompetents would get to Potter before Bellatrix or the wolf. "You three search the dungeons -- every cell! You, to the trophy room, you stand guard on the laboratory; he must not gain entry there! You -- Merlin's arse, boy, stop crying and go with him, or I shall kill you myself!"

Pathetically grateful for the direction, the Death Eaters scurried away, leaving Severus a private moment to fetch the goblet from his hidden pocket, and cast the strongest homing spell he knew upon it. The dregs of Potter's life, still damp within, responded with an instant, upward tug, and he followed at once.

Potter must still be on his broom, and that meant he had a chance. Whatever he had done to stop the Dark Lord following in person, Severus could only hope it was enough to buy them some much-needed time. Guile and misdirection might yet rescue the day from courage's folly, if they were both incredibly lucky.

"Little bastard," he growled to himself, taking the narrow servant's stairs two at a go. "Reckless, stupid, ignorant, foolhardy twit! Should have guessed you were planning something idiotic! 'Shouldn't be too much longer now,' indeed!" The goblet gave a sharp tug to the right as he passed a cracked and filthy attic window. Severus skidded to a halt, blasting the thing out of its frame as movement blurred the stars outside. Through the flying rain of glass and wood, Severus caught sight of the serpent, still aloft and speeding toward the ground. Flying, not falling -- angled for a copse of storm-torn, ancient holly just by the bottom of the carriageway.

"Look! There she is!" Severus followed the shout with his wand, spotting the Death Eaters just as their curses flew.

Nagini feinted, then barrel-rolled aside, as Severus had seen Potter do in countless Quidditch matches when bludgers closed in. Two spells blasted straight past into the night, a third slashed Nagini's side open, and a fourth caught eagerly in a trailing, invisible fold, limning Potter's form in flames.

Severus summoned the burning cloak, cut the spell as soon as it was clear of the boy's broom. Potter reached the apogee of his feint, and released Nagini into the jagged branches while he pulled his broom straight up in a spin. More curses flew, and Potter, free of the serpent's weight and drag, danced and looped between the slashing arcs of magic.

Leaning from the window, Severus picked off those Death Eaters he could see outside, but it was too late. The fight was drawing more notice from inside the house, and even now other windows below him were opening, more deadly spells filling the sky. Sooner or later, one of them would strike home, and the dance would end in blood.

Potter, reaching the same conclusion, pulled another vertical spin, stalled at the apex, and then looped hard under as gravity gave him speed; aiming away from the house at top speed. If Severus could have mustered the voice to scream at the bloody idiot, he might have done.

He managed an accio just before Potter plowed into the ward wall, yanking him back just enough that his broom slipped from beneath him and shattered to splinters on the wards as he fell. A loping blur of teeth and malice grounded Potter in a flying tackle, rolling them both into the branches and snake-guts at the base of the holly trees. Magic sang in short, panicked bursts as the trees thrashed above.

The watching Death Eaters gave a ragged cheer as Greyback reared up on his knees, gory and terrible, his mouth streaming red. But the howl he loosed had no part of triumph. A moment later, the werewolf was on his back, clawing at his own face, and shrieking as his wounds steamed and smoked in the night's chill.

Potter kicked free of him, fired the spell again, and this time, Severus caught his breath as the sulfurous yellow liquid burst from the holly wand, and drenched the werewolf's head and chest in vitriol. He'd designed that spell himself. Written it down in his potions book, and wondered if some day Black might push him far enough to consider using it against him. To turn that handsome, mocking face forever into a ragged mass of scars. To be the only one close enough who would know that urine was just barely base enough to neutralize the acid's deadly burn. To be begged to piss on Black's face. He often told himself it would have been worth it. Watching Greyback's frenzied thrashing, Severus was glad he never had dared.

Potter was on his feet and running, but had not limped three steps before a blast of Crucio felled him again. His own screams twined with Greyback's as Bellatrix charged from the terrace, wand out and cackling.

"No," he heard his own voice, a low groan under the din as he watched Potter stretched taut under the spell. "No... don't fight it. Don't-" But it was not in the boy's nature to surrender; not to pain, not to scorn, not to terror... He would surrender to madness and death first.

"Stop, Lestrange!" Avery burst from the house, his robe's sleeves flapping as he waved his arms over his head. "You must stop!" He skidded to a halt as she whipped about to face him, wand trained and teeth bared.

"You can't have him!" Bellatrix hissed, rushing at the shorter Wizard, who skidded to a stop at the threat. "He's mine!"

"No," Severus said it again, but this time, he meant to. It took a ferocious effort to disapparate against the wards' prohibition, and had he meant it as a means of escape, Severus knew the spells would have killed him. But as he only intended it to take him from the attic window to the ground behind Bellatrix, the wards merely struck him blind with pain for several heartbeats instead.

"No, no," Avery was simpering, once the roar of blood faded from Severus' head a bit. Death Eaters were converging on the gardens, their ghoulish curiousity getting the better of their caution. "I only meant you can't k-kill him, is all!" he wrung his hands, sweating in the chill night. "Our Lord has order-"

"Oh, I won't kill ickle Harry baby Potty boy," Bellatrix crooned, and Severus saw the tightly sketched beginnings of another Cruciatus as she turned to her prey once more. "I won't kill him at -- ack!"

She had a little neck, and Severus had very long fingers. Her wand sparked crimson, but a hard squeeze and a harder shake made her think better of the attack. "You know Our Lord will want to question him, woman," Severus said, clear and loud, so the Death Eaters converging like rats could not help but hear. "And in order to answer questions, the brat must be capable of speaking, you bloody cow!" He gave Bellatrix another little shove, and released her to stagger back. "Now what have you done with his wand?"

"Oh no," she snarled, her voice rough and hateful. "You'll not steal my fun and my praise all at once!" She clutched at her breast with one hand, outlining the wand against her tattered robes as the other raised her own wand to point at him again. "I brought him down! I disarmed him! That trophy is mine!"

Teeth bared, anger banishing the remnants of his headache, Severus thought of taking it by force. But then a thick, coughing groan from the ground at his feet wrenched him back to centre. "Our Lord will take it from you anyway," he replied, dropping to one knee and hauling Potter upright by the singed collar of his shirt. "Take the wand. Go with Avery to report how you won the day unaided, whilst I make sure you have not rendered Potter entirely useless."

She glowered for a second, eyes ablaze with equal measures of triumph and suspicion. But then she gave a cackle and a mocking bow. "Learn to love the taste of crow, Severus Snape," she tossed over her shoulder as she followed Avery back into the house. "I'll see you get a regular diet from this day onward!"

"Sir?" Severus looked up to find Nott, white faced and nervous. "What should we do now?" Behind him ranged a score of young, nervous Death Eaters, over half of whom ought still to have been at school.

Potter wheezed again, shuddering hard. As one they flinched back from him, and Severus rolled his eyes. "You know Potter never goes anywhere alone. Find the other Gryffindors, before they can cause more trouble!"

"But sir, what about Greyback?" Nott pointed at the trees and swallowed. "He's dying!"

Good god. What a mess Potter had made of this business. Severus glowered at the crowd and snarled. "Well then, collect the werewolf, get him under a stasis charm if one of you incompetents can cast one, and bring his body, along with the serpent's to my workroom for dissection, THEN find the others, you idiots! And shield your hands before you touch either body!" he called after them as all but a few dispersed.

Those few, he was content to ignore, especially when Potter at last began to show signs of stirring from shock. Severus summoned a stream of icy water, blasting it into that pale face until Potter shook himself free, and took his weight onto his own hands, blinking, and gulping deep, desperate breaths.

"Well, well, well, Mr. Potter," Severus caught a fistful of the soaked black hair, and wrenched the boy's head around. "I notice your bit of fun seems to have got out of control, hasn't it?" he said, examining the green eyes by wandlight, trying to judge how close to the edge Bellatrix' torment had pushed him. "Bite off a bit more than you could chew?" he tsked and shook his head. "All of this, just to steal the Dark Lord's pet. What will you do when you must face him yourself, I wonder?"

"Fuck," Potter gulped, eyes sliding out of focus. He winced as Severus shook him hard. "Fuck you. Murdering bastard," he gasped, gripping Severus' wrist with shaking fingers.

"Just so." He masked his relief under a cruel smirk. Dissembling wouldn't be enough though, and they both knew it. "Come then, Potter," Severus said, nodding to the others to haul the boy to his feet and hold him there between them. "Let us see whether you have managed to master yourself any better than the last time you failed to learn anything from me."

He raised his wand, and for an instant, saw Potter's pale lips twist in a smirk as the Death Eaters jerked his head upright. Severus struck without mercy or constraint, his legilimency keen and sharp as hatred; a storm greater than any with which he had felled the boy before.

But it was like sinking into endless black water now. There was no sense of combat, not even an evasion from Potter's side; simply that murky, fathomless silence, devoid of memory, of emotion, of life. Severus had to fight the urge to pull away in horror.

Wait... the faintest of echoes pushed at him, slippery and quick in the darkness. Potter's voice -- his mind, his thoughts, but through a glass, and darkly, as though it cost him great effort to thrust these thoughts up close enough to be shared. Severus absorbed the bitter knowing, choked it down and swallowed; Potter had thought Nagini a horcrux. Perhaps she had been once, but her death released no soul fragment, no blast of force or fire. He had been wrong. Whatever had made the serpent fit to bear the Dark Lord's corpus for even a little while, the hatching of her unnatural egg had used it up.

Potter had risked his life and lost his freedom, and all for nothing.

Severus shed despair like black water as he pulled back to his own mind with a shiver. Then he cloaked himself in familiar distain, and sneered a promise at the boy, steady despite the twisting in his own gut. "Never fear, Potter; I mean to stay close and watch you break." He took Potter's bruised, damp, blood-smeared chin in his hand, and pulled it close enough that he might have kissed it, had he chose. "I'll be there to tell you once all your hope's run out. When you've failed at everything, and there's nothing left for you but to lie down and die -- you will hear it from me!"

A muscle jumped under Severus' fingers, a light flared in Harry's gaze, and his lips pulled back from his teeth. "I'll hate you till I die, Snape," he hissed a promise of his own.

Under the circumstances, it was all the comfort either could give.

 

~*~

"Crucio!" Bellatrix was on Harry as soon as the Death Eaters dragged him in, her eyes wild with hatred and bright with tears. The two supporting him leapt away as the scarlet spellfire arced, and he toppled to the floor alone. Harry was more aware of the pain than actually in pain though. The fact that he hurt meant no more to him than the fact that his body wanted to curl up tight, and that he didn't want to try and breathe until it stopped. It wasn't the same as feeling the pain, being overwhelmed by its enormousness, not being able to do anything but shake and scream and hurt, hurt, hurt from it. That was how it had felt before, in the cemetery; the night Voldemort was reborn; in Umbridge's office; in the Department of Mysteries.

Now though... now the pain was distant, as if it was happening to someone else, and Harry was only watching. Harry couldn't fight it, so he didn't. He just let it wash over him, like rain, or wind -- just something to be out-waited. It couldn't last forever. That thought, idle and distracted, was what let Harry know he was in real danger.

