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Softly scented air drifted through the open casement window as he leaned back in the one decently upholstered armchair, enjoying the last streaks of sun from its mauve and gold setting. Songbirds gathered in the lowering light, and their sleepy calls trilled into his ears and along his skin. He'd done an unconscionable amount of physical labor to process the crop this day, but the rewards would be reaped just as richly. The aches in his muscles left a healthy glow, instead of . . . well, this was not the time to think of that.

No, this was the time to look over the bunches of drying herb and feel the satisfaction of a job well done.

This year's crop was the most potent ever, and would heap his vault with galleons. Not that he was a pauper -- the Dark Lord rewarded his minions well, and Severus Snape had no intention of turning down any kind of remuneration that his miserable double life offered him.

He inhaled slowly from the delicate elvenwork pipe, filled with a pinch of the Cannabis Imajica that he'd charmed dry just this half-hour past -- only to test its potency, of course.

Harvested at Solstice, properly prepared, it offered the user a relaxation and peace unparalleled by its muggle counterpart. Severus prepared only the best.

It wasn't often that he could allow himself this respite, but if necessary, he could sober himself quickly enough. Voldemort had been absent lately, His closest followers even less in evidence now than they had been during the agonisingly quiet school year. Severus had no idea what was going on. No one on the Dark side suspected him; there was no reason for him to be kept ignorant except for the Dark Lord's whim.

Death Eater meetings had been few and far between. His cohorts in crime were just as surprised the meetings were held by Lucius Malfoy, with no Voldemort in sight. The members of the Order had been riven with anxiety. They'd held their collective breath the entire school year, waiting for the axe to fall, and were ready to fly apart at the least provocation by June. It hadn't happened . . . almost nothing had, and Severus, for one, was tired. Tired of all of it, yes, but unspeakably weary of waiting.

He watched smoke rise from the bowl of his pipe and hang lazily in the last streak of sunlight.

It wasn't so unusual for Voldemort to be less in evidence after the school year ended. He was always absent around this time, as if He, too, spent summers away. The image of the Dark Lord sunning himself on the beaches of Corfu was so perverse, Severus grinned foolishly. If Voldemort was on holiday too, it was unlikely he'd be interrupted at his family cottage. The house had been in his hands, its location now known only to him, since his grandmother had died three decades ago.

Every year, for four weeks of summer, he gave Dumbledore an address in Greece, while telling Voldemort nothing. There was nowhere the Dark Mark couldn't reach him, after all. Instead, he came here, to spend one month out of the year as fully human as he could bear to be any more.

This was his place of rest, ease from the uncompromising wills of two masters. The cottage made the difference between bending and breaking. There wouldn't be a Summerland for his soul in the afterlife. The price of his wrongs would be paid; it was the law of balance, and not likely that his full fare would be drawn on earth. If he found any peace at all, it would have to be of his own making.

In this, his only unsullied refuge, he could stop reaching vainly for things forever just out of his grasp: acknowledgement, atonement, absolution.

Severus took another steady draw from the pipe and let it out in a long sigh; let it all out. The double-dealings and the betrayals and the sorrows lifted as white whorls on the faint breeze. He watched them, and considered lighting a fire to complete his comfort. He contemplated the empty hearth. No, a fire on this perfect evening would make the small parlour too stuffy. Perhaps he would take a glass of wine to warm himself from the inside, instead.

Before he could reach over to the side table, a thump and a moan issued from the fireplace. Something or someone fell out, showering him with soot. Oily specks vanished onto the unrelieved black of his clothing, but the intruder remained. Severus clutched the arms of his chair, rigid with shock.

From the very fireplace he'd considered thoughtfully just moments ago, there arose a creature mined from his night terrors. Immediately before him, almost close enough to lean forward and touch, was . . . Sirius Black.

Severus had grown inured to many horrors at the hands of his Dark master, but the last sight of Sirius Black -- pulled out of this world, a scream locked behind his teeth, into the land of the dead -- chilled him to the bone as he'd watched in Dumbledore's pensieve. The idea of it -- forced to spend eternity alive, yet not living, with only the memories of this world to call his own -- it was beyond anything he'd ever endured. Beyond anything he could contemplate.

It would be a hell without end.

The thing, whatever it was, was nearly doubled over, clutching a weight to itself with a hollow groan. It was carrying . . . carrying . . . what in Paracelsus' name was happening? He was seeing things. No, he wasn't. He knew the difference between vapor and reality. Just as well, since any error would soon put a period to his unremarked existence. There was something in his parlour.

Wait. A dark, enclosed space . . . a ghastly spectre . . . of course. The cottage had another guest.

The man -- could he call it a man? -- staggered sideways, and Severus was positively, absolutely not giggling. Never would such an appalling, foolish noise come out of his mouth. And he was unquestionably not hysterical. Cold fingers fumbled awkwardly for the wand tangled in his robes. Even that seemed absurdly amusing. Another odd noise burst out, surprising him. A chuckle, perhaps? It had been so long, he'd forgot what that sounded like. With effort, he pointed the wand and spoke. His voice was almost firm. "Riddikulus!"

He relaxed slightly and smiled as the figure straightened with great effort. Oh, yes, carrying, indeed! Severus' sense of humor had become more twisted than he'd known. There could be nothing more preposterous than the sight of Sirius Black with child. Fifty points to Slytherin. He almost choked on the laughter that bubbled from his throat.

Just because the word felt so good in his mouth, he cried again, "Riddikulus!"

Nothing happened.

He blinked, drawing back. Any self-respecting boggart should have vanished by now.

'Sirius Black' dropped to its knees, eyes wild under a clump of ratted hair. In a frighteningly familiar voice, it rasped, "Stop." With a wheeze, it tried to fill its lungs with enough breath to continue. "Show your true self, you . . . murdering bastard." The figure slumped. In his right mind, Severus would never have forgot himself enough to ease out of his chair onto all fours to peer closer. He'd never have heard the thing whisper, "Kill . . . kill me," before it toppled onto the floorboards.

*

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, the idea of Sirius Black warming his bed would have brought Severus great pleasure. That time was past. He stared into the small bedroom from the open door, unwilling to move any closer.

He'd put a great deal of effort into determining that the body now stinking up his good set of sheets did, indeed, belong to Sirius Black. Sodding cur. How dare that repulsive mongrel soil his precious cottage? It wasn't bad enough that Black was here. His presence alone shattered the only tranquility Severus had to his name, not to mention the boundaries of life and death. No, that wasn't bad enough; he had to be accompanied by . . . some thing. Something loathsome and unnatural; something bound to pull yet more unpleasantness down upon his head just by its very existence.

Something that looked, with the help of a Clairvoyans charm, very much like a foetus.

Intolerable.

Damn Black for coming here. Damn him for drawing breath.

Severus cursed both his scientific curiosity and the aftereffects of his finest herb. Apparently sobering oneself was more difficult than doing it to others. At least, that was the only reason he could think of to explain why he hadn't at least tried to kill Black, exactly as demanded. It wasn't as if the thought hadn't crossed his mind.

After his brain stopped whirling with Sirius Black and back from the dead and he knows he knows -- that was when the rage rose under his skin. Rage, blinding him, scalding his cheeks. Rage . . . and pain. His gut twisted as if a giant fist clenched his insides, squeezing hot bile into his throat. Sirius Black had violated his sanctuary. Its protection may only have been illusory -- obviously had been illusory -- but it was an illusion he needed desperately.

His solace was no more. If nothing else, there would be aurors and seers and healers descending, wanting to know when why how. All because Severus had chosen not to kill. Because he hadn't the stomach for more unnecessary death. How terrible must Black's hate be, to come here to Severus' refuge? Not to go to his friends, but to come here to torment him from beyond the Veil?

He was not sure he had ever borne that much hatred for anyone, until now.

*

The clear gray eyes opened slowly, lashes sweeping upward until Black appeared awake, if a bit confused. Severus pressed his fingertips harder against the carotid artery until he was sure they would not tremble. It was almost beyond his capacity not to wrap his hands around that neck and try to squeeze until all life was gone. He foreshortened the pointless exchange.

"To answer your first idiotic question, yes, you are very much alive. And as for the second, yes, it is due to my exemplary self-control."

"No." The threadbare voice was almost as colourless as the face on the pillow, and the eyes closed slowly, as if they could no longer bear to see.

"A simple word of thanks would not come amiss."

The eyes did not open. The voice was no stronger. "I can't thank you for this."

"Just because you didn't hesitate to throw me to the wolf does not mean that I am willing to do the same to you."

"Snape." Black's resignation held the weight of lead. "Please."

"Save your whining. How did you get here?"

The confusion returned. "Flooed. You saw me."

This house was not and had never been on the Floo network. It was Unplottable, and protected permanently by Fidelius -- Gran'mere's Secret Keeper had been dead for a century or more. "How did you get out?"

Black's eyes closed, and his voice was just a whisper. "Stunning spell rebounded . . . on MacNair and somebody else."

That hadn't been what he was expecting at all, but it answered what he hadn't yet asked. "Very well." He'd not get more information now. Black was nearly catatonic.

"Wait . . . Harry . . . Remus . . . "

"They're fine, if no more intelligent than ever. Shut up and go to sleep."

A small noise was the only response, and after a few moments, the steady, even breathing told Severus that he'd won. This time. He took a deep breath.

How had he come to this pass, wishing to prove that he was a better human being than a man who begged for death? It was insane. Fury pounded behind his eyes. It demanded to be satisfied upon this weakling, this . . . impotent ruffian, this absurd excuse for a man who would once have consigned him to eternity without a thought.

He would not satisfy the anger -- not that way. He would have his answers, though, and he would take his revenge. It would be in other ways, subtler ways more appealing to his nature. Black, after all, was at his mercy. He didn't know yet how he would achieve his ends, but achieve them he would.

A small, genuine smile lifted the corners of Severus' lips as he contemplated his ultimate victory. It did not fail as he dribbled water between Black's pallid lips, nor did it fail as he tucked a second blanket over the mound that was Black's . . . guest. It did not fail as he settled for the rest of the night in the comfortable armchair he'd moved from the parlour.

*

His neck ached, and when he felt plush nap against his cheek, memory returned. He was sitting upright in the velvet-covered armchair, face pressed against a wing. The chair was not nearly as comfortable after spending a night in it. He'd been drooling.

He must have been drugged out of his mind.

Severus sighed contentedly. The Imajica was worth a small fortune.

Licking his woolly teeth with a dry tongue, he considered opening his eyes. If he did, he'd be up for the day. It was much too early, and he nuzzled back into the crease of the chair. As loud as those damnable birds were twittering, he knew it had to be near dawn, and the noise was enough to wake the . . .

Black.

That son of a bitch.

Severus snapped fully awake in an instant, scowling at the occupant of his bed.

There he was, curled up on his side, facing the window. Gray early light made him look like death warmed over. So appropriate. Lines radiated from the corners of his eyes. His skin was rough, his hair lank and lustreless. He remembered the grooves cut deep at the corners of Black's mouth, likely a souvenir of Azkaban. Black was more emaciated than ever, as if he hadn't had a decent meal since . . . well.

There wasn't much left of the proud, handsome boy who'd laughed with his friends, who'd laughed at Severus. Not a lot of laughing where he'd been lately, either, it looked like. There was surprisingly little satisfaction in that thought. Severus had been overjoyed to see Black go to Azkaban, if only because then everyone knew what kind of contemptible scum they'd coddled. Severus had been vindicated. He'd even felt a twinge of sympathy for that rotten bastard Potter. Potter had never dreamt to get a taste of Black's vicious nature.

When the truth came out, that Black had never betrayed his best friend, Severus understood that he alone had been the focus of Black's hate. The knowledge had torn open scars he hadn't even known were there. After all these years, he could still cringe for the idiot child he'd been.

Now? Last night's towering rage had receded, and he felt . . . vacant. Perhaps he was getting old. He trudged toward the kitchen with the slow, measured movements of years far beyond his own.

The overlarge mug of tea was cold in his hand by the time Black's eyes opened once more. It was time to find out what the bleeding hell was going on.

"Good morning," Severus said calmly. "Would you care for refreshment? I suspect you've had a long journey." He almost laughed out loud when Black stared at him as if he were out of his mind.

"Tea." The voice was wistful. "I'd love some tea."

"You'll get it, if I get some answers." Severus hummed low in his throat. "You look like a thousand leagues of bad road."

"I've been dead." The battered voice sounded as if it hadn't been used lately, but the tone could've singed his brows. Black's gaze narrowed to calculation. "No one knows I'm back. No one knows I'm here."

"Is that supposed to be some kind of invitation?" There was plenty of time. His other entertainment would be watching herbs dry.

"Yes."

"To escort you back to death's door?" All right, if he must, he'd be blunt. "Why are you here?"

"I already told you."

The snap and snarl reminded Severus of the man's animal nature. How easily frustrated Black still was! He hadn't learned anything in Azkaban, and apparently nothing where he'd lately been. Severus looked up at the ceiling, with its corner spiderwebs catching the early morning sun, and gritted his teeth.

"I'm not asking what you want." Severus himself had learned a great deal of patience over the years. He'd never exercised it with this man, but he was determined to do so now. "The rumours of your death have been greatly exaggerated. You tumble into the parlour at my family cottage after being, to all intents and purposes, dead for a year. You demand that I send you back to the beyond, and claim you've told no one of your reappearance. I find that . . . odd."

He stood, knowing he was silhouetted against the rising sun. It might not be intimidating, but it would most certainly be annoying.

"I hope my friends wouldn't be so eager to kill me the minute I return from the dead." Far from being annoyed, the dolt wasn't even looking at him. Good thing for Black that the cottage's dull white walls were so fascinating.

"They should be, but they wouldn't." Pity, that. "And, of course, you have no interest whatsoever in remaining in the land of the living. So you very wisely came to the one soulless killer of your acquaintance." Severus closed his eyes, but gathering all his strength, he opened them after a bare moment. After all he'd been through, how did Sirius Black still have the power to hurt him?

"No." Black was looking at him now, and he almost flinched from the dry fever of those eyes. "I came to you because you have always been willing to do the necessary."

"Of course." Severus' voice was almost as cold as the rest of him. "Using me for murder on demand is always necessary. I've been used for that before. But I'd always thought that with you, it worked the other way round."

"I can see that was the wrong way to go about it." Black was rueful, now. "I don't have enough energy to goad you into killing me, and it might not have worked anyway." The man had the effrontery to look at Severus with a certain amount of . . . respect? "You've changed, Severus."

No! No, he had not changed. Not one whit, not from the boy James Potter had hung upside down in public, not from the loyal Death Eater he'd been, not from the turncoat he'd become when he'd realised Dumbledore was his only hope. "Have I?" This was going nowhere. "No more than you, if you come to me looking for poison."

Sharply now, as if he'd been prodded with a stick, Black replied, "There's more at stake here than a lifetime of resentments."

"That didn't stop you trying to take advantage of them." His sneer felt less than effective.

"No."

"In that case, we come to the crux of the matter." There was at least a certain amount of satisfaction in having driven Black to the point. "Tell me, then -- what is at stake? What is. . . that?" The gesture in the direction of Black's swollen abdomen was unmistakable. There was such a long silence that Severus' fingers began to twitch. He crossed his arms.

Finally, flatly, Black said, "It's Voldemort's child."

"How? You . . . child of . . . " Ghost wind rushed in Severus' ears. Cold crept along his scalp like a spider. He should have closed the window. His legs quivered as he grew light-headed. For a moment, it seemed that the ground flew up. Swaying, he grasped the wing of the chair. He managed to keep his feet, but the searing tightness in his chest made it hard to speak.

"You . . . you've led Him . . . to me." Here, he didn't say; he'd already used up all the air in his lungs. He tried to pull more back inside them, but it was slow and painful work.

"Snape!" Black spoke as loudly as his corroded voice allowed. "He doesn't know I'm here."

"As if He won't come looking." Severus took another small wrench of air. "He'll never let go of what is His."

"You'll make sure He can't have it."

Arrogant assurance was something that never faded, then. "You fool." And when had Black developed confidence in his abilities? Bitterness spilled from his lips. "Why couldn't you stay dead?"

"I didn't have much choice."

The words were blander than they should have been. He'd had his worst nightmare visited on him, and Black was damned well going to share in the suffering.

"There is always a choice!" The shout burst from Severus' strained throat. "Your choice was to come here. If I help you, Voldemort will know I'm a traitor. He'll torture me to death. If I kill you, He's lost his spawn, and He'll do the same." A hacking cough ripped from him.

"I . . . I didn't mean to . . . "

"Naturally." Black wasn't smart enough to accomplish such a thing except by accident. "However, I have to admit that for you, the result is perfect. I lose my life painfully either way." If Black had done it on purpose, it would have been diabolically clever. Now, it was merely a cosmic joke.

Black shook his head, face grimmer at the hasty movement, and put his hands up. "It's my death I'm after, not yours!"

"Since you're so insistent, my best option is to give you straight back to Papa." He paused thoughtfully. "Your death will be the end result, I assure you. You should be perfectly satisfied."

"No."

The horror in that one word was all that Severus could have hoped for. He'd finally got through to that half-wit.

"Yes." His smirk dripped satisfaction. "And I think it will go far toward proving my loyalty. It's seldom enough that I have the chance to solidify my standing with Voldemort. There won't be any whinging from the Light Brigade, either -- if, as you say, no one knows you're here."

Well, the room did need a good cleaning, didn't it? For this occasion, he'd cheerfully sop up all the blood and bits. He sat back and eyed Black narrowly, waiting for the explosion.

"There's more, I said." Black gave him a piercing look from behind a wall of calm. "You're not stupid. You must realise what this child is for."

Of course. "He wants . . . a new body."

"One that's all His own. And He's patient enough to wait for it. When He gets it, He'll be unstoppable."

Revulsion at the whole idea and the desire to push Black to the limit gave way to his regrettable curiosity. "How, pray tell, were you chosen to be the mum? Something in your aproned past that I should know about?"

Black had the unmitigated gall to chuckle. "You know, there are things about you that I never appreciated before, Snape."

Stunned, Severus just stared. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He took two steps back before he came to his senses. "I'd just as soon they stayed that way." He strode up to the bed and tried to loom alarmingly, hands on the counterpane, but suspected that he merely looked like a man who needed something to lean on. "How did this happen?"

"Just lucky, I guess." The expression on Black's face was one he'd known many times from behind his own skin.

Snape could feel the blood leaving his face. "You fucking . . . you . . . "

"Forget I said that, okay?" Black suddenly looked very tired. "I . . . apologise."

Which was the most mind-numbing thing he'd heard yet. He straightened so fast that he stumbled, his feet turning back to the kitchen.

He thumped into one of the hard kitchen chairs and leaned his head into his hands. Black was behaving very strangely. If Severus hadn't used every way he knew to verify that it was a human being, and, in fact, Sirius Black, he'd swear the man in his bed was a perfect stranger. There had to be some way to pry the truth out, to force him to show his hand. There was no Veritaserum, and it probably wouldn't have worked in any event, but there had to be something around here that would suffice.

He pulled open cupboard doors one after the other, looking for anything he could use.

Not Firewhiskey, he thought, as he shoved aside ancient jars of mouldering spices and a petrified half-loaf of bread. Even the mice had not been desperate enough to eat it. In Black's appalling condition -- his brain insisted on inserting the phrase 'delicate condition,' and he shoved it hastily away -- Firewhiskey would probably kill him. Not wine, either; it wasn't enough.

Everything was always too much or never enough.

The past hours were no exception. He wasn't sure how much more he could take. He had to get his answers and get Black out before anything worse happened. There'd been a promising start to his holiday, but it was over now.

He pushed his hair back with stiff, dirty fingers. There! Behind a dust-thick tin of dried grindelia leaves was a bottle -- some kind of Muggle spirits that had been in there since time out of mind. Gran'mere had called it . . . Scottish.

He cracked the seal and filled his now-empty mug. Eyeing it with suspicion, he swirled it round. It looked fairly innocuous. He sipped it cautiously. It tasted like wyvern piss.

Good.

He drank the contents down and filled it again.

By the time he returned, Black was sitting up, leaning back against the headboard, his eyes closed. From the wet scratch of his breathing, it must have taken some effort to get there.

"You." He held out the mug to Black. "Drink this."

"What is it?"

"What do you care? You're the one who's after leaving here in a sheet."

When Black glared daggers at him, he put the mug to his own mouth and drank, making a great point of actually consuming the rotgut.

Black took the drink and sniffed at it, the liquor sloshing only a little. Brows raised, he gave Severus a sidelong look. One sip. Two. The lines on his face lifted almost imperceptibly. His lips seemed to draw a bit of colour from the drinking, and they parted in a sigh. "Glenfiddich." He cradled the stained white stoneware as if it were fine china. Relaxed, with his eyes half closed in pleasure, Black took on a look very much like . . . youth.

"Oh, I never thought to taste this again." Another sip, and his eyes closed completely. "Thank you, Snape."

The man should have been strangled at birth.

Severus paused to count the ways in which his life would have been better if so, and by the time he made six he thought perhaps he could keep from shrieking with rage. His nails drilled shallow indentations in the shabby velvet of the comfortable chair. This wasn't going as planned, and the sight of Black, all but in ecstasy, sickened him. The rapt face, the long fingers around the ugly chipped mug, they turned his stomach. He wanted to weep.

Oily, his voice was as oily as his hair, as filthy as his thoughts. "It's just a little something to loosen your tongue."

Black didn't so much as quiver. He didn't open his eyes. So superior, even now.

"No need. I have no secrets to keep at this point. Not from you." Black tipped up the mug with a sigh of appreciation.

"You . . . you . . . " he couldn't keep his voice from cracking. This was not the way it was supposed to be. Not at all.

"It's all right."

"No! It's not all right!" He writhed inside, all the indignities from years before tormenting him. He could see himself as a colourless boy, hiding in the shadows, following Black just for a glimpse of his smiling face, smiling at his friends, always at them, never at him. His insides shriveled with the memory of envying Peter Pettigrew, the lowest form of wizardkind, simply because he was accepted into the magical circle.

"I'll tell you. I'll tell you anything. Just ask me." Black's timbre was a ghost of the past, a rough-scratched reminder of what he'd wanted so badly, all those years ago.

He choked down the words that threatened to spill from his throat. He could not ask that question now. He needed to ascertain the facts first. "Again, I want to know: how did He impregnate you?"

Black rolled his eyes. Severus couldn't help his fingers clenching in response.

"I don't know how, exactly. You can try using a pensieve, but to be truthful, I wasn't conscious for all of it. I don't know if it would tell you anything useful."

"I never expect anything from you to be useful." Severus looked him up and down disdainfully. This creature was not going to keep him from the knowledge he needed. "And I suppose you were hiding a womb under your robes all this time."

"Snape, for all I know, he borrowed the damn thing from the neighbors like a cup of sugar!" One beat later, Black looked sickened at what he'd just said. "Oh, fuck. I never thought about it that way before. I could be the proud owner of something that used to belong to Bellatrix. Or, heaven help us, some poor muggle who never did anything to deserve it. No, He'd never use a muggle womb to hold this."

"You didn't care? You didn't see fit to ask?" Anger flared inside his skull. "Come on, you can do better than that. You were always sticking that wet nose where it didn't belong."

"It wasn't a tea party!" Black looked down. "I didn't want to know. I've never been like you, Snape. I couldn't . . . I . . . " he swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing hard.

"Of course not. You could never be like nasty, disgusting Severus Snape, consorting with the ultimate evil," he snarled.

"That's not what I meant!" Black fingered the blanket covering him. "I just wanted him to go away, all right?" He sighed deeply. "Could I possibly have another shot of that Scotch?"

The polite request had him halfway to his feet before he could be amazed. He didn't bother to correct the man. "Fine. But don't think I'm done here."

"I know." The sunken rings around Black's eyes made his need plain, so Severus went and got more liquor. He poured the mug full for the dog, downed it himself, and refilled it. Returning, he handed it over, hoping it would actually work this time.

Black took a deep draught of the liquor before he looked up again. "What else?"

"How did He find you?"

"Shit, as if I could answer that! He's got fucking antennae, doesn't he? I was behind the Veil, you know that, just wandering aimlessly one day . . . well, there are no days or nights, I was just . . . there . . . and He was there . . . I thought I was seeing things until He grabbed hold of my mind and started rummaging."

"What was He doing there?"

"I don't know for sure. I -- I think -- bodily functions stop there." Black lifted a hand to his clean-shaven, if dirty, face, and Severus realised that, as far as he could tell, his hair hadn't grown in a year either. "Human bodies keep themselves going from day to day, if you feed them. His sorcered body must need enormous magical energy to keep it going -- haven't you noticed He's not looking well?"

Severus nodded once, though he hadn't seen Voldemort in months. "Go on."

"I think the time He spends behind the Veil allows Him to conserve His energy."

"Fine." The drink must be having an effect on him. "And now you're here."

"Yes."

"And you got here by Floo. Calling out the name of my location."

"Yes."

He lowered his face to Black's, putting them almost nose to nose. Very softly, very smoothly, he asked, "Who heard you?"

"No one! No one, I promise. I'd made it a few rooms down the corridor before I found one with a fire going. The Death Eaters were Stunned. With what they both laid on me full blast, they must have been out for hours."

"How did you know where I was?"

"I didn't. Not for sure. But -- Dumbledore. Years . . . years ago he told me you went to your cottage . . . to Summerland."

That mealy-mouthed old bastard. Of course Dumbledore knew where he was. It was no use asking how. "Then I just have one more question."

"What?"

It should have been a scream, but it wasn't. Nothing betrayed him. "Why did you send me to the Shrieking Shack?" There was not even a hint of what was boiling up under his skin. If he were a dog like Black, he'd be howling for blood right now, his fangs dripping saliva. Severus seethed with impatience, the silence grinding his veneer of calm thinner.

More silence. Black was taking too long. This wasn't a Potions NEWT, it was a simple question. After a score of years spent wondering why, he would wait no longer. "Answer me!"

"Because . . . because I fancied you," said Black sadly, as if he weren't out to break Severus with his words.

That was still the result.

"You fancied me. So therefore, of course, you would kill me." Shocked beyond belief, he waited for whatever would come next from the mouth of this impostor.

"I never meant to! Never! You must believe that." Thundercloud eyes opened finally and stared into his own. "I only wanted to scare you away." The grief swirling in those eyes almost pulled him in.

"Yes," he said stiffly. "Scare me away." Silence stretched between them until Severus thought he would snap. "I . . . I worshipped you." The vast emptiness that admission carved into him, with only the hard, brittle crust of him left on the outside . . . It was unspeakable. He had spoken it.

"I knew that. I'm sorry," said the voice, the voice of the man he couldn't look at, the one who was in his bed, the one who carried something he didn't even have a name for.

"You." He cleared his throat carefully. "Knew." He didn't think there could be anything more devastating than the admission itself. There was. This was it.

The ultimate humiliation, the scorched earth of his life. Severus' stomach lining burned. "You were willing to kill another boy for the crime of . . . an unfortunate attachment." He was going to vomit.

"No! No, I swear! I tried everything else first, but nothing could keep you gone. That was why I did all those horrible pranks. That night . . . Prongs -- he was in on it with me, he was supposed to grab you once you saw the werewolf . . . " His voice faded away.

When had Black's hand covered his own? He wanted to pull it away, had to pull it away, get away, stop this train wreck before he could never stand upright again.

He couldn't.

As he tried to free himself, something odd was happening in his head. It felt very much as if he were pulling memories out of his mind to put them in a pensieve.

Except there was no pensieve. He raised his eyes.

Black seemed to be in agony. Paler than he'd been last night, if that was possible, his other hand was pressed against his temple. To Severus' own faraway astonishment, he wanted to stop Black's pain. Incomprehensible . . . so he did nothing at all.

Black's face finally cleared as the tendrils of Severus' memories returned and settled in place.

"I can't even say how sorry," said Black. "I don't know how. There's no way this can be remedied by words." He paused, staring at Severus, but it felt more like being stared into. "You're a Legilimens."

Severus nodded, no longer able to respond any other way.

"Come in, then. I invite you."

"I am not a vampire," he scoffed. But when Black looked him in the eyes, he felt unbalanced; Severus was falling -- No, no, he wanted to say, I won't, I can't, but somehow Black seduced him, as easily as he would have two decades ago. Sirius Black had only ever needed a few words -- or just the sight of his face -- to turn Severus from any course he'd determined, no matter how sensible.

He went.

He was in a dank, dark hall only half lit by torchlight. It felt as if the ceiling was pressing down; the stillness was almost stifling. He recognised the dungeons, but the walls were alive, moving, made of memories that he couldn't quite see. They beckoned him on to the door at the end. It was open a crack, and he could hear raised voices. He pushed at the door, and it swung open silently.

"I know what you did, ye dragon-spawned little bastard."

Filch, angry, more contemptuous than he'd ever seen him, was glowering at a teenaged Black. The boy stood with his back straight, trembling only slightly.

"Oh? And what's that, then?"

"You tried to kill young Snape by turning that werewolf friend of yours on him. For that, you get detention! How dare they send you to me! I ain't goin' to dirty my hands with the likes of you." The bent, stringy-haired man turned his back, and a strange expression crossed Black's face.

"You -- you don't need me to get your hands dirty." His voice started out breathy, but gained strength. "You're already filthy."

Filch turned back, scorn dripping from his words. "I ain't a devil, like you. I ain't one for murderin' the innocent. But if you don't shut yer gob, you'll find out what I am for."

"He deserved to die!" To Snape's amazement, Black looked scared, but determined. "I know what you're for! I'll bet you're just like him, just like Snape, that's why you like him! You're a greasy foul poofter that the world's better rid of!"

A hard backhand cracked across Black's cheek, leaving a red print, and Severus drew a shaky breath. Surely, this time Black would back off. Instead, he pressed on.

"Yes, Filch, why don't you hit me?" His sneer looked . . . forced. "You're good for nothing else, you rotten squib! Can't cast a spell, can you? You're worse than those stinking mudbloods -- "

With a roar, Filch grabbed him by the shoulders. Even Severus, so far from boyhood, shrank away from his fury. "We'll see whose blood is pure!"

Severus knew Black could have fought away; he was as tall and broad as, and decades younger than, Filch. But he didn't. Filch wrestled the boy to the wall and slammed him face-first against it, knocking the boy's breath out in a grunt. He slapped Black's hands into manacles dangling from the rough-hewn walls. Then, stepping back a pace, he reached out and ripped Black's shirt open from neck to hem. The fabric rent with a harsh sound that filled the room.

The cane Filch grabbed off that same wall laid into Black's now-bare back with a sickening slash, raising an angry red welt. Black's silence vibrated.

The cane fell again and again. Severus wanted to turn his face away, but he couldn't. It seemed to go on forever. Thin stripes of blood welled on the pale skin of the boy's back. Black held out for longer than Severus would have believed possible, but finally he was reduced to screaming, then sobbing, clinging to the wall with his whole body for support. In the end, he crumpled to the floor when Filch released the manacles.

Filch looked at him disgustedly, squatted down, and pulled the limp body up over his shoulder. He rose and walked out of the room without looking back.

He was choking; he couldn't breathe. As he gasped and shook, he came to realise that there were warm firm arms around him, supporting him. He pushed himself away from Black's shoulder.

"You . . . you taunted him into it." Sweat must be dripping into his eyes. He wiped away the sting.

"It's a gift." The wry twist of Black's mouth spoke of a humility Severus had never seen -- could barely believe now. "Had to," he mumbled, looking away. "Couldn't live with myself, otherwise."

"And still it didn't beat any sense into you." His voice was as steady and disdainful as he could make it.

"Nothing ever has yet."

Without another word, Severus stood, swaying. He lurched out of the bedroom into the parlour, where he collapsed onto the dilapidated velvet sofa.

Hours later, when the afternoon sun cast its glow into his eyes, Severus awoke. He felt like he'd caught a Blister-Brain hex, and it had spread. Even his fingers hurt. Hell, the dust motes trickling through the shaft of sunlight hurt. He rubbed his forehead carefully. That Scottish was truly dangerous. He rose carefully as well, placing a single foot on the floor first to test whether blood movement made his head hurt more.

He sincerely hoped Black was feeling the same. Fucker.

Unbidden, the image of Black's caning slid back before his eyes, making his already uncertain stomach roll. Faux-noble Gryffindor shite. Severus himself would never have done it. If he'd nearly killed Black, he'd have sent out announcements, not prodded Filch into beating him senseless.

If Black had been looking for sympathy by showing him that memory, he was going to be disappointed.

Most disappointed.

Severus walked very carefully into the kitchen, and very carefully prepared himself a palliative.

*

Black's eyes were still closed, and he appeared to be asleep. The ropes of magic binding the foetus to his body were so thick and heavy that to the experienced eye, they glowed faintly even through the thin blanket. Leaning in more closely, Severus felt his nostrils flare at the smell of a man who hadn't washed in a year. Apparently life behind the veil lacked amenities.

"Do stop looming," snapped Black irritably.

Severus eyed his old enemy, now his . . . prisoner? Patient? No, 'patient' was never a part of Sirius Black. Prisoner, then. "Why, it's our newest resident of Azkaban South," he drawled. His palm itched when Black looked at the ceiling. "I hope you don't think that little display last night changed anything."

