KITTY CORNER

by Warviben

SUMMARY: Harry helps Snape obtain something he needs. Along the way, Snape repays the favor. Features a kinder, gentler, post-war Snape.

WARNINGS: Slash. HP/SS. Not canon-compliant, obviously, because Snape survived the war.

DISCLAIMER: Not mine. Not making any £ (or $) from this.

##########

Severus Snape fidgeted nervously in the roomful of Muggles. He hadn't expected there to be so many. He'd come here for a specific purpose, something that should have taken mere moments had he actually been able to get anywhere near Potter. Apparently he'd happened upon this place while it was hosting some type of event. Just his luck. He was apprehensive enough about approaching the Savior as it was – they had never had the friendliest of relationships. But he wanted something, and he wanted it badly enough to come here to Potter's place of business, his home turf so to speak, and plead his case.

Because it looked as though he wasn't going to be able to speak with Potter any time soon, he took his time to look around. He'd heard rumors that Potter had started some type of shelter for unwanted animals after leaving the Ministry. The same rumor mill had churned for weeks after the injury that had led to the eventual ending of Potter's career as an Auror. He'd been hit, it said, with an irreversible, nasty curse that had, depending on whom you listened to, shrunken Potter's head to the size of a walnut, obliterated his lungs, disappeared his genitals, and/or hideously scarred half his face.

Potter's pleasing face, sans glasses now, on a head that looked the same size as ever, and the fact that he was obviously breathing put paid to three of those possibilities. The fourth he didn't care to speculate on. What he could see of Potter, standing behind the counter as he assisted one person after another, looked healthy enough. He was certainly smiling away as though he had not a care in the world.

Snape took his attention away from the young man who owned this business and focused himself on the business itself. He stood, along with what seemed like a hundred other people but was actually probably closer to twenty, in a large, very clean, very bright room. A large poster on one wall, which appeared to have been drawn by children, proclaimed that this was "Community Adoption Day," which explained the crowd here.

Wandering around the large room revealed viewing windows into several smaller rooms. Each of these smaller rooms contained numerous cats – cats reclining, cats playing, cats eating. There were six of these large rooms, each containing many cats. Each room had access to the outside as well, and Snape caught sight of cats coming and going through the cat flaps cut into the wall. It was impossible to tell just how many cats were housed here, but it was clear that Potter had a sizeable feline population.

The end of his circuit of the room revealed a room labeled "Little Critters." A peek through the door to this room revealed a handful of small cages which, Snape guessed, held small rodents, such as hamsters, gerbils, and the like. Larger cages along the floor on the wall opposite the door held rabbits. These cages, also, had access to the outside.

Though Snape wondered whatever had possessed Potter to saddle himself with over a hundred beasts, he had to admit the place was scrupulously clean and surprisingly did not smell as

though there were animals here. He supposed magic had something to that.

When he'd completed his tour of the facility, Potter was just as busy as ever, and there was no end in sight to the people lining up to adopt one of the many pets available here. Snape had begun to despair of ever having a chance to speak with Potter when the boy looked up at him. There was no surprise in his eyes, which led Snape to believe that Potter had known he was here for some time. With a crook of a finger, Potter beckoned him forward.

"Looking for a pet, Professor?" Potter inquired politely.

"No. Well, not exactly. I was," Snape lowered his voice, "led to believe that you had come into possession of an unusual creature. I wished to speak with you regarding it."

Potter's eyes contained understanding, but he said, "Just a bunch of cats here, Professor. If you'd like to come back later, I'd be happy to show them to you. We close at noon."

Snape got the message. "That sounds acceptable. I shall return then."

"I look forward to it, sir," Potter said solemnly.

##########

Snape remained outside the shelter until just prior to noon. The crowd was much thinner then, with only a handful of people remaining, two of them children.

"Hello again, Professor," Potter said cheerfully when he stepped through the door. "Just give me a couple of minutes here, and then I'll take you back."

Snape strolled slowly around the room again. There appeared to still be more cats than he could count in the rooms as he passed them, and he wondered how successful adoption day had been. He paused in one window when a sleek smoky gray cat caught his eye. The cat saw him looking, jumped down from the perch it was resting on, and jumped onto the sill of the window. It sat up on its haunches and pressed a paw to the glass.

"And how did you survive the purge with antics such as those?" he asked the cat.

"Would you like to meet him, sir?" asked a young woman who'd appeared at his elbow.

"What? No, no, thank you. I was just . . . looking when he came to the window."

Despite his refusal of her offer, the young woman opened the door to the room which contained the beautiful feline. "Come, Rygel," she called to the cat, who looked at her once, blinked, then jumped down and strolled to the door. She scooped the cat up and brought him to Snape's side.

"'Rygel?'" he asked.

"Yeah. Harry gets the names from all over – books, movies. This one comes from a show on the telly."

Snape couldn't resist that silky fur, and his large hand massaged the cat's ears. The beast closed its eyes happily and purred loudly enough that Snape thought Potter must hear it from clear across the room.

"Oh, he likes you!" the young woman said happily. "He doesn't take to many people, this one!"

"He is a beautiful specimen," Snape murmured, knuckling the spot just behind the cat's left ear. The cat was nearly writhing with joy in the woman's arms, and Snape couldn't help but smile.

"You can hold him if you'd like," she offered.

"Oh, no, thank you. I am quite content," he said stiffly.

"All right," she said amiably. She set the cat on the floor and closed the door quickly before two other cats, coming to investigate the opened door, could escape. Rygel immediately began to wind around Snape's ankles, still purring loudly.

"We've got to finish closing up," the girl told him. "If you need anything else, just give us a shout."

"Thank you, but I am only here to speak with Mr. Potter."

"He should be with you in a moment."

Snape nodded his thanks, and the young woman left him. Rygel looked at him so imploringly that Snape could no longer resist. He bent down and took the cat into his arms, and the two of them stood together, looking through the glass at the other, lesser cats within.

Behind him, Snape heard Potter saying goodbye and thanking the two children, who then left the shop, leaving only Potter and his female assistant. "Well, that went well," he heard the girl say.

"Yes. What a day!" Potter responded with a tired-sounding exhalation of breath.

"How many?"

"That last one made twenty-two."

"Twenty-two?" she repeated, sounding very happy. "That's wonderful!"

"Yes, it is. What have we got left to do?"

"I've already checked everyone's food and water. The doors are all closed, and everyone's accounted for. The only one out presently is Rygel over there."

"All right, Bridget. I can handle things from here. Thanks for your help today."

"No worries. I'll see you on Tuesday."

Before the door had closed behind her, Potter was by his side. "Sure you don't want to take him home, Professor? He seems quite taken with you."

Rygel was laying still in Snape's arms, gray head against his chest, eyes closed with a blissful expression upon his face, purring away.

"No," Snape said, hardening his heart. "He is not the reason I am here today."

Harry stared at the two of them, noting how perfect they were together and predicting in the safety of his own head even odds that Snape would be back here in a few days for Rygel. But he accepted the man at his word, suspecting that persuasion would be useless, and opened the door to Rygel's home. "All right. If you'd like to return him, I'll take you back."

Snape gave the beast one long, last pat, then placed the cat back inside the room. Harry closed the door quickly. Rygel jumped up onto the sill again and looked at him through the glass, large yellow eyes conveying sadness and betrayal. Snape turned away quickly. Harry smiled and increased the odds to sixty-forty.

"Follow me, please, sir," Harry requested.

Snape followed Harry into another one of the cat rooms, seeing for himself for the first time the young man's limp. After the door had closed and Harry had greeted the cats that swarmed around them, his wand appeared in his hand and he dispelled the glamour protecting the door to his home. "I live through here," he said, and he opened the door and stepped through.

As Snape followed, he asked, "Don't you worry that the cats will come in here?"

"Oh, I learned my lesson in that regard," Harry assured him. A sleek orange tiger cat came bounding across the room at them. "This is Nuisance. He used to live out there, until he snuck in here. I had a devil of a time getting him out, so I finally just told him he could stay. And then I warded the door."

Nuisance playfully curled around Snape's foot, batting at the laces on his shoes.

A second cat, this one black with a white spot on its face, walked into the room and went immediately to Harry, begging to be picked up. The young man acquiesced, scooping up the cat and scratching its head. The head which had no ears.

"What happened to its ears?" Snape asked.

"Frostbite," Harry answered. The cat butted its head under Harry's chin, soaking up the affection being offered. "She came to us like this. No one would even look twice at her. People tend to shun those who aren't perfect." This was said with a fair amount of bitterness, and Snape suspected Harry had had his own share of maltreatment because of his injury. "So I took her in. She's the sweetest cat I've ever met. Aren't you, Serena?"

Indeed, the cat seemed content to stay in the boy's arms forever, giving and receiving love. Harry kissed the cat on the head and set her gently on the floor.

"I assume you've come to see the runespoor," he said.

"Yes, of course. I heard rumors that the Ministry had come into possession of such a creature, and before I could inquire as to its whereabouts, it had apparently been placed here."

"The Ministry often contacts me when they have an animal they can't take care of themselves. It's mostly kneazles, but every now and then they bring me the odder beast. The runespoor is actually only here temporarily. There's a breeder in Kent that's going to take it, but he won't be set up for it for another month or so. Until then, it's mine. Were you just interested in seeing it, Professor?"

"Mr. Potter, I have not been your professor for nearly ten years. My name is Severus."

Harry smiled at him, pleased. "All right, but only if you call me Harry."

"And, yes, I was interested in seeing the runespoor, but if there was any chance of harvesting its skin or coming into possession of an egg . . . I wasn't aware that you'd only have the creature for a month. That certainly limits the possibilities."

"Well, we could ask it if it's going to shed or lay an egg any time soon, couldn't we?"

"You could certainly do so."

"All right then. Let's go see what we can find out."

As Potter made his way across his moderately-sized living room, Snape discretely observed the effect of Potter's injury. The boy was limping badly, nearly dragging his left leg as he made his way across the room. He could not see Potter's face to register the amount of pain he was in, but he guessed it must be substantial based on the gait he was witnessing.

"He's through here," Potter offered before stepping through a doorway into what Snape came to see was his own bedroom.

The room was large and was dominated on one wall by tanks. The first tank contained what Snape estimated to be at least seventy-five gallons of water. He moved closer to inspect the fish inside and marveled at the beautiful specimens he saw there. Some he recognized, including a clownfish, two tangs - one a brilliant blue and one a vibrant yellow, and two different types of angelfish (one blue and yellow and the other red with black stripes).

"Do you like fish, Professor?" Harry asked, falling into old habits.

"I enjoy watching them. I have never owned any. What is this one here?" he asked, pressing his finger to the glass beside a particularly beautiful little fish striped with yellow, pink and blue.

"That's an anthias. Beautiful, isn't it?"

"Hmmm," Snape agreed. "I recognize the clownfish and the tangs and the angelfish. What are the others?"

"This one," Harry said, pointing out a black and white striped fish, "is a damselfish. See the bright yellow one with green and pink fins?" The fish was in the back, floating behind a section of reef. When Snape indicated that he could see it, Harry said, "That's a basslet. And the last one . . ." Harry searched the tank. "Where'd he go? Oh, right there, lurking behind that plant. That's a bicolor dottyback." This particular specimen was purple and yellow. "I think that's all of them."

"They are beautiful. Is it difficult to maintain a saltwater tank?"

"Not really," Harry said. "Especially not with magic to monitor and maintain the water quality."

"And what have we here?" Snape asked appreciatively, stepping sideways to position himself in front of a smaller glass tank.

"That's an eyelash viper," Harry explained. The beautiful bright yellow snake, approximately two feet in length, was curled up at the base of a section of tree, apparently asleep.

"It is venomous, then."

"Yes. I call him Banana."

"Very appropriate. Wherever did you get him?"

"He was a present. From a . . . friend." He'd actually been given to Harry by a former boyfriend, one with whom Harry had not parted amiably and about whom he did not wish to speak. "They're native to Southern Mexico and Central and South America. I have to keep the tank quite warm for him."

"And this one?" Snape asked, moving over one more tank. "Is that a coral snake?"

"No, actually it's a California mountain king snake. She's not poisonous, like the coral snakes are. She's only eight months old and will likely get quite a lot bigger. They can grow up to four feet. She was also a gift." From yet another man who had courted Harry's favor only to leave him eventually.

"And does she have a name as well?"

"Yes. She's Cali."

"This is a very nice set-up you have here, Mr. Potter."

Harry had had the fish tank and the snake tanks built into the walls of his bedroom. A cupboard behind them provided him access to the tanks for cleaning and feeding purposes.

"Thank you. But I think you really came to see this magnificent creature."

Harry led the way to the corner of the room, where a temporary tank had been set up. It was large (floor to ceiling) and hexagonal and contained a six-foot long vividly orange snake with black bands which was currently suspended from the tree, each of its three heads staring at them upside down.

Snape drew in a breath in surprise. "It is magnificent," he said. "I've only actually ever seen one other, and it was much smaller than this one."

"Was there something specific you wanted from it?" Harry asked, tapping the glass and causing the snake to right its three heads so it was no longer looking at them from an upside down position.

"Well, the eggs, of course, are extremely valuable in potionmaking. But it's the skin I'm most interested in, for experimental purposes."

"The shed skin, I hope you mean," Harry said, slightly alarmed that Snape intended to skin the snake alive.

"Yes, of course I mean the shed skin," Snape said, refraining from calling Potter any names denoting his lack of intelligence. He did want something from the boy after all.

"All right. Do you know how often they shed or lay their eggs?"

"Snakes typically shed their skin every few weeks. I suspect this snake is similar, although not much is known of the runespoor's mating habits. There are so few in existence. There is speculation by some that they are gynandromophic. Some say they are hermaphroditic."

"I don't know what either of those things means," Harry confessed.

"A gyanandromorph is an animal that has part male and part female chromosomes. A hermaprodite has both male and female sexual organs. The former is usually sterile, so I believe that theory to be incorrect, though I cannot base that belief in fact. The latter would, technically, not require the snake to have a partner, as it could fertilize its own egg with its own penis."

Harry blushed at that. "How am I supposed to ask it that? Two of the heads are distinctly male, but the other's obviously female."

Snape stared at him for a moment before asking, "You've spoken to them?"

"Yes."

"Fascinating. You could simply ask it, then, whether it is currently gestating and also when it last shed it's skin."

"All right," Harry agreed. He moved to the glass enclosure and opened the door in the side.

"Careful," Snape warned apprehensively. "The left head is venomous."

"It's all right," Harry assured him. "Dilys and I have an understanding. He won't bite me."

"Dilys?" Snape repeated.

"Yes, this is Dilys," Harry said, indicating the left-most head, "the middle one is Aisling, and this is Winston." Harry switched to parseltongue here, so he could converse with his new friend.

"Hello," he said. "I hope you all are feeling well. Is there anything that I can get for you?"

"Oh, no, darling," Aisling answered. "Everything is simply divine."