"How DARE you, filthy halfblood?" Bellatrix screamed at him, letting the spell pause long enough to kick Harry in the belly. The impact jarred him, reminded him that he should take a breath, so he did. "You, who are not fit to LOOK upon his face -- you dare try to maim him with poison! Coward!" She kicked again, her shoe driving hard into Harry's ribs. He let go the first breath, and took another. "Tell me what you used! Tell me!"

"Rather... show you," he managed no more before she cast the curse again. He grunted when it took him, but made no more noise than that. Screaming didn't matter, really, and in a distant, submerged part of his mind, Harry was aware of the effect his silence had on the white-masked shadows around him. Their fear smelt of vinegar, old sweat, and mouldering leaves as they rustled and muttered amoungst themselves.

"Cease," Voldemort's order brought the spell and the whispering to a stop. "The poison does not matter." The Death Eaters made a path through their number -- less of them than Harry had feared, more than he'd hoped would escape the Ministry's arrests -- and bowed low as their chosen Lord limped up to Bellatrix' side, one hand over his still-bubbling face. His scarlet eyes were frighteningly sane, despite the smoke curling up around his fingers, as though the acid's kiss gave him focus and clarity through the fog.

"Whatever the child's spell, Severus will counter it. I will be healed." He pushed at Harry's shoulder with one foot, levering him over onto his back, so that gravity uncurled him gently. "He knows his prank was futile." Blood and pain made Voldemort's smile more like a grimace, but just as horrible. "He knows no kindly old man will come to save him this time." He used his foot to push Harry's chin up, his neck in an awkward arch. "And he knows I will have all his secrets this time as well, don't you, Harry?"

He thought he ought to say something there. Something cheeky, something to make Voldemort angry, put him off his game. Harry knew that he should be defiant, shout something about never surrendering, spit in his enemy's face. But the words were lost in echoing depths; nonsense, pointless. Harry blinked, and then there was a silent spell in those red eyes, pushing into Harry's mind, a wordless threat which Harry knew, on some level, he ought to have feared.

Then he blinked again, feeling faintly the echo of thoughts not his own. He lay still in deep, cold water while a pale hand stirred the far-off surface in short, angry bursts. Was this how occlumency was meant to be? This stillness? This uncaring depth?

This idle, patient hunger?

Harry had just made up his mind to reach for the hand, and the warmth it carried within it -- had just begun to gather himself to take what he wanted, when all at once, the disturbance ceased. His mind held him alone, and the ghosts of angry voices shouting.

Hands caught Harry's arms, reminding him all at once that he still had a body. Harry took another breath as they jerked him up and forward. He let his legs drag, let his mind blur the edges, softening the sounds until they were all so many Parseltongue whispers over heartbeat syncopations. The black robes and white faces melded into smudges of grey, and the binding stretch of spell and chain were as distant as the moon.

He thought, as they slashed his shirt and trousers off, that perhaps he should find Snape in the crowd. A different face caught his eye first; round, pale, sweating under a thin, combed-over fringe. Harry couldn't look away from those flinching, watering blue eyes. He tracked the face, unblinking as they pinned him in place. He craned his neck when little man scurried out of view. He didn't question it, didn't fight the urge, just twisted hard to keep Wormtail in sight, and swallowed as his mouth flooded with heat.

Then fingers gripped his chin, wrenched his head back around, and Voldemort was there. He reeked of blood, spent matches and fouled, rancid meat. Claws dug into Harry's jaw and ear, and the crimson eyes narrowed as he drew Harry whisper-close against his bonds.

"Begin," the word was clear, but not meant for Harry at all. The next thing Harry heard was the meaty thud of leather to skin, and his own grunt as the driving slash of a whip forced air from his lungs. Then Voldemort was pushing into his mind again. Crack. Diving deeper. Crack. Pushing harder. Crack. Forcing himself into Harry's smothering gloom. Crack. Tinting black waters with the scent of his growing fear. Crack. Giving away far more than he could take out of the deepening silence.

He thought the pain would shake Harry's occlumency, thought rage, and fear would crack the lightless shell, and lay Harry's mind open to his eye. But the whip was no different to the cruciatus; it was only pain, only impact, velocity, fact. Unimportant. If it did anything to Harry, it drove him deeper into the gloom.

The pressure in his head stopped. The whip rocked him forward one last time. Fresh heat poured down his back, cooling, slowing to thick, fat slaps as it dripped to the floor. Harry took a breath with all his will, held it for a count of three, then pushed it out again in a wheeze.

Wormtail had gone. Voldemort moved out of his sight, leaving only the whispering smudges in Harry's view. Snape's voice spoke from behind him. Bellatrix answered, mean and cold. Then the chains gave way and Harry fell to the floor, clinging to the voices with all his will, forcing himself to make sense of them over the twisting, thrumming hunger that sang in his core.

"He did not come here to attack my pet." Voldemort sounded hard and angry. And worried. "Find out his purpose. Find out everything, Bellatrix. Everything Potter thinks he knows."

"Oh, you give me the best presents!" the witch cackled. Harry felt her robes billow out against his back as she knelt and gripped his shoulder. "May I kill him too, once he's all used up?"

"That honour is MINE!" A crackle of magic followed Voldemort's shout. A shriek, a sound of falling weight. Fingernails scored his shoulder, jerking away. Then there was scuffling, panting breaths, sobbing in a woman's voice. Harry tuned it out.

"Severus," Voldemort said over the din. "You will see that the boy is kept sound and alive."

"For how long, my Lord?" Snape's boots came into view, spattered here and there with blood over the shine. A braided whip, darkly gleaming, coiled at his heels. "Bellatrix's interrogation technique has a poor survival rate..."

"Until I return." There was a curse lurking behind that growl. "I have designs underway, which want their master's touch. I will attend to them personally, and Wormtail will attend me as I do."

Wormtail again. Harry idly wondered why. Was it the life debt? Did Voldemort know Peter owed one to Harry? Robes whispered past Harry's shoulder, distracting him from the thought. Bare feet patted the stones as Voldemort walked away. "You and Bellatrix, Severus; one of you will be with him at all times, sleeping, or waking. Should he escape or die, I will have no mercy on either of you."

And then he was gone, his magic crackling in his wake, the air clapping shut around the void his disapparation left behind. More cracks sounded, popcorn, or rifles, or a firecracker string -- or Death Eaters getting out while the getting was good. Harry felt himself floating upward, cradled in gentle magic as the floor slipped away beneath him. Snape's face swam into view, just as cold and loathing as ever, no warmth in his eyes as he peered at Harry like a bunyip on the dissecting table. His fingers though, were warm and gentle, seeking under Harry's ear for a pulse, and hovering softly, even after they both felt the slow, even throb between them.

"Well, Potter," he murmured. Turning for the ruined doors, he floated Harry along beside him. "Still not dead, it seems."

Harry took that as permission to let the darkness swallow him at last.

 

~*~

The instant he had the draught ready, Severus poured it down the brat's throat, catching him close when the convulsions began, holding him tightly, sound and safe while the life pounded through his veins.

The bloody welts he'd put in Potter's skin, Severus had healed straight-away once the life-draught entered its first simmering stage. He had trusted none of the other oafs with the lash when the order had been given -- had asked for the honour of beating his least favorite student bloody himself. The Dark Lord had been happy to grant him the indulgence, and in the secrecy of his own heart, Severus had felt himself shriveling away with each bloody stripe he laid into his hated rival's son.

Somewhere in Grimmauld Place, he had known his mother would be looking into her painted water, her face set in that distant, sorrowful expression Severus had always feared and hated. He'd focused on that imagining in order to keep on until the Dark Lord finally flinched away from whatever he had seen in Potter's empty gaze, and allowed Severus to stop. It had very nearly not been enough.

Now Severus stroked Potter's sweat-slick hair as the boy fought not to scream. His fingers clenched like iron around Severus' arms, and the breath that hissed through his clenched teeth was shrill and quick. Sensation would be truly reaching him now; his still-raw back, the bruises on his ribs, face and wrists, splatter-burns on his hands, they would all be part of the deluge now. Severus weathered an urge to apologize, but pushed the useless words away. Potter would face worse to come, and not at his hands.

"Hush, boy," Severus allowed himself to murmur instead, coaxing the rigid, trembling body to relax into his arms. "It will pass quicker if you do not fight it." He pushed Potter's filthy hair from his brow, curling the boy close as he calmed by degrees. "Easy now. Be easy. Slow your breathing...that's it."

"What-" a croak against his collarbone. Potter shuddered again, and clung harder. "What did you give me just now?"

Severus did not tense at the question, did not slow his hand's soothing motion. "The draught was the same as I gave you last night," he lied, handing Potter a phial of water, dosed with a pain reliever. "Drink."

Potter pulled far enough back to search his gaze, and Severus held it without flinching. The werewolf was gone, not even his bones remaining to show for the sorry creature's sorry end. Potter had not seen him give the killing stroke, had been neither awake, nor aware while Severus had taken what he needed, and brewed that latest draught. How could he know the life had not been his own?

"No," Potter grimaced, lips glistening as he licked the bitter potion away. "It was different. It was-"

Severus stilled those lips with a finger. "If you ask me again," he warned, "I will tell you the truth."

Potter searched his gaze for a long moment, the pain-haze clearing from his eyes by slow degrees. Finally he swallowed, eased his grip, and slid his hands around Severus' chest. "I don't think I can do this," he said, curling his face into the hollow under Severus' chin, a child, hiding from the monsters. "I'm going to fail. He's going to kill me, and-"

"No," he caught Potter's face in his hand, tipped it up to kiss his babble silent. The boy shivered, flinched, but he did not pull away. Severus pressed his tongue along those lips, and with a deep and desperate sound, Potter opened to him like a flower, pressing up in his arms with a hungry sort of welcome. He slid his palm down Potter's chest, thumbing one chilled nipple in passing -- Potter's groan was hot and damp against his cheek -- before rolling the boy's cock into his hand with a long, firm stroke.

"You live yet," he whispered it into Potter's grasping, panting mouth, so that the boy could not help but to breathe the words in deep. "This proves it! You live, and I will keep you whole, and you. Will. Not. Die!" A twisting, plunging rhythm, pulling Potter's shaking body close into his chest as the cock swelled and strained against his grip. Kissing, biting his lips, his jaw, his curving, perfect throat.

Potter shouted, arched hard into Severus' grip, and came. Severus held him through those spasms, and the quieter release that followed. All the while tracing runes of protection and endurance in the cooling seed on Potter's skin. Soon enough, the storm passed. Potter's breathing evened out again, his clutching hold turned tentative, then released as he tried to wipe his eyes without it being obvious.

"Sorry," he said, sitting up a little. "I'm... I don't know why I..."

"Because at last, it has become real to you," Severus said, wiping his sticky fingers on his pocket handkerchief. "At last you have seen how badly all this could go."

Potter swallowed hard, then nodded. "Yeah. Reckon I have done."

