12.

Well, that had been sordid. And awkward. And clumsy. And wrong on more levels than Severus liked to imagine. The greasy old schoolmaster jumps his fresh-faced young student for a round of midnight wanking. If the universe were just, Potter would be in Dumbledore's office in a few hours, demanding that Severus be sacked. But Potter would never humble himself enough to tell the headmaster what had happened. For once, Potter's arrogance would work in Severus' favor.

Except that Severus would almost rather be sacked than face Potter tomorrow in class, knowing that Potter knew that Severus hadn't a shred of dignity left. Once again, he had lost, and Potter had won. It was humiliating. Potter was half Severus' age, and he was not even particularly bright, yet he managed to outmaneuver Severus time and again. Could Severus be blamed for despising the boy, for taking petty victories where he could?

Potter decimated Severus effortlessly. People looked up to Potter and his ilk. They followed him blindly. They handed him whatever he asked on a silver platter. He was a Gryffindor, and Gryffindors charmed the world into overlooking their sanctimonious cruelty and careless mistakes. Gryffindors made messes, and Slytherins dealt with the consequences. Was it any wonder so many Slytherins had been so easily deceived when the Dark Lord arrived, promising them a well-ordered future and a place in history?

Severus' eyes slid closed. What he had done...it boggled the mind. Potter was his student, of course, and half his age, but the pathology of what had happened tonight ran deeper than that. Potter needled at him like a splinter in his mind, a scab that Severus couldn't help but pick. He couldn't look into those oblivious, impetuous eyes without itching to drive a sliver of hurt and uncertainty into them.

The world seemed to be in on a conspiracy to convince Potter that he was some sort of superman, and Potter swallowed the notion with relish. Potter had been so impossibly lucky that Severus was beginning to feel it could not be luck at all, that reality actually bent around Potter, conforming obligingly to his whims. Severus was no better than anyone else; he had been charmed by the boy, hadn't he? Tonight was proof of that.

This was entirely Albus' fault. Things had been...manageable before the Occlumency lessons; he had loathed Potter, certainly, but the loathing had been simple and straightforward. Now his feelings toward the boy were anything but simple, and fluctuated so erratically that Severus was becoming violent and unpredictable. His behavior had been monstrously inappropriate at best, bordering on criminal at worst. What had possessed him to give Potter truth serum? He had--Merlin!--he had built a sixth year curriculum around this mad obsession with the boy.

He simply could not control himself around Potter, no matter how many talks he had with Albus, no matter how many times he told himself that Harry was not James. Perhaps the fact that Harry Potter was not quite James Potter was the biggest slap in the face of all. He threw Severus completely off balance, alternately fulfilling and upsetting Severus' expectations.

Severus could not leave the boy alone. He could not get Potter out of his mind. The world was in an uproar; there was a war on; Severus was balanced on a razor's edge between the two sides, and he couldn't stop thinking about a wretched sixteen year old boy. The salt on Potter's skin. Potter's single-minded, penetrating gaze; the way his thoughts moved shamelessly, recklessly over his features. Such a sensitive face, achingly expressive, vibrating like a finely tuned instrument.

Severus dropped his head into his hands, rubbing his temples. He was exhausted, and his mind was running in circles. Tomorrow, in class, things would be clearer. He would put Potter back in his place, sneer at the boy, make him seethe with a few well-placed barbs. And slowly, things would get back to normal, go back to how they were. They had to.

* end *