"Well, I beg to differ," said Dilys. "That mouse you gave me last evening was decidedly stale."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Harry said sincerely. "I will make sure that doesn't happen again. I wanted to introduce you all to my friend. His name is Severus Snape. He has never met such a fine runespoor and wanted me to ask you some questions. Is that all right?"

All three heads preened and bobbed up and down in unison. "Thank you. He first would like to know when you last shed your beautiful skin. He would be very interested in having your old skin, as he considers it a treasure beyond all wealth." Harry had learned that lavishly praising the runespoor did wonders for its disposition.

"He is smart, this friend of yours," Winston observed. "We last shed our skin two moons ago. I would estimate that we are due to do so again in six or seven darknessessss."

"They should be shedding again in a week or so," Harry informed Severus, remembering to switch back to English.

"That is wonderful news," Harry conveyed to the snake. "Would you honor my friend by allowing him to take away your shed skin once you no longer have use for it?"

"What is he planning to do with it?" Dilys asked suspiciously. "He's not going to wear it, is he?"

Harry smiled. "Oh, no. He's definitely not going to wear it. I believe that he intends to study it and attempt to discern its magical properties so that he might understand you better."

If a snake could sniff imperiously, Dilys did so now. "I suppose that would be acceptable."

"What will he give us in return?" Winston, the planner, asked.

"They want to know what you will give them in return for the skin," Harry relayed to Snape.

"What do they want?" Snape asked.

When Harry translated that back for the snake, the three heads conferred in whispers. It was Winston who spoke when they were done. "We want three live mice."

"Live, mind you," Dilys interjected. "Not the frozen slop you've been feeding us."

Harry turned to Snape again. "They want live mice. Three of them. I've been feeding them the frozen kind, like I do my own, because I can't stand the thought of them eating live mice."

"Will you allow it this once, for the sake of the skin?" Snape asked, hoping Potter could get over his squeamishness for scientific purpose.

Harry sighed. "All right. But only if you bring them and you feed them to it. I can't stand to hear them squeaking in terror."

"That is acceptable."

Harry turned back to the snake. "That is acceptable. Severus will find you the three fattest mice he can find. In return, you will allow him to take away your old skin. Is everyone in agreement?"

Winston and Dilys bobbed their heads.

"Aisling?" Harry pressed.

"Hmmm?" the snake said dreamily. "What was that, darling?"

"We were talking about your skin," Harry reminded her with a roll of his eyes. "Do you agree that my friend Severus can take your skin in exchange for a fat live mouse, one for each of you?"

Aisling's tongue came out, and Harry would have sworn that she used it to lick her thin lips. Her eyes closed ecstatically, and she murmured, "Mmm. Live mouse. So plump and juicy, so terrified, until my jaws close around the warm, shaking . . ."

"Okay!" Harry interrupted, feeling suddenly sick. "Do you agree or not?"

"With what?"

"Oh for heaven's sake, Aisling," Dilys hissed. "Pay attention! The skin for the mouse! It's not that difficult!"

"Oh yeah, sure," Aisling said, her mind still obviously on the delicious mouse. "Whatever you want."

"Thank you," Harry said, heaving a sigh of relief. "Now, I do not wish to be indelicate, but I must ask you a question. My friend wishes to know if you are a male snake or a female snake?"

"That is an impertinent and totally personal question, don't you think?" Dilys asked, affronted.

"I agree," Harry said hastily. "And I wouldn't ask if it weren't important."

"I believe your friend is probably concerned with whether or not we are carrying eggs, is that right?" Winston asked.

"Yes," Harry said, relieved to have moved beyond the possible discussion of snake sex organs. "That is exactly what he is wondering."

"And if we said we are," Winston continued, "I suppose you are going to tell me that you want those as well?"

"Now wait just a moment!" Dilys complained. "Skin is one thing. Skin is useless to us once we have shed it. Eggs are entirely different! Eggs represent our young. You cannot just take our young!"

"What are you complaining about?" Winston asked. "You'll just eat them anyway, you cannibalistic cretin."

"Who are you calling a cretin?" Dilys asked, arching his neck up, attempting to make himself look like a cobra, which he so admired.

"Gentlemen!" Harry hastily interjected. "Please, let's not come to biting here, all right? Just calm down." Dilys huffed but straightened himself out. "I think that my friend would only need one of your eggs. How many do you lay, anyway?"

"Oh, on a good day, we can lay thousands!" Aisling gushed.

Winston actually rolled his eyes. "Don't listen to her. We lay three. Each one of us lays one egg, through our mouths."

"It's the only time Winston ever shuts up," Dilys added as an aside.

Winston glared at him and looked ready to respond in kind, so Harry hastily got a question in. "But how do you . . . um . . . get with egg? You told me you hadn't seen another of your kind for many months."

"Oh we don't need another of our kind," Winston assured him. "You see, we have all we need right here." Harry's face was burning with embarrassment now, and he desperately wanted the snake to shut up, but Winston seemed to be on a roll now. The tail of the snake came forward, acting as a pointer, showing Harry everything he never wanted to know about snake anatomy. "See that little thing there? It goes in here . . ."

"Stop, please!" Harry begged. "I don't need to know the details. If you could just tell me, please, whether you are currently carrying eggs, I would greatly appreciate it."

"Will you increase the temperature?" Dilys asked before the others could answer. "It is very cold in here."

"I will do so gladly," Harry said, "whether you answer my question about the eggs or not."

"Then, yes, we are."

"Thank you. Would you agree to allow my friend to take one of your eggs?"

"Oh, he can have mine," Aisling assured him.

Winston looked at the other two heads, then spoke quietly to Harry. "He better take them all. Because Dilys really will eat them. And then he complains that there are so few of us left."

"All right," Harry agreed. "How about if I vow to keep as many as I can safe long enough for them to hatch? Then they can be released with you into the preserve."

"That would be acceptable," Winston agreed. "But you need to be on hand when the eggs are laid, as Dilys cannot be trusted."

"Do you know when that will happen?"

"It is unpredictable," Winston informed him. "It could be in several ticks or it could be closer to the new moon."

"All right. We'll figure it out. Thank you. Thank you all for being so helpful."

Harry turned to Severus, hoping his face wasn't red any longer, and translated most of what the snakes had told him.

"So they are going to require constant supervision until they produce the eggs," Severus noted. That was most inconvenient.

"Yeah, that's going to be difficult," Harry said. "I have responsibilities, and I can't very well move them into the shelter so I can keep an eye on them."

"No. That would not work. And I cannot bring them with me."

"Look, I was just about to have lunch. Do you want me to join me, and we can try to figure this out?"

Snape thought that Potter looked like he really needed to get off his feet. "I would like to join you, but only if you allow me to prepare it. You look as though you need to sit down."

Harry winced his agreement. "I was on my feet more than usual this morning," he agreed. "Come on. I'll show you to the kitchen."

##########

"Sorry for the informality," Harry said as he sat back in his recliner chair in the sitting room, a plate of sandwiches on his lap. "This chair is easier on my leg than the chairs at the table."

"Do not apologize." They ate for a moment in silence. "Do you mind if I inquire about your leg?"

"No, I don't mind. Unidentified curse caught me. I was a little too slow, I guess. The muscles are contracted. Healers looked at it and tried everything. They called in specialists. No one seemed to be able to do anything. I have a brace." Harry lifted his pant leg so that Snape could see the metal pieces at the bottom of the brace. "That keeps my leg positioned properly so that I can walk a bit easier, and it takes some of the weight when I walk. But it's never going to get better."

"And it pains you?"

"Some days more than others," Harry said.

"I am sorry," Snape said, "that this happened to you, and that your career was cut short because of it."

Harry shrugged. "I wasn't a very good auror anyway. You know I never even finished at Hogwarts. They rushed me through what little training they did provide me, which didn't make the other aurors like me any better, but they wanted my face and my name out there. I was making mistakes. You probably saw them all." The Prophet had been remarkably gleeful whenever an operation Harry was involved in had gone wrong enough to capture their attention, which, given the maniacal level of interest the publication had maintained in Harry's life, was every time he breathed wrong. Whenever that happened, Harry's superiors would make a statement to the press which consisted of smarmy requests that allowances be made for Harry's age and lack of judgment, as though he was a well-liked but naughty toddler that everyone was encouraged to tolerate. "I kept asking for more training, but they kept putting me off. I figured it was only a matter of time before something really serious happened. It was luck that it was me that was injured instead of one of my co-workers. I hardly needed more guilt over someone else."

"And what possessed you to become a zookeeper?" Snape asked, his tone condescending and somewhat nasty.

"I don't have to justify my life choices to you, Professor," Harry said. He said this calmly, but he was more than a little disappointed. It had seemed for a while that this new post-war Snape was someone he could like, someone he could be friends with. But perhaps the old Snape was only hiding under this kinder facade because he wanted something.

"I was not asking you to," Snape said defensively, but then he sat back. "No, you are right. That was not well done of me. Your choices are your own. Are you happy doing what you're doing?"

"Very," Harry said, somewhat relieved that perhaps he hadn't been wrong after all.

"Then neither I nor anyone else has the right to second guess you. But I would like to know how you became involved in such a venture, if you don't mind my asking."

"I don't mind. I guess it started when my team was sent to check on the welfare of an elderly witch. Neighbors hadn't seen her for some days, and they were concerned, so they called the Ministry. When we got there, we found that she'd passed away, likely several days earlier. She had no family, but she did have a houseful of cats. We tried to place them, and the only shelter in town told us they'd take them, but they made it plain right up front that most, if not all, of them would eventually be put down. They were so overburdened with cats. They have a policy against killing healthy dogs, but cats – there were just so many. So when I got hurt, I saw an opportunity to do something that could remedy a societal problem. That it got me away from wizards for the most part was also a selling point. And also, other than food and water and a really basic amount of kindness, animals don't expect anything from you. They don't judge, they don't complain, they're not political, they're happy to see you every day. I find them very relaxing."

"Then I am happy that you have found this."

"Thank you, Professor."

"You keep forgetting you are supposed to call me Severus."

"Sorry," Harry said sheepishly. "Old habits are hard to break. So what about you? You're making potions now. Are you happy doing what you're doing?"

Snape nodded. "Very much so. I think you have some small idea how much I disliked teaching?"

That was an understatement, and Harry smiled wryly. "Yeah, an inkling, you might say."

"Yes, well, I admit I wasn't very good at it, but needs will out. Minerva requested that I come back, begged really. But I knew that my last year at Hogwarts would be difficult to overlook in the minds of many. Unspeakably horrible things happened there, Harry, things which I had no power to stop and which I had to appear to condone. I had no real desire to remain in the place where I had been responsible for so much grief."

"I'm sure you did the best you could with the circumstances you were given," Harry murmured. There was a time that Harry would have believed that Snape reveled in the power that had been given to him, the power to hurt and humiliate without sanction. But he'd learned a lot about Snape since he'd held those beliefs borne in childhood, and he knew that the man sitting before him wasn't the man who had belittled Harry constantly and terrorized him relentlessly for six years. That awful man was only partly real. Harry wasn't naive enough to believe that there weren't parts of Snape's personality that weren't downright unpleasant, but who could have borne up under the strain that Snape had been under for years without letting some of that blackness escape?

"I'd like to think so," Snape continued, "but even in my own mind I ask if there wasn't something more I could have done. Those I harmed, the parents and siblings of those I harmed, they have even more right to be asking that question, and I knew that if I returned, Minerva would be fighting a daily battle against the tide of public opinion that believed I should be in Azkaban instead of walking free. I'm not so sure the masses weren't correct in this case. That being said, I am obviously grateful that Albus had the foresight to ensure that key memories would be available to multiple individuals who were likely to be in the forefront of the rebuilding once the war was over. Assuming the Light had prevailed, that is. And, of course, your own testimony was incalculably helpful. So when I found myself a free man, I packed my things and left Hogwarts behind."

"To pursue your true love?" Harry asked. "Potions?"

"Yes. During my tenure as professor, I often mourned the fact that the many demands on my time left little free time in which to research or dabble with new potions or modify and improve existing ones."

"And now you do that every day. Must be rewarding."

"It is indeed. And it has the added benefit of not requiring constant interaction with others."

"So you're alone a lot, too, then," Harry observed quietly, the truth of the maudlin statement making them both a bit uncomfortable. To get them beyond it, Harry asked, "So what are we going to do about the runespoor?"

"I am somewhat at a loss," Snape confessed. "They are going to require nearly constant supervision. While my time is my own and I could certainly take the required amount of time away from my work, I do not have the facilities necessary to care for the creature."

"You're welcome to stay here," Harry blurted out before he could think better of the offer. "You could even sleep right in the room with them. I could maybe ask Winston to let us know when the big event is impending. He seemed to be really concerned about getting the eggs out of there quickly, before Dilys could eat them."

"That is fine if you are present. I, however, cannot talk to them," Snape pointed out.

Harry thought for a moment. "I'll put a bell in there. Winston can ring it. It'll be loud enough that you could hear it out here, so you're not confined to the bedroom for the duration. Will that work?"

"That is a very generous offer, Harry, but I am reluctant to put you out to that extent."

"Don't worry about it, Prof – er Severus. I have a guest room. I'm more than happy to stay there." Actually, Harry spent more than half his nights sleeping in this very chair. His leg pain and the unnatural gait it caused put a lot of pressure on his hips and his back, and when he used his leg more than was wise, as he had done today, laying flat in the bed was uncomfortable. He'd spent a lot of time getting this chair just right, so that it cradled him in the places where he needed it most.

"Then I shall take the guest room," Severus countered. He wanted what the runespoor had to offer badly, badly enough that he was actually considering basically moving in with Harry Potter for the foreseeable future.

"Really, sir," Harry insisted. "The master bedroom is much more comfortable. Please, I want you to stay."

The young many seemed really earnest, and despite their past, Snape was inclined to trust that he meant what he said. "Then I accept your offer, for which you have my eternal gratitude. I shall need to return home to pack a bag and to bring some work to occupy me."

"That's fine. I can keep an eye on them in the meantime. Return whenever you like. I'm free the rest of the day."

##########

Winston had agreed to provide notice when the eggs were to be produced, and Harry attached a bell to the inside of the cage immediately. He had to speak sternly to Aisling when she continually reached out and pressed the bell, causing Harry to rush into the room in anticipation, only to find Aisling and Dilys snickering at him. After threatening to withhold their promised mice, they subsided, Aisling with good grace and Dilys with complaints about how Harry ruined all their fun.

Snape returned to Harry's home after dinner and settled the few things he'd brought with him in the bedroom.

"I see you've installed the bell," he said to Harry when he joined him in the sitting room.

"Yeah. Aisling was a bit of a prat with it for a while, but I convinced her to behave. I don't think anyone will ring it until it's actually time."

"Good," Snape said with a sigh. They sat for a time in silence, Harry perusing a magazine, Serena purring contentedly on his lap, and Snape sitting and thinking about all the wonderful things he could do with runespoor eggs and skin. Nuisance was sprawled on the carpet between them, keeping his eye on both in case they decided they wanted to play with him.

Surprisingly, it was Snape who broke the silence.