"And having looked that fear in the eye," Severus handed him the handkerchief and stood back to let the boy use it. "It can no longer paralyze you."

He nodded at that, and finishing up, turned to set his feet on the floor. "Thanks," he said, and offered up the handkerchief with a watery smile. "D'you..." He stopped, sniffed the air, his pupils dilating wide in a darkening rush. He swallowed, brought the handkerchief back to his nose, and breathed of it deeply.

Then he looked back up to Severus' face, and his eyes were confused, worried, and hungry. Severus recalled his epiphany in the shower that morning, and had to quell the urge to laugh. These were not the circumstances under which he had imagined broaching this theory to Potter. Still, needs must, and the devil was at the reins.

He reached out, stroked Potter's face once, plucking the stained handkerchief from his fingers. The boy yearned after it almost without thinking. "What... I..." He caught at Severus' knees to steady himself as he overbalanced, his palms blazing hot through the wool. "I don't understand," he pleaded.

But they both knew he did. It was in the eager grip of his hands when Severus buttoned down his trousers. It was in his open-mouthed gasp when he Severus' hard prick slipped out of his braes, and the heavy smell of his desire rose up between them. Potter stared, transfixed and wanting, until Severus touched his burning cheek and guided him in.

Potter groaned, let his mouth fall wide, and lunged for Severus' prick, grabbing his hips and pulling him close, gagging, pushing deeper, grunting when he slid back, sloppy and hot and teeth snagging, nails biting through wool, tongue digging, hot and hard and breathless, tiny moans, and pressure, God, the pressure there at the back of his throat, and Severus wanted to force himself past it, to feel the desperate clench around him as he-

Potter swallowed, Severus felt his throat convulse, felt it bind, flex, grip like nothing else in the world, and he was coming, streaks of red lancing across his tight-closed eyes like spellfire, breath ragged and sharp, blood thundering in his ears, bollocks hard, tight and spasming as he poured himself down Potter's grasping throat.

When he stopped shaking, the boy made to pull back. Severus caught the back of his head to stop him. "Swallow... once more," he said, then grunted and pulled himself back as he felt Potter obey. Knees trembling, Severus nonetheless forced himself to stand long enough to tuck his spent cock into his trousers, and button them up. Only then did he allow himself to collapse onto the cot next to Potter. Surely his heart would calm soon... it had only been a blowjob, after all.

"Is that..." Potter cut a sidelong look at him, cheeks burning. "Did you know that would...?"

"It was a possibility," Severus admitted. "The theory is... obscure. Not well accepted, even amoungst Necromancers, though the connection of the generative fluids to the vitae in principia seems intuitive enough. In essence, it is possible that a fraction of the vitae in potentia is transferable in the same way that actual life-"

"Snape." Potter put a hand on his knee, shocking him silent. "Can we use it?"

The question thrust through Severus' rising excitement like a manticore's barb, poisoning the moment utterly. Could they use it? Could Potter feed on him, Incubus-like, whilst day by day, he was tortured and used by others at Bellatrix' command? Could this passionate, possessive release boil down to such a coldly primal necessity?

Already then? he heard his mother's words once more. Oh my poor darling. No wonder you're afraid.

It took several hard swallows before he dared try to answer. But before he could form the words, a hammering at the door jolted them both to far sides of the room. Severus' door-wards held, sparking blue and fierce when the doorknob was tried. A muffled scream turned into laughter, and another rain of thuds on the solid door.

"Oh, naughty, Severus," Bellatrix cooed. "Stealing my treat away before I've had a taste. He's mine, he's mine and you're a filthy rotten thief and I'll eat your heart if you don't give him back to me!"

Potter snatched up a chopping knife from the worktable, and backed to the wall, face white and eyes fierce. He cut a glance at Severus, and shook his head -- not a plea, but a warning.

Severus held up a hand to keep him silent. "Go away, Bellatrix," he drawled. "Potter's wounds will take the night to heal. And after your punishment, you're too weak to control him anyhow."

She tried the door again, receiving a harsher shock for her troubles. This time there was cursing between the screech and laughter. "Oh, you needn't be greedy, Severus," her tone turned wheedling. "I know you fancy my morsel, and I can't blame you. But I'm not selfish like you are, you see? We could share him, you and me. I'm sure he has tears enough for both of us."

"It's a simple word, Bellatrix," he replied, casting yet another hex into the door-ward. "And it means the opposite of 'yes'. Go back to your rooms and look it up."

This time when she tried the door, it took her several moments to pick herself up again. "I'll kill you, Severus," she panted. "If you break my toy, I will kill you and I'll hate you forever and I will never, ever forgive you!"

"Try my door again before dawn, and you'll never get a chance to forgive me," Severus told her, casting one final escalation into the protective matrix he had erected the instant he'd brought Potter back to the workroom.

The only reply was a sudden crack of imploding air behind the door. In the dense silence that followed, Potter's sigh was deafening. He closed his eyes, craned back his head, as in a silent prayer of thanks, and set the knife back down onto the worktop.

Severus thought about telling the boy that he must steel himself to what lay before him; that Bellatrix would return, and she would have her way, and nothing Severus could do would stop it. But a look at Potter's pale, determined face dissuaded him. The boy was under no delusions.

"Can you sleep?" he asked.

Potter huffed a laugh, and then padded softly back to the narrow cot. "Be a bit hard just yet," he said softly. "But I think so. Could you... stay?"

By way of an answer, Severus widened the couch to a proper bed's width, and transfigured his over robe and several soft-worn rags into bedclothes. He was weary himself, after all, and he did not care to explain to the boy that he could not actually leave the manoruntil he turned Potter over to Bellatrix's tender mercies for the day. One bout of hysterics was more than enough for the night.

For once in his life, Potter accepted the changes without question or challenge, merely rolled himself along Severus' left side, pillowed his ear over Severus' heart, and held on. Not sleeping, for he was too carefully still, his breath too measured, the tickling sweep of his eyelashes too regular for that.

But whatever his brooding, Severus left him to it. He contented himself with smoothing the boy's hair, and trying not to wonder how, when morning and Bellatrix came, he would manage to let go again.

 

~* October 30, 1997 *~

The door's wards chimed. Severus spelled it open without looking up. "Put him on the table," he said, and cut another paper-thin slice of orrisroot. "Is he at least breathing this time?"

"Er... Professor?" Zabini hovered in the doorway, mask in hand, and looking decidedly uncomfortable. "You asked me to come?"

Severus looked at the clock and frowned. It was an hour early yet. "I had supposed you would do so after you had seen to your duties regarding Potter." He did not bother to quell the sneer, and was gratified when the boy had to look away, wiping his immaculately clean hands on the front of his robes.

"She... That is, Mrs. Lestrange wanted time with him." He stepped into the workroom, and closed the door behind him with a shiver. "Alone."

"Ah." It was all that would fit past the knot of rage in his throat. Her demand for a potency draught and tincture of coca made sense now.

The four days had been a constant battle between himself and the hag. Severus suspected the Dark Lord had intended that very thing. Bellatrix wanted access to Potter at all hours of the day or night, regardless of the boy's ability to recuperate and heal from the damage she inflicted. She demanded poisons, caustics, drugs and hallucinogens from Severus without regard to potentially deadly interactions, and cried treachery at his every protest.

Severus, meanwhile, played the sane man against her ravings, and to good effect. Of all the Death Eaters who had escaped the Ministry's attentions, Severus, Bellatrix, and Wormtail were the only ones of any experience or rank. Most of those who remained had been Severus' students only a year before, and therefore deferred to him out of habit. Severus, they respected, whereas Bellatrix, they feared and avoided as they would a rabid dog.

They took his word that Potter required un-interrupted sleep to survive the torture, even as they obeyed without question when Severus invoked the Dark Lord's name for orders which were entirely his own. And when he contradicted Bellatrix's haphazard demands, they complied eagerly, but they still followed her lead in the torture room. Not one of them had the nerve to tell the bitch no to her face.

Severus cut three more slices of the orrisroot, and laid them gently atop the simmering liquid. "Have you spoken to Flint and Belby, as I asked?"

Zabini swallowed, and pulled three ampoules from his inner pocket. "Greengrass overheard. Said she's in too. If it'll serve to strengthen our Lord, that is."

Severus looked up with a frown. "Which is hers?" He selected the one Zabini pointed to, and set it aside. "Tell her that a better contribution from her would be menstrual blood, if her cycle will peak soon."

The boy squirmed uncomfortably. "But I thought you said you needed-"

"Our Lord did not order me to explain the theory to you," Severus cut him off with a bored wave of his hand. "Merely to collect the vitae, and to brew the potion." He unsealed the two boys' flasks, and dumped the blood in without ceremony. Flint and Belby were Bellatrix' favorites in the torture room. Severus knew each of them had taken Potter more than once, and roughly. He had healed the wounds, had cleaned their filth from him, had seen their smug satisfaction when they dropped the boy on Severus' table at the end of the day. He had smelt Potter on them, and had managed not to kill them both.

Severus had not, however, the smallest ounce of regret in shaving short their sorry lives to keep a better in flesh.

The potion assumed its proper quicksilver consistency, and Severus gave it an equally cold smile; let one of them try to take Potter now, and they would find it a different matter entirely. A flicker of movement brought his head up to see Zabini unbuttoning his shirtcuff, and rolling back his sleeve. "What are you doing?"

"I..." He looked at the cauldron and swallowed hard. "I think I know what you're doing, sir," the boy said. "The blood, what you said about Daphne's, the... Potter's healing too quickly from what they... we do." Beneath the worktop, Severus unsleeved his wand. If Zabini noticed, he gave no sign. "The potion. It's not for our Lord at all, is it? It's for Potter."

"It is by our Lord's orders that Potter is to be kept alive until he should order otherwise," Severus temporized with the truth, not liking the gleam that came into the young man's eye.

Zabini's smile showed entirely too many teeth. "Then I'm right. It is for Potter. So he can take more each time." He licked his lips, and held out his wrist. "I'm in, sir."

Severus raised an eyebrow, but caught the slim, dark hand anyhow. "In, are you?"

His grin turned cocky. "Yes. But I want first crack at him this time. I don't want to wait until the others have ripped him up. I want him right after he's healed." Neither of them addressed the unspoken 'or else.' They were both Slytherins, after all, and both knew what lay at stake.

Severus looked at the boy for a long time, reading the cruel, hungry set of Zabini's full lips, the guile in his eyes. Only a sense of fastidious entitlement had kept this little viper off Potter thus far, and now that he imagined he could have his will, his demands would only increase. Potter's suffering would not long be enough for the likes of him.

So be it, then. Let him have his will.

Severus nicked the vein, let the thick, bright blood drip straight into the cauldron, and shoved Zabini's arm away when he was done. "Go through there," he said, letting go of Zabini's arm and nodding at the door across the room. "Fill the tub, and pour in the blue bottle. Then take off your clothes."