Black shrugged and looked to one side. "I thought you'd at least enjoy seeing it, if nothing else."

He'd have thought so, too.

Enough of this nonsense. Severus sat and steepled his fingers together. "I want answers, and I want them now." He stared at the bones of Black's face, half-trying to fit the boy onto the man. It was impossible.

"Well, I want a trip to the loo, and unless it's part of your interrogation technique, I suggest that comes first."

"Don't be so sure of yourself," Severus snarled, furious again. It wasn't enough that Black had to ruin what was left of his life, but he had to be a mouthy prat as well, didn't he?

"Safe to say I'm less sure of myself now than ever before," Black mumbled as he stuck a bare leg out from under the sheet.

How had Severus forgot that Black was naked, covered only with soot? He wasn't strong enough to stand, and his legs gave way. The momentum flung him sideways, his bony ribs connecting hard with Severus' knobby knees. Severus missed his instinctive grab, then winced at the grunt as Black landed in a heap on the floor.

"Clumsy oaf." He moved forward and pulled the naked, smelly, blackened Black up by the shoulders, taking most of his weight as they moved forward. For a man so scrawny, that was not inconsiderable. Could the magical bindings could have weight of their own? It didn't seem possible that the skin-and-bone thing beside him could be so heavy.

"I don't need your help to have a piss," said Black as they got him seated.

"I should hope not," sniffed Severus. "Still, as long as you're in here, you'll have a bath. I can't stand the smell." And with that, he snapped the door shut.

Only minutes later, he heard water running. The silly arse couldn't stand up, but he thought he could get himself in and out of the bath. Severus sighed. Why, again, should he suffer this fool, when the alternative looked better and better?

Black looked up wide-eyed when Severus poked his head in. Sure enough, he'd been trying to pull himself off the toilet using the towel bar, and had almost succeeded in falling headfirst into the great clawfooted tub. Good thing a head-knock against the cast iron wouldn't have damaged anything important. Black swayed in place, half-hanging from the towel bar, until Severus managed to plunk him, none too gently, on the side of the tub. He slid in with a splash.

"Sapio!" A cascade of shimmering bubbles flowed from his wand, covering Black up to his neck. They dripped in blobs off the high rim of the tub. Severus only just managed to keep himself from adding a small soapy pyramid to the top of Black's head as an artistic gesture.

"Sparing my blushes, Snape? I can assure you, I've no modesty left." Black waved in the general area of his camouflaged midsection.

"Hardly," he purred. "I just can't abide that much of you at once." And in truth, he didn't like to see Black this way. There was no pride in standing against a man this wretched -- one who couldn't fight his way into a bath. It was almost an embarrassment. Black was scarecrow thin, and none could question who was ugly and greasy now. Then, there was that thing in his belly. An abomination . . . yet it fascinated Severus beyond measure. He wanted to touch it, feel the rise of Black's belly under his hand. "You look like you crawled away from the rag and bone shop."

"I told you, I've been dead." Black seemed indifferent to what should have been a blistering insult. "You should try being dead yourself; works wonders for one's attitude. In fact," he examined the bubbles caught in the fine hairs on the back of his hand, "I am undoubtedly the only man in history to have been both pregnant and dead, and at the same time." He tilted his head in what looked like genuine curiosity. "You could've just spelled me clean."

"No, I couldn't have," Severus responded shortly.

"Oh. So your magic doesn't work on me either. I thought maybe . . . I was hoping that it might." For a man in a tubful of bubbles, he looked quite morose. "Still, there are always muggle poisons. I doubt that Voldemort thought to provide protection against them."

"Nothing that would affect you physically seems to act. Only the diagnostic spells had any effect. Also," he continued, lifting a matted hank of dark hair between the tips of two fingers, "I wanted to personally make sure that all the fleas went down the drain. I feared I wouldn't be able to banish them." He was willing to let the whole issue of poisons go for now.

"Snape, why am I here?"

Severus stared at him. The man had refined aggravation to its very essence. "Does coming back from the dead leave one senile, as well? I have no idea why you're here. You're the one who had that crackbrained notion."

"You're a very clever man, Severus."

Severus had been reaching across the tub for a back brush. Jostled, the brush fell away. The mound of bubbles parted with a splat, but the rift closed without a trace. The foam pulled back together seamlessly, looking just as before. Black went on, eyes narrow, peering intently at Severus' face. "I have no doubt that you could've rid the world of this, and me, by now."

"You've been smoking something stronger than I have." Severus' tone could have bludgeoned a Ukrainian Ironbelly. "Get this through your thick head, you rat-eater. I am on holiday. While on holiday, I am a human being. I do not whore death for Voldemort nor for Dumbledore, and certainly not for you. Drown yourself, if that's what you want."

"I can't!"

Only as he slammed the door behind him did he realise that Sirius Black had once again buggered him out of any answers.

Suddenly, he felt infinitely weary. He leaned against the dusty flowered wallpaper just to rest for a moment. It had to be the hangover. Should he take a draught of Pepper-Up? No. He should simply march back in there and confront Black. Perhaps threats would be effective. Severus had no intention of disposing of the man, but pain was always an encouragement. There were non-magical ways of producing pain. Determination straightened his back. Certainty bloomed into a thin smile.

Striding through the door in a whirl of robes that would probably be wasted in such a small room, he turned to state his demands. Black was sleeping peacefully, head against the back of the tub, mouth slightly open. The room was so quiet he could hear Black's faint snores.

Again.

Had the man no sense of self-preservation? Well, that had been answered months ago.

A scowl twisted Severus' face. Once more he'd been thwarted. Worse yet, Black was still streaked with soot. He could wake him up and question him, but afterward the soot would remain, and something would have to be done about it. Black obviously didn't have the strength to wash himself. This, like every other filthy chore, would fall to Severus Snape. He'd as soon do it with no eyes on him.

The rat's nest of scrofulous hair hanging over the back of the tub would be better off gone. He muttered a soft "Scalpara!" -- only to dodge as the ricochet sheared one of his towels in half. Tossing the pieces down, he unearthed a small pair of scissors from the cabinet, but using it was like gnawing at graphorn hide. Apparently the protections on Black extended to the physical. Never mind, it would have to be dealt with later.

He applied the soapy sponge cautiously, hoping to remove the filth without waking his charge. He could not face this, but he had to. Ah, yes. How many times could a story be told?

He whispered the names of the bones of the body to himself while he covered their attendant muscle and skin with soap, as if the sound of his voice could protect him from what he was doing. Gently he washed the clavicle, anterior humerus, radius and ulna, on down to the carpals. He was inured to monotony. This mechanical cleansing of inanimate flesh would be over soon.

Pisiform. Lunate. Scaphoid. Hamate. Trapezoid. Trapezium. Capitate. His concentration was already fragmenting. There was the three-dimensional reality of his hands on Black's skin and then there was what it could have meant, once. The two things were separated by as thick a wall as he could mortar. Proximal phalange. Middle phalange. Distal phalange. The wall crumbled abruptly. Severus was fondling Black's hand.

A groan welled in him for the pathetic mooncalf he'd been, a boy who'd have given anything just for this, just to touch --

Stop. This was nothing, it was . . . nothing, except that Sirius Black was under his hands and utterly helpless, his skin softer than Severus would have expected. The sponge floated away, unnoticed. Black was here, they were both in his refuge, away from everything and everyone, and Severus could do anything. Anything he wanted. There was nothing to stop him. His hands slid against Black's wet flesh, as heedful as if he were handling a precious specimen.

His prick was already hard.

Something about the mounded belly called to Severus in a way separate from its Blood Magic. He'd known -- yes, known -- all along that on the inside, he was just as good as Black and his devil-may-care teenaged cronies, although no one else agreed. This was final, living proof. This brought Black down to the level of misery always reserved as a special hell for Severus. Now, Sirius Black and Severus Snape were on even terms. They were both servants of Voldemort.

The golden Gryffindor light had dimmed.

He explored the heavy abdominal rise, amazed at the amount of magic involved in its binding. It shifted sensuously around his fingers, inviting him, urging him on. The Blood Magic, old, so old, had a siren's lure, and he could still feel that lure after all these years. It sparked a wild flare of pleasure that eddied inside him. A murmur from Black snapped his head around, but the man was still dead to the world.

Shifting, he ran a hand down one skinny leg, hair flattening under his palm, all the way to a long, thin foot. Delicate bones moved under his fingers. He caressed along them, sliding his fingertips between the toes. It had been so long, and was it better or worse that this was Black? His hand shook. He cupped the foot, kneading. His right hand was knuckle-white on the rim. His sleeve was soaked, and the dark cotton shirt stuck to his sweaty back. Bubbles crept up past his elbow. Severus pressed his aching cock against the hard warmth of the tub.

If he couldn't see it, it wasn't happening.

His breath came faster as he stroked up the far leg. The muscles were flabby and weak, not hard as they'd once been. Not that he'd ever had the chance to know for sure, but Sirius had always looked solid. Hard-bodied in his damned Muggle jeans, always showing off the tight curve of his arse and the length of his lean thighs . . . trousers so tight that if you cared to look, you could see the wares on display in front. Severus had always made certain not to look.

He was nearly back to that strange, mesmerising mound again when he felt a nudge. Something prodded at his wrist, and it wasn't Black's hand.

Oh, God.

There was nothing to stop him. Black was his prisoner. Wasn't Severus Snape malevolent and ruthless? That was what they all thought -- his students, his compatriots. He'd made a good job of that. Black took him for a cold-blooded murderer even now, after years of fielding nothing more dangerous than rudeness and contempt. Why even hesitate? No one would question it, least of all Black. Why shouldn't he give in to this awful animal longing?

His hand wrapped around that hard cock, the soapy water easing his grip. He couldn't see it, but it was happening.

He'd never been in love. All he had to his name was this childish infatuation that had been his private albatross for a quarter of a century. And he'd seldom truly hated, whatever Potter might think; he simply saw others for who they were, however little that might be. Now, he was holding the penis of the one man he'd loved, then hated, beyond all others. If he'd been standing, his weakness would have dropped him to his knees. As it was, he slumped against the edge of the tub with a moan.

Wait. It wasn't only his moan. It was Black's too, and he involuntarily tightened his grip, loath to let go of this one thing he'd wanted for all his life, for as long as he could remember wanting anything. A gasp answered him. He looked defiantly into Black's face, ready to tell him to get fucked, tell him -- something -- and stared into a pair of hot, dazed eyes.

"Don't stop," Black croaked. "If you don't kill me now, He will later. I want this. Please."

"Yes." He'd meant to take what he wanted. But there was something about the sound of Black's voice asking him Oh, God wanting it that made everything different, that made his head spin. He stroked up the shaft, feeling its weight and stiffness, letting each finger find its own hold. The silky skin, the hardness beneath, and the foreskin under his thumb -- all of it was so good, so hot, so right.

He pushed his hips hard against the tub, grinding his cock against it until he cried out. That made it real. Black's eyes were closed. He didn't want that.

"Sirius." That made those eyes open. What he was doing made them kindle, a fire he'd never seen directed his way.

"Severus, yes, oh -- harder!" Black clutched the sides of the tub. He tried to reach up for Severus' other hand but slid down, and Severus held him up with one arm around his shoulders, letting the dirty hair trail over his arm as he leaned in. Both of them puffed and panted, faces nearly pressed together.

Severus held on tight and pumped the slippery cock until Black wailed, almost deafening him, spending himself into the bubbles. Severus felt a curious lightness rising, lightness with a spark of heat that sizzled from his groin down to his aching knees and back up his spine. He let Black's softening cock slip from his hand and grabbed his own through his trousers, wet hand slipping on the already-stained fabric. He couldn't think, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't open the zip. He had to come.

"Yes, I want to see you come, that's right," Sirius crooned in his ear, or maybe it was only his fevered imagination as the heat overwhelmed him and he came, soaking his crotch and falling forward against Black's neck.

*

The hair was unbelievable. It hung lank over Black's shoulders, ratted, matted -- Severus hadn't enough wits left to think of another appropriate rhyming word. The man mustn't have cut it the whole year he was at Grimmauld Place. It was full of greasy soot. After Severus had cleaned himself up and freshened the bathwater, he figured he might as well finish the job. Neither of them had spoken since . . . since they'd both come, but the silence wasn't oppressive. He'd soaped the hair once already. It needed another scrub.

He didn't want to think about what just happened, and tending to Black allowed that. Maybe Black wasn't thinking about it either. Maybe dead was a lonely place, and it didn't matter whose hands salved the wound.

As he rubbed shampoo into Black's scalp, words came out of his mouth. "What was it like there?"

"Uh?" Black sounded like he'd been nearly asleep, which was no surprise. An hour of hot bathwater and an orgasm had turned him into an unmoving lump.

"Death. What was it like?"

Black seemed to be hunting for words. That was no surprise, either. "It was . . . different."

"Thank you for that scintillating evaluation." Severus was tempted to yank out a snarl, but he was too sated just now.

"It's hard to explain. I just ended up in this . . . nowhere. Then, after a while, there were people around."

"Who?" Severus paused to pour more shampoo on the slimy mess.

"Everybody, anybody. Dead people. Muggles, witches, wizards. Young, old. I could see them, but they couldn't see me."

"Their loss." His snide sotto voce comment did not go unnoticed.

"Shut it, if you want to hear. Sometimes, I walked right through them. They looked and felt like ghosts to me, but they couldn't see me at all. I tried to communicate with them, anybody to talk to, you know? After a while, I was inside one for more than a second or two, and I realised I could see what they were seeing." Black toyed with the bubbles with one hand. They wriggled happily and popped with a small squeak.

"And what do dead people see?" It was more to keep Black talking than because he really cared.

"Their lives, mostly."

"Stupefying."

"It wasn't, really. It wasn't so much what happened as how they felt about it." At Severus' snort, he said, "I was there with them. I felt what they felt."

Severus fought dizziness, holding onto Black's head to keep himself steady. And the irony of that . . . "That . . . what you did. Last night. You saw my memories."

"I experienced them with you."

The horror and humiliation of that marched side by side with a thrill of spite. Black knew how it felt. A small noise from below made him realise his fingers were curled like talons, wrenching at the sodden hair. He might have released it, but he found he couldn't. It was hard to force words out. "Gave you a good laugh, did it?" The sourness matched the bile rising in his throat.

"I didn't mean to. I didn't know I could do it to you."

He snorted. "You're lying."

"Severus, I'm not lying. Who would I have practised on? And I'm not laughing. Not last night, either." Black tried to look round at him, but his iron grip made that impossible, thank God.

"Fine." There was nothing he could do about it now, and he shoved the knowledge ruthlessly aside. His fingers loosened fractionally in the tangles. Black exhaled and relaxed a bit.

"I mean it. I thought a lot about things there, behind the Veil. Had loads of time."

Severus blinked. "A year is not -- "

"Time's different there." He gestured toward his expansive belly.

"Ah. About that little detail . . . "

"Well, turns out You Know Who knows how to cross the Veil. Been going back and forth for ages. The day I saw Him, I thought the place'd finally sent me completely round the twist." He shuddered. "Too bad I was wrong."

"Well?" Severus snapped. His patience had limits, even after the only sex he'd had in much more than a decade.

"Don't know if He really planned this bit out. I know damned well He was surprised to find me there. More of an experiment, I think. Maybe it was just for fun." He paused to let them both not think about that. "Oh, He wants the child, all right. The first few tries didn't take."

From the sound of his voice, it was apparent that one could feel physical pain behind the Veil. Black drew a deep breath. Severus was barely breathing at all.

"Who knows where He found the essence for the other half of the job. That's how these things usually work, right? You need two." Black inhaled deeply. "He had His own spunk saved up -- from before. Remember how He was always on about conquering death? That was part of it."

"And how do you know this?"

"Talkative bastard, then, isn't He? And you just know He'd be the one bragging about his jizz."

A thought occurred to Severus, one that both appalled and intrigued him. "Could you -- could you feel Him, too?"

"Merlin's balls, no."

He could see the gooseflesh that rose on Black's body despite the warm water. He didn't blame him.

"Rinse." Black slid down in the tub, and Severus worked the soap out of his hair. "Up."

There was no answer. Black was asleep again.

*

Severus awoke with no sense of grim foreboding. That, in itself, was strange, considering that Sirius Black had appeared on his hearth heavy with child, they'd wanked, and Black was now sleeping beside him, snoring like a Grim.

He needed to check the git for a deviated septum.

Then he catalogued himself. Bodily, he was fine, only the usual small twinges of having done considerable physical work not long ago. He felt quite good, in fact. His mind was clear for the first time in . . . about two days. Obviously sex agreed with him. Those other things that had happened made no sense, and maybe there was no sense to be made of them. Right now, he was hungry. Severus was nothing if not a practical man. Pulling on his robes, he headed to the kitchen.

It was only after diving into an enormous pile of scrambled egg, toast and bacon that he spat out his mouthful of egg.

Black was a plant.

The very idea instilled visions of Black striding from the forest, vines wrapped like asps round his arms and oak leaves braided in his hair, clothed only in a tunic that glowed brown against his faintly greenish skin. Oh, for fuck's sake. That arsehole had really got to him.

What if Black were here under orders?

Blood of Salazar! Somehow, Black had made his brains leak out, and not just through his cock. In all his work to find out what -- or whom -- had toppled out of his fireplace, he'd neglected an Imperius-specific revealing charm.

That would certainly explain Black's changed nature. There was no reason to suppose that if twelve years in Azkaban hadn't changed him, a year of being dead would have.

Black was spying on him, acting for the Dark Lord. It sickened him. It was like somehow having Voldemort's frigid bony hands on him, being touched by that vile creature even when He was so far away, and worse yet, doing so through someone whose hands . . . he swallowed hard . . . could have provided such pleasure. Hands that could have given him the puerile boy's happiness he still apparently craved -- it seemed there was no statute of limitations on stupidity -- while stealing his soul and condemning his life on Voldemort's pyre.

He was barely able to smother the sobbing breath that wanted to force itself from his chest. This indignity, this violation, burned more brightly and painfully than the Dark Mark. He hadn't been tricked into that; it had been his own grievous mistake to make. Surely Voldemort couldn't know that he might have interest in Black. But then, He was an accomplished Legilimens. Who knew what He might have seen in Black's mind? Voldemort wouldn't hesitate to use whatever He could -- especially if He found a vulnerability of Snape's. That would please Him more than anything.

He would reveal this crime. Black was a spy. Black would never act toward him as he had if he weren't spell-bound.

There could be no hesitation. Black was even more of a danger to those cretins he called friends -- which would be fine, if not for Dumbledore and the Order -- than he was to Severus. At least Severus had come to his senses. Most likely Black's friends would not. The damage he could do was incalculable. The longer Severus put off the reckoning, the more information Black could acquire. All he's got so far is information about how you're gagging for sex, sneered a sly little voice in his mind.

Severus stood stiffly, picked up his heaping breakfast, and dropped it into the bin, plate and all. He stared into the bin for a moment as if he could decipher the future in splatters of egg. Then he shook himself and began to gather ingredients.

Something as far removed from invasive magic as possible would work best. Fortunately, Death Eaters claiming Imperius control had spurred much research into revealing the curse. There was at least one option..

Showing Imperius without attendant wand charms or spells meant using ImperioRevolo. It was a potion that didn't have to be ingested, thankfully -- ingestion wouldn't work, now that Sirius' body repelled magic. This potion could be spread on the skin. Severus would chance it.

He began to gather ingredients.

For the second time in as many days, Severus paused in the open bedroom door to look at his unwelcome guest. Black was his usual arrogant self. He even slept presumptuously, taking up all the room. Dark hair sprawled across both pillows the way the rest of Black's long legs stretched out over the bed, naked unto the day and completely untroubled. Severus could not help staring.

If looks could burn, Sirius Black would have been reduced to cinder.

Sirius Black, who'd always been all Severus Snape would never be. Handsome, happy, carefree. He came from old money, and it was obvious in the casual unconcern he showed his possessions. Severus still had a small silver cauldron that Black had left in the Potions lab at the end of fifth year. It was pretty little thing, and useful. Black had never even noticed its absence.

Sirius Black, a man who cared for nothing while the world showered him with everything.

But that was then.

He'd pissed away the lot of it, all the grace and favour life had bestowed upon him, and here he was, under the watchful eye of his oldest enemy. His stringy body showed what his life was like now. Neither world had shown him great kindness of late.

Severus Snape surely would not.

As expected, the magical cords that his wand produced simply bounced away from Black, and he had to duck to prevent one wrapping round his neck. The man slept like the dead. Severus smirked. He strode to the bed, quickly tying Black's hands to the posts. Black was too weak to overpower him with only feet at his disposal. Now they would see the truth.

His prey moved a bit on the bed, then woke when he realised he was going nowhere. "Always thought you'd be a pervy -- " Black's sleepy half-smile faded when he saw Severus' face. Whatever was on it had the power to shut his ugly gob, at least for a moment. His voice was raw when he spoke next. "It's . . . it's all over, then."

Severus smothered his surprise. Could Black possibly realise he was under compulsion, and be able to speak of it if it were made known? There were many variations on the Imperius; undoubtedly the Dark Lord knew them all. How ironic, he thought, if Black understood what he was doing as he seduced his greasy old enemy, instead of enjoying the pleasant, all-enveloping fog that Imperio normally produced. The man must be aghast.

"Yes." The finality was clear. He continued, knotting ropes around Black's ankles. Strangely enough, Black did not even struggle, and merely shuddered when the last knot was fixed. Perhaps the Dark Lord was slipping.

Severus drew the glass bottle from under his robes and began to dribble the contents over Black's body, from the neck down. The bare skin quivered as the cool, shimmering white liquid covered the too-prominent ribs, the domed belly with its thick, corrugated scars -- what on earth had happened to him to cause those? -- and crosshatched line of hair leading to the pale vulnerable loins. Black's limp penis twitched slightly as if it were trying to escape the rivulets, but the man himself was still.

"How long?"

"Three minutes."

The next question seemed to be dragged kicking from Black's lips. "Will it . . . hurt?"

"No." It had already hurt as much as it possibly could.

A thin sheen of sweat appeared on Black's forehead. "Look, tell Harry . . . please . . . tell him I love him. No, wait, I -- " The man was babbling now. "I didn't -- I don't want him to know about this. I don't want him to have to live through it all again. Or Remus. It's just . . . "

"Shut up."

The stony glare made Black recoil, the little that he could. "No. You can't shut me up. I need you to know -- back then, when we were children . . . I couldn't, you see? I'd lost everyone. My family hated me for it. Even Regulus, and he was my best friend when we were boys."

In the face of obvious disbelief, Black continued. "What? You don't seriously think I ran away from home because I didn't like their politics? I was sixteen! I couldn't give a rat's ass about the adult world. Until it crashed in on me, when Regulus caught me snogging an older wizard I met in the park. My loving mother told me to get out and stay out. I went. I never saw Regulus again." Black glanced quickly at Severus, as if expecting a reaction. He got none. "I couldn't be a . . . a bum bandit. A pansy."

Black finally subsided, closing his eyes. "I thought James' parents would toss my arse out too, and I had nowhere else to go. The way they'd look at me if they knew . . . I couldn't lose my friends. They were all I had."

Perhaps it was a variant that specifically forced the victim to attempt to gain sympathy, in order to coax others into cooperation? That made a certain amount of twisted sense, although it seemed too subtle for Voldemort. It might be wise for Severus to research the matter later. He should have brought a quill; it always helped to take notes. Seconds dripped onto them like a faucet in the dark.

One minute.

As a means of obtaining cooperation, this version of the Imperius lacked something. Or the problem could be the twit it'd been used on. This was ridiculous. How long could three minutes possibly be? He scanned Black impassively. It wouldn't be long now before the potion started to change colour.

Two minutes.

The shivering body on the bed tensed even more, if that was possible. Perhaps it was a bit nippy laying out naked and wet, even though it was warm in the room, much warmer than in his dungeons. What a spineless wanker. Poor ickle Blackie couldn't stand the cold. Let this be a lesson to him for coming here.

Two and a half minutes.

It couldn't be.

Severus knew it by the seconds passing, as if each were needled into his skin, one by one by one. Something was wrong. The colour change should have started by now. In thirty seconds, Black's flesh should be vivid with the glowing crimson that denoted use of Imperio. He'd used fresh squill, always better for showing curses than dried, and shredded the lily bulb ultra-fine.

Three minutes.

It was over. He, Severus Snape, premier potions maker in England, had blended a mixture that did not work. It was insupportable. He had failed.

Or . . . had he? Could it be possible that Black was not under a compulsion curse? Bewildered, he moved from one of Black's ankles to the other, untying the ropes, completely ignoring the man on the bed . . . until the flailing made him impossible to miss. He pushed Black back without much difficulty, lost in trying to figure out what had happened.

"Snape! What the hell was that?" Black was so close that his harsh bark felt like having his ears boxed. "A day at the health spa?" Red, Black's face went red, almost the same crimson the potion should have turned.

Shoving away Black's weak grip on the sleeve of his robe, Severus started toward the door. He finally gathered his thoughts enough to answer. "I was testing for Imperius."

"What?"

He turned. Somehow Black had risen from the bed, and was coming after him, weaving only slightly. He'd opened his mouth to repeat himself when a stronger hand than he could have expected grabbed the front of his robes.

"You let me lie there thinking I was going to die!"

The fist met his jaw with all the force Black could put behind it. It wasn't much, but it was enough. His head snapped back, teeth rattling in their sockets. With pure automatic reaction, he responded, the heel of his right hand slamming upward into Black's nose.

Both of them grunted and reeled back -- Black from lack of balance, Severus from pain. A large red nose print marked the heel of his hand. He thought he might have sprained his wrist. Black, on the other hand, seemed to suffer no ill effects. Damn him! He should be squealing like a pig as blood ran from his broken nose, or dead from the slender bones that penetrated his miserable excuse for a brain. Could nothing hurt him?

If not, there were other ways to get through. He stepped forward, grabbing Black by his bony shoulders, needing to at least try to shake him limb from limb. He was caught off-guard.

Black kissed voraciously, the same way he'd done everything else all his life, determined to suck all that was vital from any encounter. Severus gave up thought of resistance and held on for dear life. His limited experience had offered him nothing like it. Lucius Malfoy, even long ago when they were sex partners, did not care to kiss. Lucius had no interest in men. He was only interested in what Severus could do for him.

It wasn't as if he had never attempted to get more. A walk down Karn Alley had hired him an almost clinical meeting of the flesh of two strangers: one who expected little and another who cared less.

There was no doubt from the way that Black kissed that he cared. He cared to create his own pleasure, at any rate, and took Severus along, ravishing his mouth with a hot dart of tongue and a voluptuous press of lips. Teeth stinging his bottom lip made him cry out as his cock rose, eager for more. He pushed Black's face away, ignoring the luxurious wet sound as their mouths parted.

As fast as he could, he stripped off his robes and tumbled the two of them onto the bed, wonder suffusing him at the warm expanse of slippery skin. To be touched on bare skin by anyone for any reason was so strange and searing that he gasped. The ImperioRevolo had a heat of its own, doubling what was already between the two men. Severus locked their legs together, rubbing himself against Black's swollen belly. He wanted it all over him; he wanted Black all over him.

As all-consuming as his hatred for Black had been for so many years, such was his desire. Perhaps it was more for what they were doing than for Black himself; he didn't know. The kisses tore at him. He had never before considered his own mouth. Lucius had thought it adequate as a receptacle for a penis, and had used it many times.

The elation and apprehension that had surged through him while kneeling alongside the bath mingled in his veins. Sounds became indistinct as his hearing faded. He pinned Black's shoulders with his forearms -- it was easy enough -- and went back to his mouth. The softness of those cracked lips absorbed him for uncounted minutes. There was so much to discover . . . hard slippery teeth, the ridges of the palate, a curious tongue.

Severus anchored his hands in Black's hair again, holding his head down, and left the tempting, willing mouth. He followed the grain of Black's stubble, the stiff hairs brushing his lips with maddening delicacy. Every sensation burst over him without warning. Severus shivered inside his skin, cold and hot at the same time.

He tasted the skin above the beard line, relishing its warmth and smoothness, rubbing his lips against it for the pleasure to be had. He traced the lines at the corners of Black's eyes with the very tip of his tongue, and kissed the closed lids.

Black . . . Black let him.

A surge of gratitude left him weak, leaning his cheek on the lined forehead. He moaned against Black's temple and felt the vibration of an answer.

When he reached the tangle of dark hair, a faint scent tantalised him. It wasn't his simple oatmeal soap, or the catmint and thyme shampoo. If he'd been with someone else, he would have suspected a rare aromatic aphrodisiac, but in this case it couldn't be true. He sniffed, puzzled. It called him, and he pursued it, rubbing his nose in Black's hairline. The wisp of scent was as light and elusive as the smoke from the Imajica.

He inhaled deeply, and then once more. Like a puff from his pipe, it somehow calmed the riot inside him, filling him with a langorous pleasure that weighed down his limbs and slowed his mind. His very blood seemed to pulse more thickly, more sweetly, in his veins. He was caught in something. He did not understand it, nor did he care. His eyelids fell as he gave himself up, and his nose led him past the curl of an ear. He was about to move on, but stopped.

He had happened upon a pair in a dark corridor once, the boy tonguing the girl's ear. After handing out detentions and taking away house points, he'd mulled the incident over on his return to the dungeons. Surely there could be nothing of sexual appeal to either party in an ear. Still, they were young. It wasn't as if he didn't remember what he'd done for Lucius Malfoy. Fine cuisine was not important to the famished.

When he took a careful lick at the ear under his lips, he knew he'd been wrong. The very curves and lines seemed to ask him to indulge himself, and he did, licking and lipping and breathing gently on the wet swirls. The process absorbed him completely. It took a while to realise that the rumblings he heard were Sirius' groans. Surprise registered on some level, but he could not pay it any mind.

He trailed down a tendon, tonguing hungrily at the length of Black's neck. How delicious it was, even with traces of the astringent potion smeared on it. He bit and sucked with abandon, knowing that Sirius was needy now too, needy and greedy for everything Severus could give. An arm wrapped firmly round his shoulders, holding him tight as they both whimpered.

The sounds erased his torpor, urging him faster, pushing in at him from outside while what was inside him tried to get out. Hectic impressions of things he could not put a name to invaded so intensely that he thought he might fracture. He shoved his cock against skin made potion-slick, frantically trying to outrun the overwhelming sensations.

A hand worked its way between them. Severus resisted, desperate to be close, not wanting anything in the way of what he needed so urgently, until the hand grasped his cock firmly and began to stroke.

Beyond words, he gasped raggedly in time with the rhythm, wanting to cry out but not having the means. When he came, he knew only the feel of Black's neck against his face and the smell of him.

Long gray moments later, Black tipped Severus' chin up for another kiss, but he pulled away and crawled unsteadily down between Black's sprawled legs. The cock that rested there on the rise of the belly was stiff and flushed, coated with the opalescence of potion and pre-ejaculate. Severus lowered his mouth to it and took the head in, accepting the unpleasant taste of the potion as his due. Black's cock was . . . lovely, strong and thick, and it filled his mouth as if made just for him. He attended to its every twitch and bob with an obedient tongue.

Propping himself on an elbow, he licked the beautiful thing from base to tip until Black's hands found his head, and then he swallowed it down as far as he could. Thin hot fluid pumped into his mouth as Black yelled something, and when it was done Severus licked the remainder from his lips and from the still-hard cock. Then he lay his head on Black's thigh and shut his eyes.

Closing his eyes could not keep out the knowledge that he had revealed himself. He'd been driven beyond his limits, turned inside out, and he'd dropped everything he was at Black's doorstep to be tossed away or trodden on as Black saw fit. He was a supplicant once again, as he had always been, a servile cocksucker delivering up his submission to . . . to Sirius Black.

He needed to say something, anything, to distance himself from this thing that had happened. He waited. No scathing remark came to mind; no cutting quip, no derisive comment. He had debased himself, but he still had enough courage to face what was to come. He wouldn't wait at the man's crotch to be shoved away. He readied his nearly lifeless limbs to move, and looked up from under his unkempt slash of hair.

Too late.

A hand reached toward him, and he willed himself not to shrink away. Instead of pushing at him, the hand stroked his hair, fingertips grazing his cheek. Severus froze. He had never received such a caress, not even imagined its like, certainly not from Black. He had never even known how badly he wanted it until it happened. He couldn't help staying as still as possible for as long as the hand lingered, dragging gentle touches along his jaw. When it was removed, he raised his head and shoulders far enough to see over the belly, high enough to look Black in the eye, high enough to stare down his dismissal.

There was no dismissal. There was no connection at all. Black could not even look at him. Somehow, that cut more deeply than derision.

Then, Black turned. In the slanted light from the windows, he could see that Black's eyes were wet. The man blinked hard, trying to dispel the moisture as Severus stared. Severus could only imagine that his own expression was as blank as his understanding.

"If I could have . . . " Black's voice twisted and cracked. "If I had only . . . "

The thought, more than the words, pierced Severus to the heart. Some kind of poison bubbled out, as surely as if a terrible infection had been lanced with a spell-sharp blade. The infection drained away, dribbling out from under the rough scar of time.