"I hope I'm not keeping you here."

"Hmmm?" Harry asked, looking up, confused.

"It's Saturday night. Aren't young people supposed to be out to all hours of the night on a weekend? Drinking in pubs, carousing with friends, that sort of thing?"

Harry smiled self-consciously. "I don't do much of that anymore."

"Because of your injury?"

"Partly because of that," Harry admitted.

"Did you not enjoy that lifestyle?" Snape pried.

"No, I did. Too much, in fact. I sort of came to the realization one night that I couldn't have a good time without alcohol. When I drank, it was usually too much, and then I made some really bad decisions. You probably saw each and every one of them played out across the front page of the Prophet," he said bitterly.

Snape nodded. A post-Hogwarts Harry Potter had been portrayed as very much of a "party animal" and had been photographed nearly every night in one pub or another, almost always with a drink in his hand. There were stories of drunken fights with other, equally drunk, pub patrons, illicit trysts in alleys and washrooms, public disagreements with lovers, both male and female, and just general revelry. The public ate it up, anxious for any glimpse of their hero, even if the glimpses weren't particularly flattering. "I tend not to believe most of what I see in that rag."

"Well it was all true, for the most part. I woke up one morning with a particularly nasty hangover and it made me realize that that wasn't the kind of life I wanted to lead any longer. I'd been using it to keep reality at bay. Being an auror was what I'd always wanted to be, but it wasn't what I expected. It wasn't fulfilling to be the poster boy. I didn't want to be the bloke who smiled at the cameras whenever the Ministry had an announcement to make. I wanted to help people. Nor did I want to risk my life and the lives of those around me by being thrown into situations I hadn't been trained to handle. I'd been having some serious thoughts about a career change, and then I got injured and the decision was taken out of my hands. They wanted me to stay on, in a 'consultant' capacity, but that just meant a lot of smiling and glad-handing, and I couldn't imagine spending the rest of my life that way. So I got out, and I remembered the cats, and I built this place. It's fulfilling and meaningful, and I come home tired every night. I have no interest in pub hopping any longer. I'm just too old for that, I guess."

Snape was going to say that a twenty-five year old, unattached person was certainly not too old to be living that type of life. In fact, many did. But he stopped himself – Harry Potter had probably lived thirty years in the first eighteen years of his life, Snape mused, and he probably felt much older than twenty-five. "Do you still see your friends?" he asked instead.

"Sure, I see Ron and Hermione frequently. They're in London, and they're both frightfully busy, with the kids and their jobs." In truth, Harry saw his best friends a lot less than he'd like, but he understood how difficult it was for them to make time in their schedules. Their two young children, on top of both of them working more than forty hours a week, left them little time for anything else. "Teddy Lupin comes to stay with me every so often."

"And what do you do to relax?"

"Mostly I read. I can't go too far away from here, because the animals need tending, but on Sundays I take my motorcycle out for a few hours."

"Motorcycle? This isn't the infamous flying motorcycle is it?"

Harry smiled wistfully. He'd never seen Sirius' bike again after he and Hagrid had crash landed it in the pond at the Tonks'. "No. It's just a regular one. Maybe you'll let me take you for a ride some time."

"Hmm, maybe," Snape said non-committally, though he seriously doubted it. He'd never been comfortable zooming around on a broom, and while he'd never actually ridden a motorcycle, he assumed the two would be much the same.

"Have you found it difficult to manage without magic?"

"I use my magic," Harry assured him. "Just not as much as I used to. There are enchantments on the cat boxes, for instance, that vanish the . . . deposits."

"Ah. That explains why it smelled so pleasant in your establishment. Animals usually carry a distinctive smell with them, no matter how well-maintained they are. That must have been a tricky sort of charm to devise, given that Muggles are constantly present."

"Actually, you may have noticed that the cat boxes are enclosed in little cupboards." Snape hadn't, but he took it as a given that Potter was telling the truth. "They do their business out of sight of Muggles or wizards, so vanishing the contents immediately isn't a problem."

"But you must vanish the . . . er deposits only, and not the litter itself, I presume?"

"True," Harry said. "It wasn't that hard." Snape did doubt the truth of that statement, but he let Potter have his modesty. "The charms need to be renewed periodically because I like to change out the litter once a month, just to be sure."

"And how do you explain the lack of . . ."

"Cat shite?" Harry supplied helpfully.

"Yes, to your assistant?"

"Oh, she knows about magic. She's Hermione's cousin. She's a Muggle herself, but she and Hermione are close, so she knows that Mione's a witch."

"Well that is helpful."

"It certainly is."

"And what was today all about? Some sort of community adoption day?"

"The local school sort of adopted us right after we started up. They have fund-raisers throughout the school year, and they wanted to do this adoption day to get homes for as many animals as possible. I don't need the money, but it's good for the kids to get involved in something. Some of them come and volunteer their time after school or on weekends. It's good for the animals, too, because it provides them with a chance to socialize with children. Other than me, of course."

"And do you consider today to be a success?"

"Well we placed twenty-two cats, two rabbits, and a hamster, so yeah, I'd call that a success."

"And that leaves you with . . ."

"A hundred and six cats, one rabbit, and two gerbils."

"That is a lot of cats."

"I refuse to kill them. They have a home here for as long as they live."

"You do not take dogs?"

"There are already facilities for dogs. The other places take cats, but they kill just as many as they place. Besides, I'm afraid of dogs."

"Afraid of dogs? How is that possible? I recall that Hagrid had a great slobbering beast of a dog. Your godfather was a dog. And you managed to make your way past that cursed three-headed monstrosity guarding the sorcerer's stone."

"Yeah, well Fang was more of a horse than a dog. A really slobbery horse. And Sirius was Sirius. And I was afraid of pretty much everything leading up to the sorcerer's stone."

"Does this fear of dogs stem from a childhood experience?" Snape asked, remembering vaguely seeing an image of a bulldog in Potter's mind during their ill-fated occlumency lessons.

"I think you know it does," Harry said quietly. "My uncle's sister," Harry refused to refer to her as his aunt any longer, "bred dogs. Liked them better than most people. Certainly liked them better than she liked me. Ever since then, I've just been really nervous around dogs. I prefer cats."

"And now you have a hundred."

"Well, technically I only have three," Harry corrected him.

"Three? I've seen just the two."

"There's another. Her name is Timid because she's really shy. She spends most of her time under one of the beds. You'll see her periodically if you're here for any length of time and you're quiet. I tried to get her used to people so she could get adopted out, but I think something really traumatic happened to her before she came to me, and she's just never become accustomed to being around anyone."

They sat silently for a while longer, until Harry finally said, "It's been really nice talking to you, Pro – Severus, but I think I'm for bed." He picked Serena up and said, "Sorry, love," when she protested, but set her on the floor anyway. "I'm just going to make my rounds. Would you like to accompany me?"

Surprised but pleased at the invitation, Snape got to his feet. "Certainly."

Harry led the way back out into the business side of the structure. He opened each cat room and went inside, checking food and water bowls and patting as many cats as asked for it, calling them all by name. He explained to Snape that in the summer months, when nighttime temperatures warranted it, he left the doors to the outside open, but in the cooler months, he made sure all of the cats were in before closing the cat flaps for the day. Snape visited with Rygel again, and after they'd checked the small animals and Harry had made sure the front door was locked, they returned to his living quarters.

"You've seen the bathroom," Harry said. "Feel free, of course, to use the shower whenever you'd like. I sleep in a bit on Sunday morning, but I'm usually up by eight. If you're an early riser, don't worry about disturbing me. Just do your thing. If the light in the fish tank bothers you, I can shut it off. If the sound of the filter is disturbing, feel free to cast a silencing charm on it. I find it relaxing myself. If you want anything from the fridge, help yourself. I want you to consider yourself at home here, Severus." It got a little easier every time he said it.

"Thank you, Harry. I'm sure I'll be very comfortable. Try and get some sleep, and I shall see you in the morning."

"Good night," Harry responded before limping off to the guest bedroom. Snape watched him go, wondering if there was any chance at all that he might be able to help the young man where his doctors had all failed him.

##########

Severus had already breakfasted by the time a disheveled Harry made his way to the table Sunday morning.

"Good morning," he murmured, dropping into a chair.

"Good morning," Snape responded.

"Did you sleep well?"

"I did, thank you. Is the bed in your guest room not comfortable? I found you sleeping in the chair this morning."

"Oh, yeah. My leg was hurting a bit."

"And there isn't anything they can do to help you?" Snape asked quietly.

"I can take pain potions," Harry said. "But it's strong stuff, and I don't like how it makes me feel. And I worry about addiction. I've tried Muggle stuff, and it works, but I have the same issues with that. Mostly I just try to take it easy when it's particularly painful. I can live with it just fine most of the time."

Living with pain didn't sound like a very pleasant way to live one's life, Snape thought. "I have a bit of experience with curse damage. I would be willing, if you like, to review your medical records. Perhaps there is something the experts have missed that I may notice due to my . . . unique experience."

Harry studied him through sleep-deprived eyes. Dark smudges under his eyes testified to the fact that healthy sleep eluded him on a regular basis. "I suppose it's worth a try. You'll understand if I don't get my hopes up. I've done that before, and it just makes it worse when nothing changes."

"I will make no promises."

"All right. I'll contact St. Mungo's and ask them to send over a copy of my file. Thank you, Severus."

"You're welcome, Harry."

"Well, I've got to check the critters, then I'll see to some breakfast."

"I have already eaten," Snape informed him. "There's coffee."

"Coffee? Oh, bless you, Severus Snape," Harry said reverently. He poured himself a cup and took it with him when he left to tend his creatures.

##########

Severus had declined Harry's offer of a motorcycle ride, and he'd been alone in the boy's home since just after lunch. He'd settled himself comfortably in Harry's sitting room, well within hearing range of the bell should it go off, and he'd spent several pleasurably quiet hours reading through journals he never seemed to find the time for, one and sometimes two cats keeping him company in his chair. He'd lost track of time and was surprised when he heard Harry's motorbike rumble up to the house. Moments later, Harry entered, takeaway bag in his hand, his hair messier than usual, and a happier expression on his face than Snape had seen since coming here.

"Did you have an enjoyable ride?" he inquired politely.

"Yeah, I did. You should have come with me."

"Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid."

"You won't know until you try," Harry challenged.

"Perhaps," Snape allowed.

Harry hefted the bag he was carrying. "I brought dinner. Hope you like fish and chips."

Snape didn't often indulge in that particular treat, but he was quite fond of it. "I do."

"Give me a few minutes to clean up, and we can eat."

"Table or sitting room?"

"Table," Harry said right away. Riding the bike always made his leg feel better. He whistled as he made his way back into his bedroom.

##########

The evening had been quiet and companionable. Harry had sat at his computer working diligently on the shelter's books and making payments to suppliers while Snape skimmed through several source texts he'd located in the Hogwarts library regarding runespoor and the use of their eggs and skin, scrawling notes on parchment when required. Finally, Harry turned the computer off and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "I'm knackered."

"Are you sure you don't want your bed back?" Snape asked.

"No, I'm good," Harry assured him. "I'll sleep anywhere tonight." And indeed he did feel as though he'd be able to sleep. "Oh," he said softly. "Look who's here."

A long-haired gray cat had stuck its head out of the spare bedroom, looking around the room for any potential danger. Seeing none, holding herself warily, she crossed the room to rub around Harry's shin.

"This is Timid," Harry said quietly. "I guess she's gotten used to you being here." Harry bent down and carefully picked the cat up. It was immediately obvious that the cat didn't like it, it's muscles stiffening up in protest, though it made no sound and made no real struggle to get down. Harry patted her head fondly, stroking her ears and then down her back as he held her firmly but gently. "She doesn't like to be held, but I pick her up from time to time. I figure if I hold her gently every now and then, she'll come to see that affection isn't such a bad thing."

Figuring she'd had enough, Harry gave Timid one final pat and then placed her carefully on the floor. The cat immediately returned to the spare bedroom.

"I think someone abused her," Harry said sadly. He looked up to find Snape looking at him strangely, as though the other man had never seen him before. Harry smiled shyly, his cheeks a bit pink, thinking that Snape must think him very . . . feminine in the care and love he showed his pets.

"Well, good night, sir," he said before following the cat into the spare bedroom.

"Good night, Harry," Snape returned, watching the young man go. He'd always known that Harry was a decent person. Even when he'd hated the boy Potter for things that weren't really his fault, Severus had always known that Harry took after his mother in many respects related to his personality. The boy was quiet, and kind, and understanding, and forgiving. But watching him try to soothe the frightened beast, when he knew he was going to get no immediate return on the investment of time, was strangely . . . attractive

##########

Harry's business was closed on Mondays, but he spent a good part of the day outside, overseeing the large enclosure being built in the field behind his house. He'd explained to Snape that he'd had to turn away several feral cats because he simply didn't have the place to house them. The first few times he'd taken such cats in, he'd tried to tame them, spending hours in their presence, attempting to accustom them to humans, trying to make them trust him. Eventually he'd given it up – the animals were just too wild. But that didn't mean they didn't deserve a home, some place they'd be safe and warm and dry and fed, so he'd decided to build a large outdoor pen for them, with trees and grass and shelter. They'd have a safe place to live, and they wouldn't be bothering anyone. His plan, the next time he received such a cat, was to tranquilize it, and while it was unconscious, spay or neuter it, innoculate it, treat whatever other physical injuries it may have sustained in its life in the wild outdoors, and then set it free in the enclosure once it had recovered physically. He planned to set health monitoring charms on them to alert him if any one particular animal was having issues. It was an ambitious plan, and Harry had hired a Muggle contractor to install the enclosure for him. He hoped it would be ready for habitation in another week, once he'd assured himself that there was no way for the cats to escape the enclosure.

Harry's medical file arrived on Monday, so while Harry spent the day in the sunshine, Snape spent the day inside reviewing the thick stack of medical documents. Harry's doctors had been very thorough, he had to admit. They'd sent him to every conceivable specialist who might be able to help. They'd prescribed drugs and potions and therapy of all types, none of which had given any meaningful or long-lasting relief.

Harry hadn't clearly heard the hex as it had been cast at him, and none of his doctors had been able to name it or had been familiar with it in any way. Snape, however, knew exactly what it was. The incantation was nervi adtractio. The spell was dark, a spell for torture, targeting a muscle or muscle group and twisting it and contracting it painfully. It was pain on level with the cruciatus, and that Harry's doctors had gotten him to the point where he could function and lead a normal life was somewhat of a miracle. However, Harry still experienced a significant amount of pain on a daily basis, and if Snape could help him, in exchange for what Harry was giving him, he would do so gladly.

"I've looked through your file," Snape told Harry after they'd finished their dinner and had taken coffee to the sitting room.

"Yeah? Anything jump out at you?"

"I know the curse that was used on you." He explained to Harry about the curse and what effect it had.

"Funny," Harry mused. "I always thought knowing what did this to me would help. But it's not really helpful if you tell me it's irreversible."

"There is no way to reverse the curse," Snape said. "The only possibility is treating the resulting muscle condition."