He looked up again as a low whistle sounded. "Wow. You sleep in here?" Zabini was craning his neck, peering through to the big, soft bed Severus had not bothered to banish after the night before. "I sleep there," he growled, then pointed at a twisted rug next to a chain and shackle set in the wall. "Potter sleeps over there. When I allow him to sleep at all."

Zabini's answering smirk spoke plainly as to what means he supposed Severus used to keep his prisoner awake, but he kept the actual words to himself, and sauntered in to do as he was bid. Severus went back to his potion as soon as he heard the water begin to pour, enlarged the leaden goblet, set the ladle just by, and settled down to wait.

They brought Potter in about twenty minutes later, battered, bloodied, and unconscious, as usual. And as usual, Severus instructed them to sling the bedraggled fool up onto his secondary worktable so he could inspect the damage.

"You're losing, Severus," Bellatrix cooed from the doorway, heavy-eyed, smug, and vile. "Any day now, he's going to die on you, and then where will you be?"

"Watching the Dark Lord flay the skin from your bones for killing him against his express wishes," he made his voice thick with scorn. "And given that the only information you seem to have got out of Potter is that he can be hurt, I rather suspect our Lord will not be best pleased with your progress when he returns." He felt for the boy's pulse under his bloodied chin, and relaxed only marginally when he found it. "Now kindly get your rancid carcass out of my workroom, and let me do as my Lord has commanded."

Bellatrix stiffened, but Severus had her at wandpoint before she could even reach for her sleeve. "I should regret to have to explain your demise to our Lord when he returns, woman," he told her with cold, level hatred. "But I should not especially regret dispatching you, should you provide me the excuse."

Behind her in the hallway, Flint and Belby looked at each other, and then backed away without speaking. Bellatrix glared her silent opinion of Severus' parentage for a moment longer, and then contrived a laugh. "You really should do something about those weak lungs of his, Severus," she said, turning away. "He's hardly good for a scream any more."

He managed not to curse her from behind only because he knew Zabini would be watching. So instead, he hexed the door shut, and slammed over it the vicious, deadly wards he had employed on the room since the night he'd ended Greyback's life herein. He closed his eyes then, took a deep breath, and steadied himself.

"Pfaugh. He stinks," Zabini drawled, naked and half-hard in the bedroom doorway.

"I believe you were taught basic cleaning spells along with the rest of your class," Severus replied with a growl as he fetched down the boneset potions, analgesics, aescepticus and regenerate salves. "I suggest you employ them, until you find Mr. Potter more to your tastes." When the boy didn't move, Severus cast him a hard glare. "The word 'suggest' was misleading, I see. Consider it an order, and get him cleaned up."

By the time Zabini managed the task to his liking, Severus had done all he could with Potter's life force at such ebb. Many of the hurts he would have to address again later, when Potter's own magic could give the healing salves something to work with. Once Zabini was gone, he reminded himself with a scowl.

"Ruddy cow," the youth in question was grumbling as he finished, and let Potter's knees drop to the side. "What'd she use, a chair leg? Hey!" He flinched as Severus threw a jar of the regenerate salve at him.

"Use your prick to apply that to him, and it won't matter what she did," he snarled. Zabini gave him a look, all eyebrow. Severus returned it. "You thought I meant tomorrow, perhaps? Get up on the table, put the salve on yourself, and get in him, you twit!" He lifted Harry's shoulders up against his chest, his head lolled back onto his shoulders, and reached around his narrow chest for the goblet. Harry breathed yet, but shallowly, and soft as a kitten's sleeping whisper.

"But he's all... I wanted-"

"Do. It." Severus meant to add 'or leave' to the threat, but he couldn't. He daren't let the bastard go with his memories intact, couldn't even hint at it. Not now. Perhaps not ever again.

Zabini flinched away from his glare, but climbed up onto the worktop, and slicked his dark cock generously. He pulled Potter's knees over his arms, and grunted as he shoved himself into the unresisting body beneath him.

Potter's breath hitched, his brow knit, but he showed no other reaction. Severus poured the draught into his mouth before he could breathe again, pushed shut his jaw at once, and held on. Potter's eyes flew wide, his spine arcing up hard, hands clawing at the table as the potion shocked through him. Zabini groaned at the sudden squirming, and plunged down harder. Severus gripped Potter's wrist in his own, pressed one arm across the sweat-slick, panting chest, and breathed a soft 'shhhh' into his ear.

"Oh fuck... oh yeah," Zabini grunted as his dark skin sheened with sweat. "No wonder you... didn't want to share!"

"Fucking bastard!" Potter's voice trembled, a low moan of anguish as he pressed back into Severus' arms, "Hate you! I fucking hate-"

"Liar. Little slag," Zabini panted. Severus ground his teeth at the youth's smug leer. "You're hard. I can feel it. You like this, don't you, you..." he hissed suddenly, losing his rhythm, veins shining against his forehead as the skin shrank in. "Fucking... slag!" One more hard thrust and he came, emptying seed, magic, and life into Potter's shuddering body. But then, instead of passing out and falling over, Zabini caught fire. His dark, gaunt form blazed crimson-bright for a second, mouth wide, eyes blind, hands reaching... and then the boy dissolved into a fine grey ash.

Then Potter did scream. Long and loud, and struggling for all he was worth. Severus kept him pinned in place until a sudden bout of coughing turned Potter from trapped and thrashing animal into a tight, trembling knot of boy. Severus held him a moment longer, until he was certain he could trust his hands to cast the charm. Then he banished the ashes with a flick of his wand, and lifted Potter, unresisting, into his arms.

"Hush, boy," he murmured, carrying him into the bathroom, and easing him into the dosed water. "It will not happen again. He will not touch you again." He flinched back as Potter struggled out of his hold, sloshing water everywhere.

"What did you do?" he hissed, white-lipped and shaking still. "What the fuck did you do?"

For a moment, it was in him to spit hatred in return. To call Potter an ungrateful little bastard. To promise that any further rapists could have him uncontested. But there was a smudge of ash across the boy's cheek, and so he couldn't. Severus sat back onto his heels, and surprised them both with the truth. "I... miscalculated the brewing time," he said. "Using it so soon after adding Zabini's blood to the potion was a..." he met Potter's eyes, aware that his own hands were shaking. "It was a mistake." He took a breath, shocked at the thick, ragged sound, and shook his head. "It was a mistake."

Potter surged forward, threw wet arms around his chest, and dragged him close, heedless of Severus' robes, or the water. "Fuck. Oh, God, it's all gone so fucking wrong," he whispered, his breath hot and shaky against Severus' ear. "He knows they're gone. The horcruxes. He got into Hogwarts, and the vault at Gringotts. The Diary. He's finding the pieces, and making sure, and I can feel how angry he is." Potter gulped, clutching so hard he pulled half-out of the bath. "He'll come back and kill me, and I still don't know what the last horcrux is, and I can't-" a sob. Severus slipped his arms around Potter's too-thin chest. "I don't know if I can anymore... I don't know..."

"Hush boy," he said what he always said. "Be calm-"

"What are we going to do, Snape?" The question was thin and small as their chances, and it slipped between Severus' rote assurances like a stiletto. The only answer he could think of was silence, enforced on that damned, impertinent mouth by way of a kiss. He kissed Potter until he stopped struggling to speak, kissed the boy until his hands went soft, and his tongue crept out to twine with his own. He kissed Harry until the question no longer quite terrified them both, then he eased out of the death grip just far enough to banish his sodden clothing, and slip behind him into the bath.

"We are going to survive," he said, wiping the smudge from Potter's cheek. "We are going to survive, and if we cannot survive, then we will do what we can do to bring him down with us."

"But the horcrux-" he silenced Potter with two fingers against his lips, and then gathered the boy in, solid and soft against his chest.

"The horcrux will be the Order's problem if we fail," he said, reminding them both that prophecies were bollocks, and diviners merely self-deluded hacks. Voldemort would fall to whichever hand managed the killing blow. The horcrux was merely a thing, an object that anyone could unmake, if they could but find it. The boy in his arms was not the un-killable Savior, he was just a boy; a hurt and frightened boy who had been pushed to death's edge far too many times.

And Severus absolutely did not love him.

 

~*~

"Will you..." In the waiting darkness, well after midnight, Potter's whisper might as well have been a shout.

Severus, who had not been sleeping, was not surprised to hear it. "No," he said.

Potter turned, and a chilly hand crept hesitantly over Severus' hip. "You don't even-" He gasped when Severus caught his hand in a hard grip.

"You think it will make things easier. That it will be different, because I..." he turned, pushed Potter's hand away. "I condemned you to this, Potter, or have you forgotten it during one of your torture sessions?"

"I asked you to," Potter's voice came back waspish, but his hand came back as gently as before. "Or have you forgot? I haven't. I know I'd have failed months ago if not for you, and-"

"And what? You have in mind some sort of a reward?"

"God, you're vile sometimes."

"How astute of you. Now go to sleep."

"No. Look, I'm not buying this big bad Death Eater act, all right? It's hollow, and you can just drop it with me. In fact, you can just drop it with everyone, because when he gets back, it's going to be all over anyhow. He's going to rip me apart, and either he'll find what he wants in the pieces, or you'll try and stop him first, but either way, it's over!"

Severus grunted as Potter clambered atop him, bony knees gripping his hips as the callused Seeker's hands pressed his shoulders down. "All I'm asking is for something... to go on with, you know? So it all won't have been... hateful, and... and empty. When it's done." Warmth splashed his chest, and Severus closed his eyes, knowing what he would hear next. "I know you don't love me. That's okay, really. It can be pity. I'll take that." Another damning splash. "At least it's something..."

He brought his hands up inside Potter's softening hold, caught the brat by his naked shoulders, and slammed him down to the bed in a sudden, whelming roll. He settled his weight hard between the boy's sprawled thighs, and caught both flailing wrists flat to the bedding beside Potter's face.

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself," he snarled as breath quickened in the chest beneath his. They both were soft, but adrenaline and gravity worked their will quickly when he claimed Potter's lips as he had done on that first morning; inexorably, completely, possessively. The boy's fingers curled around his, and his hips pressed upward with matching hunger, until Severus had to tear himself away, biting and licking along that downy-soft jaw until his questing tongue found an ear.

"I have never pitied you in your life, you selfish bloody idiot," he said as the boy's cock throbbed, just as hard and desperate as his own. "I've no intention of beginning now."

"Oh god!" Harry sobbed, and his legs wrapped tight around Severus' hips.

Those words were the last either of them spoke for some time, though the darkness was far from quiet.

 

~* October 31, 1997 *~

 

A musky, wet odour woke him in the darkness; a wooly, fecund stink, reminiscent of blocked drains and treachery. Severus smelled a rat.

He reached beneath his pillow, but Wormtail, his eyes dark-adapted, was faster. A wand pressed into the hollow under Severus' chin before either made a sound. "Your door was locked," came the nasty whisper. "I came in to be sure everything was all right, and look at the cozy scene I've found."

"My door was locked because I was ordered to keep Potter alive," Severus kept his voice low and steady. Potter had not woken yet, and he did not want the boy's idea of heroics destroying what control he might possibly take of the situation. "Bellatrix does not know the meaning of moderation-"

The wand pushed harder, silencing him. "Liar. This little love nest of yours has nothing to do with keeping Potter alive!"