"Don't," he said softly. Empty and shaking, he let Black pull at him so they lay close, side by side.

*

The two of them sat at the plain wooden kitchen table, watching the late morning light wander over the square-hewn gray stone of the floor. They had hardly said a word to each other while eating, which hadn't taken long in any case. Black couldn't eat much, despite his long lack, and Severus was so unsettled that he could not sustain any interest in food.

"Did you make this soup?"

"Yes." He hadn't; the house elves at Hogwarts had included it with his provisions, but there was no need for Black to know that.

"It's delicious. I'm impressed."

He raised a brow. "I excel at the preparation of recipes. That is my life's work. Are you so shocked that I am able to cook a simple meal?" It was a shadow of his former malice. He did not know how to be, what to feel. The milk of hatred that he'd drunk for so many years had always welled up to sustain him at any needful moment. Now, when he reached for it, it slid away like water.

The absence of hate was a black hole inside him.

"Jesus, Snape, don't be so touchy. I was trying to give you a compliment." Black smiled. Its effect was considerable; likely more so than it would have been had Severus ever seen it turned his way before. Those teeth, still so white and even in spite of everything . . . he wondered if Black had done his own spell to return them to their pre-Azkaban state. It was the smile so bloody charming that it survived even Death. The Smile That Lived.

He had to give himself a mental shake before he replied. "Anything would taste good to you after so long without."

"I disagree." Black winked. "I have very particular tastes." It seemed that sex, in addition to death, also improved his attitude greatly.

Severus wanted very badly to shut out the present and drift back into the morning's languid pleasure, but he could not. Still, he tried to project a steady demeanor. "You and I must talk."

Black huffed out a laugh. "The last person who said that told me she was two months gone. I certainly hope not you, too."

"Please. Save the stories of your youthful peccadilloes for someone who might be interested."

"Youthful? That was just last week!" He snickered at Severus' annoyance.

"I may have to kill you anyway," Severus muttered, provoking another snort of laughter. "No, fortunately, you've covered the breeding possibilities for the both of us."

Black looked down wryly at the front of his borrowed robe. "I think that's for the best."

"I need to know how you got here." Severus examined his soup spoon in great detail.

"You could hardly have missed my entrance."

"Be that as it may, this house has never been on the Floo Network." He put the spoon down, appraising the man across the table. "It is Unplottable. There are apparation wards that rival Hogwarts'. It is utterly impossible for you to be here."

"Well." Black stared at him, mouth open. Not a pretty sight. "Shit."

"Indeed." Severus settled back. "I would very much like to know what happened. Now, if you please." It was an inquiry worthy of the Wizengamot.

"He needed a warm magical body. I was there -- he had the time, I had the body. There are only a couple of women in the Death Eaters anymore -- He didn't want to destroy one of His own if it didn't take. He was more than happy to destroy me." Black started talking faster, as if trying to puke it out. "He . . . the pregnancy finally took. The others, I just. They. Ripped me open, as they grew. This one lasted."

"So, well along in the pregnancy, he brought you back across?"

"Yes. I think it needs to be born in the real world. He brought me to some estate, possibly Macnair's, where Macnair and another masked Death Eater were waiting. He told them not to use magic with me, and then he left. When they tried to tie me down, I went wild. Kicking, hitting, anything I could do. Um. Not that keen on bondage, really."

Was Black was blushing? Severus stared in amazement. Things had apparently been different this morning. How comforting to know he had more appeal as a bondage partner than active Death Eaters who intended to kill. For a brief moment the idea flashed into his head that Black might have come to him for something other than death, either something more personal or something more diabolical. It could go either way. Was Voldemort capable of leaving, not an Imperius Curse, but a suggestion in Black's mind -- Black, the least suggestible person Severus had ever known?

"Anyway . . . I was so desperate to get away that even as bad off as I was, it took them by surprise. I guess it's ingrained, using magic. Their trying to hex me . . . it saved me, instead."

Black was a little green around the gills. He looked completely used up. Severus handed over his untouched glass of water, but continued his questioning.

"How, exactly, did you get to the mainland from Azkaban?"

"What?" Black stared at him.

He wasn't very fast on the uptake; Severus had been well aware of that, but it was a simple question. His lip curled, and he repeated himself. Loudly. And. Distinctly.

"Hell if I know." Black rubbed his forehead. "I was a dog."

This was not the time to distract himself with the easy insult, no matter how badly Severus wanted to prove to himself that he could still do it. He contented himself with tapping one fingernail on the table until Black chose to answer.

"I about went spare when I realised that Peter was with Harry in Hogwarts, and after I slipped out of the cell, I blacked out. Some time later, I woke up in Northumberland. It was colder than a Muggle's tit. I didn't even know where I was until I found a town."

"In other words, over time, your aim has improved considerably."

"My aim? You think I did this?"

"Is there someone else here?" Severus quizzed the other two chairs, the bare kitchen counter, and the slate floor. None answered. "Ah. I see not. Then I think we can assume your presence is the result of action by you."

"How could that be?"

"If you had ever paid attention in your classes, you would know that unintended apparation exists just like other untrained magics. It simply takes a great emotional impetus to do so. Although . . . I am surprised you could do it in your animagus form."

"Well, Snuffles is the resourceful sort," murmured Black, staring at the table.

"What?"

A bleak face looked up. "I was just thinking that maybe I could have got my arse right back from the dead before this happened."

"You spent twelve years in Azkaban before your emotions were stirred in the right direction to instigate unintended apparation. You couldn't know. We don't know how it worked inside Azkaban, and it might not have worked from behind the Veil. Perhaps the Dark Lord is the only one who knows how to cross freely. None of that matters now." Why was he attempting to comfort Sirius Black, of all people? He should curb those impulses. He had no aptitude for it.

Still, Black gave him a slight nod. "Your wards . . . "

"May need to be fine-tuned to defend against wild magic. You know, Black . . . " Severus picked up the bread knife. "I feel that this aberration of yours should be . . . studied." He ran a thumb down the edge of the fairly dull blade, humming in appreciation, as if he intended to use it to start dissecting Black right there on the breadboard. He smirked as the man's tired eyes widened, then . . .

"Prick," said Black, but to Severus' surprise there was amusement underneath. "You are the most provoking -- " The sentence went unfinished as Black spasmed and flailed for a handhold at the table. He almost fell out of his chair.

"The little bastard kicked me!"

Severus pushed his chair from the table and stood. "It's time to owl Albus."

"Wait! Then . . . everyone will know. I'll . . . I may still have to be . . . "

"Put down?" suggested Severus, with a tinge of his old mockery. "I have no interest in dealing with what will happen from here." He was not sure that he could solve the problem, but he wasn't about to say that. "Meanwhile, I suggest you start reading up on magical pregnancy from my medical texts."

With some difficulty, Black stood too. "I need to go outside."

"Why? There's a toilet down the hall."

Sirius gave him a withering look. "Because, you daft prick, I haven't seen the sun in far too long." More quietly, he said, "It was the most wonderful thing about getting out of Azkaban. I'm not sure whether I was more grateful to see my old friends, or to feel the sun."

"Pfft. You can hardly walk. Sit on the steps, and take a book with you. It's time to conquer your aversion to anything but wand-waving and drool." He should save his advice. Black could caper about the grounds nude for all he cared, leaping and hopping, big belly to the fore. Severus shook his head and left the room, off to write the missive that would bring the world down upon his head.

*

Severus was not at all surprised several hours later, therefore, to hear the wards chime. He looked up from the desk. Dumbledore himself was wandering up the dirt lane, no doubt entertained by the puffs of yellow butterflies that clumped in the grasses alongside and rose up in small clouds as he passed. The two-mile walk from the apparation wards seemed to do him no harm. Severus could have taken him for any spry elderly wizard, pink-cheeked and obviously well-pleased.

The full embrace Dumbledore gave Black made his guts agglutinate. The two men exchanged words -- thankfully, he could not hear them. He turned away from the window. It was clear to him now. All one had to do to receive full approval was to be James Potter's best friend, and then to disappear. Severus had known that Black's act of teenage malice made no impression on Dumbledore, but even burdened with the spawn of Voldemort, Black enjoyed the kind of relationship with the Headmaster that Severus had never , in his adult life, known from anyone. Such approval would never be his, alive or dead.

It scraped raw, this one more bit of proof that his own life was worth less.

Had he not paid for his youthful sins -- over and over, a thousand times over? And yet he enjoyed no such embraces, no such warmth.

Sweeping from the room, he left them to it. Sirius Black was no longer his problem.

The Headmaster appeared in the bedroom doorway as Severus was, with a flick of his wand, dumping all the bedding into a huge cauldron of boiling water. He'd already scourged the room floor to ceiling, and the now-clean white walls glowed a faint yellow with the bit of afternoon sun that stole in through the windowpanes. That was not enough to cleanse the coupling of himself and Black from the sheets and blankets. Nothing so impersonal could erase their joining from his mind. He would boil them, scrub them, until no scrap of scent or memory of touch remained.

"Severus, my boy!" The old man exuded jollity, as usual. "I see you're getting some cleaning done."

I am not your boy. But he was . . . in all the ways that counted, in all the things that bound him to a life of evasions and the threat of certain excruciating death if discovered. Was the chance for atonement, and the opportunity to wage war against true evil, worth the binding?

"Yes, Headmaster." He continued to supervise the boiling pot. It seemed that there were no sweets on offer today. For some reason, that annoyed him.

"I was surprised that you didn't join Sirius and me, so I came to find you. We have much to discuss."

"We have nothing to discuss."

Severus agitated the bedclothes in their boiling water, adding great quantities of soap with a twist of his wrist. Still, his attention wavered between his work and the gaze he could feel stabbing into the back of his neck. As the mess threatened to erupt from its pot, he stilled it. "Stabilo!" Slowly he turned to face his saviour and antagonist.

Albus was peering at him almost sadly. "I am sorry you feel that way."

"Oh. It matters, then, how I feel?" He considered Albus' puce-sparkled waistcoat. "It never has before." Turning, he substituted fresh boiling water for the soapsuds and rinsed. "We may as well get this over with. Tell me what it is that I will not want to hear."

"This is a serious situation."

In all ways. "I had noticed." He waved the bedding up out of the cauldron and it wrung itself in midair, steaming.

"Our friend needs a safe place to stay."

He let the whole issue of friendship pass. Surely the Headmaster was not suggesting . . . The air in the room went wet and thick. It clotted in his lungs. "Hogwarts will provide everything he needs."

"He cannot stay there. If Sirius can be found, Voldemort's . . . issue . . . can be retrieved. We cannot be assured of secrecy if he leaves here."

"Grimmauld Place, then."

"It isn't even remotely secure with Kreacher at large."

His overwrought mind happily supplied an image of the repulsive Kreacher 'at large,' towering above the fleeing residents as the elf stomped down the streets of London like a pig-snouted, flappy-eared troll, overturning motor cars and bashing tall buildings -- a most disturbing picture. Still, he'd rather see that than see Black's face in the morning.

"Extrinsicus propendit!" The heavy bedclothes raised higher, swung around in slow motion, lurched to the window -- he could feel the ripple, every cleaving line of pressure in the glass as it gave. Sheets and blankets burst through. Was that what made his ears ring? Droplets of water and shards of glass flung themselves into the sun as if happy to be free. Linens flapped wildly in air until they sorted themselves into neat laundry queues, hanging from nothing.

"Blast it, I need no more distractions today! Only see what's happened to the window while I've been speaking with you of unwanted guests! I would very much like to be allowed my concentration, if you please. Headmaster, I must ask you to go now." A rush of breeze chilled him as he stared at the remains of the window.

"Can you not find it in your heart to be gracious, Severus?"

Only then did he let himself look again at Dumbledore. "No. I will not have it." Brave words from the hopeless.

"I'm sorry, I must insist."

There it was, then. He had his orders. He hadn't considered this outcome, but he should have. In conjunction with universal laws, it only made sense that everything should go from bad to worse. With a flick of his wand, Severus spelled the window whole, and watched as the fragments reordered themselves, the tiniest of soldiers readying once more to defend against the elements. Was it really worth the effort of arguing further? He was already backed against the wall, and he was tired, so tired. Why fight it?

Dumbledore was speaking. He was always, always speaking. "I had thought, or hoped . . . from talking with Sirius . . . that some things had mended between you."

From the inside, he knew his face was already completely expressionless. "Some things, once broken, can never mend. Good day, Headmaster." With that, Severus strode out as if the old man hadn't really won.

It was full night when Black came to find him. Even so, he was not ready for another confrontation.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"What does it look like?" Severus rasped. He'd gone from reading -- or at least flipping pages -- to pacing, and neither had settled his mind. He'd been ready to go to the kitchen for the rest of the Scottish when he realised that Dumbledore had offered Black his hospitality, and no doubt would expect it to be supplied in full. If he wanted to sleep somewhere that wasn't the lumpy drawing-room sofa tonight, he'd best do something about it. It made a good rationale, anyway.

He did not to want think about what would happen if he didn't have somewhere private to sleep. Black, now that he was assured of living, at least for a while, and of joining his friends, had no need of a stray body to warm his bed. In fact, if he tried to touch Black again, there was no telling what might happen. He could not rule out the possibility of physical retribution -- highly dangerous from a man who couldn't be hurt -- or worse, becoming the laughingstock of the entire school.

It had happened before.

Now, it would be so much worse. He had a position of respect, or at least fear, to uphold. To lose face in front of the other professors, much less hundreds of students . . . he well knew how any hint of gossip spread like Blistering Cough in the confines of Hogwarts. Thus, it was either clean the master bedroom or spend the evening hours peeling tiny vertical strips of paint from the wainscoting with his wand tip as he drank himself into a stupor.

Cleaning out the big bedroom hadn't soothed him, but at least he was doing something productive. Gran'mere would have approved -- it was she who had taught him how. "A magical home should feel your touch, Severus," she'd said. This cottage was one of the few things in his life that he loved; he should take better care of it. The narrow boards crooned appreciatively under his hands.

He worked.

"It looks like you've lost your mind. Did you expect to find it in all this?" Black scanned the jumble of furniture in one corner before his eyes came to rest on the gleaming oak floor Severus was polishing by hand. "Since when did you become a house elf in your spare time?"

"Piss off, Black." Severus wanted so badly to hex Black out of existence that he could taste it above the lingering taint of Walliflugel's Wood Wax. Even the thought of the spell rebounding on him and putting him out of his misery had its appeal at this point, but he wasn't sure his hand could steady his wand.

"Stop." The look on Black's face was something like . . . pity. "There are sandwiches in the kitchen. You need to eat."

"Channelling our . . . esteemed Headmaster?" he panted.

"I ate ages ago, and you look like you're ready to drop."

"Fuck yourself," he responded, with as much solemn dignity as he could scrape together from his position on the floor, on his knees.

"Severus."

Black stepped forward and, though terribly weak himself, managed to drag Severus upright. That creaking noise was the sound of his own joints protesting. It was . . . he was weak. He hurt all over. Old and decrepit. Older than dirt, older than sin. He almost slumped back down. It would have taken them both to the floor.

"All right, forget food. You need a bed."

"Not . . . I'm not done . . . there's no bed."

"There's only one way I want to see you on your knees." When Severus didn't even look at him, Black said, "Come on, Cinderella. There's a fine bed waiting."

"No. If I get used to sleeping with you, Black, when I get back to Hogwarts I'll need to get a dog of my own."

"Hell, I'd volunteer." That brilliant smile appeared again. The man was . . . laughing at him, singularly unfazed by his sniping. "What if I want to sleep with you?"

"More fool you." He felt more than heard the cleaning charm; it bristled over his skin. "Wand?"

"Albus brought it for me. It's not perfect, but it works."

"Fine."

In seconds, it seemed, he was naked -- he couldn't even be bothered to care about it -- and horizontal in bed, falling asleep with his head at Black's shoulder.

*

He didn't awaken until he heard guttural moans. They'd wafted into his dreams like Dementors, sucking the happiness away. It should have been earlier, why didn't he wake earlier -- what the hell was he doing wrapped up in . . . arms? Legs? How did he even get here? Why was . . .

"No, please, no!"

Severus rocked in a flood of memories, none of them good. Was that his voice? Where this time, who this time? No, there were legs, it wasn't him, it was someone else who cried out. Asleep, he'd been asleep. "You! You!" He reached out and slapped the face next to his, then remembered who it was. "Black! Wake up!"

"Stop! Hurts, don't!" He didn't seem to be talking to Severus; didn't know he was there. Black started thrashing and, despite Severus' best efforts, managed to whack him sharply across the bridge of his nose, making his eyes water, and finished with a bruising elbow to the ribs.

"Wake up!" Holding him down, he could at least stop him from doing any more damage, so one hand closed on a bony shoulder and one fell to the swollen belly. "Merde!" Magical energy leapt from the now-glowing bonds, searing his hand, his wrist. He gasped with pain. As he tried to twist away, Black grabbed onto him, crushing them together. The more he struggled, the harder Black hung on. Hot -- hot -- hurts -- "Black! Black!" Nothing was working; he was on fire. There had to be some way to escape.

He tried battering the arms holding him; no response. Finally, he went limp, hoping Black would loosen his hold. It didn't work; Black just held him tighter. Pain crawled across his skin, searing nerve endings he'd never discovered in the years as Voldemort's slave. If he couldn't break away, he would lose consciousness in short order.

"Sirius!" Out of sheer pain and frustration, he grabbed the only sensitive part he could reach -- Black's face -- and mashed his own lips to Black's. The death-grip loosened almost instantly, and the scalding heat slowly faded. Severus slumped over Black, choking for breath. He was about to try to lever himself away with shaking arms when Black laid a hand on his cheek. Head back, eyes still closed, he murmured softly but quite clearly, "You feel so good."

He still wasn't awake.

He wasn't awake when he caressed Severus' hair, brushing through it with his fingers until Severus could feel the lift of every single hair on his scalp. He wasn't awake when he nuzzled Severus' ear, gentle kisses that tickled like cotton wool against untried skin. This time, in the place of heat, the magical bindings hummed gently. It was subtle, but strong enough that his whole body relaxed in response -- something he had only heard about. Pleasant . . . more than pleasant.

It felt like . . . being cared for. It had been so very long that he had to scratch through his emotions like a chicken to find something like. Yes, that was it.

The whole idea was so intriguing that Severus wanted to examine it; lay it out on his work table and dissect it, find out what made it so rare and precious. If he could do that, perhaps he could create the feeling again. Somehow it could be brewed, he was sure of it. He could stopper death; there had to be ingredients that would blend into this . . . this . . . he couldn't think any more as the comfort softened his limbs and lulled him from wakefulness.

*

Severus filled their plates with egg and toast and sat down across from Black. If things went on as they had so far, it was likely to be his only meal of the day. Black's appetite was improving. Severus' own mental state was poor, however. He couldn't help worrying at it. He couldn't quite put his finger on what was wrong, but decided to leave it for now in favour of ascertaining Black's awareness of what happened last night.

"You had nightmares," he told his toast and jam. It was unwise to mention how he'd stopped them.

"Really?" Black seemed surprised. "I haven't had a better night's sleep for . . . a long time." There was that smile again.

"Yes, well." Severus shifted uncomfortably.

"I shouldn't wonder at it. There's been a lot going on. And more to come. They're coming back today."

The gentle concern in Black's eyes reminded him sharply of Dumbledore. What the hell was Black thinking? He was the one with problems, not Severus.

"That's nothing to me." It would be several people. The whole Order might show up on his doorstep. Yes, they'd all be here, invasive and uncaring, just as if they had the right to trample all over, dirtying his beloved home with their very presence. The only consolation was that he'd have the pleasure of watching them poke and pry at Black, trying to unravel the bonds holding Voldemort's spawn.

He simply would refuse, for the time being, to think about them. Willful ignorance was as good as he could get until this was over. How he wished for a time turner to take him back to Thursday last, peacefully enjoying a pipe in his safe and solitary parlour. He'd long since given up wishing to turn back time any further, but he'd have been happy to stay in his parlour forever.

Black raised an eyebrow. "Moody's coming first. Dumbledore wants him to examine me. Then, if they feel it's safe, Harry." A yearning look sat with grace on his dark features.

Severus snorted. He'd be amazed if Potter managed to hold out until he was called -- in fact, he'd expected a visitor last night. Yes, Potter had calmed down and gained some maturity in his sixth year. It seemed that he'd finally realised he was learning things in school that could help to keep himself and others alive, and he was determined to try. Perhaps he'd finally realised that Voldemort wasn't only after him; that there was a war on. Still, it was more likely Dumbledore had kept Black's return from him. Even the New Potter couldn't withstand such temptation.

"Lupin?"

"Remus is on Order business. Not a good time to pull him out." His words were calm, but the longing in his tone was painfully obvious.

Ah, yes. He'd heard that Lupin had been sent to negotiate with the werewolves. It had to be a knife in the ribs for Black to be alive again, and still separated from his friends. Not having Lupin show up was one less thorn in Severus' side, but time was against him. Sooner or later, they'd all be here, one after the other or all in a pack. When that happened, possibly even today, their little . . . dalliance? affair? two-night stand? . . . was over. A tight cramp in his right forearm forced him to relax his fists under the table.

Severus did not want or need the complication of a bed partner. Certainly not one that had been his lifelong enemy.

"You didn't come to speak with the both of us while Albus was here yesterday."

"No."

"I know you'd like to wash your hands of all this," Black gestured to his ripening belly, "but we could use your advice."

Not only was Black requesting his presence, it was as if the man were looking for reassurance. He didn't even know why he grudgingly gave it. "If I must."

Black's fingers eased their own grip on the edge of the table. "Thank you."

Barely half an hour later he saw the two wizards walking up the lane, robes flapping in the humid, laden breeze. The sky crowned them with bulbous dark clouds nearly as black and pregnant as the man in his house, although their weight was likely less dangerous.

Severus stepped outside to accept his role.

He didn't even have time to speak before Moody demanded, "Where is he?"

"Why, in the cottage, of course. Perhaps you gentlemen would like to come in." The words were insincere, but seemed somehow necessary for this gloomy engagement.

"Thank you, Severus -- " but Dumbledore's words were cut off.

"Hell, no, I'm not going inside. I don't know what you keep in your house, and I don't want to know. Bring him out."

"He's not dead, Mad Eye," snapped Severus.

"He's far worse than dead," came the flat response. "He's a time bomb waiting to go off in our hands."

Then Moody could keep his hands off.

"I'm here, Mad Eye." Severus' head snapped around to the door, where Black was carefully negotiating the front steps. "Time to see what's what, eh?" The tone was almost cheerful, but Black looked as pasty as he had when Severus roped him to the bed.

Black hadn't even got off the steps when Moody's cry of "Calumnio!" made the flesh on his bones disappear from their sight, and the bones themselves light up. Internal organs appeared, darker and throbbing gently, and the foetus showed itself in movement. Acclaro, Elucium, Fama Vulnaris, and yet more followed -- Desambagiosus, Anfracta Ligatio, Decoquo. The burst of spells caused Black to stagger, only barely gaining hold of the railing. Severus grabbed him from behind.

Some of the flying incantations were so arcane Severus had never heard of them, and some he knew damned well had come from Flitwick's expertise. Moody was no wizard at charms.

Black's body was battered relentlessly. Magic spilled onto Severus as he held Black up, just managing to stay behind him as a frustrated Moody started in with jinxes and hexes. As he'd expected, all those that could cause change or damage glanced off, causing the other two to duck behind a Protego as they, too, realised nothing would penetrate Black's magical armour.

"Enough!" Surely that was Dumbledore's too-shrill voice?

Finally, panting and sweaty, even Moody had to give up. "He was right, Albus. It doesn't seem to have offensive capabilities." Looking Black up and down, he sneered, "Besides the obvious, I mean."

"Yes, I believe that's true." Dumbledore was looking thoughtful, always a dangerous thing. "I think Sirius has had enough for one day."

Indeed, the mutt was all but hanging in Severus' arms. The foetus apparently leeched Black's own strength and magic to replenish its protections, and the man was in poor enough shape to begin with. "Which," said Severus, "inevitably leads us to the conclusion that if the implant is able to sap his strength, we could perhaps kill Black, and thus the implant, by continuing bombardment." Killing Black with the Order backing him didn't sound any more appealing now than simply doing it himself had. He swept a sopping handful of hair out of his face, only then noticing the steady drizzle.

"I think we shan't, Severus," came the firm reply from Dumbledore. "There are more important considerations to explore here."

Moody was not climbing into that boat. He turned angrily on the Headmaster. "What if it's a portkey? And how do we know this thing can't spy on us?"

"That is why Sirius has been sequestered here with Severus, instead of in a place of delicate operations. I think if it were a portkey, it would have been set off already. Now, let us go so that Sirius can recover from a rather too-long morning."

Severus could still hear Moody's harangue as he wrestled the half-aware Black into the house and dumped him on the bed.

It was still raining when the wards chimed Potter's arrival. Wind-lashed and dripping, he landed in the lane and bounded up the path, screaming, "Sirius! Sirius!" at the top of his lungs. It was a wonder that the Dark Lord couldn't hear him from wherever he was.

The study window provided a vantage point as Black, much more slowly, exited the cottage and made his way forward, almost knocked on his arse when Potter all but leapt upon him. "Oh, God, Sirius, it really is you! I'm so happy, I couldn't believe it, let me see you," the boy bubbled, holding Black at arm's length and then crushing him to his chest once more. Even from where he sat, it was obvious that the raindrops on Potter's face were supplemented by tears.

One more astringent awareness; even the very few who might shed a tear at his own demise would hardly become watering pots should he ever return from the dead.

"Harry, Harry." It sounded as if Black was laughing and crying all together. "How did you get here? Surely they didn't send you alone!"

"Tonks and Shacklebolt flew me to the wards. They wouldn't let me apparate, said I was too excited, I'd splinch myself." His sulky pout showed exactly what he thought of that.

"Come on in, we'll get you dried off."

"No, wait!" Potter pulled away, hands still gripping Black's shoulders. "We've got to get you out of here! You can't stay here, he'll -- if he can't get that out of you, or even if he can, he'll figure out a way to use you! They'll. You'll. He'll make you bait. I know it. And I'll lose you again. I can't let him!" Frantically, he started pulling at Black, as if to drag him down the road, away from this house of horrors.

"Calm down! Harry, calm down, please." Yet more words he'd never expected to hear fall from Black's lips. The man was rocking, trying to keep his feet under him on the muddy path, trying to avoid being hauled down the lane. "It's all right, it's okay, Snape is -- "

He didn't have the chance to hear what he was; Potter stopped still and shut Black up with a withering look almost equal to one of his own.

"Not Snape," Potter snarled. "Dumbledore."

So. Harry Potter was not so much the boy anymore.

The two stood on the path, eyeing each other somewhat uncertainly. Finally, Black said, "Let's get in out of the rain."

He heard Black lay a fire by hand in the kitchen fireplace before heading to the hall closet to find towels. A headful of scraggly wet hair poked into his study on the way back. "Severus, do you have something Harry can wear?"

"Of course. I keep my wardrobe fashionably up to date just in case nude visitors drop by."

"You should be so lucky."

He ignored the snicker. Rolling his eyes, he fetched a robe. "Here. Please do remind me to burn this, later." Then, as Black settled himself into the kitchen with the boy, Severus flicked his wand at the wall. "Translucio." No need for an Extendable Ear; this was not his own house for nothing. Yes, after all these years of keeping a spoonful of life for himself, he would become the spy in his own beloved home.

Now he would have answers. Now he would hear the truth. Black was a terrible liar at his best -- there was no way he'd be able to conceal the truth from Potter.

He watched avidly as the two made the kitchen seem smaller than it really was, a dance hall in miniature filled with their sudden discomfort and their sidesteps. Black turned his back, making tea while Potter disrobed, but Severus could see his face, and on it was all the hope and wishful optimism only a Gryffindor could muster. How touching.

A little tea sloshed on the table when Potter sat across from Black and picked up his cup. "Sorry," he mumbled.

"It's nothing. Harry, there's only one thing that's important to me, and that's that I'm here with you."

"Sirius," Potter whispered, "I'm scared for you." His now-frightened gaze latched onto Black's middle. "What is it?"

"Harry," parrotted Black with a smile, "it's a baby."

"But . . . but He . . . "

"I think it's a human baby, truly, Harry. Why would Voldemort go to this kind of effort to produce a monster? He can do that out of a cauldron; you saw it happen yourself."

"Yes." Potter whitened to the unkempt spikes of his dark fringe.

"And . . . if this baby had part of its origins in Narcissa, as I suspect . . . or even Bellatrix; as evil as she grew up to be, she didn't start that way -- you understand that it would be my niece or nephew."

Potter looked the way Severus felt. He looked as if he would vomit. "Don't say that! It's -- it's horrible!"

Where had Black got these flights of fancy, this romantic drivel? Blood was important to the wizarding world, no doubt of that, family blood even more so. Blood, prejudice and the lust for power had combined to cause civil war. But this interest in the foetus . . . he wondered if this was an effect the Blood Magic itself was creating.

"Harry, if they can find a way to get this out of me, I'll do whatever it takes. We can't take the chance. I understand that. I came here begging Severus to kill me because I couldn't think of any other options."

"Merlin! What did Snape say?" Potter glanced anxiously around the kitchen as if the killing blow could still come any moment. "I can't believe you're still alive."

Black reached to the end of the table and sparked an extra candle against the day's failing light. Rain still bled clear against the windows. "Snape's all right. He's helping me." Black's wan smile fed the small, traitorous snake of warmth creeping through Severus' insides.

"What?" The fish face was not appealing on Potter. "The last time -- before you. Before you. Died." Gulping for breath, he went on. "Snape wouldn't lift a finger to make sure you were safe! What's got into you?" Eyes wide, he glanced once at Black's belly and then looked away.

"Of course he did. He had his own means of finding out where I was." Black's voice was gentler now. "I know you wanted to save me, Harry, and I sure as hell wanted to save you. I'd have done about anything to get out of that house. There was nothing that could keep me there when you were in danger. We were quite a pair." Black squeezed Potter's hand across the table.

Severus almost missed the next words, they were so quiet. "I killed you."

"No! No!" The shout banged through the kitchen, rattling the cups. "No, never you!"

"You mean . . . you don't hate me?" The almost-adult voice broke like a rusty hinge. Potter wiped his nose with the sleeve of the borrowed robe.

"My own overconfidence sent me through the Veil. That and my dear cousin." Black rose and enfolded the boy in his arms. "Even if it had been your own curse that knocked me through, I still could never hate you. You followed your heart in order to save my life. I can't help but be happy about that, no matter what the consequences."

Potter said nothing, simply clung to Black with his shoulders shaking.

Severus viciously swiped the moisture from his own eyes, as sickened by his own envy as by Black's sentimentality. Such acceptance would never be there for him, cleansing him of his monstrous acts with the generous hand of love. He rubbed his temples against the miserable headache blossoming there and forced the voice away.

A tentative question from Potter raised Severus' eyes once more. "Was it . . . was it all right, there, for you?"

"Oh, Harry, it was all right." Black shook the thin shoulders a little and pulled another chair closer so he could sit down beside his godson. "It was terrible, and it was wonderful."

Potter raised his tear-stained face. "W-what do you mean?"

"I mean . . . " Black puffed out his chest, then exhaled the long breath. "It was cold at first, I won't lie to you. I wandered for a long time in the darkness, never catching a hint of anything, just walking. I was shivering, freezing, and I knew I had to keep moving. There was something flat under my feet, like standing on the kitchen floor. I never bumped into anything, just walked. I kept thinking that if I could reorient myself, I could walk right back out, but it didn't happen."

Black got up to throw a couple of logs on the fire, then stood in front of it staring at the flames. "It seemed days until I finally saw a light in the darkness. I thought it was -- well, I had no idea what it was. By that time, it didn't matter whether that bit of light was good or bad, only that there was something there. And it was something, or rather . . . somebody." He started pacing back and forth across the small room, which by now must be unbearably warm. Potter's face turned, following his every move.

"Who?" The quiet question hung in the silent kitchen.

"Just a man who'd crossed the Veil for the right reasons." Black shrugged, a youthfully graceful gesture. "He couldn't see me, had no idea I was there. I could pass my hand right through him, just like you can with Nearly Headless Nick, except . . . it was warm instead of cold. I held my hands in him to warm, until it got too creepy." He dropped back into his chair abruptly on his next pass by the table.

"Then, slowly, others appeared, their dim glow like torches in the darkness. There was still just the dark, and me, and them. I tried everything to get their attention, anything just to talk to someone, but it was no good. Finally I just couldn't stand the cold any longer, and . . . I crawled into the next passing ghost."

A nervous giggle came from Potter.

"Yeah, well, it wasn't really funny until I found out what was happening. Those people, Muggles, wizards, all of them -- did you ever hear Muggles say that when you die, your life passes before your eyes?" Potter's nod encouraged him. "It's true. They were all in their own little worlds, experiencing the joys and traumas of the life they'd lived." Black sighed. "I'd always wondered whether we were all the same in the end -- I mean, after death. I'd never known we were all the same to begin with."