"The doctors have tried everything."

"Maybe," Snape said. "Maybe not. I would like to see the injury for myself."

Harry immediately and obviously became uncomfortable. "Is that really necessary?"

Snape shrugged. "I don't know. It is one part of the puzzle. Reading about it is not as helpful as seeing it with my own eyes. Does that make you uncomfortable?"

Harry looked away. "No one's really seen it. Other than the doctors."

"It's an injury, Harry. It's nothing to be embarrassed about."

"I guess."

"If it's too difficult for you, I can use the photographs in the file."

"There are photographs?" Harry looked discomfitted by this fact, apparently unaware that any photos had been taken of the injury.

"Yes."

"Well, I guess if you've seen photos . . . Here?"

"Wherever you'd be most comfortable."

"Probably the bed then."

Harry made his way into his bedroom, visibly nervous. He hesitated a moment before shucking off his jeans, then lay gingerly on the bed, very conscious of the metal brace which encased his left leg and the fact that he was laying here before Severus Snape in his boxers.

Snape decided the clinical approach was best, so he sat on the edge of the bed and visually examined the brace and the leg. "Your doctors manufactured this brace for you?"

"Yes," Harry said, his face red with embarrassment and mortification.

"What is its purpose? Does it diminish the pain?"

"No. It's just so that I can wear a shoe on that foot."

"I don't understand."

Harry sighed. "Take the brace off."

"Are you sure?"

Harry closed his eyes and nodded. He didn't want to see the expression on the other man's face when he got a look at Harry's deformed anatomy.

Very carefully, Snape released the latches that held the brace together and removed it from Harry's leg. As soon as the leg was no longer being held in place by the metal contraption, the lower leg and foot began to curl unnaturally to the left, appearing to shrivel and waste away. It looked incredibly painful, and Snape couldn't help the sharp intake of breath. He was immediately sorry for it when he saw and felt Harry flinch at the sound.

"Is it more painful without the brace?"

"It's actually less painful like this," Harry answered, and he sounded close to tears. "It's like, this is how it wants to be, and forcing it into a more normal position causes pain. I mean, it always hurts, in every position, but the price I pay for looking like a normal human being is increased pain."

As gently as he could, Snape took the affected limb into his hands. He could actually feel the constriction of the muscle. He could also feel the bones of Harry's lower leg and foot in his hands, but they felt decidedly strange, as though they were made of rubber. "The bones . . ."

Still with his eyes closed, Harry said, "The doctors spelled them to be flexible, so that when the muscle twists, the bone goes with it. That actually helped tremendously with the pain level. Before it felt as though the muscle was trying to pull away from the bone."

"That must have been incredibly painful," Snape said, his voice soft and full of compassion.

Harry heard only pity. "Yeah, it was. The brace contains a spell that firms the bones back up temporarily, so that when I'm wearing it, I can put weight on it. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to walk at all."

Snape gently placed Harry's leg back on the bed. "Does heat provide relief?"

"No."

"Massage?"

"No."

"Is there anything that does?"

"Not really."

"Shall I put the brace back on?"

"Yes, please."

Just as carefully, Snape replaced the brace, Harry's leg straightening in the process. "Thank you," he said, softly. "I've seen everything I need."

##########

For the next several days, Severus saw little of Harry, as though the younger man was actively avoiding him. Severus guessed that he was, and that he was doing so out of some misguided sense of embarrassment over allowing a former enemy to see his weakness so up close and personal. Severus spent most of that week thinking about Harry's condition, what he knew of the curse, and what he knew of the various treatments that might bring about some relief. As the week went along, Harry's limp increased noticeably, as he spent a large part of every day on his feet.

His contemplation of all of this was interrupted on Friday evening. He and Harry had just finished up an awkward dinner when the bell sounded from the bedroom. The two men looked each other in the eye for the first time all week.

"It's time!" Harry said with a hint of excitement in his voice.

Foregoing dinner cleanup, they rose quickly to their feet and made their way to the bedroom, just in time to see Aisling disgorge an egg. It was white, about the size of a chicken egg, and speckled with black.

"Would you look at that?" Aisling hissed.

"It is magnificent!" Dilys agreed with a predatory gleam in his eyes.

"Dilys! No!" Harry shouted, and he made his way as fast as he could to the snake's enclosure. "Don't you dare!"

Looking affronted, Dilys pulled back. "Well, I never! I did make a bargain, young man. Are you doubting my word, my serpent's honor?"

"Nope," Harry said, reaching in. "Just removing temptation." He removed the egg, still warm, and handed it back to Severus without looking, keeping his eyes on the other two heads.

"You are a very ridiculous human being if you think that I can't . . . urk!" Dilys' dissertation was interrupted by the appearance of an egg from his mouth.

"Gurk!" he said, working his jaw up and down and flicking his forked tongue out. "I always hate that part."

Harry snatched this egg up as well and gave it to Severus, who cast a preservation spell on this egg as well. Severus was having a hard time containing his glee. He was going to be in possession of three runespoor eggs in a matter of moments! This was like a potions master's dream come true!

Aisling, Dilys and Harry were all looking at Winston now. Winston looked coolly back. "What?" he said.

"It's your turn, darling," Aisling said. "What will you do with the eggs, Harry?" she asked.

"Remember, I told you we would try to keep them safe long enough to be hatched." This was a small lie. He and Severus had discussed this. They were going to incubate two of them, and Severus was going to use the third. "Once they hatch, we'll release them in the same preserve that you're going to."

"Oh, that's nice," Aisling said, closing her eyes and swaying gently. "Some day, I'll see my darling child again. Can't you imagine it, Dilys?"

Dilys looked decidedly grumpy, as though reevaluating his sanity when he'd made the deal that deprived him of such a delicious snack. "No, I can't," he snapped. "You are such a moron!"

"Dilys!" Harry chided. "Be nice."

"Here we go," Winston said, and he coughed up the final egg.

Harry grabbed it out and gave it to Severus. "Thank you. Thank you all. Severus has your mice." Severus had made a brief trip to Hogwarts on Monday, long enough for a quick visit with Minerva and to accio mice until he found three plump specimens he thought the snake would enjoy. "Severus? The mice?"

His attention still mostly on his precious eggs, Severus retrieved the vented box in which he'd stored the mice and handed it to Harry. Harry thought about protesting: He'd made the deal with the snake with the proviso that Snape fed the mice to it. But Snape was lovingly caressing the eggs as he placed them into the incubator they had set up. Harry rolled his eyes and approached the enclosure again.

"How do you want me to do this?" he asked uncomfortably. "Should I just drop them into your mouths, or . . ."

"Oh no, young friend," Dilys said with an evil gleam. "Just release them. Catching them is half the fun, don't you know?"

Harry gulped and felt sick. "A–all right," he agreed. A deal was a deal. He opened the top of the box and looked down at the already-frightened mice huddling in a corner. "I'm sorry," he said. He couldn't make himself dump them out into the enclosure, so he set the box carefully on the floor, closed up the enclosure, and bolted from the room. Once in the sitting room, he cast a silencing charm for good measure. If he heard the terrified little squeaks . . .

To distract himself, Harry set about cleaning up from their meal. He was nearly finished when Snape reemerged.

"Is it over?" Harry asked.

"Hmm? Is what over?"

"The carnage."

"Oh. The mice. Yes, it's over. It was quick, and they hardly suffered at all."

Harry thought sure Severus was stretching the truth to save him from distress, and he allowed himself to be fooled. "Poor little things," he couldn't help but say.

"It is simply the way of things," Snape said philosophically.

"So you've got your eggs," Harry observed as he put away the last of the dishes.

"I have. And I thank you for your assistance in acquiring them. Clearly, I could not have done this myself."

"It's no problem. They were going to lay eggs while they were here. If you hadn't come along, I would have never thought to ask them about it, and they likely would have eaten them without me even being aware that they'd laid them."

Severus shuddered at the very thought of losing something so valuable. "Then it is good that I came along."

"Yeah," Harry agreed softly. "I guess this means that you can return to the castle."

"There is still the snake's skin to be obtained," Severus reminded him.

"But that hardly requires round-the-clock monitoring. Even Dilys wouldn't eat the snake skin. I think."

"This is true," Snape conceded. "I would like to thank you once again for your hospitality."

"It's been my pleasure. It's been sort of nice having someone around here."

"May I return tomorrow evening?" Snape asked. "To monitor the progress of the snake skin, of course."

"Of course," Harry said with a happy smile.

"I will bring supper, since you have so kindly fed me all week."

"That sounds good."

"It's a date then."

A strange look passed over Harry's face. "Not a date," he corrected firmly. "Just a dinner. Between . . . friends."

Severus hadn't meant anything intimate by the term, but he was intrigued by the young man's reaction. "Exactly," he said. "A dinner between friends. Well, I will pack up my things and get out of your hair."

"There's no rush," Harry said quickly, worried that he'd given offense.

"Maybe not for you," Severus said gleefully, "but I have runespoor eggs to play with."

##########

When Snape returned on Saturday evening, he was in a very good mood. He'd spent the day researching each and every potion he could find that used runespoor eggs. Ahead of him he had the very enjoyable task of deciding which of the potions he would try to improve, or which entirely new concoctions he might devise. He'd brought Thai food to share with Harry, and he was looking forward to seeing his . . . friend. If the runespoor had shed its skin, this day would go down in the Snape Annals as The Best Day Ever.

He knocked on Harry's door and waited for a response. When he didn't receive one, he knocked again. Finally, the door swung open, though no one was standing behind it. Snape entered, wondering where Harry had gotten himself to.

He found him in his chair. Eyes closed, skin grey, hands tightly clutching the blanket which was spread across his lap.

"Harry!" Snape said, worry propelling him across the room. "What is wrong?"

Harry drew in a sharp breath. "Sorry, Severus," he said weakly. "I should have owled. I'm not going to be very good company tonight."

"But what is wrong?" Snape asked, running his eyes up and down the boy's form. "Are you ill?"

"No, not ill," Harry forced out through gritted teeth. "Leg. Hurts."

Snape placed his takeaway bag on the coffee table and dropped to his knees beside the young man. "What can I do?"

"I appreciate the offer," Harry said, his eyes still closed, still the very picture of pain. "But there's nothing. I'll be all right. I just have to . . ." Harry couldn't continue. The pain was too great, making him feel nauseous. He swallowed once to keep the contents of his stomach where they belonged.

"There must be something," Snape argued. "A pain potion."

"I don't like to take pain potions. They make me loopy."

"But you are in pain. Please. Let me help you."

Harry was desperate enough that he'd agreed to anything, up to and including amputation of his fucking leg. "All right," he said. "Please help me, Severus." Tears he could no longer hold back squeezed from beneath his closed eyelids.

"I must return to my lab. I will be gone only moments," Snape promised.

Moving as quickly as he could, Snape apparated away, raced down to his lab, grabbed up what he needed, and returned to Harry's home.

"I apologize for taking so long," he said, panting. "The potion that I want to give you must not be taken on an empty stomach. It should provide you with relief for several hours, but you must eat first."

"Don't think I can," Harry said, his voice weak.

"I would like to spell your leg first. The spell will numb your entire leg, but it will only last for perhaps thirty minutes. It should allow you to eat, and you can then take the potion. Is that acceptable?"

Harry nodded.

"Do you need to check on your animals again tonight?"

"No," Harry said. He'd dragged himself around to all the cages before finally collapsing in his chair. "Go ahead."

Severus pointed his wand at Harry's leg. "Nullus sensatio," he intoned.

Instantly, the pain and all other sensation in Harry's leg evaporated. He opened his eyes in surprise. "Holy shite! That's amazing. Where did you learn that spell?"

"I made it up."

"What? Just now?"

"No, of course not."

"Well it's brilliant. Why can't we just keep doing that for the rest of my life?"

"Because as I said, it only lasts half an hour. And each time I use it, it will be a little bit less effective. But the potion I have for you will help for an extended period of time. But you must eat first."

Harry made to get up out of the chair. "No! Don't move!" Snape ordered. "You have no sensation in your leg. You will not be able to stand. I will serve you right there."

Severus went to the kitchen for plates and silver, and he and Harry ate together in the sitting room. Partway through the meal, Harry began to feel the pain returning, and he shifted uncomfortably. "Can you do that spell again?"

"I can, but I would rather just give you the potion. Have you had enough to eat?"

"Yes."

Snape took the plate from Harry's lap. "Are you comfortable?" he asked.

"As comfortable as I can be."

Snape handed Harry a goblet. He sniffed the potion within and wrinkled his nose at the smell.

"All of it?" he asked.

"All of it. You will sleep almost immediately. Are you prepared?"

"Yeah," Harry said, and he downed the potion. "Ugh!"

"Sleep, Harry," Snape ordered softly.

And Harry did.

##########

When Harry awoke the following day, he found himself under a blanket that he didn't remember covering him when he fell asleep. He also found Severus Snape stretched out on his sofa, still sleeping. He couldn't help but smile at the sight. He felt a strong urge to visit the loo, but when he tried to move, pain shot from his lower leg up into his hip and up his spine, and he gasped.

Snape's eyes shot open immediately, and he sat up quickly. "Harry! How are you feeling?"

"Um . . . better," Harry said, and even though he was still in pain, he was feeling better. "But I need the loo in a really bad way."

"Do you require assistance?"

"Maybe just to get up," Harry said. He'd stiffened up while sleeping, but he was quite sure that if he was on his feet, he'd be able to manage.

Snape came quickly to his side and assisted Harry to his feet. He stood for a moment, making sure the leg would hold his weight before he tried to walk on it. When it seemed it would, he smiled at Severus and made his way slowly to the bathroom.

Harry found Severus in the kitchen making coffee. "Smells good."

"Sit down," Severus urged. "I will make you some breakfast."

"You don't have to do that, Severus."

"I know. I want to."

"I need to go out and check on the animals."

"I woke at six and checked on them. They are all fed and watered and appeared content. I fed your beasts here as well."

Harry smiled warmly at Severus. "Wow. You're being so sweet to me."

"Sit down, Potter," Severus growled, "or I shall curse you."

Harry laughed and sat down. Once Severus had served them both, they began to eat.

"Is there a particular reason that you were in so much pain yesterday?" Severus inquired.

Harry sighed. "Yesterday was the monthly delivery of our supplies – you know, shavings, cat litter, food, that sort of thing. Veronica couldn't make it in." Veronica, Snape guessed, was Harry's Muggle assistant. "So that left me to get everything put away where it belonged. I was on my feet a lot, carrying stuff . . . I was pretty beat at the end of the day."

"Why didn't you ask for help?" Severus inquired.

"There wasn't anyone else," Harry pointed out as though Severus was missing the obvious.

"Mr. Potter. Do you seriously think that if you had owled me and asked me to assist you that I would not have come?"

"Oh. I guess it just never occurred to me that you'd do that," Harry said, blushing a little.

"Be sure that it occurs to you should the situation ever arise again," Severus ordered, not able to look at Harry as he provided this edict.