"It's part of the interrogation, you imbecile!" He knew the tone of voice to make the rodent flinch, and he used it like the weapon it was, shoving the wand aside the instant the pressure eased. "If Potter will not confide in his tormentor, he might yet confide in his comforter. It's basic psychology, and the Dark Lord knew that when he gave his orders." He sat up, and cast a low, gentle lumos.

Wormtail backed up, blinking furiously at the light, his wand not lowering. "All the same, he's to be taken to Bellatrix now. She has her orders, and she's waiting for him. It's going to end tonight."

As Potter had known it would. There was nothing he could say to that, nothing he could do. Even should he murder the rat where he stood, Severus knew there would be more Death Eaters awaiting him outside his warded door. The apparition wards had clenched tight again, he realized -- the Dark Lord making sure that no one could steal his prize away. The end loomed, hard and cold and ugly. Severus was not ready for it.

"Wake him up," the rat sneered. But Potter did not twitch when Severus gave him a shove. Nor did he respond to his name, nor when shaken, nor when water splashed into his face. His breathing remained even, low, calm, his eyes flickered back and forth in a dreaming chase, but that was the only movement of which the brat seemed capable.

"Something is wrong," Severus muttered, climbing from the bed and summoning a robe. "He should not be unresponsive. I must-"

"Un-ward the door, and get out of my way, Snape." Wormtail showed his teeth, even as he backed away. "Our Lord sent me ahead, but he is on his way, and he will not be kept waiting!"

"The boy cannot withstand questioning now, you moron!" Severus shouted, looming over the craven little bastard. "He will not even wake -- how do you expect him to respond before you kill him?"

Wormtail's wand drizzled sparks, bright and angry in the gloom as he poked it at Severus again. "Oh, he'll respond. Things have gone missing from where they ought to have been, and Potter knows why. Our Lord is angry, Snivellus, and if you try to stand in my way, he told me to kill you." Yellowed, ratty teeth flashed in the wandlight as he leered. "And when I do, your wards will fall, and I'll take Potter then. Either way is good enough for me."

The end loomed closer still, rising like a great wave to fill the sky. Severus shook his head to clear it of the image. We are going to survive. His earlier words to Potter returned to haunt him with a burn of futility in his throat. And if we cannot survive, then we will do what we can do to bring him down with us.

Very well. Severus drew himself up to his full height, and glowered at the pitiful remains of his childhood tormentors. "You always were the hysterical one, weren't you, Porky Petey?" He slashed his wand at the door, and the wards fell without a sound. "Kill your golden goose then, and the best of luck to you when our Lord learns that you have squandered all for nothing." Then he stepped aside, arms folded across his breast, his face impassive and cold as the bone-white mask beside the bed.

Wormtail still called in the two death eaters from the hallway before he would turn his back on Severus and approach the bed. Severus stared the both of them down while he waited.

"Up, Potter!" A crack of hand to skin. Naturally, the idiot had to try for himself everything he'd watched Severus do. "I said get UP!" Another crack, and then Wormtail giggled. "See there? I knew you were faking." And Severus had to look.

Harry's eyes were open, his irises a thin, verdant rind on depthless black, his nostrils flaring as Wormtail's silver hand closed on his shoulder and hauled him from the bed. Transfixed by those hollow, hungry eyes, Severus could only watch as they hustled the naked boy out the door between them.

Potter was leaning toward the rat when the door slammed shut.

Severus stood very, very still as the wave crashed down around him.

Albus had not been wrong.

The serpent horcrux had simply been spent when Nagini had provided Voldemort his temporary form -- the serpentine infant Potter had seen Wormtail put in the cauldron on the night of the rebirth. But there had been another murder that night. A murder at Wormtail's wand, perhaps, but... but perhaps not entirely.

A silver hand. A strong boy's death. A horcrux used, another needed to replace it. An otherwise useless coward kept close to the Dark Lord's side. Wormtail will attend me while I do. Wormtail will attend me. Wormtail.

The chaos of despair and revelation washed away, and Severus found himself still standing in its wake. He opened his eyes, summoned his boots, and dressed himself with quick, cold fingers.

The cauldron contained a little less than one dose of the draught. Possibly enough, if he applied it in time, and could get Potter back to Grimmauld Place, where his own draught lay under stasis. They would survive. They would!

He closed his eyes, summoned a memory. The single purest moment of unclouded joy in his life -- the morning he woke to find the Dark Mark gone from his arm. Another gift from Harry, unthanked. He slashed his wand through the darkness, and summoned his patronus with all his will.

"Go to Hogwarts," he instructed the silvery phoenix as it coalesced from the darkness, mantling and bating its eagerness for the sky. "Bring the Order. Tell them the end has come, Voldemort is on his way, and they must get their worthless arses here before they lose all!"

The phoenix screamed, deafening in his head though silent in his ears, and at another slash of his wand, it soared through stone and wood and plaster to the sky. Severus was out the door and running before its glow had faded.

Blasts of spellfire tore through the walls at his command. Voices in all keys howled of attack and muster and enemies inside the manor. Smoke filled the air. Startled, inexperienced Death Eaters panicked in the chaos and fell to the simplest of jinxes. It might have been fun, such mayhem-sowing, had Severus not clutched that tiny chalice in his hand, guiding him toward Potter with ever more feeble tugs.

He cast an incendio at a row of mouldering curtains as he raced along gallery overlook. Two half-dressed boys burst from their room ahead, masks in hand, and he stunned them before either could see past the flames. The shouts rose in volume and panic as the building shook from a sudden impact. The chalice tugged him down and to the right. He ran for the stairs without looking to see what shape his ally chaos had taken -- let it be bombs, or dragons, or Hagrid on a bloody motorbike, for all he cared. Let it be Death Eaters attacking each other in the smoke and confusion, even -- either would do.

More screaming broke out ahead of him, laced with spellfire and smoke as Severus leapt down the stairs. The audience hall. Voldemort's rooms. Severus caught sight of naked skin through the gaping doorway, streaked with blood, white as chalk: Potter crouched low, clutching the silver hand to his face with both hands. Wormtail lay wandless on the floor -- pulling against his grip, struggling, screaming in vain as icy, glittering magic leeched away from the Dark Lord's eerie gift. Dementor-like, Harry drank that magic in.

A splash of scarlet fire struck the boy. He did not move, did not twitch, did not release Pettigrew. The crucio leapt along Harry's skin like chain lightning, and reduced Wormtail to helpless, blubbering screams. Severus shook off his horror, and ran. He hit the doorway, spell ready on his lips, and felled Belby as the idiot turned to the door. The crucio dropped with its caster.

Yaxley lay sprawled across the room, five inches of willow protruding from the back of his chest. Flint lay tangled with him him, throat gaping, eyes empty. Cursing and struggling, Bellatrix fought to shove the corpses off her as Pettigrew's shrieks renewed, shrill and panicked as a rabbit being torn by --

Dear God.

Blood sheeted down Harry's chest and chin, painted him thick with red as he bit, tore, spat flesh and sinew, then bit again. Wormtail begging, kicking, and clawing at his face hindered him not at all. The silver hand spasmed with each tearing bite, gripping feebly on nothing.

"Avada kedavra!" Bellatrix screamed, and the world turned the colour of murder.

"NO!" Severus heard himself shout, wand moving too slow, feet tarred in treacle and stone, magic turned sluggish and useless. The killing curse struck Harry squarely between his shoulders... and arrowed straight through.

Wormtail stopped screaming. Stopped struggling. Slumped limp and empty to the floor, dangling from Harry's unflinching grip. Harry bit again, the hand spasmed, but this time the blood did not spray. Its patient tap...tap...tap filled Severus' head like a drum.

"KILL HIM!" Bellatrix' voice was a mosquito's whine in his ears. "SEVERUS! KILL HIM NOW!"

He took a step, swallowed hard, praying silently to a god he had never quite stopped believing in. "Potter," he said in his best schoolroom command. "Stop that and come here."

The dark head raised. Turned. Harry's eyes looked black at this distance. Bellatrix' voice buzzed. He ignored it, and raised his hand, the tiny chalice still in it, to beckon. "That's right, boy. Come to me..."

Bellatrix shouted. The green light leapt again, but this time Harry turned to meet it, silver hand held up before his breast like a grisly mirror. The hand -- the horcrux caught the hex with a thin, screeching sound, as of nails over slate, or a kettle boiling dry. Then it fought back.

The witch had time to scream before the green light took her. Harry could only manage a groan as the hand spasmed once, then flowed like mercury through his fingers. Severus took a step, faltered as Harry's blood-smeared face wavered toward him, unseeing, grisly in a way that wizarding deaths were never meant to be.

Severus swallowed, then enlarged the almost-full chalice. "You want this, Potter," he said, holding the liquid life out in a hand that absolutely did not tremble. "Harry. You need this. Leave Wormtail and come to me, Harry. That's right," he urged as the boy stumbled to his feet, reaching. It took all his nerve to stand where he was and wait, to let Harry reach, and not bind him down, to keep his hand outstretched, and not flinch when those sticky, clammy fingers closed around his own.

But Harry was breathing yet. Wherever his mind had fled, he was not yet gone. "You are not dead," he murmured, bringing their hands, and the goblet in them to Harry's crimson mouth. "This is not over, Harry. Come back and finish it." He tipped a bit of silver out across the slack lips, watched his tongue quest out after it. Harry yearned even closer, his mouth stretching, his blind eyes wide until Severus pressed the goblet down, and helped him to drink. "Come back to me..."

Harry's eyelids drooped, as if in pleasure, his pupils irising closed, covering the yawning black with their proper green once more. This time, the draught did not shake him -- not above a shuddering tremble, and a whimper between swallows. A part of Severus' mind, detatched from the horror, supposed it might have been the overnight wait in the cauldron unshielded, or that essence that was not Harry's own could never sustain him as well, or that the horcrux, or the killing curse had depleted him beyond previous thresholds. Even distantly though, he refused to consider that it might be too little, or too late.

Harry emptied the goblet and let it fall, swallowed the last drop and heaved out a shuddering sigh. "God," he croaked, pressing the back of one hand to his mouth, the both equally bloody. "Oh God, oh fucking God, what have I-"

He flinched as Severus caught his shoulder in a fierce grip. "You survived," he said, then pointed his wand. "Close your eyes and hold your breath." With another shudder, the boy obeyed, and stood still while Severus summoned warm water to wash the bloodstains away. It took several charms, and by the end of it, Potter was shaking in clear distress.

Severus cast a drying spell, and quickly worked down the buttons of his robe. "He's coming," Harry moaned as Severus slipped it over his shoulders.

"I'll find someone," he said, tilting Harry's face to the light with a frown. "You can't face him like this."

"No," Harry shook his head, a tiny jerk that turned into a nuzzling kiss to Severus' palm. "Please, no. I don't want any more."