The same? What a pile of Rodentia droppings that was. Severus was almost disgusted enough to wave the wall opaque again. Almost, but not quite. Potter himself sat silent.

"I lived their lives, Harry. Dead people kept me warm and sane. Or as sane as I was likely to be at that point, at least." Black took a drink of his doubtless cold tea. "I climbed Everest! Died doing it, but what the hell." He grinned brilliantly, his eyes jostling with memories. "I sang Portuguese lullabyes to the beautiful baby girl at my breast. I shrunk human heads with a tribe in New Guinea. Strange lot, there. I think it's the malaria that does it."

"That's . . . that's what you did, for a year?" The boy's voice was rough, as if he couldn't quite speak properly.

"Don't know. Time, well, never saw any clocks behind the Veil." Black reached for the boy's hand and held it. "I lived other people's loves and losses, their happiness and disappointments, as if they were my own. And when their lives were over and they disappeared, I moved on to the next glow of warmth in the darkness. I learned how little really separates us. But I couldn't go forward, and I couldn't come back. I was stuck there. Nothing was mine. No matter what I did, I was still trapped after all those years."

"What . . . what happened then?"

"Voldemort happened," said Black grimly. "He found another entrance to the Veil in Albania when He was hiding out years ago. Muggles were using it as some kind of altar, apparently. I won't even think about human sacrifices. He's been traveling back and forth ever since."

Potter stood. He was shaking as if still cold and wet. "I've got to go."

"Stay." Black held out his hand in appeal.

Just like the mutt to invite someone to stay in a home that didn't belong to him.

"I can't. Tonks and Kingsley will be waiting." He picked up his own clothes, now dried by the fire, and began to dress under the robe Severus had loaned.

"Look, Sirius, I brought you something." He pulled a small book from a trouser pocket. It must have been spelled for protection against the elements. "Hermione -- she found it in the library. It's a wizard's journal of his near-death experience. How he crossed and came back. It was so old the translation charms didn't work well, and she sent it to Charlie in Romania to see if he could find somebody who could . . . " Potter stopped, staring bleakly at the inoffensive book.

When he looked up, his eyes were wet again. "We never quit trying to get you back."

"Thank you."

As Black put a hand on Potter's shoulder and pulled him closer, Severus choked out, "Opacio!" The wall obscured whatever they chose to tender as goodbyes.

*

They'd eaten a decent roast chicken for dinner and retired to the parlour, piling the fireplace with wood to keep the damp chill away. Severus thought they were both a bit worn by the afternoon's events. Black lay on the sofa, consumed by his own thoughts, head propped on the cushioned arm. He was holding the book Potter had given him, but not reading it. His hair, now clean and thoroughly brushed, hung over the edge, seeming to absorb the firelight into its dark strands. This quietude was disturbing in a man Severus was used to thinking of as hyperkinetic.

Severus sat in the velvet-covered chair, a ball of foxfire lighting his work. At a loss for something to keep his hands busy, thereby keeping his brain comfortably numb, he'd picked up a cone of unicorn horn. The cottage was scattered with his carvings, their delicacy a testament to the thousands of hours he'd spent in this fine knifework. Currently, he was making a dog's breakfast of a very valuable piece of material. It didn't matter. He'd sacrifice anything right now for some peace.

Black's very self-possession piqued him. He couldn't stop watching the man from behind his own curtain of hair. What was it about him that made Severus so uneasy? He'd never felt like this in Black's presence before. He had never feared Black. Disdained him, yes, but fear was reserved for such as Voldemort. Still, he could not stop the prickling at the back of his neck when Black sighed. In his abstraction, the fine-bladed knife slipped.

His sharply indrawn breath vibrated in the dim, close room. A swift dark shape across the bookcase, leaching up the glow of foxfire, was his only warning.

"You're bleeding." That was all Black said before he sank to his knees and kissed the trickle of red from Severus' index finger. Mouth agape, Severus knew that all he had to do was rise. He could stand. He could. He could stand and walk away. Except . . . the vision of Black on his knees before him was as powerful as any body bind. He could do nothing but watch as the tip of his finger, then the knuckle, disappeared between Black's lips, a sight more debauched than the warmth and wetness of Black's mouth.

"I know what you need."

You have no idea what I need. The words only buzzed like a snitch around his empty brain. He wanted to say it, but his wishes didn't matter. His mouth was as paralysed as his knees. No angry words surfaced as Black swept aside his robes. No objection voiced itself as Black parted Severus' legs. No scornful jibes rent the room as Black plunged beautiful white hands, as delicate as any ivory carving, into his underclothes, and withdrew his half-hard cock. Even I don't know what I need.

It couldn't be this -- no, it couldn't be. This person in the chair wasn't him. It couldn't be him mewling as Black's lips touched the tender, half-exposed head so gently. He couldn't be seeing long hair shift across his bare pale legs as Black lapped at his shaft, couldn't be feeling he'd break into a million pieces against Black's tongue.

Lucius had forced a house elf to do this to him, once. His protests went unheard. With his hands tied, desperate for relief after a long session of ministering to Lucius, it may have been that they lacked a certain firmness. For the perhaps two minutes it lasted, it was fully as humiliating as it was pleasurable. "Don't be ridiculous, Severus," Lucius had jeered in the face of his anger. "No one else would suck you."

This experience was nothing like the other, save that his hands might as well be tied; he felt just that helpless. Waves of sensation possessed him, relieving him of his will. They pumped through his body in the rhythm of the mouth as it slid up and down, soothing and inflaming. The occasional nick of a tooth was simply piquant in such a feast as he'd never had. Hard hands pinned his legs against the chair; that was how Severus knew that his hips tried to push up, up toward the ecstasy, tried to rock more deeply into Black's soft mouth.

Hot moisture surrounded his cock. He was completely swallowed up. Everything in him was disappearing into Black. Black would take everything, so much more than Lucius ever had. It was frightening. It was awful.

It was irresistible.

So lost inside himself, it took long moments to register that all movement had stopped. Of course; payment for music rendered. He wished that the piper could have waited just minutes longer. Still, what better payment could there be than to watch Severus' obvious distress? The ludicrous sight of his needy, wet cock begging the charity of just one more touch would amuse the most jaded man.

He opened his eyes as little as possible, barely enough to see from under his lashes. Black's face was wild with triumph. Severus groaned. Black had accomplished his ends beyond his wildest dreams, if only he knew.

"You like this."

Severus was not surprised by the eager gloating in the harsh voice. No point in denial. "Yes."

"Look at me!"

He opened his eyes fully, willing them to show only a bovine blankness. Severus was so very good at following orders. Black's eyes glittered with victory, but also with hunger. Perhaps in appeasing that hunger, Severus could earn himself the finishing touch. "What . . . what do . . . " Coherence was not an option right now, with the carbonated bliss still rising in his blood.

"Down." Black pulled at his hips, tugging Severus lower in the chair so that his genitals were more available, and then slowly licked his own finger. Once. Twice. Three times. Severus' response to that was no more than a whimper. This he understood; this he could cope with. Most likely Black could fuck him from where he was kneeling, even with his burden. He squirmed down farther and relaxed as much as possible, but there was no jab at his anus. Instead, Black seemed to be . . . caressing him.

The sweet, lingering touch almost lifted him from the chair by itself. A gentle scratching against his sensitive perineum and a light roll of his balls intensified it tenfold. For all he could tell, he was indeed floating in air. The finger pushed inside, slow and steady, but he lost awareness of it when Black's mouth engulfed his cock again. He wailed. This opened the floodgates, and strange things came pouring from his mouth -- moans, cries, and when Black nudged his prostate, a banshee shriek. "You . . . oh, Black, I need . . . "

Black pulled his mouth away, licking at his lips with every evidence of relish. "Name. Say my name." The light in his eyes seemed more teasing than vengeful.

"Sirius." He rolled his hips against Black's finger as best he could in this odd position, trying to get more. For the first time in his life, he was longing to be filled. He would say anything for more. A second finger pressed its way inside him. "Sirius!"

The response, a hum and a mumble around his shaft, took him that last bit further, and his hips thrust of their own accord. His lungs stuttered and his eyes burned; he watched dazedly as Black tried to swallow. There was too much, and it dribbled from the corner of his mouth. The wrenching pull of orgasm slowly faded Severus' lips were numb, but he tried anyway. "You . . . did you . . . I could . . . "

" 'S okay. Took care of it." Black waved at his open robe and the still-stiff penis displayed there. With its slight curve framed by dark curls and the black slash of robe, it was more than appealing; it was mouth-watering.

"Next time . . . save it for me." As he heard his own groggy words, he winced. Sex was one thing, but talking about it was something completely different, and making demands was entirely beyond his experience. So, it seemed, had been most things sexually pleasurable.

To his relief, Sirius just grinned at his presumption. "Gladly." He used the arms of the chair to hoist himself up from the floor. He'd been kneeling on a pillow, one whose surface was now spattered with semen. "Damn . . . can we go to bed? My knees are killing me."

When Severus struggled up, his legs were so weak that he, too, needed to lean on the arms of the chair for balance. As he did, he noticed several small triangles torn in the velvet, but he was too tired to do anything about it now. They tottered off to the bedroom like two very old men, the lame leading the halt.

Later that night, when the nightmares started, Severus clung to the burning belly, cupped his hands around Sirius' face, and kissed him gently until the whimpers subsided. "Sirius," he whispered, pushing his nose into the soft, dark hair that smelled of rain. "Sirius."

*

Black walked into the kitchen stifling a yawn as Severus drank his third cup of coffee. All signs pointed to a difficult day, and he might as well be prepared.

"You don't always have to make breakfast, you know," said Black, as Severus waved over the steaming dishes. "I feel guilty being slaved over like this. Not that it's not pleasant." He looked up from under his brows as he spread the serviette on his lap, an oddly appealing portrait.

"I wouldn't trust you with my breakfast," Severus snorted.

"You seem to trust me with your body." His strangely open look forcibly reminded Severus that the man was a canine in his spare time. Surely only an Animagus could make genuine puppy eyes.

Trust. He did seem to trust Black, didn't he? The relationship with Malfoy had nothing to do with trust -- it was a bargain, pure and simple. Use of Severus' body in return for tutelage in the Dark Arts and entrée into the Dark Lord's circle. At the time, it was all he had to bargain with. Looking back, he knew that it was not the kind of mentoring he'd really wanted. Suave, handsome and powerful as young Lucius Malfoy undoubtedly was, his knowledge of the Dark Arts was only slightly greater than Severus' own.

Severus could admit now that it had been just an excuse. He'd hoped for something more -- affection, at least; he'd craved affection so badly when he was young. He'd even had air dreams that Malfoy might become a real lover, so entranced was he by Lucius' beauty. However, Malfoy was not one to give anything away. Severus was just lucky the man had not already moved on to the more esoteric and distasteful sex practices he acquired later in life.

In the end, Severus had been clever enough to extricate himself from their agreement without making the man into an enemy. Malfoy would have been a much more formidable enemy than sex partner. For the last twenty years, Severus had chosen not to pursue sexual activity with anyone else. It wasn't a matter of trust. The dubious pleasures of the flesh simply had not seemed worth it.

He was beginning to think otherwise.

Black stared at him, awaiting a response. Why? Oh, yes, they'd nearly been having a conversation before he'd drifted back to the bad old days. Breakfast. Sex. Trust. Two of those were subjects that usually did not come up of a morning.

"As for trusting you with my body more than my breakfast, the moment you show up with salt and pepper, Black, I am -- as they say -- out of here."

The delighted laugh that provoked seemed more than the mild witticism deserved, and it didn't take a moment to find out why. "I didn't need salt or pepper last night." Black's leer took him aback until the meaning settled in. Pity that blood flow was an autonomic response. Severus was fairly sure he had never blushed before. Black prattled on. "I'd like it if you called me Sirius when we're not having sex, as well. Seems a bit friendlier."

Severus squirmed under the encouraging gaze. "I don't call you by your given name because we are not friends." He was proud of himself for being so firm. That should stifle any such talk.

"Tell it to the Quibbler. Anybody not trying to impregnate me with alien babies is my friend right now, Severus." The dark eyes were now quietly assessing. "I heard you tell Mad-Eye to lay off with the spells yesterday."

"You were hallucinating."

"Was not." The smug childish taunt sounded strangely warm and comfortable from Black's lips.

"Believe what you like, then. I have no time to argue the point. An early owl brought instructions to meet with Dumbledore in Hogwarts at ten."

*

Dumbledore's orders were to the point, and not unexpected. After all, even Potter had known what was bound to happen.

"I think Voldemort needs to know the parcel is in a safe place, Severus."

"At least that should stop Him raiding the villages around Macnair's estate," said Severus dryly. "So you really will use him as a lure. Don't you think the first thing He'll do is to retrieve the package?"

"I trust you to forestall that possibility."

"Of course, Headmaster."

*

He crawled. That was the worst part; it was always the worst part. It was the one thing he'd never grown used to in all those years. Pain was only pain, and mostly temporary. Humiliation, it seemed, had dogged him forever. Grovelling before Voldemort had always grated, even when he was desperate to court his Lord's pleasure. And it was worse now, with the rank smell of that mouldering . . . thing, born of live blood and dead bone. Did he not wash it? Or was it too far gone? No wonder he needed a new body so badly. This one was far past its sell-by date.

Shite, he needed to get out of his own thoughts before Voldemort suspected anything.

"My Lord, I have news." He kept his eyes on the floor until Voldemort lifted his chin with a booted foot. The knife-sharp silver ornament on the dragonhide boot sliced at the skin under his jaw -- not just painful, but far too close to his jugular for comfort.

"So your message said." The freakish carnelian eyes dissected him. "Tell me."

"I have Black."

The boot eased down and away, allowing Severus to fill his lungs again. He could feel a thin line of blood leak down this throat. The Dark Lord almost vibrated with interest. The stench around them coagulated into a putrid-coloured mist.

"Very good." Voldemort's death's-head grin appeared, a rictus of approval. It would have been somewhat less repulsive had it included human teeth, but the fangs glinted vilely in the torchlight. Leaning back against the elaborately chased gold chair, His de facto throne, the man-monster would have purred if vipers only could. "How?"

"Members of the Order Of The Phoenix found him wandering the streets of Muggle London, Master."

Voldemort nodded thoughtfully. "He must have been looking for the safe-house they keep there. Go on."

"They felt that as I am widely known to hate Black, my home would be the safest possible place to keep him. No one would think to look there."

The sheer volume of Voldemort's shriek nearly knocked him flat. "He is at your home?"

"Yes, my Lord. They brought him this morning."

The Dark Lord looked as if He might breathe fire. "And you are not there to guard him?" His voice battered inside Severus' head. His anger roiled, curling sinuously wall to wall, ready to erupt. The results could be so easily be fatal, and not just for him. Without Severus' intervention, there was no telling what would happen to Black. The Order had not the brains nor the deviousness to solve a problem this delicate.

Severus cowered, forehead to the floor, breathing in the dust of centuries from the cold stone. It was not entirely a performance. The outcome of this encounter was more important than the others. This time he was not just pleading for his own skin, or that of faceless, mindless Muggles. "Forgive me, please, Master, I wanted to speak to You as soon as -- "

Voldemort cut off his excuses. The voice dropped to pale, eerie hollowness. His fury subsided in the poisonous air of the room. The change alone made Severus' skin go cold. The repugnant combination of snake and man was hissing further into dementia. "Yes, yes, you are right. He is safe enough where the Order has put him." Voldemort must have watched him for several minutes. They seemed like hours as the uneven flags ground into his kneecaps. The miasma of stench and foul colour floated around him; with his nose pressed into the granite, he could not see it, but he could feel its touch like rank dew falling on his skin.

The room was stiflingly hot; silent fires roared unheard in both of two massive fireplaces, one at each end of the room. Voldemort seemed to prefer more than adequate warmth these days; His serpentine nature must be reasserting itself over the part-human body. The silence of the fires was disconcerting. He wanted to slap his ears to see if they were working properly. Finally, Voldemort said, "Raise your head. Did he tell you all he knows?"

"I believe so. He has shared confidences. Despite our mutual . . . antagonism, he trusts me implicitly in this matter, as do the others of the Order. He will make no attempt to escape." Voldemort snaked a tendril of consciousness into his brain, and Severus concentrated on the memory of Black's tale. Sweat gathered in the fold of flesh at his neck.

"You had better be right."

"I am, my Lord."

"I must impress upon you just how important this is to me. I shall tell you a story, and I'm sure I need not mention that it is for your ears alone."

"Thank you. Thank you, my Lord." His gratitude for this gift was entirely unfeigned. It was what he'd come for. Not what Dumbledore had sent him for, but what he'd come for.

Not nearly soon enough, their little interview was over. Voldemort Disapparated with a swirl of ermine and an earsplitting crack. Sparkling lights drifted through the coloured mist still hanging in the room, as if some vestige of the Dark Lord remained there, watching. Voldemort knew the advantage of showmanship. If His parlour tricks didn't seem as elaborate as usual, what need did He have to impress Severus with gimmicks now that He'd brought a man back from the dead?

Lightheaded with relief, Severus clutched at the portkey as it wrenched him back to Hogsmeade.

*

Hours later, after a debriefing with Dumbledore, he wanted nothing more than to return home. Tainted and dirty, the crusted bottom of a beaker whose metallic draught had suffered a too-hot flame for much too long, Severus was brittle; at any moment bits of him could crumble away like blackened crisps of scoria. Projecting slavish loyalty was difficult enough without also trying to stifle the urge to strike out and kill Voldemort himself. Today's meeting had been worse than all the others, knowing that Black's life rested on his efforts. Though why he should care about Black's life -- well, it wasn't like he had another good fuck lined up.

As he trudged up the path to his home, he was so intent upon getting inside and getting clean that even knowing Black would be there waiting, filling the house with his aggravating presence, had not the power to bother him . . . until the moment when he came abreast of the open front door and saw Sirius Black in Remus Lupin's arms. He had not thought he could possibly skim closer to breaking than he already was.

The two men embraced in the doorway for all to see, arms wrapped tight, belly to enormous belly, looking as if neither would be able to stand alone. Late afternoon sunlight gilded them as if they belonged completely to each other and this charming, pastoral cottage in the fields.

Black's face, flushed and relaxed, almost free of care and the marks of suffering, had taken on the sheen of a young man's beauty. His long, wavy hair fell across Lupin's arm as they held each other, Black's chin on Lupin's shoulder. His lips, as he spoke something Severus could not hear, were parted, soft and inviting, slightly puffy as they had been after . . . after . . . last night. Oh, God. Oh, Hestia. The two of them . . . together. In his house. In his . . . oh, fucking Salazar, in his bed.

A shriek of rage rose from his guts. He shuddered, but held his own against it. There was so very little left to hold on with. When he could speak, he shouted from where he stood. "Lupin! Black! Take yourselves from my doorway!"

"Severus!" Black turned his head and looking at him with bright eyes. "I'm glad to see you. The talk with Dumbledore went well? I was a bit worried when you took so long."

"And well you should have been. Get out of my way." He stepped up briskly and twisted to slide past the two men without touching either of them. He was dirty enough now; he needed no more slag to touch him this day.

"Severus!" Lupin's startlement followed him down the hall.

He would allow no more of this. He did not turn around. "Get out of my house." His voice was a cold as his fingers.

"Forget it, Moony, looks like it's been a bad day." Severus slammed the bathroom door on their fading voices.

Yes. Forget it. Oh, to be able to forget it all. But it wouldn't scrub off; not the memory of cringing before Voldemort on Black's behalf nor the sight of him so wrapped up in Lupin that he hadn't even noticed the wards chime. So wrapped in Lupin that he'd forego his caution and possibly his life. How dare he, after what Severus had done? It wouldn't hurt as much if he hadn't put his own life on the line for Black. Or if he hadn't seen Black's face while he did.

He crawled out of the bath when the pain in his head became unbearable. It wasn't to his study for a headache remedy that his feet moved, though; it was to the kitchen cabinet. He took down the bottle of Scottish and filled the oversized mug, then tossed down as much as he could, coughing and sniffling as the heat of it went up his nose. He forced down the rest and hung his head over the sink, willing himself not to vomit it back up.

A gentle hand brushed the hair from his face. "Are you all right?"

One fist shot up to block as he shoved himself backwards, almost losing his balance. "I told you to get out." The words were a barely intelligible snarl. "Get out of my house!"

"Come on, let's get some food into you. After a bad day, that much Scotch will go straight to your head ."

Finally, he lifted his head and looked Black in the eye. He was completely calm, fully composed. "You're acting like my mother. You're not. You're just a shameless slut."

"Good thing you like me that way," Black smirked, and tried to take his raised arm.

Severus smacked him away. Black, unbalanced by his heavy midsection, grabbed for purchase. Gathering all the strength he had left, he took advantage of Black's lack of footing to push and turn, and managed to rap him smartly up against the wall. Black looked a little dazed after his head bounced once or twice. He hoped the son of a bitch's brains were rattling in his skull.

"You baboon!" Severus had never known he could screech like a Billingsgate fishwife. His hands wound in Black's robe, pulling it tight about his neck. "Don't you try to tell me what I like!"

Struggling, Black knocked them both to the floor, where they rolled until Severus ended up flat on his back with Black sitting on him, buttocks riding his cock. He groaned at the indignity of his rising erection. The other man's wand was out, the tip digging into his throat. Betrayed by both his nemesis and his own body, the fight left him. He lay panting uselessly, knowing he was about to see the end -- if not of his life, then of his dreams, dreams he hadn't even known still lived inside him until today. Dreams of being held, of being touched, of being . . . loved.

"If you don't tell me what the flaming fuck is going on here, I'm going to hex you stupid -- no, wait, you're already stupid! And then I'm going straight into your head and I'll find out for myself!"

From his humiliating spot flat on the floor, Severus did his best to sneer. Black was apparently unimpressed.

"And don't think Occlumency will help you. I can do it, and you know I will. If I don't believe you, I'll damned well do it anyway."

Black could, and almost certainly would, do as he said. The thought of the man who'd just . . . done those things . . . rummaging about in Severus' pain made him sick. His eyes burned. His stomach protested the drink and the fight. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths through his nose; as deep as he could, at any rate. A heavy weight crushed him, a weight that wasn't Sirius Black. It might be the weight of the world. "All right. Fine. I'll tell you."

But he still couldn't. He remained silent as long as possible, until the wand tip began to burn his skin. "You. You and Lupin."

"Me and Lupin what?" Black demanded, as if his words were completely without sense.

"In my house. You couldn't wait. You couldn't even wait until . . . " he ran out of air and words, his adam's apple bobbing against the tip of the wand. In moments it would start sparking, and that would be almost as painful as this scenario. The spurned lover confronts his deceiver. No, they had never been lovers. Not really.

"Wait until what?" The confusion on Black's face hardened into understanding. "You're accusing me of banging my best friend! In your house, while you were gone! Are you out of your so-called mind?" He slapped his forehead. "You know, you're a nasty, jealous arsehole." A smug grin began to lift his full reddened lips. "Good thing I like you that way."

"You prick! You wretched scum! I come back after spending the day trying to keep you whole and alive, and find you two glued together on my own doorstep! I walked straight to the house; neither of you could even be bothered to heed the wards! I'd expect that of you," he scoffed, "but I thought the werewolf had brains enough for at least a modicum of self-preservation."

"You twit, they're your wards! Why would they chime for you?"

The scathing glare from above had no effect; it was the now-digested comment on jealousy that took him aback.

"But . . . you were . . . Your . . . your lips . . . " he trailed off.

"My lips?" Black set the wand down and touched the tips of his fingers to his mouth. "Oh, for fuck's sake, Severus! He brought me Strawberry Stingers!" Digging in his pockets, Black came up with a handful of wrapped candies. "Here." He unwrapped a piece, holding it to Severus' lips until he reluctantly opened his mouth.

Strawberries and cayenne exploded against his teeth, sweetness and heat almost painful in its intensity . . . his lips turned numb, along with the inside of his mouth.

"You know, your nasty ideas could hold water -- Merlin knows I love him -- if he wasn't getting himself a faceful of Tonks," Black muttered thoughtfully, "most likely as we speak."

"You mean . . . "

"I mean, sure, he looks quiet, but he had more of a reputation for his tongue than I ever did for my dick! I mean, the man is as straight as an oak wand. Didn't you listen to anything I told you the other night?" Black's exasperation poured over his open wounds, knitting the flesh and bone of them like a finely blended Corporatus Constringuo. "So I say we quit talking and get to the point."

"Which is?"

Black sighed with exaggerated patience. "It's obvious that you've never had a pet." He curled forward as far as he could over the mound of his belly and dropped a soft kiss on Severus' oversensitive lips. "You don't own a dog. A dog owns you." He stared unblinkingly at Severus, his brilliant eyes glowing strangely. "I followed you home, and I'm keeping you. I'm not going to let you bugger this up just because you're a couple flicks short of a spell."

Something threatened to melt in Severus' chest. He couldn’t let it. "How many have you . . . owned? In school, you'd lay any girl who'd have you. Which, from what I heard, was most of them." He looked up, eyes narrow, feeling like an idiot for just lying there on the floor. In actuality, it was the most comfortable place he'd been all day, far more so than the chair in Dumbledore's office or quailing at the feet of his rotting master. The warmth of Black's arse on his cock spread slowly through his body.

"You want the truth? You'll be disappointed." Black looked down over his rotund belly. He was still on his knees, holding up most of his own weight, but his hard thighs snugged against Severus' hips. The annoying git had the nerve to rock a little, dragging a small noise from Severus' throat.

"I tried girls. It was . . . it didn't work. I was embarrassed. I couldn't tell anybody that I couldn't, you know, do it." He made some kind of obscure arm-pumping motion, which, upon reflection, Severus understood perfectly. "Instead, I told my mates nobody would go out with me." Black's pale cheeks turned pink. "It backfired. James and Moony and Peter got together to help me, you know? 'Oh, poor Padfoot.' They convinced girls I never even had an ice-cream with to say I was hot in the sack, in hopes it would get around, and I could pull a date."

Black leaned back and rubbed his palms against his robes. "They knew word of mouth . . . uh . . . had worked for Moony, but for me, it . . . their plan sort of spiralled. By the end of seventh year, even they didn't know I wasn't shagging half the student body. Er."

He reached down, watching carefully as he trailed a finger along Severus' forearm, disturbing the fine hairs there in a very pleasing way. Their attention was now riveted on the slowly moving fingertip.

He had to concentrate. What had Black just said? "So you're saying . . . that you're . . . " Surely aeroplanes were overhead; there was a dull roar in his ears. "But you were years out of school before . . . "

"Before Azkaban. Yeah, well, I was still screwed in the head, wasn't I? I didn't want girls, but I sure as hell didn't want boys. At least I didn't want to want them. By the time I decided it was okay to like men, well -- let's just say Azkaban isn't conducive to a young man's fancy turning to thoughts of love."

Black pushed himself from the floor and stood, offering Severus a hand up. He didn't let go. "Neither is being on the run from the Ministry, when they're instructed to use due force. It's hard to ask someone over for dinner when the only thing on the menu is flame-broiled vermin. In short, I'm, uh." He cleared his throat. "I'm."

Severus couldn't help but take a step back. When he could move his mouth again, he managed, "You're the party of the first part in a virgin birth. Congratulations, Black, that hasn't happened in years."

The man beside him choked. "You do have a way of putting things, don't you?"

"I try my best." Severus sent him what he thought might be a beaming smile. His face didn't even hurt. Really, pretending modesty was not his forte.

"As long as I don't end up as the mother of the Dark Lord," responded Black grimly.

"As to that, I learned that you're more in the line of a surrogate mum."

"Come along to dinner, dear," Black twittered, falsetto, sounding amazingly like Molly Weasley in a good mood. "It's high time I asked about your day at the office."

*

They were in the process of demolishing a pair of excellent steaks when Black finally spoke, deep lines creasing the corners of his eyes. He looked every year his age now, and as weary as Severus had ever seen him. "So I should be wearing a pink knitted smock reading 'Baby By Bella.' Even I can understand why He didn't want her to carry it. Merlin alone knows what she'd do." He rubbed a hand over his face. "My dear old mum would be so proud of me for putting Voldemort on the Black family tapestry."

"Yes, it had to be a Black to carry your family's Dark magical heritage into the child undiluted. Voldemort needed your blood."

"Why he didn't just get Narcissa up the duff?"

"Must've been your fine breeder hips," smirked Severus. Black punched him on the shoulder for that, and he snared the heavy wrist. The man might not have much meat on him, but he surely had the bones. He watched the fingers as they flexed in a half-hearted attempt to escape his examination. They were smeared with butter, which simply wouldn't do.

"You're a mess, Black. Have you never learned to use a serviette?" Without stopping to think of what a fool he was making of himself, he licked the butter from the first finger. He'd always been very partial to the taste of butter. "After Draco, she couldn't. She was scarred internally, never completely recovered." He went on to the next finger. "Voldemort decided that as long as He had you, He wouldn't alienate his first lieutenant by damaging her further."

"I can tell you right now that it would most likely have damaged her to death," Black concurred. "It sure as hell didn't do me any good. And would you please call me Sirius!"

"Whatever." His agreement was garbled by having his tongue in between the ring and little fingers.

"And stop -- stop licking me! Unless, of course, you have no objection to me having my wicked way with you on top of this table."

"Really?" Severus dragged the word out far beyond the necessary. "Rumour has it that you don't even have wicked ways."

"I lack shagging, not wickedness."

Mouth open, he stared at the man on the chair beside him. Black, as he'd always suspected, was an unblushing cock-tease. The roguish smile might as well be an engraved invitation with a featheredge. Sirius Black had -- in the space of mere days -- returned from the dead, invaded his home, and turned his life upside down. Black had spaded up emotions and desires that he couldn't even begin to understand, much less cope with. Now he was offering Severus his body, casually as you please, at the kitchen table, over the remains of a dinner they'd eaten together.

Severus closed his mouth. Then he opened it again, yes, yes, now --

He heard himself say smoothly, "Oh, so you finally admit you are sorely deficient. Although I never understood it to be a physical problem." Oh, fuck. He hadn't intended to insult Black directly out of his bed. Dismayed, he stood and turned away from Black's angry rebuff.

A crow of laughter shocked him round again. "You're such a bloody wanker," chortled Sirius. "Listen, I've got an idea. If we're going to trade insults like a couple of kids, why don't we just do the full monty?"

Carefully he asked, "What do you mean?"

"Forget all the shit. Why don't we sack everything in between and just do what we really wanted to do twenty years ago? We could stop fighting and get on with the fucking. It'd be -- it'd be brilliant," he finished, sounding wistful. "How much would you pay to be sixteen again?"

Impossible.

"I just want -- I could peg it any day now." Sirius looked at the far wall. "It gets tiresome, you know, all this dying, when in a lot of ways I never really lived."

How could he forget any of it? How could Black forget, even for a moment? They were two men who'd seen a lot of things that they'd rather not have, men older than they should be. But as he thought about Sirius' words, the iron-banded gaol of his years and his wrongs creaked open just an inch, allowing in a shaft of hope.

Here, right now, he could be free, just for tonight. He could step away from his errors and his shame. He could take up his long-sold innocence with both hands, if he had the courage. The door was open. No one would stop him. To be free just once would be worth anything. Real life would resume with the next sunrise anyway; it wasn't like he could make things worse by reaching out. And he wasn't alone. If he were honest with himself, that was all he'd ever truly wanted.

Perhaps there was more value to being honest than venting his spleen and armouring his too-thin skin.

Without a word, Severus offered his hand. He helped Sirius from the chair, although the man moved fairly well for someone carrying a bludger under his robes. With Sirius, he walked out of solitary confinement and down the hall into the bedroom.

The firefly globe lamps in the room lent a warm cast to Sirius' pale skin, an attractive contrast with the dark hair and new-grown beard. Sirius' eyes did not need any such enhancement. They created their own warmth and light.

"You're very . . . " pretty, Severus wanted to say, and that was the only word he could think of, but he couldn't say that, so it stuck in his throat. Embarrassed, he turned his face away, busying himself with the clasp at his neck. It would not open; the catch would not release for his shaking hands. There were things about mutuality he'd never encountered. Everything about it, actually. He'd never needed to know what to say to Malfoy. It simply didn't matter. Now, when it mattered, he hadn't a snowball's chance in hell of doing it right.

Fully dressed, he felt as if he'd been stripped naked and spread on display, with no way to brace for what was to come. Sex had only ever happened to him.

Now, with Bl -- Sirius unexpectedly inexperienced and waiting to be made love to, they were both in the same place, ignorant and unsure. He stood there, frozen, one hand on the neck of his robe, and felt himself blanch. If he let go of everything that had happened to him since sixteen, that left him effectively . . . sixteen. Meaning he was every bit as callow and clumsy now as then.

"Severus, are you all right?" Black's face swam in front of his and for a moment he thought he was going to faint. "I know this bothers you." Black waved an arm across his midsection. True enough; he'd been getting on by ignoring the bulge as if it were some odd benign growth attached to Black's abdomen. He had an enormity of practice in overlooking the obvious. "Look, we don't have to do anything, it was just an idea."