Had he been looking, Severus would have seen the pleased smile that graced Harry's features. Harry felt a warmth in the pit of his stomach at the other man's words. "Thank you," he said.

"Do not mention it."

##########

After they'd eaten and Severus had cleaned up, Harry said, "Well, thanks for everything. I'm gonna go for a ride now. You wanna come?"

"You intend to ride that motorcycle? Do you think that wise?"

"I do," Harry said. He didn't care how much his leg hurt, he wasn't going to give up his ride for anything.

"But the leg pain . . . What if it gets worse?"

"It won't. Riding is the only thing I look forward to. I'm not going to lose it because I had a bad day yesterday."

Severus thought "bad day" was understating the state he'd found Harry in last night, but he recognized the stubborn set of the boy's shoulders and he sighed. He thought he was quite likely to regret his next words. "I will accompany you."

"I'd love to have the company, Severus, but please don't feel obligated."

"I would rather this than live with the guilt when you are found in a ditch with several broken bones."

Harry laughed again. "You're so dramatic! I've got spare riding clothes. I think I can resize them to fit you."

##########

"You look great," Harry said, and he meant it. Severus Snape in leather was a sight to behold.

Snape actually blushed at the compliment and the way that Harry's eyes traveled over his body. "Nice motorcycle."

"Thank you." Harry was quite proud of the bike, a candy red Honda Goldwing. He'd owned it for two years, and it was in pristine condition. "Let's just go over a couple of things. Don't hop on or off the bike without telling me first. Always mount and dismount from the left side. Helmets at all times. They're equipped with headsets so that we can talk to each other as we're riding. I'll get on first, then you can get on behind. Ready?"

"Not really, but let's do it anyway."

Smiling widely, Harry placed the helmet on his head and swung his leg over the bike. Severus gingerly pushed his own helmet onto his head, sent a prayer skyward, and mounted the motorcycle behind Harry. With a kick, the bike vroomed into life, and they were off.

##########

Snape had to admit that the motorcycle ride hadn't been as bad as he'd expected it to be. In fact, he'd rather enjoyed zipping along, looking at the scenery. Harry had turned out to be a very good driver, and he'd never once been in fear that they would crash or fall over. They'd stopped at a pub for lunch, and the food had been simple but excellent. And Severus couldn't deny that sitting there with Harry Potter between his legs, the warmth of the man, the steady purr of the machine, had been more than pleasant.

When they returned, Harry fairly hopped off the bike after Severus had dismounted and parked his treasured ride in the garage.

"What did you think?" he asked with a huge grin as they went into the house.

"It was . . . pleasurable," Snape conceded. "More so than I ever could have imagined."

"Good. I'm glad you enjoyed it."

"You seem to be moving about better today."

"Yeah, I am. I always feel better after a ride."

Harry went whistling through the door connecting his residence to the business. He'd been gone for hours and he needed to check on his charges. Severus paid a visit to the runespoor – still no shed skin. The three heads hissed happily at him, bobbing and weaving in unison. He then settled in the sitting room, waiting for Harry to return. When he did, he noted anew how much easier Potter appeared to be moving, which was nearly a miracle considering how much pain he'd been in just this morning.

A very bright light bulb seemed to flash in Severus' brain and he sat gaping at Harry.

"Everything all right there?"

"Remove your trousers!"

Harry stopped abruptly and stared at him for a moment. Then he smiled. "Severus, I didn't know you felt that way." He batted his eyelashes dramatically.

Severus ignored that. "You said you always feel better after a ride."

"Yes," Harry said, wondering where Severus was going with this. "Recreational therapy, I guess. Mind over matter and all that, I always figured."

"Maybe it's something else."

"What do you mean?" Harry asked, dropping gracelessly into his chair.

"Has anyone ever tried any type of therapy on your leg involving vibration?"

Harry sat up instantly. "No. You think the bike . . . that the vibration of the bike helps my leg?"

"Drop your trousers," Severus ordered.

This time, Harry lost no time. He climbed to his feet, undid the button and zipper on his jeans, and pushed them down to the floor.

"Sit," Snape said as he approached. Harry did.

"May I remove the brace?"

Harry nodded.

Snape carefully removed the metal from Harry's leg and worked to control his grimace of sympathy when the leg curled in on itself.

"Does it hurt now?"

Harry blew out a breath. "It always aches a little. Right now it's a lot more tolerable than usual."

Snape took the leg gently into his left hand. With his wand in his right, he touched the tip to Harry's calf and said, "Vibrato." The tip of the wand began to vibrate slowly.

Harry felt the vibrations seep into his twisted muscles. He also felt immediate relief, as though the clenched-up muscle was finally letting go. He stared at Snape in shocked surprise for a moment before sitting back and closing his eyes, tears leaking from beneath his lids. He was trying to fight against hope, because the disappointment was always so much more acute when preceded by hope, but for the first time in a very long time, he felt absolutely no pain, and he couldn't help but be emotional.

Snape ended his spell, and as soon as the vibration ceased, the pain returned. Harry drew in a deep, steadying breath before opening his eyes. Snape was on his knees on the floor in front of him, dark eyes staring up at him inquiringly. "Well?"

"That was amazing. There was no pain, Severus. No pain at all!"

"Did the pain return when I stopped the spell?"

"Yes," Harry had to admit.

Severus nodded. "I can work with that. Give me a day, hmm?"

"I'll give you my entire life if you can make my leg feel like that again!"

##########

When Snape returned the following evening, he found Harry sitting in his chair, obviously waiting for him. The green eyes turned up to him, hope shining brightly despite Harry's attempts to keep it at bay.

"Hi," the young man said somewhat nervously.

"Good evening," Snape answered. "I have something that I'd like you to try."

Harry got awkwardly to his feet. "Oh?"

"Yes. Come into the bedroom."

Harry followed eagerly, removed his trousers, and lay on the bed at Snape's direction. Snape checked the snake tank (still no skin), then drew a thin black device, which looked much like a wand, from the pocket of his robe.

"What's that?" Harry asked, ever curious.

"It's a device I've created. Here. Allow me to demonstrate."

Snape removed the brace from Harry's leg and straightened the leg as much as possible. He lay the slim device against Harry's lower leg and bound it there magically. He touched his wand to it, and it immediately began a gentle vibrating. Immediately, Harry felt complete relief from the pain in his leg, and he groaned in pleasure.

"Can you describe the effects?" Snape asked.

"Nothing," Harry said, closing his eyes, fighting his emotions. "There's nothing."

Snape was confused. "Nothing, as in there is no change?"

"No. Nothing. There's no pain. It's gone, Severus, gone." And he couldn't hold it back any longer. Tears flowed from his eyes as relief flooded him completely. He'd never thought to be free of pain again as long as he lived, and to find that he could, even if it was only for a brief moment, was overwhelming.

"I'm going to turn it off now, Harry. I need you to tell me if the pain returns."

Snape tapped his wand to the device again. It stopped buzzing, and familiar pain began to creep up Harry's leg. "It's back," Harry said, unable to keep the despair out of his voice. "It's back, Severus." He was sobbing now.

"Hush, Harry," Snape soothed, and he turned the device on again. Even though the pain disappeared, Harry's tears continued to run unchecked.

Snape sat on the bed beside Harry and stroked a hand over his hair. "Do not distress yourself so," he said uncomfortably. "I have hope that we can make this a permanent solution. Calm yourself, and I will explain."

Harry drew in great shuddering breaths, trying to grab hold of his careening emotions. Finally, he had control of himself, and he looked longingly up at Severus. Severus let him go to replace the brace on Harry's leg. He left the vibrating device in place, fitting the brace around it.

"Go and wash your face," the older man advised. "I will meet you in the sitting room, and we will talk."

##########

Harry felt much more in control and more than a little embarrassed when he rejoined Severus. His leg, amazingly, was still pain-free, and he felt the vibrations from the device strapped to his calf as pleasant little zings up his leg. "I – I'm sorry," he said immediately after sitting down. "I'm sorry I broke down like that."

"Do not be sorry," Severus soothed, handing Harry a cup of the tea he'd brewed while the young man was collecting himself. "It is understandable after the length of time you have suffered. May I explain my theory to you?"

"Of course."

"I believe the vibration breaks down the very fiber of the muscle itself, which is the reason that you feel no pain – the contraction of the muscle is being eased by this breakdown. I believe that, over time, with intermittent use of the device, the cursed muscle will break down, and normal, healthy muscle will replace it. My suggestion would be that you apply the device for one hour per day in the beginning, without the brace. After the one-hour treatment, replace the brace and allow the muscle to regenerate itself in the proper shape. Do you understand?"

"I think so," Harry said soberly.

Severus hesitated over this next part. "I think you will have to allow your healer to regrow the bones in your leg properly. If the muscle is to return to its pre-injury form, it will need healthy, solid bone to guide it.

"That's going to increase the pain." This wasn't a question: Harry knew it would increase the pain.

"Yes, unfortunately, I believe it will," Severus agreed. "But it should be temporary. If the process works as I think it should, the more cursed muscle tissue you can replace with healthy tissue, the less pain you will have."

Harry sighed. He remembered how much more painful the leg had been before the healers spelled the bones to bend. But he couldn't afford to be squeamish now. If Severus could actually make his leg better, he'd endure walking on coals every day for a year. "It feels so good right now," he groaned pleasantly. "I'm not sure I'll want to take it off after an hour."

"I would caution you against leaving it on any longer. If you completely destroy the muscle tissue, it will not be able to regenerate. There will simply be nothing left."

"How long do you think it will take, start to finish?" Harry asked, hope coloring his voice.

"I do not know. This is an untested treatment, obviously. I would like to be able to monitor your progress, if you would allow it. If successful, the treatment could be used for others suffering from the same curse or other muscle conditions similar to it."

Harry smiled, because Snape had just given him the perfect reason to continue seeing the other man on a regular basis. "I'd like that, Professor. Thank you. Are we starting today?"

"Why not?" Snape said. "I am here. You are here."

Harry began to remove the brace while Snape continued speaking.

"The device was placed on your leg . . ." he consulted his watch, "twelve minutes ago. In forty-eight minutes, we shall remove it and replace the brace. I should warn you not to expect any immediate relief."

"I kind of gathered that," Harry said, sitting back and enjoying the sensation of having no pain. "It started to hurt before the moment you shut it off. But that's okay. It doesn't hurt now, and if all I can have is an hour a day of no pain, I will gladly take it."

"Well, let us hope that it eventually becomes more than that. It is important that you be able to explain to me in detail how you feel during the process. How much pain you have, any side effects – anything could be important."

"All right," Harry agreed. "I'll pay careful attention and write it all down."

"And you'll contact your healer tomorrow to schedule the bone procedure?"

"I will," Harry promised. "I'll have to talk to Veronica first, make sure she can take over the shelter while I'm gone. Shouldn't be a problem."

"Good, then," Severus said with a satisfied nod. He pulled his notepad onto his lap so he'd be ready, when Harry's treatment ended, to record his observations.

They sat there for a moment or two, the only sound in the room the mild buzzing of the device on Harry's leg.

"Thank you, Severus," Harry spoke quietly into the near-stillness. "From the bottom of my heart. I never thought I'd – "

"It is my pleasure, Harry. I have enjoyed the time we have spent together since I came to you looking for a favor. You are not the irritating young man I thought I knew so well at Hogwarts. Perhaps you never were. But I find that if I can ease your suffering in any way, I am more than happy to do so."

"I'm glad you came into the shelter that day," Harry said, his eyes closed, unable to look at the other man right now, his emotions all over the place. He knew he should probably keep his mouth shut – in his current state, he was all too likely to say something soppy and drive Severus away. "And I'm glad you're helping me with this. I was afraid that since you'd gotten your eggs, you'd no longer have a reason to come by. And once the runespoor sheds its skin, I thought you'd be gone forever. I . . . I don't want that."

"Neither do I," Severus admitted sincerely.

"I like that you're my friend," Harry murmured, pleasure-fueled drowsiness making him almost melt into his chair.

"Likewise," Severus said. And he sat and watched over Harry until he fell asleep.

##########

"Thanks for coming," Harry said, fighting nerves as he lay in the bed at St. Mungo's.

"Don't mention it," Snape assured him.

"You certainly explained things to the healer better than I ever could have."

"I am happy I was able to help."

Harry closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath.

"Are you nervous?" Severus asked.

"A little," Harry confessed.

"You understood the procedure they described to you?"

"Yeah. Well, as much as I could through all the medical mumbo-jumbo. But I got the basics."

"You will be asleep for the procedure. You will wake up, and it will be done."

"That's what makes me the most nervous. That I'll be asleep. I won't know what's going on."

"They said it was likely to be painful. You are better off unconscious for it."

"I know I'm being irrational. I just don't like giving up that much control. Nothing good ever comes of it."

A knock on the door was followed by the door opening before anyone could speak. Hermione poked her head around the door. "How are you, Harry? Oh! Professor Snape!" She was quite clearly surprised to see him there.

"Miss Granger."

"Mrs. Weasley," she corrected with a smile. "Or better yet, Hermione. How are you, sir?"

"I am well. And you?"

"I'm great. How are you feeling, Harry?"

"I wish this was over."

Another knock at the door, this time the healer. "Ready, Mr. Potter?"

"As I'll ever be," Harry said, his Gryffindor bravery asserting itself.

"The team will be here in just a few minutes," the man said. "I have a potion for you to drink that will put you to sleep. It will take about five minutes to knock you out completely." He handed Harry a cup. Harry looked inside, wrinkled his nose at the smell, then downed the contents in one big gulp.

"Excellent," the healer praised, taking the cup back from Harry. "Make yourself comfortable, and this will be over with before you know it."

Snape caught the healer on his way out the door, and they spoke in whispers. Hermione approached Harry in the bed, took his hand, and questioned him on the procedure and the treatment Snape had devised.

Harry was getting very sleepy, and he yawned hugely. He squeezed Hermione's hand, then let it go, unable to hold on any longer. He was conscious enough to register Snape coming to stand at his bedside and to hear when the man said, "I've talked to the healer, Harry. They are going to allow me to stay in the room during your procedure. I will watch over you. You need have no fear."

Harry smiled weakly and wanted to say thank you, but found he didn't have the strength. And then he was gone.

##########

The spell cast on Harry's leg to resolidify the bones took only moments. The healer tested the efficacy of his spell by lifting Harry's leg. It stayed straight, the bones obviously having reformed in their normal configuration.

"He will sleep for a while now," the healer turned to Snape and said. "Feel free to get yourself a cuppa while you're waiting."

"I shall remain here," Snape said, resolute. He'd told Harry he would watch over him, and watch over him he would.

"Let us know if you need anything," the healer offered on his way out the door.

Snape settled himself into the room's only chair, readying himself to wait for the one to two hours that Harry would remain unconscious following ingestion of the potion. He'd brought a book to read, and he removed it from his robes as the door opened again.

"Do you mind if I wait with you, Professor?" Hermione asked.

"Not at all. Allow me." And Snape conjured a chair for her.

"Thank you, sir. Harry told me that the two of you had been spending some time together. He didn't tell me that you'd gotten this close."