His heart banged and crashed against his ribs, the blood in his head drummed louder and louder as the smoke and shouts thickened the air. Where the hell was the Order? "You are not strong enough, Harry," he pleaded.

"Severus." The sound of his given name on those lips stopped him cold. "No. Not anyone else." He stepped close, slid his arms around Severus, waist, and lay his head down softly. "You. Just you." He laughed when the breath snagged in Severus' throat, and shook his head again. "Not like that. See, I've remembered something Dumbledore said; that the power the Dark Lord knows not was love..." and there, he looked up, trapped Severus' gaze in that perfect green, and gave him a smile. "And you're the only-"

"I do not love you." The words were out of his mouth before he even thought to speak. But once said, Severus stuck by them, hardening his jaw, shaking his head again. Love was a fool's comfort! He did not believe in prophecies!

But then Harry smiled, and raised a finger to his lips. "Yes you do," he murmured, and for a moment, his green eyes were wiser than time. "You do, and it will save me." Then he slithered down, out of Severus' grasp, to kneel between his feet. His fingers were quick on the trouser buttons, deft on the knots of his braes. Severus hissed, shaken to the core when he felt their cool touch lifting his quiescent cock free, then a groan clawed up from his belly as he felt Harry's cheek nuzzling along his thigh. Oh, he was lost. Lost, and gone, and twenty times a fool.

"You should ward the door." Harry's voice warmed his bollocks, made his quickening flesh lurch and throb. Severus managed the spells, but only because Harry backed away for long enough to let him think. But as soon as his wand point fell, Harry was on him. Sucking heat and pressing tongue, crooked back tooth a bright lick of pain in the welter of friction and sliding wet. All he could do was work his hands into that soft, restless hair, try to keep breathing, try to keep standing as all the force in his body coiled behind his bollocks. Though Harry would keep on making those sloppy, slurping little grunts as he rocked forward, and farther forward, and he should say it. He should say it. He should --

A wordless scream was all he could manage as his world turned inside out, and emptied itself out in pulse after ragged pulse. Through it all, Harry never let him go. Not when his knees failed, not when he fought to breathe through the aftershocks, not when the crackle of flames finally grew louder than the pounding of his heart.

It was not over. Harry's breath was thick and steady against his neck, his skin warm again, his hands sure as he eased Severus' wand from his grip, and summoned his own off Bellatrix' corpse. He handed the dark wand back, haft first, and offered up an apologetic smile. "Think we can get outside?"

Severus could not restrain a mirthless laugh. "I think we had better," he said, tucking himself back in. "The Dar-" he stopped himself with a cough. Say the damned name for once, you fool! "Voldemort wants you dead, it's true, but I doubt he will come into a burning house after you."

Harry's grin was a ghost of its old, reckless, irreverent self as he climbed to his feet and held a sleeve over his nose in the thickening air. "Reckon we should go meet him then," he said, offering a hand, which Severus ignored.

"They should all be out by now," he said, banishing the door wards and striding through. "If we are seen-"

Harry's fingers slipped into his and refused to be shaken loose. "I'm your prisoner," he said. "Don't worry." But he kept his wand in his hand all the same, and as they ran for the manor's entry hall, Severus could not find it in him to criticize. The devil in the details could go burn for all he cared.

Through the ruins of the great, oaken doors, blasted askew by those who had escaped earlier; down the gravel walk past the holly hedges; across the weed-choked lawn toward the looming cedars of the Riddle family plot.

"Wait!" Harry called, and stopped just shy of the tree cover. Severus skidded to a halt on the wet grass and swung around, wand at the ready. But the damned boy was merely standing there, head thrown back to stare at the sky. Following his rapt gaze, Severus squinted, but saw nothing but empty blackness, and a glimmering of stars.

"God, it's beautiful," his voice was soft, a quiet sort of ecstasy in the gloom. "I thought I'd never see it again."

There was movement in the graveyard, furtive and quick amoungst the stones. "Potter," he said, tracking it warily.

"I know," the boy said, but didn't move, didn't look away. "Your prisoner. It's just... I wish I could have flown again." He wiped at his eyes. "Just one more time."

Severus drew breath for a dozen things -- to scold, to scoff, to shake the boy from his maudlin self-pity -- but he released it in a hiss as his mark twisted with agony. "He's coming," was all he could fit between his teeth.

"I know." At last, Harry looked away from the stars. He was smiling still, though the scar shone livid against his pale forehead.

"The others," Severus closed his eyes, steeled himself against the growing rage/pain. "The Order will be here soon."

"I know. One last favour, Severus?" Harry asked. "Please... Please don't make them put me down after all this is over." He swallowed, then tipped a nod at the tangled woods down the lea. "If he doesn't kill me, if the curse doesn't break... please make sure I'm gone before they see what I've become."

Severus closed his eyes, fought down the urge to laugh, or to scream. "You... selfish-"

"I know," Harry's hand closed on his shirtsleeve, his breath warmed Severus' cheek. "I know, and you're right. It is selfish, and it's awful, and it's probably even worse than what Dumbledore made you do, because you love me." Harry kissed his lips softly, chastely. "But don't you see, that's why I need it to be you."

A ragged sound tore loose of him, and Severus clutched the maddening, infuriating, loathsome bane of his existence into a whelming kiss. "I do not love you!" he whispered it to the damp well of Harry's lips, then kissed it home hard. "I don't!"

"Shh. Yes you do."

The sky cracked open, the air splitting with agony at the fury the Dark Lord brought with him. He roared Harry's name, but the boy did not look away.

"Please, Severus."

A piece of him crumbled to dust as his lips shaped the damning answer.

Then there was no more time -- Voldemort was upon them. Death Eaters charged from the graveyard, ranging behind him as he came, a billowing storm of hatred in the night. "You die tonight, Potter!" the madman bellowed, his wand drizzling sparks on the wet grass.

Harry turned, set his shoulder against Severus', and fetched out his most provoking grin. "Dying's not really my thing, Riddle," he called back. "Reckon you'd better show me how it's done!"

And then they raised their wands as one.

 

~* October 31, 2000 *~

The house had been called Mayhill. It was also in a state of dereliction decades in the making. Muggles who had come to view the place over the years had unanimously rejected the expensive notion of rebuilding the once-grand Manor. It was far removed from any village or town, miles from rail stops and properly maintained roads, surrounded by bogs and meager fields, which had been reclaimed by the gorse, broom and the moorland ponies. There was not even a sufficient length of ground solid enough to put down an airstrip. Mayhill was about as welcoming as a prison, really.

Which was precisely what Severus Snape liked about it. And since he was also one of the richest wizards in England, he did not think twice about the investment. He rebuilt the crumbling manor house, its attendant chapel, the barns, stables, gardens and greenhouses, paying top galleon, and drawing expert craftsmen to the work despite themselves.

Many of them held lingering suspicions regarding Snape's wartime actions, the means of his acquittal, and most of all, the means of his having come into the Rosier, Lestrange, Black, Avery, Goyle, and Rookwood estates, not to mention the dozen or so more modest Death Eater fortunes.

No one had been more surprised than Snape to learn that the Goblins considered the Last Man Standing Contract, generated one night in 1980 in a fit of drunken, youthful idiocy, legally binding. Gnarrls, the Executor of the contract, made the matter plain to Severus upon his acquittal and release from Azkaban: of all the Death Eaters named in ink and blood on the document, Severus Snape had been the last of them standing at the Dark Lord's side when he expired.

In a rare moment of fair-mindedness, Severus pointed out that he had, in fact, been standing over the dying wizard, and then only to be certain he died properly.

Gnarrls found that detail unimportant.

He had been likewise unimpressed with Severus' insistence that the Black fortune had passed to Potter already, and could not possibly be his. Harry Potter had died in testate, the Goblin said, and since Regulus Black's name and blood were also on the Last Man Standing Contract, the Black estate and all its holdings would revert to the second son's intentions.

At that point, Severus stopped arguing, shot a poisonous glare at his mother's smug portrait, and then took up the Goblin's quill to begin the vault-transfer paperwork.

Luckily for Severus, the Wizarding World was, in general, too caught up in the canonization of Saint Potter to make much of Severus' undeniably ill-gotten gains. Those few who objected had been easy to silence by throwing either money or expensive solicitors at them. Meddlesome Order members -- Lupin and Tonks, various Weasleys, Aberforth, Pomfrey, Minerva and so on through the ranks -- Severus distracted by gifting them with houses and properties, which he knew would require much attention, maintenance, and curse-breaking work.

The only house he told his solicitors to retain was Grimmauld Place, and that one only until his new home could be finished and the contents moved. All the other properties, his solicitors disposed of in the polishing of Severus' reputation. Generous gifts were made in his name to war orphanages, hospitals, schools, and various mediwizardry and potions research facilities. Independent newspapers soon began to hail him as a philanthropist and a charitor.

A few steadfast souls accused Severus in the papers of trying to purchase absolution. His universal response when asked his opinion of such allegations was a look of disgust and a slam of his door in the reporter's face. But as this was generally his response to any questions, it was newsworthy only when nothing else was on offer. Before any real furore could build on the matter, the headlines were overtaken by the unfolding courtroom drama around the Malfoy/Parkinson arraignment, defense, and wedding plans. Which left Severus to build his fortress of solitude in peace, just as he preferred.

His final touch, once the house was finished, was to commission a new set of gates for the end of the carriageway. They were tall, forbidding, and worked with the reborn manor's new name; Aeternia. Severus oversaw their installation, paid the workmen coin in hand, then walked through the gates and slammed them shut behind him He fully intended never to open them again.

~*~

 

The wind on the heath was bitterly cold. Eileen could tell by the way Poppy hunched away from it despite her thickly charmed cloak, and the way her mittened hands trembled as they clutched the miniaturized picture frame.

The mediwitch squinted up at the frost-rimed gates, and frowned. "Forever, is it? Has he always had such a gift for the morbidly dramatic?"

Eileen had to laugh. "I gave up hoping for a cheery disposition when Severus started reading Lord Byron and Abraham Stoker at the age of nine, I'm afraid." Leaning sideways to squint a bit, she peered up at the house. "The place does rather suit him though, doesn't it?"

"Mm. And most importantly, I think, it's never belonged to Sirius Black," Poppy agreed. "Do you suppose he's happy here? More happy than he was in London, or at Hogwarts, that is?"

Eileen shook her head sadly. "I don't think his building this place had anything to do with being happy." Then she pointed at the gateway arch. "See that glyph up there in the corner, and the matching one on the other side? Those will be the wardkeys. There were similar ones on the lintel of the Priest Hole in the house where he grew up. Do you have his blood sample?"

The witch nodded, her face grimly set as she fetched the small red ampoule out of her pocket.

But before she could smash it on the lock, Severus' voice rang out through a tiny metal box beside the post. "Witch, what the devil do you think you're about?"

Grinning, Poppy bent over the box to shout back. "I am coming to visit a friend whom I have not seen in too long, Severus. "

"Blast and damn it, if I had wanted visitors, I should have -"

"You'd have sat there alone in your fortress, said nothing about it. Then you'd have resented the world for failing to guess that you were in need, of course," Poppy cut him off. "Don't think I've forgotten how hard Albus had to work to get you out of your dungeons. Now open this gate, if you please."