"Backing out already, eh?" It was a pretext for escape, and Severus snatched at it in desperation. "Fine. I'll be -- I'll be in the bath." Yes, hiding in the bath, with the door locked and warded. What an incredibly ludicrous thing to say. He'd already shown himself needy and wanting; now he was showing himself a coward as well. His very presence here was an admission greater than he could disguise by running away.

Something snagged his robe as he turned. Black's fist hauled him back unceremoniously. "You just had a bath! You were sucking my fingers two minutes ago; what's wrong with you?"

The silence stretched out between them. Black's hand slackened, the robes uncrumpling from his fist; Black was going to let him go. Such a brief glimpse of freedom, and it was already gone . . . Forced to say something, anything, he stuttered out, "I -- I only know how to fight."

"Severus! Remember me? Sirius Black? I already know you're an obnoxious git."

Strangely enough, the harsh words settled his nerves. The only difference between those words and reality, as Severus had always known it, was that they sounded more fond than hateful. He shot back, "Only you would try to insult your way into my trousers."

"It's working, isn't it? Now get over here. I'm not asking for anything you haven't got, so I'll thank you to hand over the goods."

"Misbegotten riffraff."

"Arsewipe."

A rough croaking assailed his ears. He sank to his knees, trying to stifle the sounds. Roughly he pawed aside Black's robes, reaching in to find the limp penis hidden there. He put his mouth on it, only to be hauled to his feet again by Sirius' fists at his collar.

"Wait! What . . . " Black was nearly bug-eyed.

Severus took a long, swift step back, creating space from which to escape. "It's . . . it's what I wanted. When I was sixteen." All too clearly it was what he wanted now, as well. The only hope was that the other man was truly thick enough to overlook that. He stared at the floor. He refused to plead, even with his eyes.

"You didn't want much, did you?" Strangely, there was no ridicule in the soft voice of his enemy.

"No."

"I want so much more right now."

"So you get what you want, and I . . . " Was being on his knees not submissive enough for Sirius Black? "Then take it. Take anything." He stood straight-backed in front of the incarnation of his youthful lust, not looking at him, not knowing what to do.

"No, Severus, I need you to give it to me. I need you. That's what I want." Sirius held out his hands, palm up, fingers gesturing Severus closer. Severus took one step forward, just narrowly standing within reach. Hands closed about his upper arms. It was . . . strange, very nearly what Black and Lupin had been doing in the doorway, but surely it had not been quite like this. Reaching one hand tentatively to touch the other man's arm, he felt like a slab of lumber awaiting the sawblade.

With no sudden movements, Sirius pulled him closer, shifting him to one side of his protruding belly. Square, rawboned hands stroked his back, the way one would gentle a horse.

"Do you want to touch me? I want to touch you." It was as if Sirius enfolded him in his hoarse words, words only for the two of them; as if with their truth he could shut away the rest of the world.

"Yes." Severus lifted his arms to hold as he was held. It felt so good, so . . . nice. He was not used to such things, but as the wire-strung tension drained from him, he was willing to acknowledge that perhaps nice had more merit than he'd assigned it. Sirius radiated heat like a simmering cauldron; it warmed Severus to his toes. He swayed, ever so slightly, just enough that Black said, "I think I'd better get off my feet."

"Perhaps . . . we should repair to the bed." But for a few minutes, they did not move. They just stood, Sirius' lips against his collar, breath heating a moist circle on the skin underneath, while Severus combed a spill of dark hair with slow fingers. Neither of them were eager to give up this closeness, even for what might come after.

Incomprehensible. He, Severus Snape, was standing in his childhood bedroom pressed full stretch against the wiry body of Sirius Black. Sirius Black, who was wearing his robes -- something he'd managed not to think about from the moment he'd tossed garments at the man, thinking only to cover him as fast and as completely as possible. After all, one set of black robes was much like any other. But now that Severus was touching them, feeling the fine so-familiar texture of cotton lawn under his fingertips, it was obvious that the robes could belong to no one else. His robes, sheltering the nakedness of this stranger.

He was aware now that the man beside him, shoulder to shoulder and face to face, was no Sirius Black he'd ever known.

He followed the curve of ribs blindly, rejoicing in the knowledge that only one layer of cloth separated his hand from Sirius' skin. He remembered that skin, finer of grain and smoother even than Egyptian cotton. Remembering, he let his hand wander. A snort huffed against him.

"That tickles!" Sirius unsuccessfully tried to stifle what, an octave higher, would have been a giggle. Equally unsuccessfully, he tried to squirm away from the touch without actually leaving their embrace.

"Really?" Despite himself, Severus was completely . . . charmed. Even from the inside he could feel his face soften, his lips curving into something that had to be utterly fatuous. Good thing Black could not see his expression. Slowly, he tracked a finger across the lines of ribs again. He could feel that well-remembered skin twitching under the cotton.

"Hey!"

Sirius might be objecting in words, but Severus could feel a smile against his ear. "I've never tickled anyone before," he admitted softly. The corners of his mouth hitched upward. He didn't have the wherewithal to stop them.

"Oh, well, then." Sirius leaned back and gave him an almost flirtatious glance from under a raised brow. "By all means, let me show you how it's done."

Before Severus could move or even think, Sirius had his hands under the folds of his robe and was tapping his fingertips over Severus' crisp white shirt, over his ribs. They pattered like raindrops on the desert of his body.

His first bray startled both of them, and why shouldn't it? Black had seen him sneer, watched his lips twist in sarcasm, heard him snort in derision. Cold smiles, evil chuckles, mocking outbursts, cackles of feigned mirth, yes, but his old enemy had never heard him laugh. Not really, not like this. For his own part, Severus could go one better: he had never laughed. He had done all those other things, but could not remember a time when he'd given himself up to an expression of artless joy.

Severus was pushed to the bed and fell upon it, uncaring.

There were hands on him, fingers that played him like an instrument. They drew sounds from him, traveled up and down, their intent not to hurt or arouse, only to make music with his laughter. He squirmed under Sirius, who was laughing too, but not laughing at Severus. It was . . . fun, and that was unfamiliar and arousing all by itself. But it seemed that every new experience lately had brought trials with its ambiguous pleasures.

The laughter shaking his spare frame loosened something inside. Past thought, he understood that it was ropes. His ropes were as real as the ropes of magic that tied the foetus to Black. He'd borne them young and they'd only multiplied and tightened over his life, long twists of anger, pain, and resentment. They creaked and shifted and went slack; allowed him enough freedom to breathe, to move, to cry out, "Sirius!"

When Sirius startled and rocked back, he was bereft. Severus found himself in a strange place without his bearings, even knowing he was stretched across his childhood bed. The colours around him seemed deeper, brighter, cast with gold in the light of the firefly globes, but their outlines were indistinct. Even Sirius appeared hazy as he leaned in and wiped something from Severus' cheeks. The palm was followed by soft lips that soothed him and made him shiver.

"It's all right," whispered Sirius. "Come here."

And Severus was gathered in arms stronger than he would have expected; arms that held him together while he unravelled inside.

"Let's get your robe off."

Don't let me go, he wanted to say. Just don't let go.

Sirius did not let go; his hands were a lifeline on Severus' neck, the flat of his belly, the knob of his knee. His touch was all that anchored Severus to the bed, to the room itself. He was being stripped, cared for. Something about Sirius' touch suggested that their night was no longer to be about sex. He was being prepared for sleep. That was . . . not acceptable. Too fragile, too close to breaking, he needed help -- anything to protect himself, bandages to cover him, to stop his coming apart.

Sirius would cover him.

Forcing his hand to move, he tugged at the black robe until Sirius moved back up his body; then Severus pulled him down into a kiss that was more desperation than passion. Without this, he would die; he could feel the truth in every cell of his body. He was dissolving, ready to pour out. A pear left too long to ripen, he would burst his thin skin. Teeth clacked together as the man and his burden came down upon him. "Need . . ." he gasped. "I need . . . "

"Yes," said Sirius. The sibilance brushed his ear. "Anything."

Half-hard, Sirius' cock nudged at his hip. Severus knew that would save him, fill the breach, stop him from shattering. "Fuck me."

"How?" The gobsmacked look on Sirius' sharp-angled face would have been priceless had Severus not been so intent on only one thing.

"There's unguent in the side table. Get it. You can do it from your knees."

Sirius gave him a look that spoke of incipient disaster, but he ignored it, turning over as Sirius threw off his robe, exposing the undernourished body and the round weight he carried. In some curious bend of the fireflies' light, the magical bindings glowed softly pink. Severus looked away, bracing to hands and knees.

"Put some inside me with your fingers." He wondered that he was still able to think and speak, but he had to fill this bottomless urgency, and if that took words, then speak he would. "Hurry!" He was bending, breaking . . .

This time the fingers did jab in their haste, but he paid it no mind. So close to what he needed, so very close . . .

When Sirius leaned forward over him and touched the tip of his penis to Severus and asked, "Are you -- " he did what he had to do. He reached a hand back to pull at Sirius' arm, and shoved his arse backwards. Both of them cried out, Sirius perhaps from surprise, as his unbalanced weight drove him inside Severus. But the pain was only pain, and thus temporary. Even as he shouted, he could feel the rend in his soul being filled. It seemed that Black, too, could stopper death.

Afterward, after Sirius cleaned them up and settled down, he smiled and splayed one hand almost possessively over Severus' bony hip. "You know, I meant what I said to Harry."

"And what would that have been?" Flat on his back, completely limp, it was hard to be evasive, but he tried.

"Bollocks," returned Sirius equably. "I was behind the Veil, not brain-dead. I know you listened. You wouldn't be Severus Snape otherwise."

Severus batted aside his growing feeling that he was becoming no Snape he'd ever known. "To which gem of wisdom were you referring?"

"You're a good man, Severus. Not to mention one hell of a good shag." At Severus' surprise, he added, "Don't ponder it too much, mate." A sly smile curled Black's lips. It looked quite appealing on his dark features. "After all, you're the only shag."

"Then I shall take that for what it's worth." It was worth far more to him than Sirius could have imagined. Severus was the first man to take him to that kind of pleasure. That knowledge turned exquisitely inside him. He liked that. The barren rooms of his life were becoming filled to bursting with the force that was Sirius Black. He was not so sure he liked that.

"Sorry about all this." Sirius had turned solemn. "I mean it. I know it's nothing you wanted."

On the contrary, it seemed to be everything he'd ever wanted.

"I . . . " Severus could not say it. It was not merely that did he not want to; if that had been the single impediment, that knowledge was so deeply engraved into his flesh now that it could not help but flow out. In fact, he simply was not able to speak such a dearly bought truth. Nothing in his life had taught him how.

"It's nothing I wanted, God knows," the rough voice rumbled. "I mean . . . yeah, ever since Harry was born, I wanted a family. I always thought I'd have one some day. I just never saw myself like this."

Horror streaked through him. "That is not a child! It's a parasite!"

"No more so than any witch puts up with."

"You're completely deranged."

"Maybe so." Sirius sighed, sounding more contented than irked. Of course, given their activities, perhaps he was simply too satisfied to care.

"Sorry to burst your bubble, but Voldemort has been trying to work with the implant while you are asleep. He is trying to prepare it for the takeover by His own soul. I told you, you were having nightmares." Did the man never listen?

"Why don't I remember them, then?"

"It seems I have managed to, ah, thwart Him thus far."

"How?"

He stared at the ceiling. "I kissed you."

"You always did have a certain style, Severus."

Why did his name sound so appealing every time Black said it? "It's a good thing He doesn't have the same kind of connection with you that he has with Potter. I can only hope that something so simple continues to suffice."

"Me too. I want more of your kisses." Sirius was playing with Severus' hair, dragging fingers through the strands. He could feel pinpricks all the way to his elbows from it. "Do you know . . . do you have any idea why Voldemort wants the child handed over at the Department of Mysteries?"

Just thinking about it set Severus on edge. "Dumbledore didn't know, but I suspect he'll find out soon, if he hasn't already." Remembering how filth-ridden he'd been after his interview with Voldemort, he couldn't suppress a shiver.

"I don't suppose you know why He expects you to cut this out of me, either, then."

Severus turned his head. "He wants a bloody ritual! Nothing less could be dramatic enough for Him. And the bloodier the better, I'm guessing. I don't doubt He has a use for your spilled blood. He was never one to let things go to waste."

Sirius cupped his face with a generous palm. "It'll be okay. Don't worry."

He was now being told not to worry by a Gryffindor. There wasn't much lower he could go. Still, a soft kiss on his jaw went a long way toward mollifying him as he drifted off to sleep.

He did not waken to the sound of Black's moans that night.

*

While Severus fried tomato slices, Sirius poured boiling water over coffee grounds. Apparently he preferred his the Muggle way, and had transfigured himself some kind of coffee maker. The two of them fumbling about in the kitchen in the morning had become uncomfortably . . . comfortable.

"Severus, are you aware that your house . . . smells?"

"It's done some interesting things in the past -- or do you mean there's a distinctive scent?" He sniffed. Nothing unusual; in fact, the scent of coffee masked almost all else at the moment. "You were out in the rain yesterday. Surely you know that wet dog has olfactory properties all its own." Severus raised a brow and waited. He was not disappointed.

"Git." Black paused in his task with a smile. "You know, soon you won't be able to get any reaction out of me with that, so enjoy it now."

"I shall do my sorry best to find something else, then."

"I mean to say, your house smells like grass."

Severus shrugged and flipped the tomatoes onto plates, then charmed them with a Caldus. "It's not as if I never open the windows." He'd done it just yesterday, although inadvertently.

"Not grass, grass!" Sirius was more irritated over his lack of understanding than he had been by the dog comment. Severus had to be losing his touch. "You know. Weed. Ganja. Marijuana!"

"Ah!" His Inodoror must be weakening -- without it, the whole cottage would positively reek -- or perhaps the other man had a more sensitive nose than normal. An effect of his animagus form? "That would be the Cannabis Imajica."

Sirius gaped; the improbable white teeth glinted, not quite hidden inside the pink of his lips. Severus wanted to lick that mouth open just to taste them. "You have Imajica? I haven't even heard of that since we were in school! I really thought it was just a myth." Then he did a double take, staring at Severus with some kind of awe. "And how the hell would you get enough that I could smell it through the whole house?"

"It's not just Cannabis Imajica. It's my own cultivar." His tone lofty, he was already leading Sirius down the hall. A concealed door led his similarly-protected greenhouse and the drying shed beyond.

"Oh! That would be C. Imajica Egotisticalli, then?"

Severus' snarl died aborning as he faced a broad, gleaming grin that invited him to share the joke. He'd so seldom been asked to share anything that would leave a real smile on anyone's face, even at his own expense. He quickly turned away again as his own lips twitched upward, and opened the door with a flourish.

"Holy shit!"

Severus chortled inwardly; Black's eyes bulged like a House Elf's as he gazed upon hummock after hummock of jagged-leaf vegetation, bursting with life, viridescent in the dull light of the cloudy morning.

"What on earth do you intend to do with all this?" Sirius asked weakly. "You could get half of London toked up on it."

"I intend," he replied, "to retire a rich man." He strode down the narrow aisle, the cannabis leaves reaching out to brush congenially at their robes.

"Looks like it could work." The other man was tilting his head this way and that as he walked behind, as if still trying to take it all in. "What did you use as parent stock?"

A snort was his only answer.

"Fine, fine, it's proprietary then. Won't you tell me anything?"

"Imajica became mythical for its inebriant qualities, and stayed that way because its magic was highly unstable. After several years of searching, I came upon two varieties of Imajica that each bred true for some of the qualities I wanted -- potent stable magic, hardiness, vigorous growth, elevated THC content, and high tolerance to the trauma of harvest. The biggest stumbling block was the overproduction of male offspring in the cross."

"Is Cannabis Imajica dioecious?" At Severus' sidelong look, he blew a loud raspberry. "I did okay in Herbology, you know."

He'd forgotthat Sirius Black had, at one time, supposedly had a brain. "Yes, but they are imperfectly so. It is possible to change the sex of the plant during the prefloral phase, while they are bisexual. However, the application of auxins or ethylene during the bisexual phase tended to purge the magic, full stop. It took two more years of research before I found a solution." A hand-like glowing green bracket of leaves swept over his fingers as he held them out to touch a plant's crown.

"A bit friendly for shrubbery, aren't they?" Lines deepened between Sirius' brows.

Perhaps he was wondering what else the crop would do to the unwary. Better to keep him guessing, but the snicker broke free this time. "I rather imagine they know who provides the fertilizer around here."

"You always could shovel it with the best, Severus." Sirius looked around helplessly. "Who knew that one day you'd be surrounded by females wanting you to breed them?"

"Is that why they're so favourably disposed toward me? I must say, I've become quite adept with my wand."

When both of them laughed together, eyeing each other companionably, Severus thought this must be what it was like to have a friend. When Sirius said, "I like your laugh," he wondered if this was what it was like to have a lover.

*

"Must we have all this racket?" Severus had to shout over the din. Breakfast finished, he'd returned from his ablutions to find Sirius conducting the dishes as they washed themselves to the drums and pipes of the Regimental March. It was a bit off key. Quite a bit.

"Don't you like it?" Sirius seemed very happy indeed, and for a moment Severus thought to leave him to his annoying pleasures. But they did need to talk before he left.

"It's an insult to bagpipes, dishes, and innocent eardrums everywhere!" he yelled, strident in the room as the noise level decreased abruptly. "Since when do you have Highland leanings?"

Sirius leered. "Oh, I've always been known for my style at the caber toss."

"That explains those odd calluses -- the ones on your, ah, caber."

"Practice makes perfect, I've always said." Sirius twinkled in a most Dumbledorish manner. "I've determined to have all the fun I can while I'm still here. Even household chores have a certain appeal when one's been away for a while."

"You talk as if you've been on holiday!" Perhaps if he stared hard enough, he could see how Sirius' mind worked. More likely it would forever be opaque to him. Another thought occurred. "Is that what all this is about? A bit of fun?" His voice held a tension he didn't quite recognise.

Sirius looked at him soberly as the last pained note of the bagpipes died a mournful death. "I won't say I haven't enjoyed it. But it's more than that." Severus waited, a brow raised, but that was apparently all he had to say.

"Fine. It's not as if your motives are of any importance to me." He turned away, then remembered why he was in the kitchen in the first place. "I have business in Diagon Alley. I'll be away most of the day. Do try not to destroy the house in my absence."

"And business with the Order, I'll wager."

"Don't even think of crossing the wards. I'm sure you can imagine how many eyes are watching."

"I'm not so eager to leave this world again."

Severus relented. "I'll bring you a report."

"Would you bring me a chocolate frog or two?" The voice was so wistful, for such a simple request.

"If I have time." With a swirl of his robes, he swept from the kitchen and started for the edge of the wards.

*

"If you find you have more in stock, we'd appreciate it if you'd consider us."

He'd long since concluded his successful negotiations in Knockturn Alley; now he was in the offices of a Diagon Alley apothecary who was interested in acquiring more of his crop than he cared to sell her. "Perhaps later on."

Quietly she responded, "In any event, know that we're grateful for whatever you can spare." She was undoubtedly well aware of what price his wares had brought only a few doors away.

"It's the werewolves who should be."

As he took his leave, he considered why he'd all but given away a quarter of his unique harvest, to be sold at cost. Any werewolf who could find a sympathetic medi-witch or -wizard to write a prescription could buy it, if he or she had a few knuts.

This program was one of the very few examples of societal aid to werewolves, but it was hardly perfect. Those apothecaries who were willing to participate still had to have a supplier. Even Muggle-grown cannabis did not appear from thin air. It had long been known to assuage the pain of the monthly change in werewolves. His cultivar should work very well indeed. While he still held a certain resentment toward Lupin, over the years he'd grown aware of just how painful lycanthropy was.

If he could barter his very life for atonement, he might as well hand over a few bits of greenery, no matter how valuable.

*

The Order meeting was . . . different.

Yes, Dumbledore looked appropriately grave at the situation, saying that he had not yet received any intelligence on what was so important in the Department of Mysteries that Voldemort wanted to seize the child there. Remus Lupin added what few details Sirius had told him that seemed to have any bearing, mostly repeating things Snape had already reported. Harry Potter -- whom the Headmaster had finally admitted to the Order meetings, at last deeming it more dangerous to keep him out of the loop -- sat next to Lupin, looking mutinous.

Nothing unusual there.

Yes, Alastor Moody was exhorting the assembly to "Constant vigilance!" and demanding that they find some way to destroy Black and the thing he carried; or at least he didn't discriminate between the man and the rider. Arthur Weasley looked worried, and Kingsley Shacklebolt listened thoughtfully. Tonks knocked a full cup of tea into Molly Weasley's lap, who cried out and prevented Tonks from trying to help clean it up, which could have resulted in real bodily harm.

Perfectly normal.

In other words, a typical Order meeting, juggling reality between the hands of the practical and the absurd. With one difference: there was talk of using Sirius Black as bait to bring Voldemort within striking distance on the Order's terms.

"I fear it's the only way to draw Him out into the open," intoned Dumbledore. "We will do our level best to ensure that this battle does not end the way the last encounter at the Department of Mysteries did. This time, we will not be taken by surprise."

No one else voiced objections to this very Slytherin plan. Severus was startled enough to examine the group more carefully. Their closed faces -- Molly alone managed to look both ashamed and resolute; the others seemed more resigned -- told the story. They really were going to do it, and apparently with no further discussion, no insane Gryffindorish ideas tossed hither and thither.

He might have been in a crowd of Death Eaters. The pale faces circled in the too-bright light of the musty room painted a dreadful picture of how worn-down the Order was, anxious for any kind of advantage. They would follow the path of least resistance if they thought it had even a chance of working.

Thus began the breakdown of normalcy, further dismantled when Remus Lupin leapt to his feet and, for once in his life, made his opinion known. Loudly.

"Enough!" he bellowed at Moody, interrupting yet another cant on the necessity of vigilance and the elimination of persons dangerous to the Order. His outburst silenced the room except for Tonks, so startled that she tipped her chair over backwards. Her tiny shriek was smothered by the crash. Only Lupin reached a hand down to help her up; everyone else's attention was riveted on the werewolf.

"Instead of trying to figure out how to make a pawn of Sirius Black, a brave fighter for our cause and a friend to all of us, we should be planning ways to save him! What is wrong with you people? Are you so blinded by your fears that you will press this man into making the ultimate sacrifice not once, but twice?"

Lupin looked around the room, glaring at each of them in turn. "And you, Moody," he continued, "eager to see him die again by your own hand! I have never before been sickened by this group."

Some turned away from Lupin; others simply bristled with determination. Molly reddened, but said nothing. Even Tonks, who was standing beside Lupin, still holding his hand, said nothing. The value of Sirius' life, then, swung more to Moody's estimate than Lupin's. Where was all that vaunted Gryffindor courage now? Instead of pleasing him -- this sudden cynicism was all the better for his own continued existence -- it grated.

Using Sirius was the only sound decision, the only way to write their own scenario. Fine, so the Order had finally gained some sense, but why now, when Severus Snape had something at stake? At least one thing in the world was infallible: whatever was on his agenda was at odds with theirs. He glanced at Potter. The boy looked like he'd been backed into a corner, and, if poked one more time, might leap for the throat. For once, Severus would have been more satisfied if Potter had done just that.

Aggravated beyond bearing, despite the fact that Sirius had already given his implicit agreement to whatever the Order decided, Severus answered for himself and the boy. It was a strange day when he felt compelled to speak for Harry Potter. "A wise idea, to define Black's role -- fresh meat thrown to the predator -- in his absence." No one responded. Severus suspected none of the assembly was sure exactly what he meant by that.

"Remus," began Dumbledore in a pacific tone. "I know why -- "

"Remus!" shouted Potter, trampling heedlessly upon whatever sop the Headmaster intended. "I know why He wants Sirius in the Department of Mysteries!"

The group burst with babble now, relieved to avoid Lupin's righteous anger and desperate for anything they could use.

"Harry, what -- "

"Tell us!"

"Is it -- "

Dumbledore silenced them with a sweeping gesture. "I think we'd best let Harry speak." He brightened as if he'd caught a spark of possibility in his hand.

"When we were in one of the rooms, we saw something that I think Vo - Voldemort wants." All eyes were on him now. "There's this . . . thing, a time thing." He hesitated; obviously he had no idea how to explain something he didn't quite understand. "The bird is an egg, then it's born and flies up and gets older and falls back into the shell. It made a Death Eater's head into a baby's head."

"An Infinite Time Loop mechanism. Very good, Potter." Severus inclined his head. "The Dark Lord wishes to age the infant to adulthood using the device. Then He will be able to use the body immediately for His own purposes." He smiled wickedly. "Fifty points to Gryffindor." Too bad school was not in session.

Chatter broke out again, excited voices of people who now had something to latch onto. Plans were forming. Severus didn't partake. He needed to get away from this place, to think. He needed to talk to Black.

Severus slipped out the door in the hubbub and strode down the hallway. He'd almost gained freedom when the Hair Of Gryffindor caught up to him. Ah, the boilover was come at last, and what easier target than he?

"What now, Potter?" The acid alone could have trimmed Potter's mop.

"Get him away, please!"

He should have suspected this was coming, after what the boy had said to Black. There had been too many distractions. "Get yourself away."

"Sirius will listen to you. He . . . trusts you. He wouldn't stay with you and do whatever you say for anything less."

Severus drew himself to his full height -- fortunately still a few inches more than Potter could claim -- and sneered, an inspiration of absolute evil tripping from his tongue. "What's the matter? Jealous?"

Frustration did not become the boy. His face was visibly red even in the dim hallway. "Please, make him hide away. This shouldn't -- he can't -- " The voice, thinned now to awkward and reedy, superimposed the image of Potter at eleven onto the young man before him. "He said you were helping him. Help him!"

"I am doing all I can," he snapped, hoping he didn't sound as tired as he felt.

Potter's spirit was bleeding from an open wound. "I learned to respect you."

Was that a plea or a condemnation? One more false god fallen, one more beacon of hope lost.

The next words were barely audible. "He's a brave man. He'll do anything, he'll give his life for the fight. But he shouldn't have to. He's done his duty. Why won't you tell him?" Desperation spilled from him in delicate beads of sweat. "Why won't you get him away from here?"

There were unarguable reasons why, of course, but even beyond them, Severus knew that rampaging erumpents couldn't drag Black away. Potter's question could have only one answer. To his own amazement, he was willing to give it. "Because that is who Sirius Black is. In the end, dead or alive, he will be free." With Harry Potter staring after him, Severus Snape turned on his heel and swept from the dank, wretched spectre of 12 Grimmauld Place.

*

The sky was dark and the first stars had appeared by the time Severus rounded the bend to the cottage, swilling the sight of it like a glass of firewhiskey. In the distance, windows glowed with yellow light -- all the windows, and that fool Black had left the front door open to the evening breezes, disregarding anything that might wander in. What the hell could he be doing at this time of night? The brilliant rectangles urged him forward. He walked on.

It seemed impossible that he felt worse today than after meeting with Voldemort -- impossible that he'd seen Voldemort only yesterday. Something about Potter left him with more unease than the Dark Lord Himself, or perhaps it was merely a different kind; the kind caused by unmitigated sincerity. Its artlessness left him exposed in turn, his hard-won armour flayed and curling away. The Dark Lord he could understand; Harry Potter he could not.

It was several minutes before he got close enough to see Black sitting on the shadowed stoop, arms crossed, as if he had been waiting there all afternoon. Severus pulled him to his feet. Without a word from either, he touched Sirius' jaw, leading him into a kiss that began gently, then firmed into possessiveness. He withdrew far enough to speak. It was too dark to read the other man's expression. "They want to surprise Voldemort in the Department of Mysteries."

"I figured."

"You will survive this." Severus captured another ravenous kiss that left him unsatisfied.

There wasn't much to be said, beyond the obvious, about the meeting. Sirius was cheered to hear that Potter had solved the puzzle regarding the Department of Mysteries, and that Lupin had roundly chastised them all. After that, conversation languished. Severus was not in a talkative mood tonight. Not that he often was, but tonight he was more morose than usual. Sirius offered him a rather unappetising dinner full of Morgana knew what; Severus could not eat.

"Don't." Sirius tapped him on the top of his head. "Don't think about it. Just for now, let's -- can't we forget all that? It'll be dangerous, no matter what happens. But tonight . . . "

"So Gryffindor," he snarled back. "Danger ahead? Let's have a party!"

"Yes! You know, you haven't offered me any of that fine smoking material of yours. That might distract us both from your sulks." Mischief gleamed in his dark eyes. Mischief made Sirius, unlike the evening meal, look good enough to eat.

"I am not sulking." But the idea had its appeal. Severus had never chosen to indulge in the presence of another wizard -- that state was too vulnerable for his tastes, and for the company he sometimes kept. It didn't seem to matter much now. "Fine, then."

They settled in the study and he started a crackling fire, if only to chase the day's chill from his thoughts. They passed the pipe back and forth in silence, but of course Black couldn't keep his mouth shut for long.

"I read that book Harry brought today."

"You can read?"

"Yes, I can fucking read. Arsehole." Sirius took a deep draught on the pipe. Mumbling around the smoke in his lungs, he said, "Wizards and Muggles have almost all the same things, did you ever notice?"

Severus rolled his eyes, even though he was facing the fire, watching gold licks of flame taste cold logs like they were ice cream, and he knew the other man couldn't see him do it. Sirius had dragged the sofa nearer the fire, close enough to hand the pipe back and forth. "Like what?"

"All the basics. Food, shelter, love, hate, family. We've even got religion, of a sort, although we call it magic and pretend we don't worship it. Look how we treat those without it; it's like squibs are a lower order. Like the Catholics and the Protestants, except the Catholics fought back. Squibs accept their lot and don't bitch about it. We don't all have God, but we use the most revered of our kind in the same way. How many times have you appealed to a dead wizard?"

"I will never be able to follow the way your mind works." He took the pipe back.

"I never expected you to."

The genial slur did not go by. "Of course, it could simply be that you can't think straight even when you're not drugged to the eyeballs."

Sirius chuckled and continued. "We've got social conventions. There's education for the privileged. Marriage. Social class based on breeding and money. There's war and racism. All the good stuff."

"And this is leading where?"

"There's one thing we're missing."

"What's that?"

"Angels. We don't have angels."

Was it simply the impenetrable vacuousness of Black's mind, or did he have a real point? "Of course we do, you ninnyhammer. Our own Pythagoras proved that the square of the hypoteneuse is equal to -- "

He liked to hear Sirius laugh. He hoped he would hear it often. He was undoubtedly going insane.

"Not angles, my so-academic friend, angels. Wings. Heavenly host. All that."

"No heaven, no host, no problem." Long-suffering was his forte. "Just try to explain yourself."

"The man who wrote the book talks about how, when he died, something that he called a Guardian came to get him. It sounds a lot like the Muggles' angels. Enormous, shining with a silver light, it came to him at the moment of death and kissed him. It took his soul behind the Veil, where he met more Guardians. Unlike me, he came back to life -- the beings he met there told him his death was an accident, it wasn't his time, and he could choose to come back if he wanted. He told them he needed to return, so one of the Guardians brought him back across, and kissed him back into his body."

"Very sweet."

"Yes, but the way he talked about it, he truly was in the same place I was . . . it sounded exactly like. Except that he talked to the Guardians, and didn't wander aimlessly." There was silence for a moment, and then Sirius asked, "Doesn't that remind you of anything?"

"Such as?"

"I suppose you've never had the close personal relations that I had with Dementors."

"No thanks to those bastards at the Ministry." His brief time in Azkaban still burned in his memory.

"Well, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. And you're hardly that. Anymore."

From Black, it was a statement of undying love. Severus' lips parted.

"The book is very old," Sirius continued, as if he'd said nothing untoward. "Written round 1150. Do we know when the Dementors came to Azkaban? Or for that matter, where they came from? How did the Ministry get them there, and why did they stay? How did Voldemort gain their allegiance?"

"I suspect the promise of unlimited prey, also known as Muggles, had something to do with it."

"But how did they ever keep them away from Muggles in the first place? The Ministry must have had some kind of hold over them, or paid them somehow. It didn't take them five minutes to leave Azkaban after they had a better offer."

Then the rest of the Death Eaters broke out of prison, hot on the Dementors' heels. "I don't know," said Severus, feeling sluggish and stupid. "I thought they were only semi-sentient."

"That's just it. I don't think anybody knows. They must have more awareness than a portrait, and you can hold a conversation with a friggin' oil painting. So why didn't Dumbledore cut them a deal first?"

"He hates them. Always has."

"So?" Sirius stretched. His arms moved sinuously, at odds with the bulk of his torso.

"Point taken."

"You really know how to breed, mate."

The change of subject, if that was what it was, nearly snapped his head around. "What?"

"I'd appreciate it if you'd set aside some of this for Remus. I've heard Muggle cannabis is good for werewolves; this shit is incredible. He can certainly afford it, now he has half the Black family fortune."

That was worth a glare. "You will live to spend it yourself."

"Are you saying that if I do live, you won't keep me in the manner to which I've become accustomed?" Sirius hummed happily at the glower that produced.