"I'm not sure what you mean," Snape said.

"You devised this course of treatment for Harry. You're here, though clearly your presence isn't required. You comforted Harry before the procedure. It appears to me as though you've come to care for him."

Snape stared down at her over his large nose, but she only looked back at him, looking both guileful and innocent at the same time. "You have always been very perceptive, Mrs. Weasley. I have come to care for Mr. Potter. He is different now from the boy I knew in school. Or perhaps the truth is that I am allowing myself to see the real Harry Potter now. I don't know. What I do know is that I enjoy spending time with him and find myself thinking about him when we are apart."

Hermione's smile was wide and complete. "I'm very glad to hear that."

"Are you?" Snape asked, surprised. "I would have thought you would have a magnitude of reasons why someone such as Harry should avoid someone such as myself at all costs."

"Why? Because you're older than he is?"

"That is only one reason."

Hermione shrugged. "Love is love, Professor. As long as both parties are of age and willing, I don't see why the difference in ages should matter so."

"Love?" Snape sputtered. "No one is speaking of love here! I merely said I enjoy spending time with him."

"All right," Hermione allowed, though Snape could tell that she was humoring his choice of labels. "So you're friends. That's wonderful. Harry's needed a friend for a while now."

"Are you and Mr. Weasley not his friends?"

"Of course we are. But we're in London, busy with kids and jobs. We see Harry as often as we can, but none of us thinks it's enough. Harry needs someone just for him, someone not tied down with too many other commitments. Someone to put him first."

"I, too, have a job," Snape protested.

Hermione smiled knowingly again. "Of course you do. And shouldn't you be there right now?"

"I wanted to be here for . . ." Snape stopped, because he could see that the statement he was about to make was going to shore up her argument, not tear it down.

Hermione's smile only got more knowing. "I'm glad, Professor. Really glad. Harry deserves to have someone like you."

"Someone like me? Someone old enough to be his father, someone who tormented him during his school days?"

"I already told you what I thought of the age difference," Hermione dismissed his arguments. "And you're both different people than you were back then. Older. Wiser. You have more perspective. Try to imagine, if you can, that you and Harry had never met until two months ago. Would you find him attractive?"

"A man would have to be blind not to find Mr. Potter attractive," Snape conceded.

"Or a woman," Hermione added.

Snape nodded his head in acknowledgment.

"And if you met an attractive man that you enjoyed spending time with, and that enjoyed spending time with you, would you hold out at least a small amount of hope that it might turn into something other than friendship over time?"

"Under normal circumstances, yes, I would."

Hermione nodded as though they'd been having an argument which was now settled in her favor. "So how does Harry feel about you?"

Snape considered this and the mixed signals he'd been getting from Harry for some time now. "He seems to enjoy our time together. He said that he was glad that we were friends, and he was worried that once the runespoor had produced both its eggs and its skin that I would disappear from his life. I sense that he is interested, yet he seems to hold himself back for some reason."

"I can tell you the reason. Actually, there are three of them: Ginny Weasley, Eric Kramer, and Sam Baldwin."

"I don't understand."

"You know that Harry dated Ginny in school?"

Snape nodded. He'd seen the two of them together, late in Harry's sixth year, and the staff room had been all agog at the budding relationship, with comparisons being made to James and Lily, which made Snape want to vomit, then and now.

"After Voldemort was killed, Ginny wanted to take up where they'd left off. She said that Harry had only broken things off with her because he was going on the hunt for horcruxes, and he didn't want her to be caught in the crossfire. But during our time away, Harry had figured something out about himself. He didn't like girls. It wasn't an easy thing for him to come to terms with, but once he did, he knew that a future with Ginny wasn't in the cards. He told her, as gently as he could. And then he told her more firmly when she wouldn't accept what he was saying. And then one night, when they'd both been drinking, she tried to seduce him. He ended up passing out in her bed, and she told him they'd slept together. A month later, she told him she was pregnant. Neither of those things was true. Harry had been too drunk to have sex with anyone that night, and Ginny wasn't pregnant at all. For a couple of weeks, Harry was in agony, trying to figure out what to do. He didn't want a life with Ginny, but she was carrying his child. And if you know anything at all about Harry, you'd know that there was no way he was going to turn his back on his own child. He'd finally decided to do the honorable thing and marry her when Ron figured out what she was doing. He wouldn't ever tell me how he figured it out, though I'm pretty sure it had something to do with her menstrual cycle. He'd only ever blush and stammer when I tried to get him to tell me. Anyway, it was incredibly fortunate that he did before Harry made any decisions with potentially lifelong consequences. Harry was furious. Molly and Arthur were so ashamed of Ginny for trying to trick Harry into marrying her. She went off to join the Holyhead Harpies, and Harry licked his wounds by hitting the gay bars as hard as he could."

Snape was listening intently. He'd followed Harry's life in the Prophet (it was hard to avoid, given how much attention that rag spent on their hero), but he hadn't believed half of what he'd read. He was fascinated now to hear the truth behind all the rumors and speculation.

"That's where he met Eric Kramer," Hermione continued. "Eric was very handsome. He fawned all over Harry, which was usually a turn-off, but after Ginny, I think Harry was happy to begin to explore his own sexuality without any commitment. He spent nearly every night with Eric and, unfortunately for Harry, he fell for the git. Hard. It was Harry's first time being in love, and he did that like he does everything else: whole-heartedly. He couldn't see that Eric was using him, for his fame and his money. We tried to tell him, but Harry was so besotted he just couldn't see it, and he grew angry with us for trying to warn him. One night, Harry came home to find Eric in bed with another man. There was a big row – Harry had thought they were exclusive, Eric said he'd never made that commitment and made disparaging comments about Harry's aptitude in bed. Unfortunately, Harry lived at the time in a room above the Leaky Cauldron, and the argument had spilled out into the hallway. It was very public, and by the following day, every unkind word that Eric had said about Harry was reprinted for all the world to see. Harry hardly came out of his room for a month after that.

"It took six months for him to get over Eric. When he finally decided that he wasn't going to waste any more time mourning the death of a relationship that never really was, Sam Baldwin was waiting for him. Sam was everything that Eric wasn't – he was kind, and patient, and steady. Harry took it slow with Sam, because he'd jumped in with both feet with Eric, and he was smarter this time. They dated for six months before they moved in together. Unfortunately, Sam was addicted to Muggle drugs. He was able to hide that addiction from Harry for a long time, but he began stealing to support his habit. Harry had several heirlooms that he'd taken from the Potter vault, and Sam took them all and sold them. When Harry discovered them missing, he reported the theft to the aurors, never for a moment considering that it could have been Sam that took them. When the aurors found a clear trail leading back to Sam, Harry was heartbroken once again, not only over the ending of another relationship, but because he never got his things back. He didn't have a lot of things from his parents, and he was physically ill at the loss. It was a bad time.

"After that, Harry decided that he was just done with relationships. He stopped going to bars. He stopped drinking, which was a good thing, actually. A short time later, he was injured at work, and his career was over. Starting the shelter was really the best thing that could have happened to him. He's been contented for the first time ever, I think. But he deserves to have someone in his life. Someone like you, Professor."

"Given his history, I can see why he's reluctant to get involved again. Do you have suggestions for me, to break down these barriers he has erected?"

"Well, first of all, he needs to know that you're his friend. But he also needs to understand that you're interested in being more than that. Don't push him too hard. Just make sure he understands what you want and that you're willing to wait until he's ready. But don't wait too long. Don't let him just cruise along in his comfort zone."

"So, if I understand you correctly, I should be his friend, but more than a friend. And I should push, but not push?"

Hermione had the grace to blush at his succinct summary of her not very helpful advice. "Sorry," she said. "I just want what's best for Harry, and I think that you can be part of that. You understand him. You and he come from similar places. Just . . . be there for him."

Severus sighed. Was he really about to do this? Was he really about to attempt to embark on a romantic relationship with Harry Potter? He thought for a moment about the risks and rewards, the advantages and disadvantages. And after that analytical evaluation, he was left with one idea: he liked Harry Potter, perhaps even already loved him, and he wanted a chance to build a life with him.

"I will do what I can," Severus promised.

They both turned to the bed when Harry began to stir.

##########

Harry was moaning and moving restlessly with pain before he was even fully awake, his hands fisting in the thin blanket covering him. Snape got to the bed first, and it was him that Harry's eyes focused on when they opened. "Severus," he gasped out.

"I am here, Harry."

Harry put a hand to his mouth and began to gnaw on a finger, trying to distract himself from the pain in his leg. Severus gently removed the finger from beneath Harry's teeth and held onto his hand.

"Hurts," Harry said.

"I know," Severus said sympathetic.

"Can you . . .?"

Severus knew what he was asking. "I can. But not until we get you home." He looked up at Hermione. "Would you mind getting the healer?"

Hermione looked down at their joined hands. "Not at all." She brushed Harry's sweaty hair away from his sticky forehead. "Be right back."

Severus continued to hold Harry's hand, allowing the young man to grip his hand as tightly as he needed. They didn't speak again before the healer bustled in, followed by Hermione.

"Awake, I see!" he announced. "And in a great deal of pain I'd wager."

"You could say that," Harry said, still squeezing Snape's hand.

"There's not a lot we can do for you, Harry, other than administer pain potions. You're welcome to stay here as long as you like."

"No. Want . . . to go home."

"All right," the healer agreed. He turned to Severus and Hermione. "Will he have someone to stay with him?" Both nodded. "The next eight to ten hours will be the worst. I will send him with a pain potion. You can give it to him as soon as he gets home. One dose, every eight hours. No more, though. This is serious stuff. Though I suspect you know that," he said with a blush in Snape's direction.

"Can we take him now?"

"There is one form requiring his signature in Discharge."

"And where is the nearest apparition spot?"

"You can apparate directly from Discharge. The clerk there will show you where."

Severus helped Harry to sit, then took most of the weight on his left side when the young man stood and faltered.

"Would you like a wheelchair?" the healer asked.

"There is no need," Severus assured him, and he scooped Harry up into his arms. Harry moaned at the jostling. "I'm sorry," he whispered to Harry.

"It's okay. Just take me home."

Thankfully, Discharge was directly across the hall from Harry's room because while Harry was thin, he was hardly weightless. Severus placed him in an empty chair in front of the clerk's desk, and within moments, the form had been produced, Harry had signed it, and they were standing in the apparition spot. Well, Severus was. Harry was once again in his arms. Before he left, he turned to Hermione.

"Would you be able to accompany us, Miss . . . Mrs. . . . Hermione?"

"Of course. I'll be right behind you," she promised.

##########

Severus hurried to Harry's chair and placed him in it. Harry shifted until he was comfortable. Hermione apparated in behind them.

"Hurry, Severus!" Harry begged.

"Nullus sensatio."

Harry heaved a great sigh and collapsed fully into the chair, pain-free.

"What was that spell?" Hermione asked.

"I'll explain later," Severus said. "You remember that you need to eat?"

"Yes," Harry said.

Severus turned to Hermione. "Could you please make Harry two toast. Plain. Bring them in right away. And then scramble two eggs and bring those in with tea."

"Yes, sir. No problem."

"Hermione," Harry said weakly from the depths of his chair.

"Yes, love?"

"Could you put some jam on the toast?"

"Of course I can. Be right back."

Hermione returned with two toast two minutes later and handed them to Harry. He began to much them happily, enjoying this pain-free time because he knew it wasn't going to last. "Hey, Hermione? After you make my breakfast, would you mind going into the shelter and telling Veronica that she can shut down for the day? Then bring her through here? I just want to make sure everything went okay today."

"Sure I will."

"Thanks, Hermione. I love you."

"I love you, too," Hermione said with a smile. "Give me ten minutes."

Harry questioned Severus about his business while they waited. He was already feeling the first stirring of pain in his leg when Hermione brought his breakfast, so he got it down as quickly as he could. When Hermione brought Veronica in, Harry asked her how the day had gone.

"It was very quiet. Just one older couple came in. They seemed very taken with Rygel. They're going to think it about it tonight and come back tomorrow, if they decide they want him. I'm pretty sure they'll be back. But that was it."

"Great," Harry said tiredly. "Thanks for taking over like that. Have you checked everyone and locked up?"

"I have."

"Good then. You can go out the front here. I'll see you tomorrow?"

"You bet. And I hope you feel better, Harry."

"Thanks."

After Veronica had gone, Severus asked, "Ready for that potion?"

"I'd like to check on the critters."

"You know you can't. You can't walk," Snape pointed out.

Harry sighed. "I know. I just like to see with my own eyes that everything is all right."

"Once you are asleep, I will make the rounds myself. Will that suffice?"

Harry smiled warmly. "It will suffice."

"Good. Now, do you need the bathroom?" When Harry indicated he did not, Severus asked, "Are you comfortable?"

"Mm hmm."

"Then drink."

Harry grimaced, remembering how horrible this particular potion tasted. But he also knew that it would create sweet oblivion for him while terrible and painful things happened in his leg, so he screwed his eyes shut and drank the awful stuff down. Moments later, he was soundly sleeping.

"Thank you for your assistance, Hermione," Severus said as he pulled a blanket over Harry and tucked it around him carefully. As soon as he'd finished, Serena jumped onto Harry's stomach, kneaded a comfortable spot in the blanket, and curled into a tight ball, purring happily. Nuisance leapt onto the head rest of Harry's chair and settled there, looking for all the world as though he intended to look out for his master while he slept.

"I was happy to do it, Professor."

"Severus."

"Severus," she said with a smile. "I can see you have things well in hand here. I think I'll head home, maybe be there for once when the kids get home. But I do want to talk to you about that spell you used. And that potion."

"I will be happy to answer any of your questions."

"Thank you so much for helping Harry. Remember what I said: Don't let him push you away."

"I will do my best."

"All right. I'll check with Harry tomorrow."

"I'm sure he will appreciate that. Good day, Hermione."

"Good day, Severus," Hermione said, sounding too much like a grown-up to her own ears, which made her giggle.

As soon as she'd gone, Severus took Harry's dirty dishes to the kitchen and made short work of cleaning them up. He then made his way through the shelter, checking each of the cat rooms, chatting up several of the beasts within who seemed in need of human interaction. Harry only had one rabbit and two guinea pigs in the Little Critter room, and all appeared well with them. Veronica had apparently done her job adequately – all of the food and water dishes were filled, and the front door was locked. Severus was just about to return to Harry's living quarters when he made a rash decision: he returned to the room containing Rygel, picked the cat up, and brought him back with him. No "older couple" was going to claim his cat.

When Severus deposited Rygel on the sofa next to Harry's chair, the other cats looked him over closely, then returned to their previous occupations, not at all bothered by the presence of yet another feline. "Do not get comfortable here," Severus told Rygel firmly. "You will not be staying."

Rygel ignored him, jumped off the sofa, and went to explore these new digs. Severus made his way into Harry's bedroom to check on the fish and the snakes. He was mildly interested to note that the runespoor had shed its skin. A month ago, he would have been ecstatic and would have removed it immediately and taken it back to his lab for experimentation. But now, he thought he'd been away from Harry long enough, and he gave a quick "good job" to the beast before rejoining Harry in the sitting room.