First there was silence. Then there was cursing, loud, long and blue. Eileen had never chided her son for such language. His father had been far worse. She blushed a bit to hear it, but found herself grinning all the same.

Poppy raised her voice, drowning out the box's rant. "I shouldn't like to have to abuse my Healer's oath and waste this blood sample getting through your wards, Severus Snape. I can assure you, however, that I have come prepared to do exactly that. I'd much prefer it though, if you'd surrender with grace and let me come in out of this vicious wind, however."

The swearing ceased. Then there was a surge of magic, an off-key buzzing noise, and the warded gates parted in a shower of frost.

"That was too easy," Poppy said after she had gone some distance beyond the gates. "The Severus I know would have fought me for an hour or more, even when he intended to let me have my way."

"I know," Eileen replied, voice low as they drew near the door. "Watch he doesn't obliviate you, or drug your tea."

"My thoughts exactly, dear."

There was no butler to show them in, but an elf in a dazzling array of hats and socks. "Dobby!" Poppy exclaimed as he opened the door at their knock. "So here's where you've got yourself to! We all wondered what became of you after Harry-"

"Mister Snape sir is in the tea room," he interrupted her with transparent haste. "Please to be letting Dobby to hang Missus Pomfrey's cloak?"

"Of course, dear," she replied, setting Eileen's canvas aside and stripping off her cloak and mittens. "Hermione, especially, has been worried about you, Dobby," she tried again after he had closed the massive armoire. "She would be very pleased to hear that you're well."

The elf's green eyes looked wary, but grateful as he turned and beckoned Poppy toward a set of stairs. "Dobby is well, but Dobby has much to do. Very, very much, now that the Master is-"

"Master?" The witch frowned as the elf clapped a hand over his mouth. "But I thought you were a free elf, Dobby. Have you taken a bonding-"

"No, no, Dobby is paid for Dobby's work," he replied through his fingers. "Only, part of Dobby's job is to not be answering questions."

Eileen sighed as they walked along a gallery, overlooking the library below. "That sounds like the Severus I know. Odd that he'd want you to call him Master though..."

"I do not want anything of the kind," her son's voice rang out as they drew near a set of French doors at the end of the hall. "Nor do I care for unexpected visitors interrogating my staff, so kindly restrict your inquisitions to me!"

"Very well, Severus," Poppy exclaimed, swinging Eileen's miniaturized canvas before her like a shield as the doors swung open. "Kindly explain what you meant by sending me this..." The words drained away into a gasp as Severus came into view. Eileen felt her stomach twist at the sight of her son -- her tall, proud son, dwindled and sunken into himself, looking a bit like a furious, sulky child in the wheeled chair beside his fireplace.

"Severus," Eileen murmured, her arms aching to touch his greying hair. To tuck the rug tighter around his knees, to feed him soup, to hug him if he'd let her, to somehow replace the frail apparition before her with the timelessly wise little boy she'd sent to Hogwarts all those years ago.

His eyes, when he looked at her, were hard. "Mother."

"You..." She swallowed. "You left me behind at the Black house."

He looked down. "I did. There are...I have no other Wizarding portraits here. I supposed you would prefer to remain where you would have someone to talk to."

"I had rather got used to having you to talk to, Severus," she replied, steadying her scrying bowl as Poppy recovered her composure, carried her canvas across the room, and set her up onto the empty mantlepiece.

"No, not there!" Severus began, wheeling himself sharply about. But he was too late to stop the charms on Eileen's frame from activating. Her portrait enlarged with a dizzying whoosh, then doubled itself into mirror views, and pressed a passage through the wall.

Glimpsing the room beyond, Eileen couldn't help a laugh. "I have seen your bedroom in far worse condition, Severus."

He shot her a positively loathing glare, and turned his ire upon the witch kneeling beside his chair. "Who bloody well gave you permission to remove that portrait from Grimmauld Place anyhow?" he demanded, slapping aside her wand as she began a set of diagnostic cantrips. "Are you so incapable of minding your own business that you must always thrust your nose into mine?"

Poppy's eyes narrowed, and she summoned a chair from the tea table beside the window. "Severus, you gave Grimmauld Place to the Order of the Phoenix, once you moved out of it. The Solicitors brought the paperwork to me, seeing as how I am the Order's Chatelaine, and I signed the bloody things. You must have seen my name on the contract, man!"

Severus gave a snort, watching his fingers pick restlessly at the rug on his knees. "I had other concerns," he began.

Poppy cut him off. "So I gather. It's that damned splinterbone curse, isn't it?" she asked, her voice soft with concern. He shrugged, still not meeting her eyes, and her lips pressed angrily. "I thought for sure you'd have a solid score of years before it took you past a cane in cold weather. Why on earth did you not tell me?"

"Because I expected you to cluck and fuss exactly like this," he finally bit back. Eileen laughed at his jab, but only so that she wouldn't sob. Her boy never could hide his pain without hiding himself as well. "I do not want pity. Not from you, not from anyone."

"Nor would you have it, you jackass," the witch replied with a cool look. "I'm your friend, Severus. And I have been your healer for over two decades, and I think I may be allowed a little dismay at your condition's advancement, let alone this being the way I bloody well find out about it!" She folded her arms over her breast, and exchanged glowers with Severus for a moment, then her mild face took on a canny look. "Well, I suppose now I understand why it is you have steadfastly refused to attend any of the events to which I know you have been invited over the past two years. You didn't want any of us to know that you couldn't walk anymore."

"Faugh," he waved the accusation away. "You make a crisis of nothing. I simply know better than to confuse an invitation with actual welcome. Granger and Weasley no more wanted to see me at their wedding than I wanted to be there."

"And Remus and Tonks-"

"Hardly different. I'm surprised Lupin wasted the postage inviting me at all. I imagine he must have been quite relieved that I did not attend. And before you ask, since I know you will do, that was likewise the reason why I declined the Order of Merlin ceremony. I found the very idea of the Ministry trying me for treason one day, and lauding my wartime actions the next, to be nothing short of obscene."

"Hmm. None of which excuses do I find contradictory to my original point," she observed as the elf brought in the tea things. "Especially given that you refused to come to Harry's funeral and wake."

The elf dropped a cup.

In the sudden, shocked silence, he whimpered, glancing from Poppy's intrigued expression to Severus' thunderous one. Then he took hold of his ears and began to twist them fiercely.

"DESIST AT ONCE!" Severus bellowed. "I have spoken to you about these ridiculous displays, elf! Clean the mess, bring a new cup, and have DONE, damn you!"

Abruptly, the elf shook itself and nodded. "Dobby is sorry for having bad habits, Mister Snape sir," he said with a strange little bow. "Dobby will be remembering for future guests." Then he snapped his fingers at the stain and broken cup, which disappeared, and again at the tea tray, which grew another cup.

"There will be no future-" Severus began.

Poppy cut him off. "There will so be future guests, Severus Snape! If you imagine for one instant that I will simply go away quietly now that I know what ails you, then I'll need to check your head for more than splinterbone symptoms!"

Wisely, the elf disappeared.

"Wretched cow, who asked you to meddle in my life?" Severus hissed through his teeth, his thin fingers sinking, clawlike into the rug.

"You did," she replied, calmly pouring tea for them both. She did not, Eileen noticed, ask how Severus took his, but she still got the mix right. "When you signed over Harry's house. When you let months go by without a single reply to anyone's letters or firecalls. When you failed to so much as acknowledge my professional request for a checkup." She handed him the cup, took a sip of her own, and delivered the coup de grace. "When you gave away your mother's portrait, just like a suicide disposing of his treasured possessions."

To Severus' credit, he managed not to choke. "That's what you thought?" His voice cracked in surprise.

"Yes, Severus. That is exactly what I thought," she answered, the tilt of her chin daring him to decry her concern. "Had you been thinking beyond your own concerns, it might have occurred to you as well. But seeing as it did not, allow me to make the matter crystal clear to you: I am concerned about you, both as your healer, and as your friend. Clearly your condition requires more treatment, and you require more company than just your books and one poor, intimidated house elf. Therefore I am going to come and visit you regularly, you are going to admit me when I come, and you are likewise going to deal squarely with me in regards to your treatment and progress."

Eileen watched the colour rise in her son's pallid cheeks, and forced herself not to smile too broadly. She had not seen such animation in him in over a year.

"You presume a great deal on the notion of our being friends."

Poppy smiled, clearly seeing through the barb. "I presume where I must, but it changes nothing. You're still going to let me keep an eye on you. Because you owe me, and you know it."

He went still at that. Cup frozen mid-air, eyes blazing with molten fury.
"You have invoked that debt before, woman," he said through his teeth, and set cup to saucer with a precise click.

"You're right," she said, "I have. And I don't care to see my investment in your health and well-being squandered simply because you're too mule-witted stubborn to ask for help when you need it!" She set her own cup aside with a clatter. "For Merlin's sake, man, you've been throwing galleons by the barrowful into medical and curse-cure research, clinics and specialists, and hospitals this past two years! Did you never once wonder if perhaps some of that might do YOU some good?"

He looked aside, as though uncomfortable with the reminder of his wealth. "I had other concerns."

"Well then," she said, as though the matter was settled, "I shall just have to take up your concerns for you while these other concerns continue to command your attention. So then; since I've no intention of walking up from your gates all through the winter, which floo shall I activate before I go?"

Eileen was prepared for Severus to bluster, to shout, to curse like a stevedore, and possibly even to hex the witch. What she was unprepared for, however, was the look of furious betrayal he sent her way before he picked up his tea again, and bought time with a sip.

"Very well, Pomfrey," he said after a long moment, his eyes turning canny. "I will allow you to come and go as you like; however I require two conditions, and they are absolutely non-negotiable." He raised an eyebrow, waiting for her nod, then smirked when she gave it. "First, you are to become my Secret Keeper for this place when we put it under fidelis."

Seeing Poppy's surprised expression, he waited a moment for her protest, then carried on when she managed to hold her tongue. "And secondarily, you will become my beneficiary, and heir to whatever monies my solicitors have not yet managed to swindle me out of or give away by the time I die."

"WHAT?" Her chair tipped over as she exploded to her feet. "Have you lost your mind?"

He gave her a truly unpleasant smile, and sipped at his tea. "I rather supposed that was what you intended to discover, wasn't it?"

"But," she sputtered, arms wide, "but you cannot think I want your money!"

"You cannot think I wish to be poked, prodded, and examined at your whim for the rest of my life," he replied smoothly, checking his pocket watch, "yet here we are. Do you agree?"

Eileen, caught in a strange sort of dual-sympathy between the two of them, had to cover her mouth at the contortions her newfound ally's face went through before she finally settled on a narrow, disapproving glower. "You are, without a doubt, the most contrary piece of work I have ever patched back from death's edge, Severus Snape!" she growled through her teeth at him. Then she turned on her heel, and stalked out. "I'm going to talk to your elf before I go," she called back from the hallway. "Since he seems to be the only creature with any sense here!"