Severus had been so deeply relaxed, it almost hurt to drag his brows together so tightly. "I can't promise anything. Still, it would be easy enough to provide a few rodents now and then. Perhaps even something extravagant. I believe you could count on me for some very special dog biscuits."

Severus had limited knowledge of real canines -- messy animals, they were -- but Sirius' baying laugh sounded so much like Aunt Alopecia's water spaniel . . . He was about to point out the resemblance when Sirius said, "Great, then. We're set," and went off into another spasm.

"Wait a minute," Sirius continued when he could breathe again. "I've reconsidered. You'll be a rich man, you said. How about keeping me in the manner to which I'd like to become accustomed?"

"I'll keep you whichever way I damned well please." His smug assertion was spoiled by a wracking cough brought on by too-deep inhalation. It'd been years since he'd smoked a packet of cigarettes a day. The potion that cured his addiction had taken him forever to perfect, and it had brought him the means to keep up the cottage, but it had left his lungs too healthy for this sort of abuse. It had also done nothing for the post-nicotine ravages to his temper. He still assured himself that he'd created it that way on purpose.

"Smooth," giggled Black. "And oh, so confident, we are."

"Shut it." A frown was too much trouble, so he quit trying. "About Lupin. Aren't you worried that he'll have already squandered your fortune on wine, women and song?"

"Nah. He's with Tonks. She can't sing worth a tinker's damn." Sirius shook the sofa roaring at his own witticism, the uneven legs bumping the floorboards in an unpredictable tattoo.

"Thank goodness you find yourself so amusing." Severus watched curiously to see if Sirius would fall onto the floor, and if so, how loud a noise it would make and how much it would hurt when he did. It was an experiment.

Mid-rumble, Sirius' laughter caught on a gasp.

"What? What's wrong?"

He was halfway out of his chair when Sirius gurgled, "Have to piss!"

"Oh, well then!" He flopped back down in relief, far too comfortable to worry about such a minor detail. "I haven't hidden the toilet since the last time you used it. Although," he mused, "it's a good idea."

"I mean now! If you value your furniture at all -- "

Severus stood faster than he should have. Lightheaded, he lurched to the sofa, barely preventing himself from sprawling right on top of the other man, and extended a hand. It was considerably more difficult to lever Sirius off the sofa than he expected. He grunted his surprise as he put his back into it.

"Here's the thing." Sirius looked pained as he rose. "I've got more than a stone extra on me, and it's decided to pounce all over my bladder."

"Spare me the details, please!"

"Haven't you noticed it's grown like a mushroom ever since I arrived?" The words panted from wan lips as the two of them rebounded off the wall in the hallway.

"Well, you're usually covered in voluminous robes -- "

"Except when I'm not. And I suppose when I'm not covered, you're not paying much attention?" His cheeky glance slipped into panic when Severus made to leave him in front of the toilet. "I can't stand and do this!" he wailed. "I can't even see my prick to aim!"

They managed to get Sirius seated before anything disgusting happened. "Yes, it's got to be half again as big as it was when I arrived. My hair and beard didn't grow while I was dead, or my fingernails. I think the baby didn't grow as fast as it was supposed to, even with Voldemort doing His best. Worst. Whatever."

Severus overlooked the use of the word "baby."

"And you know when it kicked the other day?"

"Yes." That didn't sound like a good start to a tale about the foetus. Severus nodded anyway, since his head seemed to want to do that by itself. He might have bothered to leave the room, but it would be nearly as much work to get Sirius out of the loo as it had been to get him off the sofa. Severus couldn't just leave him there -- he'd likely need to use the toilet himself, later.

"Well, it's been doing a lot of that ever since. In fact, it's having a party of its own right now."

"Really?" He'd never been around a pregnant woman; he was an only child, and his aunts on either side had not been prolific. Even if they had been, he couldn't imagine asking either of them for a look. "I want to see."

"Okay." Sirius opened his robes right then and there.

For some reason, that shocked him. "Exhibitionist!"

"You asked," said Sirius, unruffled.

Sure enough, a small lump tracked across the breadth of the big belly. Fascinated, he followed it with a finger, provoking another giggle out of Sirius -- a hoarse and bizarre sound, coming as it was from a grown man. The combination of sound and movement was difficult to process as the implant pushed pale flesh up and out, creating small trailing lumps on the bigger bulge. "Wow." As the first protuberance disappeared, another showed itself. He poked gently at it.

"Hey!"

"I couldn't possibly hurt it. Or you, for that matter." The not a baby certainly seemed to be swimming about in its element.

"There's no call to be poking at it."

"Don't pout." Suddenly an answering poke came from under Sirius' skin. Open-mouthed with amazement, he watched as . . . something . . . appeared to be waving back at him. He sucked in a short, sharp breath. "Do they all do that?"

"How the hell would I know?" Sirius looked as astonished as Severus. He grabbed the sides of his robe and, with a certain dignity, snapped the clasps together. He did a fair job under the circumstances, even if, in the end, the clasps were not together in quite the right order. "I'm starving," Sirius announced, obviously intending to put paid to that aspect of the evening's entertainment.

"You should be; you've been sharing exponentially more of your meals each day." Suddenly Severus realised that he, too, was very hungry indeed. "Let's go find something to eat."

"Yeah."

They were halfway down the hall to the kitchen when Sirius stopped cold. Severus bounced off, only managing to stay upright due to the good offices of the nearest wall. "What the hell?"

"I just remembered. There's no food."

He sounded so mournful that Severus couldn't help digging him in the ribs. "Of course there's food. I have provisions for another whole week."

"You've got turnips. Arseloads of turnips."

"What?" The look on his face had Black laughing again. "Oh, you're joking, you utter twat."

"No, I'm serious."

"Of course you are."

"Never heard that one before." Sirius made a rude noise. "No, tell me, what the hell'd you bring half a bushel of turnips here for?"

Severus contemplated that for a moment, puzzled. For some reason his thoughts were not lining up quite properly. "I . . . I didn't."

Sirius hooted, his face dissolving in hilarity. "God, Snape, the House Elves must really hate you! What'd you do to them?"

Severus was tempted to smack him. "You mean my charm and winning ways?" He inhaled through his teeth. "I'm going to strangle that drunkard Winky with its filthy tea towel." He paused. "Wait, then! Where did you get that -- what was that bastardisation of a meal, anyway?"

"It was . . . it was . . . " Sirius lost the battle with another fit of snickering.

"Transfiguration of food." Severus held the man at arms' length, looking him up and down consideringly. "Oh, let me guess -- never your strong point?"

Sirius glared at him again, although the effect was somewhat spoiled by his eyes nearly crossing. "I really hate you."

"I could tell when I saw dinner."

"I'd like to see you transfigure turnips into paella!"

The cuff on his shoulder reverbrated throughout his body. He'd never been touched by anyone -- never been near anyone -- while he was drugged. The intensity and focus threatened to engulf him. Still following the ripples, he was pushed up against the wall and thoroughly kissed. Stung by panic at the overwhelming sensations of a mouth pressed to his own -- demand and desire that he could feel thrumming all through his body -- he shoved Sirius back, somehow gaining less mental distance than physical. "I thought you were hungry," he mumbled, embarrassed by his reaction.

"Starving," repeated Sirius, ogling him.

"Food, then." His tone brooked no refusal.

"You know, you've still got a broomstick up your arse even when you're stoned."

"Are you coming?" Severus snapped.

"Not now -- with luck, maybe later." With a wide grin, Sirius had already swung back to teasing.

Something yielding inside Severus found that quite . . . pleasant. "Jackass."

It was true, then. His larder was full of turnips. Both men stared at the pile of vegetables, completely demoralized.

"I could really murder some salt and vinegar crisps," Sirius sighed.

"You're bound to be disappointed, since in this state my skills are no better than yours when you're sober," muttered Severus. "Kill it. I'm going to kill it. Bare hands."

"We might as well try. Could be good for a laugh, at least."

"Killing Winky? I couldn't agree more."

"No, you silly arse, making ourselves some food. There's this wonderful Muggle thing . . . "

He hadn't time to wonder what the wonderful thing could be when Sirius yelled, "Explodata farinata!" Nothing happened to the lone turnip on the kitchen table, but the cupboards all banged open simultaneously as huge quantities of white puffy bits blasted out of them, filling the air and heaping up in drifts on the floor. Sirius cackled delightedly, throwing up his arms into the dry deluge and turning in circles.

Completely muddled, Severus held up his wand and cried, "Stop!"

It stopped. White bits hung in the air, spinning slowly. More white lay in knee-high heaps on the floor.

"I didn't know you could do that." Sirius' bafflement was at odds with his sharp features, like a soft flannel waistcoat pulled over a crisply starched shirt.

"I didn't either." He pursed his lips and shook his wand gently. A spark or two fell from the tip. "What is all this?"

"It's popcorn. Try some."

Sirius grabbed some of the white bits and shoved them in his mouth, so Severus followed suit. It was slightly crunchy, but completely tasteless. He made a face.

"Needs butter." Black lifted his wand. "And salt."

"Stop breaking my kitchen! I won't have rivers of butter flowing through mountains of . . . whatever this is. And you could knock us both unconscious with a falling block of salt." Severus grabbed the upraised wrist. "It's my turn. Observe the master." With a wave, he addressed the turnip. "Aparecium McVitie's!" Both men blinked as a small, furred, beady-eyed creature took the turnip's place.

Sirius closed his eyes. "You'll never change, will you?" He looked . . . hurt. "How could you be such a bastard as to summon me a rat?"

"Thought you might be nostalgic," muttered Severus, twisting his wand between his fingers. No way would he was admit something had gone wrong. "Besides, it's not a rat! It's . . . it's a weasel." The little animal lifted its pointy nose and sniffed.

"Is not." Sirius flicked his wand at the creature. "Coloro!" Whatever it was suddenly sported bright ginger fur. "There! Now it's a weasel."

Severus took one look, then another. "I can't believe you did that." He began to laugh, doubling over when he couldn't stop. He shook with it; his hands groped for anything to hold him upright but only batted the floating white bits near him. He tried to straighten, then stumbled in the high mounds, flailing for the nearest chair, but caught only the cloak which lay over the back of it. Down he went, buoyed by popcorn, holding his sides helplessly as tears leaked down his cheeks.

His heaving rasps calmed to chuckles, then to the rare snicker as he stretched on his back, watching the floating puffs turn in the air. They were quite beautiful; hypnotic, really, each unique. The popcorn underneath him was warm and comfortable, shifting with his body weight to support him perfectly. He looked over, watching Sirius watch him. The other man finally waded through the white and swayed this way and that, looking for a way to the floor. In the end, ignoring his bulging middle, he simply flopped down next to Severus like a landed fish.

"So," Sirius inquired conversationally, "we going to fry that thing up, or what?"

"No."

"Well, then, what is there? I'm still hungry."

Severus wanted to lean over and kiss that pouting mouth, those half-closed eyelids. He crooned, "Open your mouth and close your eyes, and I'll give you a big surprise."

He blinked when Black did as commanded. It gave him a feeling of power very different from that which came with compliance to threats. For once, Severus held the carrot. It was . . . almost as unbelievable as what was actually happening here.

"Well?" The momentarily-obedient Black was becoming impatient, as usual. Severus smiled. He pulled a crushed bag from the cloak beneath him; the crinkle of paper made curious eyes open a crack.

"Ah, ah, ah," he warned. "Don't look, or you can't have."

"Oh, I want," smiled Sirius lazily, letting his eyes close once more. "But I'll bet your cock's not in that bag."

"Something just as tasty." He made good on that promise when he rubbed a half-melted chocolate frog against that so-tempting bottom lip. And he wanted -- oh, how he wanted -- that tongue to slide out searching for him. A moan that wavered between them when Black's tongue found chocolate thickened the blood in his veins. His heart forced a rhythm through vessels suddenly too tight. The thudding rose in his ears.

Sirius whimpered as Severus pressed another bit of chocolate between the sweet-smeared lips. "This is incredible," he whispered hoarsely. The wet tongue swiped once more across the bottom lip. "You remembered."

It was almost as if his having done Black a small favour was more important than the favour itself. He stilled as understanding wormed its way in. The chocolate was not the carrot. Severus was the carrot.

Sirius Black wanted his favours, wanted his attentions, wanted him.

He had always lived in hostile environs. Injury was a given, his and others'. Now he had the power to hurt, not simply injure. By giving or withholding, he could influence someone else's joy, someone else's pain. That it was Sirius Black whom he could hurt made the atmosphere around him thin and useless. Even more disturbing was this: for all the years that hurting Sirius Black would have been a dream come true . . . that door had closed, and the room behind it had vanished.

The knowledge drove what little oxygen he'd siphoned from the suddenly rarefied air out of his lungs in a small huff. He had known of his own fettered longing, yes, barred and shuttered as it was in the dank recesses of his soul. Severus had always been man enough to acknowledge his dirty little secrets. That acknowledgement was quite enough. He'd never intended nor even wanted to come face to face with them.

Nevertheless, that was how it was: Sirius Black sprawled before him, euphoric in his drug-stained vulnerability, shamelessly abandoned, gazing up at Severus. His gray eyes were vague with need. Black was not just the form of Severus' longing, but the very essence of it. It was not possible for him to turn away. Instead, he leaned forward. Sirius quivered visibly as if he were the one poised, a strange angel balanced on the head of a pin, awaiting only one touch to fall.

He thought of what had happened in the hallway, of the fear that had weakened his knees and dashed his desire. This was different. With Sirius passive -- no, not just passive, but suspended in want, languishing for his touch -- he was in control. He was no longer afraid. A soft exhale stroked his lips as he captured the mouth that waited for him.

The taste of chocolate was not sweeter than the taste of Sirius' lips. Severus was lost in just that one taste. He couldn't bear to stop until he knew every shining tooth, every warm recess, intimately. Sirius' mouth was satisfying and absorbing in a way no potion or text had ever been. This joining of two mouths was more than just a kiss; it was study and teaching. More than anything else, Severus had always craved knowledge.

It seemed hours before he broke away, shudders wracking his body. A hoarse whisper from Sirius surprised him. He was very sure that, if he tried it, his own voice would not work at all. "Severus, don't pull away -- touch me. I need you . . . " A spark of panic, inspired by the Imajica? He'd heard it sometimes had that effect.

He fingered soft hair away from the timeworn, flushed face. His voice did work, although he could barely understand his own rough garble. "I'll do what I please."

"Then shall I please you?" Freakishly, the pendulum had already swung back; Sirius had turned seductive, and it infected Severus somehow.

"Oh, yes. You shall." He rolled the other wizard to face him, and they crossed arms trying to remove each others' clothing. Carefully, because neither of them could do it any other way, they unclasped and undid and undressed. Severus spread their robes underneath them and hoped he wouldn't wake in the morning with popcorn in his pubic hair. He laughed.

"So you think this is funny, eh?"

"It doesn't get much funnier." Severus gestured to their bodies, one swollen with Hecate knew what, one scrawny but for the stringy muscle that had held him together all these years. The smell of the popcorn rose rich and fresh around them. A tiny flick of white hit his nose, followed by others.

"Now, that was funny," crowed Sirius.

"Oh, it was, was it?" A poor missile, popcorn was too light to fly very far or hit very hard. Fortunately, the two men were nearly face to face, so it hadn't far to go. Breathless with laughter, littered with puffs of corn, Severus had dribbled a crushed handful into Sirius' hair by the time they both realised they were doomed to lie in the stuff. That brought another burst of laughter. Severus began to swipe ineffectually at the popcorn-covered robes. He only succeeded in pulverizing what was there into a million more pieces.

"No!" he cried when Sirius lifted his wand, but it was too late. His sigh of relief was deep when the popcorn on the robes vanished, but nothing else did. "Egad, Black, you could have removed important body parts with that."

"As opposed to those unimportant ones?" Sirius reached out a hand and stroked four fingers along Severus' lax prick, which stirred at the touch. "Never. I've been waiting for this all night. I want you to fuck me."

Severus could not help but gawk at him. He thought perhaps his mouth was moving, and pressed his fingertips to his lips to make sure they were together properly. They were not. It took him a moment to remember how to use them. "Are you demented?"

"Less than I was in Azkaban." Sirius snickered, and when there was no answering laugh, prodded Severus. "Get it? Demented!"

Severus tried to organise his opposition, but finally he gave up and said, "You're . . . pregnant."

"Master of the obvious, you are." Sirius waggled his eyebrows. Ridiculous. "That hasn't stopped you from doing anything else you felt like doing. Women have sex when they're pregnant all the time." He teased the vein on the underside of Severus' penis with the tip of his index finger. "It's not like this is a deadly weapon."

"Speak for yourself." His parry was weaker than a first year's Furnunculus.

"You know that you can't hurt me even if you want to. What's the matter?"

"It's just . . . it's just . . . "

"Pretend I'm a woman."

"You really know how to kill a mood, Black."

"Liar."

The jerky motion of a palm around his now-hard length drove every possible objection away. Fine, then. Severus stuck his hand in the air. "Accio lubricant."

There was the expected smack of a small jar in his hand, but before he could lower his prize, there was a painful crack across the back of his knuckles. By the time he looked up, jars and bottles and tubes of every possible oily substance were showering around them, olive oil from the kitchen cabinets and rosemary from the bath, floor polish, a warming muscle relaxant, oils of camphor and hazel from the study, and one ancient, dusty little atomizer of Gran'mere's perfume, long forgotten. A crash, crash, crash, then the smashing of glass, was probably the hemp oil bottled near the extractor.

He could only be grateful that the bottles and jars flew to where his hand would have been, and thus overshot their bodies, plopping harmlessly in the sea of popcorn. He was even more grateful that he didn't have a well-stocked lab here -- they'd be buried in the slippery, combustible and viscous. He'd instinctively clung to Sirius when the bottles started flying, although he wasn't sure how he'd rolled on top of him. There was a lot of Sirius to be on top of.

"Will we really need all this?" Sirius looked up at him, eyes wide in an utterly blank face.

"Yes, damn it," he growled, pushing Sirius onto his side again. "Now, shut up, or I'll -- "

"Ooooh, threats. What are you going to do, spank me?"

"It's an idea. Or perhaps . . . " But he was busy, and lost his train of thought. He plucked the warming liniment out of the popcorn and began to apply it to Sirius' back in long strokes. The moan it produced was luxuriant. "God, Severus. Forget the fucking. This has got to be better than getting fucked. My back's been killing me."

"I'm not doing this for your benefit." He dug his thumbs into tense supraspinal muscles. Honestly, Severus had no inclination to hear Black stifle cries of pain. It would remind him too much of his own sexual initiation. Surely even a virgin need not suffer so? The Imajica would undoubtedly help, but to save himself from Black's whinging, it would be well to relax him fully.

"Mmm. Yeah. Feel free to . . . uh! . . . do whatever you want."

He'd intended to ease Black's tension, prepare him with the lubricant, and find haven for his now-throbbing cock as quickly as possible. Intercourse was a game of winners and losers, and Severus had always been on the -- yes -- losing end. He was more than eager to see what it felt like to dominate, to penetrate, to win. However, even determination gave way to sensation. His hands were full of Sirius, and it was heady.

He became fascinated with the movement of muscles under his fingers. After just a few days, they were beginning to regain tone, no longer the flaccid, nearly useless lumps of flesh he'd touched in the bath. A few old scars took shape under his palms, and patches of body hair roughed up against them. He rubbed and stroked the long body, even working his way around to touch the bulging belly, following the jagged scars as if he could wipe them away with his hands.

As he moved lower, shaping and kneading the curve of buttocks between his hands, his excitement climbed higher. So close. Another scoop of the warming gel, and he rubbed it into the tiny ridges around the man's anus. He'd have thought his partner asleep if not for the throaty noises he made, noises that Severus could feel as if they licked against his skin. The muscle clenched and relaxed, opening to his touch without resistance as Sirius groaned, his hips now moving to Severus' hand. So very close.

A palmful of lubricant on his own erection made him tighten with pleasure, but breaching Sirius' body was ecstasy. He whined, impatient, not daring to thrust deeper until his reaction dimmed; it would be a poor thing to spend himself before he made a single stroke. So hot, so alive, and so much better when Sirius turned his head for the deep, wet kiss Severus was glad to give. It simultaneously stirred him and comforted him, and he pressed further inside. One man keened, but both mouths drank of the sound.

Moving, they were moving, and he had to wrap himself around Sirius to hold on. How had he not known his cock had been forged just for this? He fucked himself into Sirius faster and harder, the bump and grind making his hands slide down the big belly.

"Do something!"

Yes, he should, shouldn't he? Lubricant, then . . . But he couldn't let go, there was the risk of losing his grip entirely, flying off into space -- that couldn't be true, but he was beyond thinking, beyond anything but feeling. He wrapped a hand around the stiff cock and stroked in time to what seemed a chorus of groans. The heat between them was so intense he was sure they would combust; they'd be a little pile of gray ashes upon black robes in a heap of white debris.

He could see the light of magic again. This time it surrounded Sirius from head to foot, and crept about Severus in a tingling haze. In his arms was pulse and movement and glow. Sirius. He thrust harder, his hand hot and wet and not letting go. He was winning, winning, winning . . . when he shook and gasped and cried out his release, it suddenly made sense; he could see it. Black wasn't misnamed. Severus had an armful of stars.

A faint pink luminescence was the last thing that registered as he pulled a robe over them both and slept.

*

In the morning, Severus floundered up from the still-warm, crunchy white drifts, shored up his clothing, and walked to the edge of his protections without stopping to clean the hair from his teeth. It was a stupid idea, strung together by a wandering mind and a puff of Imajica, but the Order was beyond such niceness as credibility now. He Apparated into Hogsmeade with no further deliberation.

Disorienting, flooing into his own quarters in the middle of summer. His desktop was bare, his quills dry with disuse. The House Elves kept the rooms dust-free, but his space had lost its lived-in feel. He shouldn't be here; it wasn't time for him to come back to his . . . what? Real life? How could it be anything else, when he'd spent three quarters of his years in this prison, haven, cloister? Some day, perhaps, there could be more than this. It was what he did this for, after all -- that priceless possible future.

The enormous wooden doors of Albus' officeparted before him without a whisper of password. Damned nosy portraits. At least Dumbledore wouldn't make him wait today. Sharp-cornered shadows contrasted with the dazzling morning light that poured in from the high windows, making it difficult for his eyes to adjust. Magical trinkets lining the shelves and clotting the tabletops clicked and whirred. They tilted and chittered and jiggled, taking measurements of nothing and making him feel slightly nauseated.

Severus was alone in the office, except for Fawkes, who had his head tucked under a wing. Sunbeams glimmered on the glorious reds and golds of the phoenix, magnificent despite its ungainly size. He was deeply tempted to go up and pluck one of the sleeping bird's feathers. He resisted the urge, knowing that if Fawkes didn't peck him for it, then certainly Dumbledore would give him the look. The one that said that, unlike the pranks of others, his misdeeds would not be tolerated.

Speak of the Magician.

The man himself straightened a hideous purple and gold hat, pulling elaborate paisley brocade over what appeared to be a pair of neon green and pink striped pyjamas as he walked into the room. The vision did not help Severus' stomach to settle. "It's good to see you, Severus." A tea tray appeared, a cozied pot at its center. "What brings you here so early in the morning?"

Albus Dumbledore, at his age, surely knew a man who'd spent the previous evening debauching when he saw one -- although no doubt it was a surprise to see his taciturn Potions Master that way. For a change, Severus was grateful for the tea. He sipped it, trying to rinse his mouth inconspicuously.

"Would you like a toothbrush? I have a fresh one for guests." That ever-annoying twinkle was back in force, and the smirk that sometimes hid behind the white beard showed itself briefly to Severus' knowing eye.

"This is more important." Severus tossed the small book onto the Headmaster's cluttered desk. "I suggest you ponder it in the light of what little we know about Dementors." He ran through the questions Sirius had voiced, beginning with their fealty to the Ministry of Magic. "Surely knowing that they obey the Ministry casts doubt on them having gone to Voldemort's side. No one seems to have considered that they may still be under Ministry direction."

The Headmaster's twinkle disappeared, replaced by a fierce concentration. One paper-skinned hand held a quill between three fingers. Severus was distracted by the play of sunlight in the large amethyst on the middle finger, and flinched when the quill snapped in two. "If there were some way to utilise, or even neutralise the Dementors . . . it could mean a clear opening for victory."

"We haven't much time. Days, if that."

"I understand the urgency."

"There's one more thing. Voldemort seems to be weakening. He has been trying to prepare the implant for His possession. I have been able to thwart His attempts without the use of magic. It seems likely that the energy needed to sustain the implant is draining Him."

"Thank you, Severus. I will speak with you again as soon as possible. Now, I must have a word with Cornelius Fudge immediately."

He didn't even try to keep the satisfaction from his face. "I'll show myself out."

*

The popcorn had disappeared when Severus returned. How long it had taken Sirius to find his wand in that mess? A corner of his mouth quirked up as he unpacked the food with his own. There; supplies for . . . a longer time than they had, most likely. He shoved that thought away, preferring to go find his self-proclaimed pet. The cottage seemed too quiet to contain one Sirius Black, unless he truly was up to no good.

Instead, he found another, different, pet in the hallway. Unnerved, he picked up the small white rabbit by the scruff of its neck. A shrill, frightened squeal quieted when he put his other hand underneath its paws. Severus stopped in the doorway to the second bedroom. The breadth and depth of the disaster before him shocked him to stillness. A fluffy white cloud dipped down and brushed wetly past his face before he could speak. When he finally could, he croaked out, "What is the meaning of this?"

"Hello, Severus." Black was all smiles, looking up from his seat on a toadstool. "Oh, there she is! I wondered where the bunny'd wandered off to."

"Must I repeat myself?" The words were more a threat than a question.

"It's a nursery." The bright grin was unstoppable. "I'll admit I got a bit carried away."

Severus realised he was stroking the rabbit's soft fur, and stopped immediately. He leaned over, dropping it to . . . what had been the floor.

"You should have been carried away by Gypsies! How dare you take over my cottage and fill it with -- this -- this obscenity!" He swung his fist furiously at the clumps of daffodils, the neat grassy paths, the climbing roses, the topiaries, the bright blue sky with its shining sun, and, of course, the centerpiece of it all. Swaying on crested waves in the center of the room was a crib fashioned like a Spanish galleon, with sails suspended above it that billowed in the nonexistent breeze.

Sirius stared at him, his smiles gone to a scowl. "You're the one who keeps telling me I'm going to live."

"Yes, you are." There was no question about it; at least none that Severus would admit.

"Then let me live a little. If I do survive, there's a chance the baby might too."

Severus choked. "It's not a baby! It's the implanted spawn of the most evil Dark Wizard on the planet and his insane concubine!"

"Tom Riddle wasn't always evil. My cousin wasn't always insane. This child is my flesh and blood. I want it to live."

The quiet words took him aback. Sincerity always seemed to have that effect on him.

"Besides," Sirius continued, "if bad does go to worse, you'll only have to put up with this for a couple of days."

"Fine." Suddenly, the bones vanished from his spine. The need to defend his home from Sirius Black faded, and Severus sank to the grass. The two men sat beside each other without speaking, breathing in the roses and daffodils, as puffy clouds scudded through the sun-drenched sky. When Sirius reached down a hand, Severus took it. He shivered despite the warmth of the sun.

*

Severus spent a long, solitary afternoon in the greenhouse, repotting young plants. A very small voice told him it was crazy to throw away these few hours. He could be spending them with Sirius . . . who might not be around later to spend a few hours with. He stifled the voice, desperate for time alone to calm his mind and clear his head. So much had happened in so short a time that he couldn't sort it, and there was more to come. The end was uncertain. To dig in the dirt, letting go of both the immediate past and the immediate future for a few moments, was a relief.

After they had pillaged the groceries for a substantial lunch, he'd simply disappeared. Sirius obviously knew where he was, but hadn't come barging in, for which he could only be grateful. Severus hummed tunelessly as he tamped the soil firmly about the wriggling roots of the next youngster in the queue. Plants were so much easier than people. They never asked questions, never demanded fealty, never upended one's life. He let the Imajica seedlings touch him as he worked. What did they get from the contact?

Surely it was nothing like . . . Sirius' hands, so insistent and exciting; Sirius' body, so willing and delightful. His own delirious pleasure, so strange and exhilarating. The wondrous sensations of the last few days swirled around him like waving leaves. He squeezed his eyes shut in a moment of weakness, feeling the phantom pleasure.

Reluctantly, he opened them again as he tipped a growing plant from its too-tight container. Growth was inevitable, he reminded himself, as its leaves drooped in distress. Reluctance to disturb a plant by repotting would simply result in its strangulation.

Upending these strong specimens, while temporarily painful to them, would be well worth the benefit.

There was nothing so calming as working with soil. It was a steadying influence. However, it did tend to lodge under one's nails. Feeling a bit more stable, he decided to allow himself to steep in a steaming tub with a dribble of rosemary oil added. He wanted a wash before the evening meal; there was no reason not to enjoy it. Severus was neither surprised nor even particularly irritated when the door creaked open and Sirius banged right in, door slamming behind him.

"Can't leave a man to his privacy even in the bath, can you?" It was barely an imitation of a snarl.

"Why," Sirius looked indignant at the very idea, "what kind of guest would I be if I left you to scrub your own back when I'm right here?"

"A considerate one, as I've been cleaning myself thoroughly for many years without your help."

"Which only goes to show that you're an old man now, and too decrepit to do it yourself."

"Why, you -- " Severus grabbed a towel over the side of the tub and snapped it at Sirius, with feeble results, since the towel was still dry. "I'll show you decrepit!"

"I was hoping you might." Sirius snatched the towel out of Severus' grasp and dropped it on the floor, lowering himself ungracefully by bracing against the tub. His rough chuckle was much too appealing.

"So, you're only here to scrub my back?"

"That depends." The man had a truly promising leer.

"Oh? On what?"

"On how long it takes for me to make you beg."

He had begged, oh, yes. One didn't endure Cruciatus without pleading to be released before soiling oneself, or worse. He had most certainly never pleaded for the humiliation of sex. His words fell like rocks into water. "I never beg."

Sirius sighed, as if he were mentally tapping his foot. "Relax, it's not like I can make you do something you don't want to do."

The last words Severus could remember speaking clearly during that encounter were please and please and please.

*

His eyes opened to deep night, the bedroom floor slashed with faint light from the moon-silent window. Power thrummed in his veins, waking him, waking parts of him that he struggled daily to quash. The fullness, the richness, made his lips part as he felt its wash. The sheets he was curled between tried to pull him back into comfort with the warm smell of sleep and the weight of the body next to his, but they lost the tug-of-war in the next blink to his Lord's Call. It wove through his veins, emptying him of all but yearning.

Very much like . . . sexual desire. He'd never known.

This rush of power, of Other inside his skin, contrasted almost surreally with the quiet hours before bed. How could one evening of domesticity spent before the fire with Sirius Black feel more real than the driving force of his last twenty years? Unreal or not, he wanted, needed to be with Voldemort, and he knew the pressure would grow unchecked until he gained the Dark Lord's presence. If he did not heed the Call, it would drive him mad.

He withstood its throbbing insistence long enough to scratch off a note to Black, and also one to the Weasleys. It was a matter of practicality -- he didn't have an owl to carry messages, and he needed to know this note would reach someone, anyone, in the Order. He did not know for certain who was where. Dumbledore might already be gone, and he wasn't sure about any of the others. He wanted the Order assembled and ready to hear his report the minute Voldemort was done with him. Severus charmed the message to fly to the Burrow; it would bash through a window if necessary to get in.

It had never bothered him to travel to the edge of his safe zone; that was the price one paid for protection. This night, it was a hindrance. He grabbed the dust-laden broom from its cupboard near the front door. An awkward rider, his command of his body didn't extend to flitting about in thin air. However, duty Called, and it was in his best interests to answer promptly.

Seldom-used muscles protested as he landed. He forced out the incantation that caused him to vanish.

*

"What is it? What's happened?" Harry Potter's white face, picked out from the gloom by the Lumos at the tip of his wand, floated in the darkness of the front hall. It didn't even startle Severus. From years of experience, it had become ingrained in him that in any given dark hallway would lurk Potter's disembodied head. And this house was prime territory. There was no such thing as useful lighting in 12 Grimmauld Place. Madam Black's portrait would have been too wakeful.

"Come along," Severus replied. "I shan't repeat myself."

With Potter trailing after him like an oversized chick, he made his way to the study. The other Order members were gathered round the huge oval table, and looked up at his entry. He nodded and took a place at one end of the oval, noting the absence of Albus Dumbledore. He remained standing. "The operation will take place tonight at midnight in the Department of Mysteries." Severus closed his eyes against the memory of Voldemort's voice. "As Albus is unavailable, we need a plan," he continued. "To that end, I have outlined -- "

Moody broke in. "Why should we listen to anything you have to say? You could be leading us to our deaths."

Looking down his nose at the hideous magical eye, he answered, "As you well know, your survival was never guaranteed."