##########

When Harry awoke, he had a strange cat sleeping on his chest. "Rygel?" he asked, confused.

"Ah, you are awake," Severus noted, carrying a tray into the sitting room.

"Yeah," Harry said, struggling to sit up a little higher, holding onto Rygel so he didn't dump the cat onto the floor.

"How are you feeling? Is the leg paining you?"

Harry winced as he moved the leg. "Hurts some," he said.

Severus knew he was understating the level of pain. "Would you like something for it?"

"No, thank you. It's no worse than it was in the beginning. I can take it."

Severus knew better than to argue. "If you change your mind, let me know. I have breakfast here for you."

"I slept through the night?"

"You did indeed."

"Oh my God! The animals!" Harry made to fling off the blanket covering him so that he could check on his neglected charges.

"Stop!" Severus ordered, putting out a hand to still Harry's frantic movements. "They are fine. I checked on them last night, and I fed them all this morning."

"Everyone's all right?"

"Well, I fear there may be something wrong with your rabbit."

Harry sat forward again, this time with concern, clutching Rygel more tightly to him. "What do you mean?"

"It was racing madly about the cage. Perhaps it is demented."

Harry collapsed back, relieved, and smiled fondly. "Oh, he does that. He gets excited when you feed him."

"Well, that is a relief. So you see? All is well. After you have had your breakfast, you can go and check on them yourself. But I insist you eat first."

Harry collapsed back into the chair. "Thank you, Severus. You've been so good to me." He accepted a cup of tea from Severus, repositioning Rygel in his lap. He sipped his tea, then said, "Why is Rygel in here?" He knew the cat couldn't have walked in here, not with the enchantments he'd set up after Nuisance had snuck in.

Severus looked down at his tea. "He expressed a desire to come home with me."

Harry hid his smile in his cup. "Did he?"

"He was quite persuasive."

"I imagine he was," Harry said, trying to keep a straight face. "I'll fill out the paperwork when I go in this morning." He patted Rygel on the head, giving the cat a silent, "Good job," for breaking through Severus' defenses.

"Throw the beast onto the floor so I can give you your plate," Severus requested.

Harry sat his tea cup down, then lifted Rygel onto the floor. Severus handed him a plate with a short stack of pancakes and several pieces of bacon. "Looks delicious. Thanks."

Harry had eaten a couple of bites when Severus said, "Oh. The runespoor has shed his skin."

Harry's eyebrows raised in surprise, but he didn't speak because his mouth was full. Once he'd swallowed, he said, "I'm surprised you're still here. I thought you'd grab that sucker up and head back to your lab."

"I had more important things to do," Severus said honestly.

Harry gave a pleased smile at that. "Really? Can't imagine what that might have been," he said lightly.

But Severus didn't want Harry to take this lightly. "You, Harry. You are more important than any snake skin."

Harry couldn't look at Severus, more than a little uncomfortable with this declaration. There was no misunderstanding Severus' words or his tone, and Harry wasn't ready to deal with the implications, not now, maybe not ever. He'd resolved after Sam that he wasn't going to open his heart again, not for any man, not when he'd had his heart broken so many times before. He liked Severus. A lot. But he'd been able to keep those feelings buried, because he never thought the other man could ever return those feelings, and it was easy to pretend they were just friends. Then he didn't have to deal with his fear of getting too close, of getting hurt again. If he started something with Severus, and the other man did something to hurt him, he was quite sure he'd never recover.

So he held his tongue, staring down at the pancakes which no longer had any flavor.

"I'm sorry if I have made you uncomfortable," Severus said softly.

"No," Harry protested. "It's good. You didn't. I'm just not hungry any longer, I guess."

"Look at me."

Harry obeyed without thought, and his eyes immediately locked onto Severus' dark ones.

"I want you to understand something," Severus said. "I know that you have been hurt in the past. I am sorry for that. I have come to regard you as a friend. You are an interesting man, one of the strongest people I think I have ever met. I find myself drawn to that strength. Not to mention that I find you incredibly attractive. I see the fear in your eyes, and I am sorry for that as well. It is my intention to pursue you as more than a friend, and I thought it only fair to warn you. I do not expect you to respond to me now. Just know that I am not going anywhere, and I would never do anything to hurt you."

"Severus, I can't . . . I don't know if I can be what you need. It's too hard when . . ." Harry stopped.

"I have one question for you, Harry. Do you dislike me, or are you not interested in pursuing where this might lead? For if you tell me that you do not find me attractive, that you do not think we could ever be more than friends, then I will reluctantly accept that. I would ask only that you be honest, that you try to set aside your fear for a moment, and tell me simply whether you want this."

"I do," Harry whispered. "I do. But I don't know if I can."

"We will take it as slowly as you need," Severus promised. "I will not pressure you. I only ask for the opportunity to spend time with you. As a friend, for now."

Harry nodded. "All right."

"Good, then," Severus said with a smile. "If you are finished, I will take your breakfast dishes to the kitchen." Harry handed them to Severus. "Do you require assistance getting to your feet?"

"No, I'm okay." Harry proved this statement by throwing off the blanket and getting slowly but steadily to his feet. His leg ached, more than it had two days ago, but not more than it had in the beginning, and he was quite sure he'd be able to make it through the day. He limped to the loo and relieved himself, then went into his bedroom. He retrieved the snake skin from the enclosure and placed it into a bag to give to Severus. It occurred to him that the runespoor would only be with him a few more days.

He found Severus readying to depart. "Here you go," he said, handing him the bag.

"Thank you. I must be getting back. I will return this evening, for your treatment. I shall bring dinner."

"All right," Harry agreed.

Harry was surprised when Severus drew him into a hug. "What are you doing?" he asked as he held himself stiffly in Severus' arms.

"I figure if I hold you gently every now and then, you'll come to see that affection isn't such a bad thing," Severus said, and Harry recognized the very words he'd used regarding Timid not too long ago. Severus just continued to hold him, and gradually Harry let himself melt into the embrace. Severus finally let him go, stepped away from Harry, and said, "Until tonight." He scooped up his cat, held the furry body close, and then he was gone.

Harry stood there for a moment, then gathered himself and made his way into the shelter.

##########

Harry's day had been long, but he was grateful that he'd been able to get back to work. He hadn't been away for any length of time since he'd started this endeavor, and his brief break yesterday had reminded him just how much he loved what he did. He'd spent the day with the animals, soaking up their unconditional love and trying, unsuccessfully, not to think about Severus. A large part of him wanted very badly to just throw caution to the wind and himself into the other man's arms. Severus was unlike any man he'd ever known, including the professor he'd thought he'd known years ago, and a part of Harry was just drawn to him on many levels. He appreciated the man's humor, and his kindness, and his intellect. And his body, if he was being truthful with him. When Severus had held him this morning, it had been difficult not to just melt into his arms. Only the memory of his past relationships, and the heartache that he could still feel if he thought about it for any length of time, made him hold back.

He sighed as he walked into his living quarters. Severus had said Harry was the strongest person he'd ever met. He was wrong. Harry was weak. Very weak. Because despite his intentions, despite the promise he'd made to himself, it would take very little for him to turn his back on his resolve and fall straight into the other man's arms.

The man who was standing in his sitting room, startling Harry. "Severus!"

"I apologize for startling you. I hope you don't mind that I let myself in."

"No, of course not. You're welcome here any time."

"I have supper," Severus said, holding up a bag.

"Great. I didn't stop for lunch."

"You should eat regularly. You will need to keep your strength up."

"Okay, Mum," Harry said as he took out plates and silver. "Did you play with your runespoor skin today?"

Severus sniffed, offended. "I did not play with it. I did, however, use several pieces of it in several different ways. I shall tell you about them as we eat."

They talked and ate and Harry forgot just how much his leg had begun hurting until he stood to clear away the debris from their meal. "Oh!" he said, his leg giving out. If he hadn't grabbed the table, he would surely have fallen to the floor.

Severus was at his side in a moment. "All right. Let's get your comfortable, and we'll start your treatment."

"But the dishes . . ."

"Will wait," Severus said firmly. He assisted Harry to his chair, then strapped the vibrating device to his leg. Harry lay quietly for a time, enjoying the cessation of pain.

"Just an hour, huh?"

"Yes."

"Okay," Harry said, accepting of the restriction because he was that certain that this treatment of Severus' would eventually work.

Harry must have dozed off because he suddenly found himself awakened when Severus removed the device. "You shouldn't have let me sleep," he griped.

"You needed the rest. You've been on your feet all day. Now, I want a detailed description of your day. I want to know the level of pain when you woke, what made it worse or better, how you felt while the device was operating, and how you feel now."

Harry had been expecting this, and he made his report as detailed as possible. When he was finished, he rose to his feet and told Severus what that felt like. "Feels like . . . pins and needles. Plus pain, just as it was before you put it on."

Severus finished up the notes he'd been taking. "I will leave you now. I would recommend a hot bath before you retire. Anything to loosen up the muscle will be beneficial. I will return tomorrow evening."

"All right. But I want to cook this time. You don't have to bring dinner with you every time."

"That sounds acceptable."

Severus turned to leave, but Harry stopped him.

"Aren't you forgetting something?"

At his confused look, Harry continued.

"The holding me gently part," he said, unable to look at Severus, embarrassed and a little ashamed of himself for giving in without even the appearance of a fight.

Severus smiled and took Harry into his arms. The feeling of . . . rightness . . . completeness . . . filled Harry and he gave himself over to the embrace. When he looked up a short time later, he fell into the bottomless pools of Severus' eyes. When he was finally able to tear his gaze away, his eyes flitted over the man's face – his chin, his nose, his forehead, his lips, his eyebrows. He was reluctant to look the man in the eyes again, sure he'd fall into those pools and never get back out again.

Severus let him do this for several moments before he asked, "Have you decided?"

"Have I decided what?"

"Whether you are going to kiss me or not."

Harry looked down at his feet before finally returning his eyes to Severus'. "Severus, I . . . I think I might be falling . . ."

Snape's voice was more gentle than Harry had ever heard it when he said, "It's all right, Harry. I am here to catch you."

And Harry couldn't help it – he reached up to kiss the man. It was a tender kiss, sans tongue, but it was incredibly pleasant and left Harry buzzing, almost as though a large vibrating device had been attached to his entire body and set on low. "Mmmm," he groaned.

Severus reached up a hand to caress Harry's cheek, then kissed his forehead. "Good night, pet."

"You . . . you could stay," Harry said, but his invitation was hesitant enough for Severus to know that it was too soon.

"Some day, I would like that very much. But not tonight. Tonight I shall take my leave. Take that bath and get some rest. I will see you tomorrow evening."

Severus stepped away from him and forced himself to apparate away before he could change his mind. He'd only been gone for seconds before Harry realized that he missed him already, the ache visceral.

##########

Two weeks later, Harry was beginning to notice a definite improvement in his leg. There was decidedly less pain, and he could tell that his leg was straighter. Severus came to him every night, pleased with his steady progress. Harry looked forward to seeing him more every day, though he chided himself for falling so hard and so quickly. They'd done nothing more than kiss goodbye each evening when Severus left, but the kisses had gotten progressively longer and more heated, and Harry couldn't deny that it got more and more difficult to let the man leave.

One evening, when Severus arrived, Harry opened the door, tears streaming down his face.

Immediately concerned, Severus said, "Harry! What is wrong?"

"She died, Severus!" the young man sobbed.

"Who?" Severus asked, drawing Harry into his arms. Harry was weeping into Severus' chest, choking out words Severus could not understand. He wondered whose death would engender this type of reaction: Hermione Granger came immediately to mind. Perhaps Molly Weasley. "Harry!" he said firmly, hoping to quell this showing of emotion enough that he could learn what was going on. He cupped Harry's face with both hands and thrust him gently away so that he could look down into the distraught face. "Breathe, and tell me what has happened."

Harry drew in a great shuddering breath. "The alarm went off last night and . . ."

"Alarm?" Severus interrupted. "What alarm?"

"Oh, you don't know about that," Harry said, sniffing and rubbing his nose with the back of his hand. "I have an alarm that alerts me if someone drops an animal in the middle of the night. There's a bin by the front door. I wanted to give people an alternative to just dumping their unwanted cats somewhere they wouldn't be taken care of."

Severus was beginning to piece together one very important fact. "Are we talking about a cat here?"

Harry nodded forlornly. "The alarm went off. Someone had put a pregnant cat in the bin. As soon as I brought her inside, she went into labor. She was so weak and ill, I had to help her. She delivered her three kittens, and then she just lay there. I called the vet. He did all he could for her, and she hung on for a while, but she died this afternoon."

Severus bit his tongue to keep his thoughts to himself. All this drama for a cat! One of the hundreds that had come through the doors of this place. Still, Harry was obviously deeply upset by this, so he drew the young man back into his arms, very relieved that it wasn't a human being's death that had made Harry so upset.

When Harry finally calmed himself, Severus led him to the sofa and sat beside him, an arm still around Harry's shoulders. "And how are the kittens?"

"They're fine," Harry said, smiling at the memory of the three little fighters he'd helped to bring into the world. "I have several other cats who are nursing litters, so I just put them in with the others. Cats are very generous when it comes to nursing another's young."

"Well there is your silver lining," Severus pointed out.

"Yeah," Harry agreed sadly. "She was really sick, the vet said, but she hung in there long enough so that her three little ones could live."

"I have to confess," Severus said, "that when I saw how distraught you were, I assumed that it was a person who had died. Does it affect you this deeply every time you lose one?"

Harry blushed a little at this and looked away. "Yes. You probably think I'm ridiculous, carrying on so over a stupid cat."

"'There is nothing as strong as gentleness and nothing is so gentle as real strength,'" Severus quoted.*

Harry smiled at him, and Severus thought that alone was worth keeping his opinion of Harry's emotional outburst to himself. "Would you like to show me the kittens after your treatment?"

Harry's smile grew wider. "I'd like that very much. Can we go now?" he asked eagerly, and Severus nodded, unable to deny the man anything that made him smile like that.

Harry took him by the hand and led him into the shelter. They entered the door marked "Clinic," which turned out to be a sort of examining room. A table stood in the center. One wall contained shelves stocked with medical equipment and supplies, and the other three were lined with cages where several single cats could be seen, most of them sleeping. Larger cages on the bottom row, Snape now learned, contained families of cats, mothers with their recently-born kittens.

Harry opened the door to one of the cages and plucked out a tiny ball of gray fur. The wee beast mewled in his palm, its eyes tightly closed, its legs unable to bear its own weight. Harry cupped it in his palm and held it up proudly to Severus. "Isn't she precious?" Harry whispered, as though talking near a sleeping baby. Severus stroked the newborn with a single finger, wondering how Harry had picked it out of the litter – its new mates all looked identical.

"It is indeed," Severus agreed. Harry placed a tender kiss on top of the kitten's head and returned it to its foster mother, who instantly began licking its head with her rough tongue.