"My solicitors will contact you this week," Severus called back with mocking cheer. "Do return once the papers are signed, and we shall have a little party to celebrate!"

The look he turned on Eileen as Poppy's footsteps faded, however, was anything but cheerful. "What have you been telling her?" he demanded.

She sighed and shook her head. "Oh for heaven's sake, Severus, I didn't need to tell her anything at all, aside from where to find this place! And I only knew that from when you left the plans lying out in the kitchen at Grimmauld Place, so you needn't accuse me of spying on you. Is it really so difficult for you to imagine that you are worthy of being cared for and loved by those who owe you nothing?"

"Loved?" Severus shook off the flummoxed expression, and got his usual scowl back in place. "Ridiculous. The woman is a fool."

"Perhaps. Or perhaps you misunderstand." Eileen smiled, remembering a hundred pedestrian tragedies from her own life, from her son's life, from half the songs and stories she had ever heard in her living years. Then she shrugged sadly. "All the same, Love has a way of making fools out of otherwise sensible people."

In the strained silence which followed, Eileen was startled by a sudden silence from behind her. She turned to look and blushed as a young, and very naked man emerged from what had to be Severus' en suite bath, collecting clothes from the floor, and dressing himself without haste.

Some instinct kept her from addressing him, and when she turned back, she found her son staring at her with blazing intensity, somewhere between abject horror, mortification, and outrage. She had not been meant to know of this -- that much was obvious. But now that she did know the stranger was there, the unspoken message was clear: She was NOT to ask about him.

"Mr. Snape?" the youthful tenor preceded the sandy-haired youth into the parlour. "I think my time's up, so if there isn't anything else you'd like me to do for you...?"

Severus turned his chair to face the young man. "The pendant," he said, extending his hand. The boy's expression flickered hurt annoyance for just a moment, and Severus frowned. "I thought the others told you; I don't want it removed from the house. You'll wear it whenever you are with me, but only here in these rooms."

"Oh." The youth reached behind his neck for the clasp. "Um... yeah, okay, they didn't say anything about it at the agency, is all, so I was just a little -- whoa..." his eyes widened as he held out the chain, and the rich amber pendant toward Severus' hand. "It was totally green before... wasn't it?"

"It changes with the light," Severus replied, snatching the pendant from the youth, and tucking it into his pocket. "And no, it is not valuable to anyone save myself. However, as you are being paid to indulge a bad-tempered cripple's whims, I suggest rein in your curiousity and be on your way."

The boy paused long enough to give Severus a sour look, then shrugged. "Good job you're a high tipper, Mr. Snape," was all he had to say. Then he left through a side door, which let an unexpected splash of brilliant sunlight into the room.

"Surely he'll not walk home," Eileen gasped as soon as the door closed. "Severus, he's got no cloak! And his hair's still-"

"He'll not walk," he waved her silent just as an eerie drumming sound filled up the air, growing faster and louder, until suddenly it faded away. "It's a Muggle machine," he answered her dumbfounded expression once the sound had faded to a whisper. "Apparently, it flies, though not as quickly as a broom."

"Nor as quietly," Eileen observed. "So you ward out your friends in the Wizarding world, but you allow your Muggle lover to come and go at his wish?"

"He is NOT my lover!" Severus' face was white with fury, and Eileen raised a calming hand to forestall the rant.

"Please, I've gathered that much. It's just I'd rather not use the other word for it, if you don't mind."

His eyes got that narrow, cruel cant to them, and she steeled herself. "My father said the word to you often enough, as I recall." His face was defiantly guilty even as he said it.

"Your father has been dead for quite some time now, child," she kept her voice level, smooth, and unchallenging. "Isn't it time you and I stopped letting him come between us?"

He stared into his tea for a long moment. Musing. "There are so many ghosts between us already," he sighed at last, rubbing at his brows the way he always did when his thoughts pained him. "Albus, Narcissa. Black... both of them. Grandmother and Aunt Tara-"

"Harry Potter," she said the name that had rung so loudly in the silences between the rest. As she had expected, his scowl faded into a soft, sad smirk. "Where is he, my love?" she asked, gently as she could.

He made a soft sound, owing as much to mirth as to despair, and began to wheel his chair around toward the bedroom. "Full fathom five my lover lies. Of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes..."

She turned to her canvas' other face as he wheeled into the bedroom and pointed his wand at the massive bed she had glimpsed earlier. "Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange..." He waved his wand at the bed and it disappeared, revealing in the space beneath it, a low glass tank filled with a pinkish, milky fluid.

Harry floated therein, lax, somnolent, clean-limbed, and utterly at peace in his watery cell. Severus' voice softened to velvet and longing. "Sea-nymphs-"

"Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell," she recited along with him. "Hark! Now I hear them, - Ding-dong, bell..." she let the words trail off as he brought out the amber pendant, and let it swing.

"How much did you take from the Muggle boy, Severus?" she asked.

He did not look guilty in the least. "Of his actual life? A minute, perhaps. Or less. The bulk of the force lies in the vitae potentia which might have been generated from his spend, had each gamete caught and germinated. The stone rarifies that potential force, and makes it a usable ingredient." He twirled the stone between his thumb and forefinger, frowning a bit at its amber glow. "It is a purer vitae than blood, but... well. It is merely a delaying tactic rather than an actual solution."

And with that, he slid back the tank's top and dropped the gem in, chain and all. It swam as if it were alive, and settled itself on Harry's forehead, just next to where the scar lay. Then it began to gently pulse, as with a heartbeat, each glow outlining Severus' intensity in harsh, mad lines as he loomed over to watch.

Harry twitched suddenly, as though shocked from deepest sleep. His limbs curled inward -- not as in pain, but more as though beset by a wakening stretch. Then his green eyes opened, blinking sleepily.

He saw Severus and he smiled, his hand reaching lazily upward. Severus' hand reached faster, met and twined with Harry's beneath the surface. He banished his robe without a glance in Eileen's direction, nor a twitch at the horrified gasp she couldn't hold back when she saw just how thin he'd become.

Severus pushed himself out of his chair, never loosing his grip on Harry's hand, and rolled himself like a seal into the milky sea. Her eyes blurring with tears, Eileen turned away from the sight.

A book from her library shelves would help to center her mind, she decided. Imaginary lives in imaginary worlds to settle the aching sadness in her heart when Eileen thought back to the afternoon her oracle glass had first shown her Severus and the green eyed boy in the water. How poor her timing had been, telling her son of her vision so soon after James Potter and Sirius Black had so terribly humiliated him at his OWLs testing. How Severus had ranted and sworn at her for her sight, promising that he would always hate every Potter he met, and would never, ever take one for so much as a whore, let alone a lover.

And that he would absolutely, positively never give a Potter any power over his heart.

Oh, if only her glass had shown her a better perspective on her own life, how much pain she might have alleviated... But enough. She forced herself to choose a volume, and take it back to her table. Past was past, and a nice, florid gothic romance would take the burn of reality from the tragic ending into which her son had been thrown.

But the book's heroine was insipid and named Antoinette. Her common pluck was laughable, and her foes hardly worth the fear she gave them. Flipping to chapters ahead was no use either, for the storyline became more pedestrian as it went on, and the heroine less sympathetic as again, and again, she was rescued from her own passivity.

Blast it all, she wanted entertainment, not a life lesson!

Eileem threw the book at the wall, and she took up her cards; not to read them, but merely to shuffle the soft, slick shapes together as a calming meditation. Whirr, burr, tap, tap, tap. Whirr, burr, tap, tap, tap. Seven times, cut thrice, ten cards face down from the middle set. Her hands knew the motions as well as when she had been alive, and using her cards to earn the family's grocery money from the Yorkish Muggle wives.

Seven coins, crossed by three. Yes, and yes. Nine coins and ten swords and the devil, all reversed, yes. The Coin Knight at the base of the cross, patient and steadfast. Yes, of course, that would be him.

Despite herself, Eileen dealt the column beside the cross, and turned the cards up one by one. Seven swords -- the saboteur reversed. Justice and her implacable stare. Judgment on her head. And... her hands shook, the final card un-turned as Eileen tried to decide whether she wanted to know. From the corner of her eye, she could see light and colour swirling in her scrying bowl, teasing her with spectres of what would be, despite the best she could do.

She closed her eyes and tried to breathe, wondering how paint on canvas could feel such heartache so many years after its subject had been consigned to the ground.

"What is it?" Severus' voice startled Eileen out of her reverie and she squeaked and jolted in her chair. The scrying bowl's surface rippled into chaos, shattering the vision as her stacked cards toppled across the table in a frictionless slide.

"Oh, Severus," she dithered, calming herself. "I hadn't heard you come back. This is..." she hastily began to gather up the cards. "It's nothing, really. I was simply idling the time away, is all-"

"Mother," the gravity in his voice stopped her cold. She turned, found him robed and dry, watching her somberly from the bed, which had been restored back to its proper place. He wore the crystal pendant, brilliant green against the chalky skin of his throat. "I know," he said, holding her gaze. "I realize how little hope I... he..." he swallowed. "How little hope we have. I realize that this curse may well claim me before I can save Harry. I know the day may come when Harry will not open his eyes again, despite all I can do for him. I know all of that, but still I must try. I must believe Harry was meant to be more than a weapon. That he can have some decent life beyond the grip of that thrice-bedamned prophecy..."

His hand stroked the velvet counterpane, as though the boy's sleeping back lay warm and soft beneath it. His smile was the softest, the least bitter Eileen could remember seeing on her son's face in many years. "And I have reconciled myself to the fact that your sight was true all those years ago. All my stubbornness could not change it, or force it away." He huffed a laugh, shook his head. "Sometimes I wonder whether I did not fight it so hard that I made it happen myself."

Overcome, Eileen pressed her hands to the canvas, wishing she could burst from the frame, go to her son and hold him tightly as he had not let her do since he'd been a tiny child. "Oh, my poor darling," she could not stop her moan from escaping, nor her heart from twisting as he turned that resigned, weary look upon her.

"Tell me what you see for him in your oracle glass," Severus said. "Tell me what future we have beyond Voldemort's shadow, mother. Even if it is but a matter of days." His face was calm, resolute; and as tragically beautiful to her as any marble Saint in any vaulted cathedral.

Eileen looked down, her eyes blurring with tears as she turned the last card over. The scrying bowl steadied, its answer clear and unequivocal against the midnight tablecloth. She smiled and brushed away a tear, lest it fall and shatter the vision.

Then she took a deep, painful breath and found the right words. "I see him flying, Severus," she told her son. "He is flying high and free in the sunlight, and you are there with him."

Her son closed his eyes, anguish ghosting over his face as fought to stop hope taking hold of his heart. Despair, Eileen remembered, had an easier grasp.

She glanced at the scrying bowl again. "And you are happy, love," she said, shattering the vision with a steady fingertip. "I see you both so very, very happy."

~* Fin *~