"You son of a -- "

Support came from a surprising source. "Belt up, Moody!" Potter turned furiously on the grizzled old Auror. "Snape's the only one who knows what's going on. He's our only connection, and if you don't want to trust him we might just as well go hide under the bed like sheep."

A bit of a mixed metaphor, but for once Severus concurred. He could not push his memory of tonight's meeting aside.

The stifling heat. The gooseflesh on his arms despite that heat.

"Our time is at hand. I am pleased." Elongated, bony fingers touched Voldemort's mouth, such as it was, in a Continental fashion as He threw a parody of a kiss. The Dark Lord looked considerably better this night. There was no gangrenous odor hanging about him. Could Voldemort have regained health, or whatever passed for health in such a travesty of a human body? But . . . no. A sidelong stare at the outline of His reptilian profile showed the telltale shimmer of concealment charms. Likely His condition was even worse than before.

"Yes, my Lord." He managed to simulate more enthusiasm than he'd have thought possible. "How may I best serve you in this?"

"Rise, Severus."

A generous gesture. His knees creaked as he stood. "Thank you, Master." Still, Severus kept his eyes cast submissively down.

"You will bring Black to the Ministry of Magic tonight at midnight. I will be waiting in the Department of Mysteries for your arrival. You will, of course, find a way to ensure that Black is tractable. Until I release the child's protections, you will need his cooperation -- one way or another."

Severus tried not to shiver at the smug look on Voldemort's lipless face.

"Thank you." He inclined his head toward Potter and ignored the incredulous look the boy sent him.

"This will be a twofold mission, so listen carefully. We will stop Voldemort from using the implant and bring Sirius Black home alive." There was no demur from the assembly.

"You will each be hidden upstairs. Deal with the Ministry's night watchmen unless you want to see them die. I do not know how many Death Eaters will arrive with Voldemort. Do not engage them. At least two Death Eaters will be left to secure the upstairs, and also to find the absent entry guard. You may engage them only after Voldemort and His entourage go downstairs."

Severus cleared his throat, which had become unexpectedly tight. He was finally here, finally in that place he deserved, finally using his Slytherin-honed talents for directing operations . . . and all he cared about was the right outcome. The power to command was less than worthless if they failed. "He knows I can't subdue Black with magic. That leaves only certain options. When I arrive, I will have to make it appear as if Black is bound physically. Do not interfere." That was specifically directed toward Potter.

Severus examined the assembly to make sure they were listening. As much as he hated explaining himself, there was no telling what this asinine bunch would do without it. Moody was doing a fair impression of a basilisk, no doubt hoping to turn him to stone.

"I must remove the implant. That is not negotiable." He glowered at each member in turn. "You will not . . . I repeat, not . . . enter the Time Room until I have finished this delicate operation. You will await my signal. The life of Sirius Black -- " and mine, he didn't add, " -- depends upon it. If one of you should appear before I am done, it will put both our objectives at risk, and I will kill you myself."

"Now hold on one minute!"

"What!"

"Snape, you arrogant git -- "

Voices rose to unbearable levels. "Silence!" he roared.

Into the breach stepped his newest and unlikeliest ally, The Boy Who Lived. "I'm with Snape," he said flatly. "I don't care who comes out of this alive if Sirius doesn't."

The statement sounded ominous in a way that no one was used to hearing from Harry Potter. The steel in his voice told everyone he'd had enough of factions, enough of waiting, and more than enough of Voldemort. It gave Severus a certain amount of respect for the way the boy had stayed away from Black the past week. He'd wondered who'd managed to put Potter in a body-bind; now he understood that the discretion was self-imposed.

"Thanks loads, Harry." Tonks made an attempt at mirth as she elbowed him. The boy didn't even look at her.

Lupin gave Severus a measured look. "How will we know?"

"I'll charm each of you a trinket to guide your apparation to the Time Room." He looked up. "Shacklebolt, is there anything preventing apparation while inside the Ministry?"

"No. And I know hiding places Death Eaters aren't likely to find -- at least Death Eaters that haven't been on the Ministry's staff lately."

"Good. Please advise the others. Perhaps Tonks and Weasley also have suggestions for those who don't work in the building. We'll need a floor plan. For that matter, I will need to gain entry myself. I have no doubt," he concluded, "that Voldemort can find His own way in."

The meeting taken another hour, but he would consider the time well spent if he'd knocked some unity of purpose into the group. They were far too used to working as individuals, and he didn't want anyone haring off on his own. He'd be much more concerned, except Potter had unexpectedly developed an ability to keep his eye on the goal. He'd asked cogent questions and seemed satisfied with the answers. It was puzzling, but he had more important things on his mind right now than a finally-maturing Potter.

It was well past time for a decent cup of coffee.

*

His stride was just a bit bowlegged, even using the broom as a walking stick; he could still feel his midnight flight in his adductors . . . and elsewhere. After only a few minutes, he'd been bruised in places that ought never be bruised. With a low growl, he swore off broom-riding for as long as humanly possible. Even the few steps up to the cottage door made him draw a quick breath. His shoulders drooped a bit before he squared them and pushed open the door.

Black was seated at the table, and as he turned to face the door, Severus saw that his hair was a mess. He looked drawn, exhausted, the lines of age and privation digging around his eyes.

"You're back!"

Was that relief he heard? "What are you doing up? You look like you spent the night wrestling a Quintaped."

"No worse than you look," Sirius retorted. "I woke up just after you left. I was . . . worried."

"Why? Is the implant hurting you?" Severus peered closer, but he didn't see any other signs of illness. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, you twit. I was worried about you."

"Oh." He didn't quite know what to make of that. It was many years since someone had worried about him. Dumbledore expressed concern once in a while, but he'd come to believe it was more care for the upkeep of a valuable tool than any particular personal feelings. "As you can see, I'm fine as well," he answered gruffly.

"Sit down and eat. I made food, but I just didn't feel like . . . " The other man stood with some effort, moving to get plates for both of them.

"Oh, for . . . get away from the cupboards. You'll pull a shelf down the way you're going."

"I'm hardly a cripple, Severus!"

"Almost as good as. Now sit."

"Woof."

The man's tone dripped annoyance; yet, as Severus doled out plates and silverware, he could have sworn he caught Black trying to stifle a smile. There was just no understanding some people.

They ate a silent breakfast. As he cleared away, he became aware of the other man's lingering stare. "Tonight at midnight," he said, answering the unasked question.

"We should get some rest."

Certain any attempt at rest would be useless, he thought about the sleeping draught in the bathroom cabinet. Still, as they clung together, their body heat slowly creeping into the coccoon of linens around them, he was soothed to sleep before he could make up his mind to get out of bed and fetch it.

*

Night blurred the outline of rundown buildings. The closest streetlamps were dead, and long blunted shadows thrown by the far lamps blended into the rest of the darkness. Rats scuttled from underfoot into the cover of garbage-strewn alleys. He'd trafficked in fear for half of his life, yet the mundane still had the power to skew his awareness. Sirius' bulk at his side was a settling reminder that the danger wasn't in their location, it was in their destination.

At least the battered telephone box had a glowing bare bulb of witchlight hanging inside to see by. He dialled. "Welcome to the Ministry of Magic. Please state your name and business."

"Severus Snape and Sirius Black. We're here to deliver a . . . baby."

"Sorry, all deliveries must use the rear entrance."

"I don't think so," muttered Sirius. "You delivered that way yesterday and it didn't do a damn thing for the kid."

"It did a great deal for me." Severus stuck his tongue out and licked at the air in a gesture he hoped was obscene before addressing the voice again. "It's not that kind of delivery, you stupid bint!"

"There's no cause to be insulting," said the voice disapprovingly.

"There most certainly is!" yelled Snape. "Now are you going to let us in or not?"

"All deliveries must use the rear entrance." The voice was as stubborn as he was.

"Fine, fine!" snapped Sirius. "We're here to bugger Voldemort!"

"That sounds much the same thing," said the voice, with a strong hint of warning. "Oh, very well. Thank you. Visitors, please take the badges and attach them to the front of your robes." Two badges clinked from the phone slot. They read:


Severus Snape


delivery


Sirius Black


buggery

"The Ministry of Magic finally got something right," sniggered Severus.

"Plonker."

Severus pocketed the badges.

The cool female voice droned on about registration of wands, but even if Severus had been inclined to listen to Ministry directives, there was no point. There would be no one waiting at the security desk. Instead he withdrew, from the same pocket he'd dropped the badges into, the tiny charmed stretcher he'd improvised and spelled it full-sized again. He spoke in low tones under the hum of the moving telephone box. "The ropes will only have the illusion of being tied. I'd appreciate it if you didn't make that too obvious."

"How will Voldemort think you transported me in the first place?" wondered Sirius, equally quietly. "He might notice that I'm not struggling."

"How things are accomplished has never been His concern, so long as they do. To all outward appearances, I have hypnotized you into a state of calmness. If the Order has taken care of the two upstairs, we will be fine."

"Can you really do that?"

"Do what?"

"Hypnotize me."

Black hadn't seemed nervous, but the hand that seized his arm had the icebound feel of a Dementor's. The cold seeped through his sleeve. "I could try."

Instead, when he raised his eyes to those too-bright grey ones, Sirius slid a hand into his hair and pulled him in for a kiss. The hands might be cold, but the mouth was hot on his own, hot and demanding. He almost yielded, knowing that it could be their last, but he was determined not to give in to his fears. Jerking his head away, he said, "They could be watching." By this time, the telephone box had ground to a halt.

Sirius let him go with a clipped laugh. "You relax your way, I'll relax mine."

"Look sharp or you'll relax us both into the grave." He could only give thanks for the resilience of Gryffindor bravado.

The telephone box door cranked open with a bang. One of the broken glass panes fell out and smashed on the gleaming floor. He didn't allow it to distract him as he scanned the hall. It was not well-lit, which made it more difficult to see from the brightness of the telephone box, but at least there was slight protection -- and indeed, escape -- inside it. There were few hiding places, and if there were combatants, which was still possible . . . He saw no one.

That meant one of two things: either the Order members had overcome the Death Eaters and were in place in the shadows, or the Death Eaters had bested the Order and, realising they'd been betrayed, were in place in the shadows.

He exhaled again when a wand tip blinked from halfway down the hall in their prearranged signal. "We're over the first hurdle."

"Plenty more," said Sirius, one arm protecting his belly. For the moment, it seemed, their attitudes had been reversed. Perhaps Black felt he was the one with more to lose. Severus wasn't so sure about that any more.

"Just get on the stretcher and be quiet." When the man did as he was told without a word, Severus knew that the situation had his full attention. Good. They might come out of this alive, then.

The stretcher floated behind him as he moved silently through the apparently empty hall. As high as it was, the luminous ceiling cast an eerie blue light on everything visible, despite the constant shifting of the glowing gold runes. He noted with satisfaction that the visible did not include any members of the Order of the Phoenix. There ought to be better lighting here at night, but most likely the Order had dimmed it for their own purposes.

In the gloom, he found himself attempting to become as invisible as he was silent -- a waste of energy. He was expected; in fact, his presence had been demanded. He would act like it. Shoulders squared, he lengthened his stride and allowed his boot heels to sound against the wood floors. There was nothing in his path. The hall was simply empty. The Fountain of Magical Brethren had never been replaced. Obviously they hadn't allowed Fudge's machinations to put up a statue of himself.

Leading his charge past the security desk, through the golden gates at the other end of the hall, he had cause to be grateful for the spacious lift that admitted his supine companion with no difficulty. It would be the last easy thing they did tonight.

Severus' imposture of perfect sang-froid did not fail him as he strode the barely torchlit hall and nodded to the two Death Eaters at the door to the Department Of Mysteries. Even the white of their death's head masks was indistinct in this wavering light. Thaddaeus Jugson and Rabastan Lestrange. The masks they wore were little true disguise.

The Dark Lord would surely have loved to watch him try to navigate the revolving doors, but as time was of the essence this night -- in every possible way -- he'd brought their incessant whirling to a halt. Two more masks leered at him from the door to the Time Room, streaked with blue from the wall sconces. Their wearers, Mortis Nott and Constantine Mulciber, stood silent. Severus wondered why Malfoy was not part of the inner guard. There was no time to think on it. His Lord waited.

He crossed the last line of Death Eater defense.

In the half-darkness, sound was magnified. The three hundred sixty degree surround of stone seemed designed to enhance every whisper. Stone, nearly immune to time's depredations. It was hard to hear himself think over the dissonance of hundreds of clocks. The ticking plucked at his taut nerves. He could almost believe that underneath it all, he could hear the minute explosions as grains of sand fell in the dull gleam of hour glasses.

Many things filled these chambers whose truth could not be explained. The real mystery, however, was how the Unspeakables got any work done with such poor lighting. Most of the light in the room -- that was to say, not much -- was provided by the Infinite Time Loop device. Despite that, there was no mistaking the cloaked creature that loomed before him, darker than the dim recesses of the room, as a hush stifled the clocks. Red eyes blazed from beneath the hood.

He sank to the floor, head bowed, the only sound his shallow breathing. "Master."

"You have done well, my devoted one." The voice, thin and cold, arced between them. "Rise. You have brought me the blossom of the perfect fruit that will mature tonight."

"Where may I work to make that happen, my Lord?" There didn't seem to be anywhere to perform an operation of the delicacy required. Unless he was expected to slice Black open on the unswept floor?

With Voldemort's gesture, a brilliant beam illuminated a flat-topped monolith that Severus was sure had not been there before. Trust the Dark Lord for theatrics. The unit of stone more resembled an altar than a table; runic inscription glimmered from its rough-hewn sides. He felt its magical pull as he levitated his charge onto it. Too late to wonder what the inscriptions did, but he discovered soon enough that they held Sirius fast to the slab. Good.

He'd given the man a slow-onset calming potion before leaving the cottage, over protests that Sirius needed his wits about him. "Don't tempt me with empty promises," Severus muttered; Sirius had laughed and drained the vial.

It should take full effect immediately when Voldemort removed the spellbindings. Amazing that someone whose blood ran red and gold should have kept such an admirable stillness, but there was no doubt in his mind: there would come a point at which Black would not be able to control himself. It could only bring on far more injury than any incision.

Severus wanted very badly to stave that off. Stealthily he removed a vial from an inside pocket. It was possible that the painkiller would interact with the calming potion and leave the man stupefied, but that, too, could be for the best.

"No!" Voldemort's voice was tinny in the stone room. "No potions!"

"Master, if the pain is extreme, the imp -- the infant could succumb to shock."

"Very well."

He took the ersatz gag from Sirius' mouth and poured in the clear liquid, looking into the wide grey eyes as he did. There was nothing in them but absolute determination. Sirius' face was white under the unnaturally bright light and his jaw hardened as he swallowed. He gave the tiniest of nods.

Willing his hands not to tremble, Severus extracted a spelled scalpel from his small kit of tools. It should cauterize as it cut. If the effect didn't last until he could heal the incision, this would become a blood bath. He undid the fine lawn robes -- his robes -- and bared the dome of scarred belly.

"I am ready, my Lord."

His words were obliterated by a shriek of, "Insidiae mutus!" Severus turned with a curse on his lips that was extinguished by the sight of Bellatrix Lestrange, who swept in the door on a gale of wizardwind. In the turbulence, strings of glowing black light wound like spiderweb around the Dark Lord. He screamed Merlin only knew what imprecations at Bellatrix, but it was fruitless, his voice quenched by her spell. "Accio!" she whispered, and all three men's wands came flying to her.

The wizardwind died. The only sound now was her delighted laughter ringing around the room. Long strands of black hair lifted around her head in a crackle of magic and madness. "Listen." She cast her gaze about the room. "Listen."

Not a tick, a tock, or a grain of sand broke the silence.

The hood of the rich velvet cloak fell back from Voldemort's head as He struggled. It was not a sight for the faint of heart. Severus' gorge rose. What should have been solid flesh had separated. Skin reminiscent of a snake's had begun to bag from muscle, blurring His features. Once distinct markers -- nose, cheekbones, jaw -- were concealed under lumpen scaly folds, if they still existed. The Master was shedding His skin, disintegrating. Severus' skin crawled in a twisted kind of sympathy.

"Do you hear?" asked Bellatrix sweetly. "That is the sound of you, not speaking. Too bad, so sad." She placed a forefinger upon her bottom lip, affecting a childish confusion. "You think I don't know. You still think I don't know."

Voldemort had not ceased moving his lips, to no avail. His arms were pinned to his sides by the pulsing black net.

"Oh, so valiant. I shouldn't tease you. But I will." Her giggle was chilling. "You, my Lord, took the womb from my body. You took my womanhood and You took my eggs. Did you think I wouldn't notice?" Her voice had risen, diamond-hard, a match to the look in her eyes. "You stole the Black birthright and gave it to that . . . that dead thing!"

Voldemort's mouth closed at last. He was still.

One by one, lifting each to display it with a smirk, she snapped the three wands, each crack rebounding from the walls. He felt his wand break with the pain of a shattered bone. Severus could not suppress a cry. Bellatrix ignored him.

"Yes, I knew. That is why I have poisoned you for so many months." She shrieked again with laughter as the wizard struggled in His snare. "Severus is not the only one who can brew a potion, and you were happy to sip your wine in the presence of your most devoted follower. I hope it tasted sweet. I know this does."

Severus hadn't moved since she appeared in the doorway. He looked down, surprised to find himself free of glowing spiderweb. Bellatrix found him no threat to her plans, whatever they were. That suited him, as he truly had no interest in their quarrels. He only wanted to get out alive.

"Filthy half-blood! Don't think to call Your guards, for they are dead. Even Rabastan I have killed to destroy You. I will kill You, and then I will kill that . . . that thing!"

That held his attention until he felt a tendril questing after his own power. He resisted it as best he could, fortified by the shielding potions he'd developed over years of trial and error. The light above them winked out. So did the runes on the stone altar. There was a last flare from the magical bonds around Sirius' belly, and they too vanished, the room around them a shroud of dusk. Unnerved, Severus laid his hands on top of Sirius' bare belly.

With a roar that vibrated the stone Severus stood upon, Voldemort burst into flame.

Licks of purple fire reached for the ceiling. An unearthly radiance filled the room, enough for him to finally see everything in it. He wished he hadn't. There were Bone Demons crawling the walls, perhaps called up by Voldemort's surge of power, as if the two combatants before him weren't bad enough. The demons' shifting outlines were more disturbing than if they had distinct form. He hoped their energies were focused only on those actively fighting the Dark Lord.

"Stupefy!" screamed Voldemort, but His unfocused power was deflected with a mad laugh. The hex flew so close that it burned Severus' arm -- he hunched over Black's body, rolling him off the altar. Unfortunately, this brought them both to a crunching stop on the stone floor, Black on top, Severus flattened underneath. He shook his head to clear stars away as his lungs wrestled for air.

"Get off me," he demanded as soon as could, no thanks to the great heap of dog on top of him. No answer. Oh, fuck. He needed some cooperation here. The screams told him hexes were still flying, but very soon Voldemort would realise He might not be able to handle Bellatrix by Himself. When that happened, the place would be crawling with Death Eaters. Time to call in the reserves.

Severus pressed two fingers against Black's temple. "Enervate." His wandless magic wasn't up to Voldemort's standards, but he'd hoped for something. "Enervate!" Nothing. "Legilimens!"

He could have all Black's memories, right now, without his knowledge. He could find out if Black had really wanted his pathetic teenage self. Whether the Shrieking Shack incident was really what Black said it was, or if the man was now fucking Severus Snape in some soul-destroying scheme. He could tear and twist through memories until one or both of them was slaughtered like a pig and eaten by Bone Demons. Even with that as the likely end, the desire to know stabbed through him.

Within seconds, survival won out.

"Sev'rus," Black slurred, "no shouting, a' 'ight?"

"Come on." He rolled the slightly-less-limp body off himself, cradling the dark head in one hand. Reaching up to the top of the slab to pull down the stretcher, he saw multicoloured sparks detonate against the wall nearby. His heart stuttered. The scalpel, he had to have the scalpel. It lay near him on the floor along with the kit, and he tucked it inside before pocketing the pouch. "Can you move onto this? I doubt you can walk."

While Black struggled onto it, Severus fumbled at the apparation beacon in his pocket. The implant's bindings were gone, and he had no idea how long it would take the thing to suffocate without magical support . . . or how long Black would live with it in him. He couldn't wait to call the others until the two of them reached safety. Voldemort's distraction was their best opportunity for survival. As little as he liked the idea, now everything was up to the Order.

He activated the signal.

The crack crack crack of apparation and howls of engagement sundered the air as he crawled toward the circular wall, the stretcher following. He'd never been happier wearing black. It was the next best thing to an invisibility cloak in this place. He and Black were caught between the maelstrom and the Bone Demons. Fortunately, he couldn't see either very well. He had no interest in a closer look at the demons' long, poisonous teeth, and they appeared uninterested in the two slow-moving men. All their attention was riveted on the crowd of fighters. Saliva dripped from the nearest one's jaws.

Shrieks of pain, shouts of curses, and a rainbow of colored streamers filled the musty room. Death Eaters appeared -- one almost directly in front of them, possibly that muttonhead Avery -- but if he saw the two of them, he gave no sign. Perhaps it was the Decapitus curse, close enough to leave a bald spot, that caught his notice. He was immediately off into the fray.

Along the curve of the wall Severus crawled to what had to be a door. It was only the impression of a door, a slightly concave darker rectangle than the surrounding wall. But it had to be a door, because time was running out. He and Black were helpless, and there was as much threat from inside Black as outside. If they didn't get out of here, the number of unfortunate things that would happen were too many and too appalling to contemplate.

There was no apparent way to open it.

"Alohomora! Aperturata!" He threw every opening charm he knew at it, and the worthless effort churned in the pit of his stomach. The next door to safety seemed very far away, and without a wand, there were no guarantees that he could open that one, either. A shaft of green starred against the wall above him, flinging its power in every direction, and Severus was knocked face-first onto the cold, gritty floor. He tried to rise to see if Sirius had been hit. His left leg was paralysed.

Damn and blast! As if he needed this. With his good leg, using the door itself as a brace, he levered up. The door seemed to undulate, jellylike, under his palm. Looking closer, he saw that etching the outline of his hand was a faint nimbus of pink. Where had he . . . Black! That pink halo was something he'd been seeing around Black. "Get over here," he ordered, forgetting that his companion was floating on a stretcher, if he were even still conscious.

Grounding the stretcher, he grabbed an arm, shaking it. "Come on, come on." He was yelling now, trying to penetrate Sirius' fog, knowing that no one would hear him through the noise of the battle. Sirius blinked up at him in a daze. "Wake up and push on the door. That's right, over here." Tugging at Sirius' open robes, Severus dragged him to his knees at the door and slapped the man's hands against it. Pink light appeared around his hands. The door did not open.

There had to be some way, before both of them were killed -- he needed one bit of luck, and he'd thought this was it -- "Goddamn it!" He banged a fist against the door, ignoring the squelch of contact when he saw the pink nimbus brighten. He put his hands on the surface next to Black's. Light flared around both sets of hands and joined. The door undulated again, as if it were a dark wave, and vanished, leaving the two men in a heap across the doorsill.

An enormous chamber, even bigger than the Time Room, was filled with a brilliant pink mist that seemed to be trapped by whatever barrier was left in the doorway. Unlike the other rooms in the Department of Mysteries, it was bright instead of sepulchral, clean instead of dingy, warm and comforting instead of vaguely macabre. With a furious effort, he pushed himself, and pulled Black, fully inside. He didn't have enough time or energy to do more than shelter them both against the wall. Nothing he did brought the door back. He tried charms to shield them from prying eyes, but from the inside, it didn't look as if that worked either.

Now or never.

"Sirius. Can you hear me?" Severus prodded his shoulder.

" . . . yeah . . . "

"I'm going to get the implant out."

" 's a baby." Sirius smiled sweetly. "Be gentle, 's my firs' time."

Well, at least he wouldn't suffer any pain.

From his kit he took the spelled scalpel. There was no real way to clean the incision area, but he scourgified the skin as best he could. He reminded himself that he had vast experience in dissection, and pressed the blade very carefully to the rise of abdomen just above the groin. There was enough light from the glowing mist for him to clearly see the layers of skin part. No blood welled from the cut. That helped immeasurably. He drew a steadying breath.

Best to get this done in all haste. He had no intention of removing the womb; instead, he'd wanted that done later by someone more qualified. Now, with no wand, he could not so much as seal the incisions. He had never even considered the possibility of such a disaster, and cursed himself. Still, the procedure had to be done. Black was likelier to die if he didn't. Severus tried to clear his mind, but for all the practice he'd had, it was difficult.

Hard to keep a clear head when he didn't know what he would find in Black's belly.

The next cut opened the way into the womb itself. He couldn't imagine what form Voldemort's get would take. It could be anything. The coil of a hatchling basilisk, a miscegenation of man and magical creature, a ghoul made flesh. No, he was not afraid to look. He was not afraid of this thing. At his fingertips rested the objective. He could eliminate the threat. It would be easy. Suffocate it. Break its neck, if it had a neck.

Pricking the bulge of membranes, he opened the amniotic sac fully with a finger from each side. Fluids dribbled from the edges.

This was for Black's life. Severus was not now, and had never been, a coward.

He reached in, long fingers enormous inside the tight, muscular walls of the uterus, and lifted. What he saw was more surprising than his imaginings. It was . . . a baby.

To all appearances, it was a perfectly normal infant, the little body smeared with blood and dripping amniotic fluids. He could feel the heart beating faintly against his fingers -- a strange sensation. Fingers, toes, a face . . . a human face. A child. He was holding what would someday become a person, an adult human being, in his two hands. Female. It was female. What should he do when his whole being had been focused on killing? He could not kill this.

Numbly, awkwardly, he leaned over, holding it close. Placing his mouth over the infant's nose and mouth, he sucked mucous from the tiny passages, then spat the sticky mess away. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. With a thumb, he massaged the chest gently until he was sure the infant was breathing.

"Good work for a traitor, Severus." The amusement in the knife-point voice froze his marrow despite the warmth of the room. The grotesque being that was Voldemort stood at the open doorway. The wand in His hand pointed directly at Severus. "Now, put it down and move away."

Strange wands were notoriously inaccurate. Severus couldn't take the chance that Black would be killed by the curse meant for him. Any added minutes of life meant more chance for rescue.

He set the baby down on Sirius' chest and sidled on his arse like a crab, paralysed leg dragging after.

"I'd like to see you suffer for your betrayal, for bringing the Order here. But it's more important to me right now that you die, die like that dog over there, die like that whore Bellatrix. Join her in Hell, Severus." The snarl lashed him with all Voldemort's power. "Avada Kedavra!"

Death should have been instantaneous. Instead, it took its own sweet time. Maybe eternity was like that. It would be an easier death than he'd ever had any right to expect. He felt the curse take hold and work its way inside, but he was still there. His respiration slowed; his heart slowed. He could feel every breath and every pulse as they became less than what once they were. Avada Kedavra crept quietly as it blurred the edges of his vision.

"Petrificus Totalis!"

Who else but Potter? And how had his petrifying hex knocked Voldemort sprawling into the room? He should have mastered that in fourth year! But, like all the world's other questions, it was merely academic, as Severus would never have any way of knowing. Surely his failing eyesight caused the pink mist around the Dark Lord to light up in a blaze of glory, rising white hot around his fallen Master. The monster was changing as white light invaded the prone body. In the stretch of an instant, the horrible form had absorbed the light and began to glow from the inside.

A high-pitched wail hurt his too-sensitive ears. At first, he thought it was Voldemort Himself, but the body showed no overt signs of life. The hot room cooled precipitously. Severus was surprised he could still feel that; was it a side effect of the curse? No, he could see . . . thought he saw . . . Dementors. A dozen, a hundred, a thousand, drifting into the room as that eerie noise intensified, rising to a peak when a gleaming stag Patronus leapt over him, scattering the horrors away. Then, as his vision left him, a shout:

"Professor Dumbledore, it's Sirius! Please, help him!"

*

For some reason his barriers had pushed at him -- no, shoved him back, as if they were trying to keep him from getting home. It was thoroughly aggravating. He was tired, damn it, and he'd had to make quite an effort to cross them. There must be something wrong; could it be possible that freakish storms had knocked the magic of his periphery out of sync with the magic in the cottage? Earth energies sometimes did that. He couldn't think of any other reason why the wards would not want to admit him.

The bright sunshine of the deliciously balmy early spring day had kept him company on his way up to the cottage, though, and as he walked, his mood improved considerably. It had been such a long, long winter. His worries, whatever they might have been, had melted with the snows that filled the little nearby creek to bursting. Delicate sprigs of green decorated the verge of the lane.

Everything around him was bright, full up with energy, just about ready to spill its pulsing growth upon the land. Sunlight almost sparkled in the fresh air. Everything he saw looked deeper and richer than ever before. For the first time in an age, he felt bouyant, almost . . . expectant, as if there were something more attached to arriving home than simply getting there.

Stifling an odd impulse to knock at the door of his own home, he opened it instead, and, turning, shed his cloak. He'd barely had a chance to hang it on the waiting hook when a raspy voice spoke behind him.

"Welcome, Severus."

"Gran'mere!"

In two strides she was in his arms, holding his shoulders as he whirled her breathlessly around. It took the whirl for him to realise that he could actually do that; she who had seemed tall to him in his puny-for-his-age tenth year was a woman of only average height. He set her back on her feet and smiled foolishly down at her. "How you've . . . "

"Shrunk, yes." She let out a raucous peal of laughter. "And how you've grown!"

This was the woman who'd taken him in after his mother, always frail, died of Entwhistle's Grue, the incurable disease he himself only carried. It had finally shut down Nardia Snape's lungs one winter, and he'd been shipped off to a grandmother he'd never met when his father couldn't be bothered with a grieving boy.

Severus had spent three golden years in the little grey-stone cottage before he lost Gran'mere to Phoenix Influenza. The fever burned her up as he watched, pinch-faced with fear, from her bedside in St. Mungo's. The hospital staff had tried to shoo him out of her room, but he had nowhere to go. Finally, they simply made him up a cot. A week later he walked out of the hospital, but she didn't.

Now she'd come back, she truly had, as some victims of Phoenix Flu were said to. He turned away the doctor's voice that told him it was an old wives' tale, nothing but a story to comfort the survivors of the burning ones. If anyone could come back, it would be his Gran'mere. It had taken a long time, but she was here, and he was suffused with gratitude and a quiet happiness.

"Come, mon petit noir, see what's here." Dark, the colouring of his mother's family. Leiriope Snape had accepted that about him, as she did everything else. He had never understood that, but had reached out greedily for it nonetheless. Together, they walked past the open door to his greenhouse, the beautiful plants bursting with life. The Cannabis Imajica waved him a welcome.

"See? I've taken good care of them for you."

"But . . . " Severus was surprised. Something niggled at his mind. "They were fine . . . before."

He remembered that. He remembered his grandmother, his childhood, Hogwarts. He remembered his job, his unintended avocation . . . but he didn't remember today, or yesterday, or the day before that. He wasn't sure how far back this strange lapse went. Still, he couldn't be arsed to care.

"That's not what I've got to show you, though."

He followed her as she walked through what used to be the door to the bathroom, which now opened into a corridor to an enormous potions laboratory. The high-ceilinged, high-windowed, sun-streamed room was filled with all possible accoutrements, each untouched item gleaming with newness. Lining the shelves was every ingredient he could wish for. Severus was floored. This room was far better outfitted than his lab at Hogwarts. His fingers flexed with a need to touch the brass and silver instruments.

"Where did all this come from?" He walked up to a table and put his hands on it to confirm that it was real. It felt real.

"It's all for you, if you stay."

"What do you mean? I'm here, aren't I?" It occurred to him that perhaps he wasn't really here, and that Gran'mere wasn't either. This could be a trick of his warped mind, or the result of some experimental potion he'd ingested.

"Come have a cup of tea and we'll talk about it." Her voice, always scratchy, broke over the words.

How the grinding on of years had crushed his memories! It was as if the dust of them had flown into a whirlwind and spouted up his grandmother, fully-fleshed -- brighter, more loving, more vibrant than his recollections. So very old when he was a child, now she was a woman only just past her prime. Her wispy brown hair was as free of gray as it had ever been, and he wondered if she used a potion on the sly.

They sat together in the so-familiar kitchen with her delicate china cups that he'd put away many years ago, drinking Assam tea with a twist of orange peel just the way they both loved it, the way he hadn't fixed it since the day she . . .

"You're still dead," he said without inflection.

"Yes, petit." Her glance was compassionate.

"I am, too." He stared at the table, contemplating the grain. It wound around in a whorl, with a brown knot in its center the colour of his grandmother's hair, matching the roundabout march of his thoughts exactly.

"Not quite." She tilted his chin up so that he couldn't help but look into her eyes. They'd been dry and reddened with fever last time he'd seen them; now they glowed with health. "Let's say you're not supposed to be."

"What do you mean?" He raised a brow. "I'm either dead, or I'm not dead. One doesn't end up on the other side for no reason." He'd have been dead long ago if that was so, and would have been all the better off for it.

"Oh, it was a very close-run thing. Do you remember how difficult it was to get through the barrier?"