"See?" Harry said, beaming with fondness for all of his creatures. "Jasmine just took her in as though she was her own. Too bad people aren't more like that, huh?"

"Mmm," Severus agreed. He knew that Harry was thinking of his own aunt, burdened with her sister's child, unable to love or even care properly for it. Certainly there were times when animals seemed to have the right way of it over their supposedly more intelligent human counterparts.

"The other two are in here with Katie," Harry said, opening the door to another cage. "She only had two in her own litter, so I thought she could handle both of them. Her kittens are a week old, but she didn't seem to mind too much. Did you, Katie?" Harry asked, reaching in to stroke the mama cat's ears. Severus could clearly see which of the two were the orphans – they were noticeably smaller than the other two kittens sleeping sheltered in the curve of their mother's body.

"Well, they all appear to be in good hands," Severus observed.

"Yeah, they do, don't they?"

"And why are these other animals in these cages?" Snape asked, peering into the other cages on the wall, only some of which were occupied.

"They have injuries or illnesses," Harry said, grabbing Severus' hand again and following along behind. "Oscar here came to us with a deformed leg. Doc Adams was able to correct it, and now Oscar's learning how to walk again. Mitzi and Beatrice just came in a couple of days ago. I keep them quarantined for a while, to make sure they're not carrying any communicable diseases. Eventually they'll all be put right and they'll join the general population. Hopefully some day they'll find their own homes."

"But until they do, they have a wonderful home here with someone who cares for them and loves each one of them," Severus said, pulling Harry close enough to put an arm around his shoulders.

"Yeah," Harry said, blushing again.

"You have so much love in you, Harry. Dumbledore always said so. I thought he was mad when he'd go on about the capacity you had for loving those around you. But he was right. I see it here with all of these creatures." He drew Harry into his embrace. "Do you think you'll ever use it all up?"

"I don't think so," Harry said shyly. He looked up at Severus, "Every time someone new comes into my life, I find my heart just expanding to accommodate."

"So it's not too late for me to fit in there somewhere some day?" Severus asked hopefully.

"Oh, it's too late for you," Harry said, and Severus' heart dropped into his stomach until Harry went on. "You're already in there."

Severus leaned down and kissed Harry, hungrily and possessively, his own heart stretching the limits of its admittedly shriveled boundaries. The kiss was interrupted by a paw sneaking out between the bars and batting Harry's arm. Mitzi was trying to get their attention.

Harry laughed into Severus' mouth and pulled away. "What do you want, you little pest?" he asked her. She blinked once at him, then set about grooming the paw.

"We should go back in for your treatment now," Severus said, hugging Harry tightly to his chest.

"Yeah," the young man sighed, but neither man moved. "Severus?" Harry asked after a moment.

"Yes, Harry?"

"Would you like to stay with me tonight?"

"You do not feel it is too soon?"

"I feel like I've wanted it forever. No, I don't think it's too soon."

"If you are sure, I will stay."

"I'm sure." Harry took his hand again and led him back inside.

##########

Harry's treatment that night took on a dimension of torture that had been missing previously. The vibrations in the device strapped to his leg seemed to follow a path directly to his cock. The anticipation of spending the night with Severus, combined with the physical stimulation, had him quickly and permanently on edge. Severus couldn't help but notice, but chose to ignore the obvious signs in favor of not making it any worse. When the hour finally ended, and Severus unstrapped the device from Harry's leg, Severus held onto it, stroking it with long fingers.

"I suppose you'll be wanting your supper now?" he asked.

"Supper?" Harry asked, confused and very aroused. "I was thinking we might . . . get right to it."

"Get right to what, Mr. Potter?" Severus teased, his voice sultry and teasing.

"You know . . . I thought we might head to the bedroom."

"Oh, but I think you might need the sustenance. We wouldn't want you losing strength at a crucial moment."

Harry groaned. "But I'm so ready." He was nearly panting with need.

"Hmm. So you are," Severus observed, allowing his eyes to roam over the boy's form sprawled in the chair: the flushed face, the chest heaving, the erection straining the front of the young man's trousers. Severus wondered how long it had been since Harry had last been with someone. He suspected it was long enough that Harry wouldn't be able to control himself for long.

"Do you trust me, Harry?"

"Of course I do."

"Then take yourself out."

"Huh?"

"Take your cock out of your pants."

Though he hadn't thought it was possible, Harry became even more aroused at Severus' words, though he blushed a deep pink. Unable to resist, he reached down to unfasten his jeans and pull himself out through the opening. He couldn't stop himself from stroking firmly up and down the column of heated flesh.

"It occurs to me that this device could have other, potentially more pleasant, uses," Severus said. He reached over and lay the long, thin implement along the underside of Harry's cock and wrapped his hand around both. As soon as he felt the vibration, Harry arched his hips up off the chair, coming with a shout, spraying his seed over himself and Severus.

"Oh my God!" Harry moaned as soon as he was capable of producing coherent sound. "That was intense!"

"Mmm," Severus agreed, licking come off his fingers. "I cannot wait to experience you more completely. After we eat."

"I don't think I can move!"

##########

Dinner was accomplished mostly in silence, both men's thoughts focused on what was to happen after the meal. When they'd finally cleared away the last of the detritus from the meal, Harry took Severus' hand and led him into the bedroom.

"Before we do this, can I just say something?" he asked, obviously quite nervous.

"Of course," Severus said, pausing and sitting on the edge of the bed, enjoying once again the aquarium Harry kept here.

Harry sat beside him, far enough away to not be touching. "Where do you think this is going?"

"By 'this,' you mean 'us?'" Severus clarified. "Our relationship?"

"Yes."

"You would have no reason to know this, of course, but I am not the type of man that engages in short-term relationships. When I love, I love forever."

Harry couldn't help but believe this. He knew all that Severus had sacrificed for Lily, even years after her death.

"And do you . . . love me?

Severus turned to look at Harry, at those large, anxious luminescent eyes and the hands fidgeting nervously with the hem of his shirt. "You may have some understanding as to the amount of incredulity with which I say this, but yes, Harry, I was very surprised to find myself seeing an entirely different man than the one I thought I knew at Hogwarts when I came here for that snake. This was a man that I liked, one that I respected, and one that I wanted to get to know better. And as we spent more time together, it became more and more difficult to part at the end of each evening. Somehow, that friendship we quickly formed turned even more quickly into something more, and I found myself thinking about you almost constantly when we were not together. I do not have a lot of experience with love – you know that what I felt for your mother could be more properly termed obsession – but I do not know what else to call it when I wonder what you are eating for dinner when we are not together, or I hear a joke and wonder if you would laugh, or I wake up and my very first thought is of you. I believe that this is love, no?"

Harry smiled. "Sounds like it to me. So you . . . you want more than just a one-off then?"

"I want so much more than just a one-off, Harry. I want to be as big a part of your life as you will let me, for as long as you will have me."

Harry sagged a bit in relief. "I'm glad to hear you say that. The last time I . . . the last time I got involved with someone, it didn't end well. I swore that I'd never risk myself like that again. But I . . . I can't stop myself. I just want to crawl inside you and never come out again. I want to wake up with you every morning and go to bed with you every night. I want to know that when you leave me, that you'll be back just as soon as you can. Does that sound all right?"

"'All right,' Harry? That sounds like heaven."

Harry smiled and leaned over to kiss Severus. "Then make love to me, Severus. Make me yours."

"It will be my pleasure. And yours," Severus assured him.

Harry didn't doubt the man in the slightest.

##########

Clothing had disappeared, and Harry and Severus lay side by side on the bed, facing each other, Harry's hand resting lightly on Severus' hip, stroking. Severus drew him close enough to kiss, and their bodies melded together as though they'd known each other forever. Pressed so close together, a delicious tightness between them just perfect for thrusting, one hardness against the other, they kissed for a time, prolonging as much as possible the moment when sheer need overtook them and made waiting for culmination impossible.

Eventually Severus found himself laying half atop Harry, his right leg between Harry's, Harry's hot, hard cock driving forcefully into his hip.

"How is your leg?" Severus said into Harry's mouth.

"What leg?" was Harry's nearly incoherent response.

Severus chuckled. "Do you prefer to top or bottom, Harry?"

"I like both."

"What do you want tonight?"

"I want you. Inside me. Soon."

"Have you lube?"

Harry fumbled under this pillow and drew out a bottle, handing it to Severus without their lips breaking contact.

Severus kissed Harry for a moment longer, then drew away to coat his fingers in the viscous fluid from the bottle.

Harry learned that Severus Snape was just as thorough at preparation for penetration as he was with everything else, and by the time he was stretched and ready, Harry was nearly out of his mind with need. "Now, please," he requested.

"So polite," Severus observed as he lifted Harry's leg and sought his puckered entrance with his turgid prick. One gentle nudge had the head of his cock inside Harry's incredible heat, and it took every ounce of self-possession not to just drive himself home and pound with abandon.

"Go, Severus," Harry ordered.

"Patience. I'll not hurt you." Slowly but steadily, Severus pressed forward until he was completely seated. "Oh, Harry," he groaned. "You are so tight, so hot."

"You feel so good inside me," Harry gasped out. "I want you to pound me, Severus. I want it hard."

Severus pulled almost all the way out and pushed back in forcefully. It was nice, but not anywhere near enough. "Harder!" he commanded.

"But your leg."

"My leg is fine. Fuck me, Severus."

He couldn't contain himself any longer, and he obeyed Harry's edict, thrusting into the willing body beneath him, over and over and over again. At some point, he took hold of Harry's neglected cock and squeezed, and moments later, both of them exploded, spurting out their satisfaction in burst after burst, until both were drained and gasping for breath.

Harry recovered the ability to speak first. "That was brilliant," he said. "Simply brilliant."

Severus wanted nothing more than to collapse and sleep, but he forced himself to pull gently out of Harry, cast a cleaning charm, and arrange both of them comfortably. He took Harry into his arms and allowed himself to succumb.

##########

Six months later . . .

Harry had missed Severus intensely during the two weeks he'd been off at a potions conference. They'd talked by floo, but it hadn't done much to assuage the aching hole in his middle, and he looked forward keenly to dinner tonight – Severus was finally due back in the country. He'd been busy, though, and the time had flown by.

He'd left the shop to Veronica this afternoon, putting the finishing touches on his surprise for Severus. Just before closing time, he'd relieved her, letting her go so that he'd be alone when his lover returned. He'd asked Severus to apparate here, inside the shop, rather than into the house, so he could prolong the suspense.

He'd just finished closing up the last of the cat rooms when he heard the telltale pop of apparition behind him. He turned around slowly, a smile widening on his face as he moved, until he could see the man he'd been waiting for. "Severus," he said.

"Harry." Severus opened his arms and Harry threw himself into them.

"I missed you so much," Harry said, embracing the older man tightly, then tipping his head up to bestow a welcome-home kiss on those thin lips he'd been craving.

"And I missed you. How is Rygel?"

"He's great. He's been no trouble at all. Are you hungry?"

"I am famished," Severus said. He looked around. "Is there some reason you wanted me to apparate in here?"

"Actually, yes. There's something I wanted to show you. And something I wanted to ask you."

Harry seemed unaccountably nervous, which Severus noticed right away. "Is something wrong?"

"No. Not at all. It's just . . . well, come on. I'll show you."

Harry took Severus' hand and led him through the door into his home. Severus immediately noticed the changes. "There is a staircase in your sitting room."

"Yeah. That's what I wanted to show you. I had some work done on the house while you were gone."

"I can see that. May I?" he asked, gesturing at the stairs.

"Of course," Harry said. He followed Severus up the stairs, the brilliance of the fact that he could do so without limping, or pain, or stopping to rest on every step not having dimmed at all.

Severus climbed to the top, and he explored the small bedroom, with its own small bathroom, and the much larger bedroom, with a luxurious en suite. Severus was surprised to see that Harry's snakes and fish had been transferred to the wall of this room, exactly as they had been in the room downstairs, and Harry's bed was placed before the large bay window looking out over the backyard.

"You have moved up here," Severus stated.

"I have."

"And what have you done with the space downstairs?"

"Come see."

Harry bounded down the stairs like a newly-born calf. Severus couldn't help but smile at the energy and enthusiasm and the painless way that Harry moved now. Severus' treatment had taken more than two months, but the muscles in Harry's legs had finally reformed into the shape they'd always been intended to have, and it had been a long time since Harry had experienced in pain in the leg.

Harry waited at the door to his former bedroom for Severus to catch up. Once he had, Harry smiled bravely at him, and threw the door open with a, "Ta da!"

It was immediately obvious the room that formerly served as Harry's bedroom and the room that had once served as a guest room had been merged to form one large room, a large room that had been converted into a large, clean, sparkling white potions lab. Severus was astounded, and he walked slowly around the room, trailing a hand over the pristine surfaces.

Harry stood at the door, watching Severus make a slow circuit around the room, fidgeting nervously. When Severus had made it completely around the room, he stopped in front of Harry. "I'm not sure I understand. Have you taken up potionmaking in my absence?"

"I think you know better than that," Harry said. "No. This is for you. I wanted to ask you . . . I thought that things have been going really well between us. I really hate it when you have to leave, and I thought that maybe you'd like it if you could stay. I know that the house before was really quite small, but when it was just me, it didn't matter. Plus I couldn't do stairs back then, you know, so it didn't make any sense to expand. But now . . . now that I have you . . . I wanted you to have a space where you could work, so that maybe you wouldn't have to go. Oh, I know you'd have to go to work. I don't expect you to be with me twenty-four seven, but if you could have this place to come home to every day, well . . . I thought that maybe . . ."

Severus waited until Harry wound down, then took the gibbering young man by the shoulders. "Harry, are you asking me to move in with you?"

"Yeah," Harry said. "Wasn't that obvious?"

"Well, no. Not exactly. But I followed the twisted pathways of your little speech and pieced it together."

"So? What do you think?"

"Did you think I would say no?'

Harry's heart sank a little. Severus wasn't saying yes. He wasn't saying no, but he wasn't saying yes either. "It's a possibility, right?"

"But you still went to all this trouble and expense?"

"Well, I guess it's possible that you feel differently than I do about what we have. Maybe I'm making it more serious than you think I should be. Maybe I . . ."

"Maybe you should stop talking," Severus interrupted. "I have been thinking for some time that I was unhappy with the situation as it was. I, too, dislike having to leave you to return to my home. I would be very happy to live here with you, Harry, if you'll have me. And Rygel."

Harry threw his arms around Severus. "Thank you! Oh, I love you, Severus."

Severus stroked Harry's hair as he held his young man in the potions lab he'd gifted to him. He was hungry, and he hoped dinner was nearly ready. The part of himself that had missed Harry physically wondered if maybe they shouldn't christen this new potions lab before there were any dangerous ingredients or concoctions to worry about. But the biggest part of him, the part that loved this man with all of his heart and soul, was happy to just stand here for a time and hold him tight. They had all night to eat, and they had the rest of their lives to make love here and anywhere else they wanted.

* – Ralph W. Sockman