"Yes, but . . . "

"No buts. You broke through the Veil under your own power. Most people's passage is easy. They're supposed to be here; they don't get to say no. For you, there's still a decision. " She clasped his hands over the table. "Do you really think I would have left you by choice?"

"No, of course not." His answer was not quite firm enough to be convincing.

"I wanted to be there for you."

He could not help but look away. "If you had, I like to think . . . Gran'mere, what I have done . . . I'm sorry."

"Hush, Severus." Her firm words overrode his apology. "You need never apologize to me." For a moment, his grandmother looked more mysterious, more knowing, than she ever had in life. It made him ache to be innocent once more.

"Why are you telling me this? Do you want me to stay?" Severus knew that he would do whatever it took to make her happy. The mess that he'd made of his life was drifting farther and farther away, and he did not mourn it.

"I shouldn't." Gran'mere's lips thinned. She shook her head, a twist of brown hair falling from its knot. "But I was so very happy to see you again."

Don't send me away, he pleaded silently.

"I'm weak; I've preyed on your forgetfulness. Forgive an old lady for hoping you might take the easy path. I wanted to show you -- but I was wrong. You must know by now that I'll always be here, but what you leave behind in life will be gone."

"I want nothing from life." Life had never given him anything but Gran'mere.

"Think about it, Severus, really think. Do you remember what happened?"

"I . . . I'm not sure." Today, yesterday, the day before. The effort made his head hurt. He screwed up his eyes against it and dug a thumb into the hollow at his temple. "Hurts. Oh, God!" Pain seared his chest as his head banged the cold stone under his back and he lay still. "Hexed. Somebody was -- Voldemort. Is He, is He . . . dead?"

She squeezed his hands. "The Guardians have taken Him, dear one."

Relief made him dizzy in his chair.

"What else do you remember?"

Blood. Blood dripping from his hands; dripping from the gore-covered tiny warm life he held in them.

"Baby," he said weakly. Black. The baby. It all came streaking back into the empty spaces. Severus had arranged Sirius Black's body on the floor, cut him open, and lifted out a child. Severus had more than once been the agent of death, but never before had he been the agent of life. What would happen to that infant? Did he really want to go back and find out, when everything he needed was right here?

Suddenly, the memory of a man's weight in his arms was so keen he felt the brush of a sigh against his cheek, the lingering touch of a hot palm curled around his cock. His whole body stiffened in sympathy.

Not everything, then.

Desire flared in the pit of his stomach and tugged at him like a portkey. Apparently he was still more invested in life than in death.

"I . . . " He cleared his tight throat. "I have to go back."

"The kitchen window won't answer you, Severus. It's all right to look at me." Her amusement turned his head. "Why?" She tilted her head like sparrows did on the branches in Hogwarts' gardens and waited while Severus tried to dredge up a reply.

He most certainly was not going to tell Gran'mere that he would go back because he wanted a good fuck. The lines on his face fell deeply and easily into the familiar grooves of a scowl. No point in saying he had a lover. Many things had happened since yesterday. He'd cut open Sirius Black like the man was a vivisection experiment. That wouldn't likely further an attachment. And Voldemort was gone now.

Severus wasn't sure what kind of a partner Sirius might be looking for under different circumstances -- for instance, if his choices weren't restricted by imminent death.

The wet glob of infant had nothing to do with him, even though he'd massaged its lungs full of its first breath of air. It was . . . incredible, as if he'd brought that speck of life into the world. Who could have known how seductive that was? He'd given up the idea of parenthood long ago, certain it was the last thing he wanted. Now was a poor time to find out he'd been his own worst enemy.

Sirius was well aware of his reputation as the most hated teacher at Hogwarts. Severus was vile to students, and they returned his antipathy in full measure. No man in his right mind would allow Severus Snape near his child. The question was: was Sirius Black crazy enough? He was about to bet his life on it.

Staring at the table again, he mumbled, "I have a dog."

Gran'mere raised both brows at that. "Really? You know, I always thought you'd be more of a cat person."

His wayward mind flashed on McGonagall and he choked on his tea.

"Severus! Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, I just . . . never mind." He hurriedly filed the mental picture of the Transfiguration professor away. Far away. "I would prefer a cat, ordinarily, were I to choose a pet. This is nothing like ordinary." Even if he compared it to the rest of his life. "The problem is," he felt a humiliating flush cross his cheeks, "I don't own the dog. The dog owns me."

Her face softened into comprehension. He suspected, rather resentfully, that she'd known all along. Gran'mere had a more likely claim to omniscience than Dumbledore. "If I must lose you this time, I'm glad you'll have the companion that your heart desires."

He just looked at her, his mouth twisted, and hoped she was right.

*

Pain. Pain. He was suffocating, pleading for air that would not come. There was a mountain of pressure on his chest. His ribs creaked under the crushing weight. He couldn't see, and mindless panic boiled in him until he understood that he could not open his eyes. Gran'mere, help me, he thought. With a gargantuan effort, he pried his eyelids apart the least bit, the tiny muscles unwillingly mastered. His vision was blurred through his own wet eyelashes, but he should have been grateful to have it at all, if he could have been grateful through the searing pain.

Full consciousness returned. Severus could hear now, voices, as for a moment the killing pressure eased. Something covered his slack lips. A gust of air filled his lungs -- not of his own taking, but it was so welcome he did not care. A real breath followed, and his eyes flew open wide. A dark blur and a light blur resolved into the hair and face of Harry Potter.

Oh, no. He'd chosen to stay dead, and, in accordance with Voldemort's curse, now he was in Hell.

"Sirius! Sirius, look, he's alive!"

Of course I'm alive, you idiot, now get off me, he wanted to say. But all that came out was a thready, " . . . idiot."

A short laugh, "Bloody prat," and then, "Remediatio!"

The general healing spell settled over him, easing the piercing pain in his chest. From the left came Dumbledore's voice: "They'll be safe for now," adding with more urgency, "We must see to the other wounded. The Aurors have arrived, but the emergency mediwizards haven't." Quick footsteps headed from the room. Albus could move fast when he wanted to.

Aurors. They were going to leave him to the Aurors, leave Sirius and the . . . the baby.

No. He would not trust in the Ministry's tender mercies. He managed to prop himself on his elbows, probably thanks only to the healing charm. The room's glowing mist was gone. It was growing colder; the only light now came from the open door. The Dementors were gone as well, if they'd ever truly been there. He wasn't sure any more what had been real.

His head was beginning to ache despite the Remediatio. Lying on the granite floor had chilled his muscles so deeply he felt like a side of beef, wanting only the hook to hang from.

Severus scraped across the uneven stones to Voldemort's body. If he ever crawled on hands and knees again, it would be much too soon. The useless leg didn't help. Every movement made him hurt all over. What had Potter done to him? Whatever it was, he'd make sure the little sod never did it again. Severus slid the unfamiliar wand from the cadaver's fist. He did not look at the rest of the body. The only charms he knew for detecting life signs came up empty.

In his hand, the wand hummed with Dark power. Bella's, then. None of the other Death Eaters had her power. Only she had been strong enough to take on the Dark Lord, even with poison for an ally. Sirius Black had underestimated her to his dire cost.

Dumbledore must have been very sure indeed that Voldemort was dead. That didn't stop Severus from casting a ring of Foxfire around the body to keep Him in, others out, and the living occupants of the room warm.

A close look at Sirius revealed him to be unsmiling. His pain relief shouldn't have worn off, but perhaps the euphoria of the calming potion had. His features were still smooth, though, and it was pleasant to see the lines of care gone from his worn face. Severus ran his fingertips over the bearded jaw, so gingerly that had Sirius been conscious, he'd barely have felt them.

Dumbledore's spells allowed him to clamp off the umbilical cord and transect it. He wasn't about to use the wand, possibly disrupting the extant spell. Someone had tucked a heavy cloak over the man and his charge, but every bone in his body knew how cold the floor was. He cast a warming charm on the stone itself, and heard a faint groan from the unconscious man.

Severus slashed off a swath of velveteen cloak with the scalpel to wrap the still-damp, sticky baby in; it didn't make any noise, but he was caught off guard when it opened its odd-coloured eyes. He couldn't help but stare back in fascination. It felt like a full minute before the baby made the smallest sound, as if they'd reached some kind of understanding, and closed its eyes again.

Surely newborn infants could not smile?

He tucked the bundle inside his robes and set his back to the wall, wand out, building a bubble of protection around them, hoping it wouldn't fail. So far, Bella's wand had an uncanny affinity with him, but in this as in everything, there were no guarantees. He concentrated on making sure the iridescent globe had no weaknesses.

Just in time, as the tip of a wand appeared around the doorpost. A scanning spell lifted his hair. Then Alastor Moody stumped into the room, followed almost on his heels by an Auror Severus didn't recognise.

"Well, well, what have we here? A couple of stranded Death Eaters, I'll wager. I think we'd best wrap 'em up, eh? Nice pressie for Minister Fudge," said the unknown man, puffing up with importance.

"Oh, it's a Death Eater, all right." Moody examined the two men on the floor. There was a gleam in his real eye that did not bode well for Severus, Sirius, or the infant. "I've been after this one for quite a long time." He nodded companionably at the other Auror, and without warning, he struck. "Finite incantatem!"

If the two took down the bubble, it would all have been a terrible misunderstanding. An accident. Dumbledore would apologise sorrowfully to Harry Potter and give the boy Black's mortal remains as a souvenir. His own would be swept up and dropped in the nearest bin by the Ministry's cleaners, or left under glass for study by the Unspeakables. There wouldn't be enough left of the infant to fill an eggcup.

Spells shouted in tandem battered their thin skin of safety.

"Dissolvo!"

"Abrogato!"

Severus poured magic into the bubble, both his hands clamped on the wand. He was glad for the stress it could bear, and for the last of Bella's own power. Even his own wand might have failed under this kind of strain. If only he could strike back, he knew that with Bella's wand he could take them both, but it was too dangerous. He wouldn't risk Sirius' life. Sweat dripped down his neck.

The blackest of magic crawled up his arms in sucking tendrils, begging to be used, licking at the Dark Mark. The Mark burned and squirmed on his flesh. Even without Voldemort, it could still respond to the thing he held. The wand itched for a kill.

He braced his elbows on his knees to curb the shaking of his hands, but it didn't work. More spells blasted the bubble. Rings of color scudded over the surface, Moody's power rocking him as it shocked into his magical field. He'd been dead already and it was just fine. He wouldn't back down for a crazy, vindictive ex-Auror and some jumped-up fool from the Ministry. He and Black would walk away from this, or he'd go down fighting.

"Schistos Primoplastus! Reducto!"

His hands were numb. Severus could feel his strength running out. Every muscle shuddered with effort. There was one last chance, and that was to take everything he had left and push. If the bubble moved out hard enough and fast enough, he could knock his adversaries off their feet. All he had to do was reach. He reached.

With a soundless rush, the bubble swelled like a balloon, only to meet a curse that destroyed his last chance. Their last chance. The unknown Auror, hit with the reflection of his and Moody's combined spells, flew back a half-dozen feet before landing. The sphere of protection shattered, and as it did, so did the wand in his hands. A sliver of yew scored his cheek. His blistered and swollen hands were now useless, even if he'd been able to think of a use for them. Glittering shards rained down on them all.

The pain of his burned hands evaporated when Moody lift his wand. With what little was left of his reason, Severus wondered if his grandmother would be surprised to see him back so soon.

"Avada Kedavra!"

Green light seared his retinas. Severus was picked up bodily and slammed back against the wall. A hoarse scream filled his ears. When his vision righted, he saw Moody tottering on his feet. His mangled face a mask of dread, Moody dropped to the floor with a thud.

What had happened? Dazed, Severus looked around. There was no one else in the room. No one ran in from the next room, asking if they were all right. There wasn't a sound except the whistle of air between his teeth. He stared at the spot where Moody had been standing until, in the periphery of his vision, he noticed a tiny wisp of smoke. It was drifting up from . . . his chest. A ragged hole with blackened edges had appeared in the middle of his robes.

It was exactly atop the spot where he'd tucked the infant.

A low moan grabbed his throat from the inside and wouldn't let go. Hesitantly he peeled back the layers. There -- the top of the head, the face, and, indeed, the rest of it. It looked whole, alive, and as healthy as it could be under the circumstances . . . surely it would look better once the blood was washed off. Dumbfounded, he stared at the baby and watched its tiny chest rise and fall. It slept on.

The baby, the room, and everything else around him slowly dissolved.

*

He took a deep draught of potions-tainted air to clear his head, and involuntarily expelled it with a whimper. His chest felt twice its normal size, and every breath threatened to break him. His whole body hurt.

"Easy there." The nearby voice was not at all near enough. "You got thumped on." That much was obvious, now. "Think our Harry enjoyed that a bit too much. Cracked a rib or two."

There was an annoying amount of pride in that cryptic remark, which he'd damn well wipe from Sirius' face as soon as he felt up to it. Right now, his head was too full of cotton wool to analyze anything.

"Poppy! Your patient's with the world again."

The mediwitch bustled over. "Oh, Severus, you're awake!" Her homely face beamed at him.

"Soul of perspicacity," he muttered, but his voice was so weak she didn't even hear him.

He groaned as she lifted his head for a drink of water, and would have batted her away if he weren't so thirsty. The blasted water was mixed, of course, with pain reliever. It wasn't even his.

"Just you relax, now. You need rest to heal."

"It's not like I have a choice, now you've dosed me."

She heard that, but only smiled. "Good to have you back."

"Liar." With some difficulty, he turned to the next bed. Sirius Black was propped up, his hair a wild tangle against a bolster of pillows. In his arms was a swaddled lump that Severus took to be the infant. "Explain," he demanded hoarsely.

"Once upon a time, a long, long, time ago -- "

The Black sense of humor left much to be desired. "You have two minutes; I suggest you get on with it."

"Quit interrupting, then." With a sniff, Black shifted the baby to his other arm. "Voldemort's dead."

That, he supposed, was the bottom line, really.

"The Dementors, Guardians, whatever, they took Him. His soul. I saw it. I think every one of them took a piece."

Severus considered this. "You were all but disemboweled. Can I trust the judgment of someone who was high as a renegade snitch?"

"Please. Always the doubting Severus." The wide grin warmed Severus more than his several thin, scratchy blankets. "Dumbledore put a stasis charm on me before I bled to death -- he and Harry, they both saw. I think the Ministry wants to display the body."

Were they insane? "No!" He spit out the word with so much force that it grated his throat.

"Don't worry, Dumbledore's already burnt it. They just don't know that yet."

Severus heaved a sigh of relief, and then was sorry he had. "What was in that room?" It had felt so good, so welcoming. He didn't understand how it could have killed.

"Let's put it this way," said Sirius dryly. "I've heard of dying of love, but I never thought I'd see it happen."

"What?" Severus put a hand to his temple. It just made his chest hurt more, and didn't do anything for the muddle of his so-called brain.

"I don't know everything, but -- "

Severus snorted, then reminded himself not to do that again soon.

"The Dementors. That's where the 'long, long ago' part comes in. When wizards first brought the Veil back from wherever they found it, they saw the Dementors come out -- only they weren't Dementors then. Nobody could figure out what they were, and instead of leaving well enough alone, they trapped them, one by one, as they came out. Barmy bastards decided to try and take 'em apart, see how they ticked."

That sounded like the Ministry, all right. Comforting to know things hadn't changed over the last eight hundred years or so.

"It worked, to a point. Somehow, they managed to strip the Guardians of their souls, their . . . well, there's really no other way to put this. Their love." Sirius pushed at his hair, joggling the lump in his arm, and it made a small noise. "They were left with merciless, almost unstoppable beings that went around trying to get back what they'd lost. It wasn't long before the Ministry figured out a way to use them."

Against his will, Severus' eyelids drooped. He was alive, by Salazar, and he wanted to be awake for it!

"It was Umbridge, you know. Soon as they sacked her from the Ministry, she went running to Voldemort. The Dementors would obey her, so she pulled them off Azkaban and holed them up in Albania to wait for new orders. Only Dumbledore got there first. Once he convinced Fudge to . . . "

Severus drifted away on a cloud of Flocke's FeelGood.

When he awakened next, Black's bed was surrounded by a pack of well-wishers. He couldn't even see the man. It bothered him. Only in a distant sort of way, of course. He had many things on his mind. The school term would be starting soon, and he mentally went through every item in his stores in between demanding water, parchment and quill, reading materials, and insisting that his bed be moved to take advantage of the window light.

A shadow fell between him and his prized window. "You're blocking my light," he said, not looking up.

"Just wanted to see how you're feeling."

Ah. Potter. "And why would you want to do that?" Severus noticed the boy's tactic of standing between him and the window.

"Curiosity?" The whelp's voice held a teasing note.

"You always were damned nosy."

"Hey, I figure you owe me at least that much," Potter replied breezily.

"I owe you nothing!"

"Oh, but Severus, you're wrong." Sirius had surfaced above the supplicants and lent him a sly grin. "Don't you realise that Harry saved your life?"

"What?" The idea sickened him. All he wanted was another life debt needing repayment to Harry Potter. How deep in arrears could he be? Severus had already used up one life.

"Oh, yeah. When he couldn't revive you with spells, he started your heart the Muggle way, by brute force."

The breath forced into his lungs. The cracked ribs. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

"Oh, my, my. The look on your face!"

Severus knew if he looked over again, Sirius would burst into his croaking giggle. He looked at Potter instead. "I am feeling very well, thank you," he said through a locked jaw. That actually hurt.

"You're welcome." Potter had the temerity to pat him on the shoulder before he wandered back to the circus that was Black's convalescence.

So this was how it was going to go. He'd be lucky if he ever got another look at Black through his throng of hangers-on. Too reminiscent of times long ago, the thought made his chest throb. Minerva interrupted his piss-poor temper.

"Severus, I'm glad you're well."

From her, that could actually be true, and he nodded, not at all distracted from his dark thoughts. He didn't look directly at her until she said, "Here. This should perk you up a bit." She was holding the baby, holding it out to him.

It had been surprisingly quiet so far. He'd expected infirmary-shattering wails demanding sustenance or whatever babies demanded, but there hadn't been any -- apparently, newborns really did mewl when they weren't puking.

"Well, don’t you wish to hold her? We could hardly pry her away when Albus finally managed to move you here. You were out of your mind." Minerva stared down her nose at him. "Poppy had to drug you to get her away." She peered at the infant with a smile of sick-making sweetness. "I can see why. She's a real charmer."

It was wrapped in something white and fluffy-looking. He stared. The infant opened its eyes and stared back, as if the thing could see right through him. He suppressed a shiver. As he watched, a faint glow of pink appeared around the small blanketed body. Nervously he blinked the impression away.

Surely it was impossible that he might fall under the spell of this would-be person as he had fallen under Black's . . . the urge to take the baby from Minerva was surprisingly strong. "No, I think not." The next thing he knew, he'd be making cow eyes at it himself.

"Very well. Have it your own way." Cooing, she carried the infant back to the madding crowd.

Within ten minutes, he'd badgered Poppy into letting him recuperate in his rooms.

Once settled into his own bed, he put his time to better use. He was already losing Sirius' interest, and things would only grow worse as the man settled into his new life, whatever that would be. There had to be some way to ensure that Sirius Black stayed bound to him, even if it wasn't as closely as Severus would like.

Everybody wanted something. Black, imprisoned for twelve years, a fugitive for two, and officially dead for one, must want more than most.

It remained to be seen what that was.

Sirius Black had a child, born of him, that carried the line of Voldemort. He would want a place of safety for that child. 12 Grimmauld Place was a dangerous, life-sucking pit that Sirius hated. The man had friends, of course . . . but, in point of fact, there were only two close friends left. Harry Potter could house no one, and Remus Lupin was in possession of every knut Black once owned.

The child would need care, likely beyond what Sirius could provide by himself. It would need education.

Sirius Black was a sex-starved near-virgin. He knew no one but Severus who shared his inclinations. The promise of convenient sex had lured more than one man into an ongoing relationship.

Severus contemplated his options until he was exhausted, then slept poorly.

*

Successful negotiation was much like seduction. True, he'd never actually negotiated anything or seduced anyone. His whole life had consisted of either abased capitulation or enraged resistance. But he had to try. The setting was of great importance, he knew. He'd had House Elves in this afternoon to charm the grey stone walls the colour of fresh cream, a comforting shade that would put his guest at ease. He rather liked the results.

Flowers would have been ridiculous, but he sent one of the elves to the hothouses for a couple of green plants, specifically ruling out anything deadly. Idly, he rubbed at his sternum as he glanced around the room. His chest was so tight it felt like the healing charms had shrunk his cracked ribs, and his heart banged them after every contraction. He could probably use the extra oxygen from the green plants in any case.

Severus set the plate of luxury chocolates next to the bottle of absurdly expensive Scottish on the tea table and lit the fire. Soon it was crackling invitingly. Thank Merlin for owls. He'd never have been able to ready his quarters in time if he'd travelled to Hogsmeade for supplies.

Sliding behind his overlarge desk at the rap on his door, Severus called out, "Enter."

Sirius stood framed by the dim grey of the hallway, leaning against the doorpost, looking better than he'd any right to. The planes of his face were cleanly revealed; now that he could shave, he had. He wore neatly pressed, expensive-looking robes that had never belonged to Severus Snape. "Nice," he said. "Kind of like a Muggle therapist's office." Severus didn't even want to know how Black had made that connection, or what it meant. "But why so formal?"

"There are some things I was hoping to discuss with you." Severus tried to look ingratiating, but as he hadn't had time to practise in the mirror, he had no idea of the results. "Have a seat. Dinner will be served shortly. Would you like a drink?"

"Sure." Sirius wasted no time in pouring himself a glass of Scottish and snagging a few chocolates. "One for you? Oh, you've started without me." He grinned boyishly, cheekbones accented by the glow of the fire, then lowered himself carefully in the cream brocade chair the elves had redone to match the walls. Obviously, despite the best Poppy could do, he was still a bit sore.

"How are you?" Severus Snape, Master of Potions and small talk.

"Oh, tolerable, for having my guts completely restrung. And yourself?" His snapping eyes showed amusement at their inconsequential chatter.

"I'm much better, thank you." Severus sipped at his glass and waited for the man to get well into his liquor before he made his move. Good thing Sirius slurped it down like a Beauxbatons palomino at a trough.

"Ah, that's lovely," Sirius said, and tipped the glass once again. "Goes down easy after a tough week. And it was definitely that. What did you have in mind to talk about?"

"I was wondering about your plans." Despite the tickle of anxiety in his belly, he smiled as comfortably as he could. "Now that you're free, will you move into Grimmauld Place?"

"I haven't made any plans yet."

Thank goodness, he'd gotten to Sirius before anything was set in stone.

"But, you know," Sirius barked a mirthless laugh, "I'd sooner burn the place to the ground than bring my daughter there for five minutes. A child of mine in that house? Oh, no. No." He rubbed his jaw, gazing at the fire.

"That's what I thought. Perhaps if you need a place to stay, you'd consider my cottage. Plenty of privacy, very safe." He finished his glass and rose for refills. "It would be a very pleasant place to raise a child."

"That's very kind of you." Sirius swirled the liquid thoughtfully and took another swallow. "I don't think I want to handle fathering on my own, though." He gave Severus a speaking look.

This was going well, so far. "That wouldn't be a problem. I'm sure we could find reliable help. And you'd be able to make sure Lupin's Imajica was well-cared for."

"Right, you'd just love a stranger making free with your house, wouldn't you? I'm surprised you're offering it to me!"

"I'm sure you'd be capable of keeping an eye on the help."

"Besides, can't you just see me waiting for you to turn up on the occasional free weekend, like a kept man in your little love nest?" Sirius' grin teased Severus to share the laughter.

Unfortunately, as that was so very much what Severus hoped for, he couldn't join in the fun, and turned the subject. "In the future, you could substitute a live-in tutor for the nurse. Primary-school years are so very important, don't you agree? I know of several qualified people." He didn't, but he would find some.

Sirius whistled. "That's incredibly generous of you, but after all that's happened, I'd really like to spend time near my friends. You know, I'll bet Albus would find room for me here. I might even be able to wangle a job out of him." He looked immeasurably brighter at the prospect. "Once parenthood isn't taking all my time, of course."

Severus winced, aware that Black shot him a confused look. He tried to school his face to open interest before he roused suspicion, but the idea of Black living at Hogwarts, passing him in the halls, eating meals at the same table, chatting in a knot of friends, while Severus watched like a child at the window of Honeyduke's . . . like a lovesick teenager . . .

That wave of nausea had to be from the first two glasses of Scottish. He'd been desperate to calm his nerves. Sodding Muggle liquor.

He had one more chip to throw down in the bargaining for his life. If this failed, he faced the prospect of early retirement just to avoid the sight of Black, constantly surrounded by admirers.

"Do you think you might need funds until you set yourself up? You'll need a lot of . . . " he had no idea what Sirius would need a lot of, "things for the baby."

"Nah, Moony'll spot me a few Galleons until the inheritance is straightened out. God, it's good to be back." Sirius sighed deeply and stretched out his long legs, booted feet resting on the deeply plush sepia carpet.

Severus looked down at the shining mahogany surface of his desk. His hands clenched beneath it, wrists smarting with the fierceness of his grip. Consciously he tried to relax, but it seemed impossible. He'd run out of ideas, and his every offer had been batted aside as inconsequential without even a counter-offer. He had nothing to say. Nothing else to give.

"Wait a minute . . . " Sirius sounded as if he were finally giving the whole of it some thought. Severus looked up, the unfamiliar warmth of hope swelling inside him.

"Did you just offer me money?"

Severus cleared his throat faintly. "You needn't be so . . . blunt." Yes, he was offering a man money in return for a possible ongoing . . . But it didn't seem like Sirius -- at least this version of Sirius -- to twist that particular knife.

He did.

"I can't believe you!" The disgust was obvious.

"All right." Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. Time to show his throat. He took a shuddering breath. "Anything, then. What . . . what do you want?"

"What do I want? What the hell is this? First you try to send me off to the middle of nowhere with promises of nursery help, imply that Moony's Imajica is dependent on my going, and then you try to give me money?"

Severus gasped and stood, wavering a bit. He would never drink that vile brew again. "You don't understand!" He moved from behind the desk, lifting a hand, but let it drop in the face of Sirius' hostility.

"Oh, I understand, all right. This is about my daughter, isn't it? I saw how you wouldn't go near her. And me! I'm a bit of a problem for you now, am I? Didn't really expect me to live."

"No! I -- no!"

"You contemptible piece of squid fodder. Don't you know that when you kick a dog it's likely to turn around and bite you?" The snarl was unmistakable, and even if Severus hadn't heard it, it was made perfectly obvious with bared teeth. "I've had enough of the words from your mouth."

"You're mad." Negotiations had failed. More than failed -- they had imploded. There was no way to save face -- there was nothing left to save. There was nothing to do but confront his ruin. He'd squandered his death, and now, somehow, his life. He stood square to Sirius and straightened his narrow shoulders. "Get out."

A rasping chortle was his answer. "I don't think so, Professor Snape."

Sirius advanced on him, fists lifted. Severus stumbled back and fetched up against the wall; the thump made his ribs ring like a gong, radiating pain and weakness down his arms. Only sheer luck kept him from being spitted on the fireplace poker as he heeled it. He clutched at Sirius' wrists, but couldn't stop the hands as they folded round his neck. To his dull surprise, they didn't squeeze. He knew, in the instant two thumbs dug in under his jaw, which would have been the lesser of two evils.

The thumbs forced his head up. Severus looked straight into Black's mocking eyes.

"You did say anything, didn't you, Severus?" The rough voice had turned soft, and all the more threatening for it. Fury would have distracted the man, making him less thorough. This simmering anger would only make him ruthless. When Severus had made his offer, the boundaries of anything were physical. He couldn't have imagined Black might want something he could not touch, hold, keep.

He'd never, ever had any intention of offering Black everything.

This was all going to end the way Severus should have known it would . . . one way or another, in his debasement.

He wanted to say no. He wanted to rage in the bastard's face, curse him, send him away with a donkey's tail and skin slimy with pustules. That wouldn't happen; he didn't have a wand. Which was just another way of acknowledging that right now, he had no power. Sirius Black had it all in the two hands around Severus' neck. If Severus refused to reveal his deepest secrets, Black already knew enough about him to ridicule him for the rest of his life, and undoubtedly would.

What would Black do if Severus gave him what he asked for? He might still laugh and turn on his heel. But . . . he might stay. He might stay and take his pleasure, which was more and better than Severus ever had before. If Black stayed, Severus could make him suffer for it. And after, they could be . . . they could talk, sometimes, and kiss. There was still one possibility. His only advantage lay in agreement.

Eyes closed, he gave a tight nod.

"Open your eyes for me, Severus."

It wasn't necessary, just another way for the canine to assert his dominance. Outrage was useless. Damn Black's soul -- oh, Black had been there, done that. He opened his eyes and was caught completely in the depths of the grey eyes so close to his. Bracing himself as best he could against the wall, he waited for the punch of Black's mind breaking through. His barriers rose instinctively; after twenty years in the shadow of Voldemort, they were never really gone.

The cruel force of another violating his thoughts was something Severus had never forgotten, not after all the years since he'd mastered Occlumency. The scattering and shattering of his memories, the invasion of his most private self, had driven his excellence beyond anyone's expectations. He had hardened to keep himself from breaking. It was the way he'd learned, the way he'd tried to teach Potter. It had nothing to do with this.

Whatever Sirius Black had brought back from the dead, it made Severus' protections immaterial. The entering was not battery; oh, no. Something warm and vibrant feathered inquisitively across the barricades and, to his dismay, they parted almost eagerly to let it in. The curious zephyr that was Black insinuated itself into his mind, puffing memories before it, stopping to curl sweetly around some, brushing others aside.

He had no idea what to do about this, or whether, given any better options, he should have chosen to do anything about it.

The feel of Black in his mind was sensual, almost . . . sexual; moreso when the soft breeze passed memories of their physicality. The two of them together, limbs entangled, the slide of skin to skin a benediction sweet as innocence. Sirius' lips upon him, calling up pleasure he'd never known. The overwhelming pressure of an orgasm about to effervesce. He didn't even flinch when the whisper of breeze delved into his haunting fear, his embarrassment of gratitude, his shameful bottomless pit of need.

The zephyr moved on.

It wrapped around the memories of his time with Gran'mere, then and now. He felt again the glad rush of seeing her once more, the regret that he could not stay, the impenetrability of what he'd been reborn into -- as if the profundity of the whole world had suddenly flattened into a piece of paper. It even watched him as he drew the infant from Black's body, felt his awe, experienced with him his unease and fascination. The soft breeze that was Black followed him to this very evening, through his vain attempts to hold the interest of the only man he'd ever cared for.

Abruptly he was alone. Alone in his own head and shaking, he sat on the floor, robes rucked up against the wall at his back. He slumped, breathing shallowly around the square-hewn stone in his chest. He listened to the quiet that would tell him of Sirius Black's judgment.

"Her name is Phaedra."

At the hoarse whisper, Severus looked up, realizing only then that Black had followed him to the floor. The lined face was chalky despite the glow of firelight, and his voice was as blank as his expression. "You were dead." Black spoke tonelessly, like he could not comprehend the words coming from his own mouth. "You came back. For me. You wanted us to stay."

"Oh, please," he managed. Circe help him -- after all that, did they need another rehash of the blindingly obvious? "You really want to take something for these mood swings."

"You're sodding unbelievable, you know?" A wry half-smile lit Black's haggard features.

Severus shrugged. He was so drained his shoulders barely twitched. "You know better than anyone. What you see is what you get."

"Yeah, a middle-aged, stoppered-up git with a wicked mouth on him." Sirius leaned against Severus. "I'm really best fond of the wicked mouth."

With nothing left to hide, the words still had to cut their way out. "It's yours if you want it."

"I'll take it." Sirius put a hand on the plane of Severus' chest, and for some reason, the lingering ache of his healing ribs faded. "But not tonight, dear. I've got a headache."

"Good." Severus covered the hand with his own. "You deserve it."

"I didn't say I regretted it. God, I'm fucking exhausted. Can we please go collapse somewhere else?"

"I do have a fairly decent bed. Where's . . . Phaedra?"

"Sprout's taken her for the night. Apparently she's as good with babies as she is with mandrakes, but she doesn't chop them up later."

Severus snorted. With the help of the wall, they inched tremulously to their feet. Progress to the bedroom was halting and slow. Once they'd shed their clothes and crawled into bed, Sirius fluffed the comforter and asked, "Will we always need a flaming row to settle things? Scare the baby, eh. She'll grow up with a complex."

"Save it for special occasions," Severus muttered. "Like other people do. Anniversaries. Holidays."

"Ta. Something to look forward to, then."

One arm around Sirius' chest, his nose in the hair at Sirius' nape, he inhaled deeply, his rib cage apparently back to its normal size. There was that damned smell again, the elusive Black-scent he couldn't break down and might never be able to. Like everything else in his bed, he'd probably just have to accept it.

Severus fell asleep knowing he would never look back.

 


Finis

"There is a room in the Department of Mysteries," interrupted Dumbledore, "that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you."

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix