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Where the Heart Moves the Stone
Verse IX of the J. Alfred Prufrock Arc
By: Vain
10.7.2003 - 09.26.2004

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Standard Disclaimer: I own nothing except the plot. Harry Potter and all the elements therein are the intellectual property / registered trademarks of JK Rowling, Scholastic Books, and Warner Brothers. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was written by T.S. Elliot. I am not profiting from this.
Warnings: SS/HP slash, sexual content, violence, & language.

Kudos and thanks must go to my beta reader: the effervescent LadyDeathFarie.

Thank you to everyone who's read and much love to all the reviewers. This is the final chapter in Part I of the J. Alfred Prufrock Arc, but Part II is already in the works. I'm going to take some time off the Arc for a bit to work on some gift fics that can be found both on my LJ and on due to naughty bits. I know it's been a long STRANGE trip up till now, but remember, we're only halfway there. There's still nine more versus to go and things are nowhere NEAR resolved for any of the players in this story yet.

Again, thank you all so much, and—as always—please review.

Vain


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Chapter Eight
The Dolphin-Torn Sea

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"Come rhythm,
Come silence,
Come into our shame.
The fear has no heart
And the fear has no name.

Come sing alleluia,
Come sing dominae.
Come sing alleluia,
Come sing . . ."

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"I ask that you relieve me of my duties as Potions Master, Albus."

The Headmaster looked up, his expression grave. He opened his mouth hesitantly to say something, but then paused when he caught sight of the young man standing in the doorway. He watched him for a moment with an unreadable expression. Finally, the older man settled back in his chair and pushed aside the budget report he'd been looking over. "Come in, Severus, and let us talk."

For an instant, the professor seemed to hesitate, but then he swept in with a sniff of distaste and eyed the dozing portraits warily. Severus was pale, but calm. Totally collected. There was no wildness in his eyes, nor did his hands shake. He sat down uninvited and settled stiffly into the high-backed chair in front of Albus's desk. A heavily laden tea tray appeared next to him with the signature pop of Elf magic. Both men ignored it.

Albus watched his Potions Master with an inscrutable expression for several long moments. Then he turned away and waved his wand towards the fireplace. The flames leapt up higher. The headmaster turned back to his companion: "I am sorry to hear about your father, Severus—"

"I'm not," the sallow-skinned man interrupted sharply. "He was a bastard. He was always a bastard."

"Severus—"

He waved away the Headmaster's reprove. "That is hardly why I've come and you know it." Their eyes locked for a moment and he gave the other man a hard, uncompromising look. "I have come to resign, Headmaster. For once in your life, please be kind enough to respect my decision and give me a straight answer."

A pale, fine-boned hand fished into the belled sleeves of his robe and removed a scroll. He set it down on his employer's desk and leaned back in the chair, looking somehow relieved now that he had said his piece.

Albus looked down at the scroll on his desk with the loose consideration a botanist would give a new species of flesh eating plant: interested, but wary. His blue eyes flickered back to Severus and half moon glasses flashed as he leaned forward and gingerly lifted up the scroll. He held the letter in his hand for a moment, feeling the thick, expensive parchment beneath his skin, and then he turned slightly and tossed the scroll into the flames. It was consumed instantly.

Severus's face tightened. His jaw clenched and ominously dark eyes bore into his employer, sharp and assessing. The fire popped loudly. After a moment, he slumped slightly in his seat and stared fixedly at the other man. "I have done monstrous things in my life, Albus." His voice was soft, dark, and low. "This, I would do right by."

"By leaving?"

Severus's fist landed hard on the arm of his chair. "By compromising myself no more than necessary! I cannot leave him behind! Don't you think I would if I were able? I would sooner tear the veins from my own flesh one by one—it would amount to the same!"

The Headmaster tugged his beard; his eyes sparkled curiously in the firelight, but his face remained carefully blank. "Then it seems we have no more to discuss." He reached out for his budget reports, but a stained hand snaked out with startling speed and landed atop the files, fingers splayed.

Severus leaned forward, still keeping the papers pinned to the desk, his eyes flashing dangerously. "I will not be so easily brushed aside! Nor will I compound inequity with injustice! How can I hope to salvage anything in such a situation? I will not do this to him and I will not shame myself thusly!"

For a moment darkness crossed Albus's features, anger clouding his normally bright eyes. He tensed, and it seemed to require effort for him to regain control of his features. A clear blue gaze speared the other man, almost burning him with its intensity, but despite the black look, a congenial smile fixed itself on the Headmaster's mouth. "I will not accept any resignation from you at this time, Severus. Not in any form."

The Potions Master stared at him, pulling back as though trying to focus more completely on the man. Puzzlement twisted his high brow. "Why have you done this?" He sat back heavily, openly confused. "What are you scheming? Why do you tolerate this?"

Albus settled back in his chair and looked intently at the younger man. "Because this is the way that things must be." His face hardened perceptibly and there was absolutely no trace of the grandfatherly old man that he presented to the world. Without the mask of a twinkle, his sapphire eyes shimmered with a strange chill and a terrible kind of power seemed to lurk inside the man. "Do not fight me in this, Severus," he advised in a quiet, firm voice. "You will lose." He paused and his gaze sharpened. "You have lost."

The Potions Master gripped hard at the arms of his chair and his eyes flashed furiously. "I have done everything you have asked of me, Albus," Severus hissed in a low, poisonous whisper. "I have done every single thing you've ever demanded of me—even though I knew it might destroy me. Even when I knew that it would mean the death of me. I have paid my penance with bloody interest. I have given you every last thing but my pride. Why do you demand it now?" His hands trembled slightly. "Why now?"

Albus did not look the least bit impressed. "Do you think you are the only one to whom I must answer?" He rose with a slowness born of more than age, uncharacteristically angry. "You are behaving like an utter child, Severus."

Severus's jaw literally dropped for a moment. Then he too was on his feet and all semblance of self control was gone. "Draco Malfoy is DEAD! Does that even register with you! You were supposed to protect him! Is it only your precious Gryffindors who merit your attention now? How bloody much does Slytherin have to sacrifice to you before—"

"Enough!"

Severus froze, stunned by the exclamation. For a moment, he and Albus regarded one another across the desk in a heavy silence, then the Potions Master sat back down in his chair, looking drained and tired.

He turned away from the Headmaster and stared fixedly at fire, his long fingers steepled in front of his chin.

Albus watched him for a moment with an unfathomable expression before resuming his seat as well. The younger man did not look away from the flames.

"Albus . . ." The hesitation in his voice was almost painful. "Albus, he tried to Summon me."

The old man went very still. "What do you mean?"

"Har—Potter. My Mark was burning; that's why I returned to Hogwarts when I did. At first I thought it was the Dark Lord, but it was not." The light of the fire cast odd shadows over the professor's face. "When I found him in the forest, I knew. I was . . . compelled to be near him. It only happens, I think, when he wants me close or feels . . . threatened."

For a moment the Headmaster was silent, tugging thoughtfully at his beard. Then: "Does he know? Is he aware of what he has done?"

A muscle in the other man's cheek twitched as he clenched his jaw. "No." The response came out from between gritted teeth. "He . . ." He pressed his thin lips into a tight, hard line. "How can you simply sit there?"

"Do you care for him, Severus?"

". . . I would not be here otherwise, Albus." The former Death Eater's gaze hardened. "But he is not ready for this—any of it." I am not ready for this. "He is only a child."

Albus tilted his head slightly to the side. "He has never been only a child, dear boy."

Severus turned his head slowly, his hands still in front of his face. The look he gave his employer was venomous and his voice was a low hiss. "Have you gone mad? Am I the only one who sees this for what it is? For the love of God, Albus, he is SIXTEEN! Sixteen! He is a child! An infant! He is no hero or savior, or miracle. He's nothing but a stupid boy who's in over his head! How can you allow this—any of this?"

The Headmaster's expression did not change. "How old are you, Severus?"

"Thirty-seven!" the man snarled in response.

Albus nodded slowly. "Almost thirty-eight now."

Severus met his eyes with a hard gaze and Albus smiled faintly at the angry defiance the man radiated. "Eighteen years ago, in June actually, I found you sitting in Hog's Head nursing a glass of watered down rum and brooding. At the time, I'd not seen you for nearly three years. I sat down in front of you and you pointed your wand at me and said, 'Bugger off, you arse.'" A fond grin danced over the old man's features at the memory and Severus had the courtesy to blush faintly.

The Headmaster continued, looking both tired and amused. "When I tilted my hood back a bit and you saw my face, I thought you were going to have a heart attack. Do you remember what I did then?"

Severus looked at him wearily for a moment before picking up the story. "You laughed at me. Then you looked me right in the eye and said, 'I have a position for you, if you are willing and if you are able. Are you ready to come home, Severus?'"

Albus nodded, pleased that his former student remembered the moment. "Yes. And then we left the pub. The next day you joined both the Order and the faculty." For a moment, the older man's eyes grew distant, remembering what things had been like then . . . Before Severus had become so hopelessly jaded and Peter was a known traitor, and Remus Lupin was a walking zombie. Before Sirius Black and the Potters died and Harry Potter had the weight of a world rested on his small shoulders. As terrible as things had been then—and they had been terrible—they had been happier times. Sometimes, he wished he could go back and change everything, but he could not.

Albus sighed heavily and focused on Severus again. "You asked me once—just once—how I knew you were ready to turn from Voldemort then—how I knew that at that very moment, you were looking for a way out."

The younger man watched him with an almost fearful expression in his eyes, though his face remained as stern as ever. "I will not ask you again," he said in a tight voice.

"You do not have to," the old man responded gravely.

There was a faint 'pop' and Severus started as tower-like structure suddenly appeared on the Headmaster's desk.

Albus gestured to the Scaccarium. "This is how I knew, Severus.

For a long moment, there was silence.

Severus stared, his expression halfway between awe and terror. "How . . ."

On each board, the glass and metal Carunculous danced in a whirl of lights, each zipping about their levels as though trying to escape. The board—the Scaccarium—looked like a six tiered, three dimensional chess board, only (instead of the support tower going up through the center) the support was on the outside, winding around the six individual boards with arms projecting to hold up the levels. This made it possible to remove the levels, withdrawing them the same way one would open a drawer. The entire structure was made of glass. The boards—each a perfectly cut square—were each a different color, and each was composed of six rows of six colored circles

Severus sat back, as though distance would remove the artifact from his presence. There were some magical objects whose reach was so far, whose impact was so dangerous, that they were destroyed. The Scaccarium was one of them. Though their exact origins were foggy, it was well known that they had once been favored tools of the Roman Emperors and Alexander the Great. Every great warlord, warlock, Emperor, or conqueror before the year 500 AD was supposed to have benefited from their use.

They were, in fact, deemed so dangerous that in 497 AD—the year of the overthrow of Romulus Augustulus and the subsequent fall of the Roman Empire—an accord was reached among the Picts, Germans, Visigoths, and Vandals that all the remaining Scaccarium would be destroyed. It was their abuse under the Roman Emperors that was credited with the success (and decadent bloating) of the Empire. The early leaders of Europe decided that no one man had to right to move lives and civilizations about to suit his fancy.

The controversy lay in the fact that the Scaccarium and Carunculous were instruments of predestiny. Though the means to create them had been lost long ago, their theoretical function had been passed down for millennia. Supposedly, the boards were smaller representations of the playing field of the Gods. The pieces on the board were Heroes or Vessels and—in the case of Heroes—appeared when their corresponding real person was born, or—in the case of Vessels—when the corresponding person acquired enough resources to become a major player.

Heroes were supposed to be people of Prophecy, like Arthur, or Merlin, or Caesar (or the Dark Lord and Potter). Vessels were comparatively ordinary people whose actions or positions made them vital to the fulfillment of the Hero's prophecy. The danger of the boards lay in that—though Heroes could not be forcefully moved about the boards—the Vessels could be slowly adjusted or manipulated to places they would not have normally gone. Any change to a Vessel's position on the board resulted in a redirection of the actual individual's life or actions. The possibility of such underhanded manipulations could be catastrophic on a universal level.

The Potions Master stared at the board and looked more than a little bit ill. He turned, feeling more than he could even begin to identify, and wondered bitterly which of those spinning bits of multi colored glass and metal was his.

"Where did you get this?" Strained by barely suppressed anger and fear, Severus could hardly recognize his own voice.

He was . . . bewildered. And utterly betrayed. Had his entire life simply been manipulated for him since that night in Hog's Head? This . . . attraction . . . to Potter . . . Was it even real?

Was any of this real?

Against his will, his hands clenched into tight, hot fists and he could feel his magic lurch and quiver within him.

A Scaccarium.

How thoroughly he'd been used. And what a fool he was to have allowed it—an utter fool.

From across his desk, Albus watched his Potions Master grimly. "Calm yourself, Severus. The effort it takes to redirect the movements of even one Vessel is rarely worth the result—especially if the individual has a particularly strong will. I have found it much more effective to simply use it to keep an eye on you."

A dark snarl twisted Severus's lips. "I am sure. And that gives you the right to interfere with our lives in such a manner. I am not your bloody pawn, Albus. He is not your pawn."

"He has a destiny," the old man snapped. "And I have a duty to ensure that it is completed. And I have an obligation and a desire to see that it is resolved with him safe and sane in the end. Do you think that it has ever been any different, Severus? You are a spy. You know better. You know exactly what we face."

"And you expect me to just stand by and allow you to use him?"

"I do not set the playing field, Severus—I merely do what I can with what I have been given. You two have made your own decisions, as we all do. Do not exaggerate your own import on these events, and do not underestimate it. Do not exaggerate or underestimate my importance, either. I was chosen for this. As was he. You, however, have set your own path."

"My own path?" the man spat. "Thus you abdicate responsibility?"

"Thus I knowingly reap what I have sown," the Headmaster countered sharply. "And you will now do the same. You know that this artifact cannot lie."

Severus felt something deep inside him clench and tighten painfully. "That artifact should not even exist!"

"I know. And I know what I have risked in revealing it to you. But you must understand what is at stake here. There is more at work than you know. This Scaccarium has been passed down from Hero to Hero since the days of Merlin. It was, in fact, his. Before the strife, civil wars, and chaos that preceded Arthur's ascension to the throne and the pacification of Britain, the Lady of the Lake encountered this tower and gave it to Merlin. Legend holds that she claimed it would be of greater use to him than it could be to her. When he accepted the Scaccarium, it supposedly bonded to him, allowing him to see the meaning behind the Carunculous and their dance."

Severus glared harshly at the man, looking as though he would like to interrupt, but Albus raised a hand, silently asking the he be allowed to continue.

"By means even I have not discovered," the Headmaster pressed on quietly, "it was preserved through the ages by various Heroes and reverent wizard until it came into the hands of Rowena Ravenclaw, who bought it to Hogwarts. Since that time, it has remained in the hands of our faculty and staff, choosing various Heroes or caretakers until it comes to where it needs to be. It is the magic of the Scaccarium itself that guides it to the people it deems necessary or worthy to possess it. It has been in my possession since I first entered this room as headmaster. Your ancestor Lamia Snape directed me to it. She was the last Hero to be bound to the Scaccarium and it was her portrait who guided me through my school days at this institution and helped me prepare for the confrontation with Grindelwald."

He watched Severus carefully for a moment, judging the other man's expression before he continued. "I owe a great debt to your family. Not only for Lamia's guidance so early in my life, but also because of my pitiable failure of you during your own school years here at Hogwarts. I would give a great deal to see you happy and at peace."

Severus's thin lips pulled back into a harsh, bestial sneer of derision. "And saddling me with a child with a penchant for bizarre obsession and a death sentence stamped on his forehead will make me happy? Showing me just how deeply and thoroughly you have played me like a pawn on your bloody chessboard is supposed to make me HAPPY!"

Something in Albus's expression blackened and a look of acute pain—almost anguish—flashed over the man's face. He looked away from the younger man in favor of staring at the tower with haunted eyes. His voice sounded unaccountably hollowed and thin. "It is the best I can do under the circumstances."

The indignity and rage that had been coiling to strike in Severus's center melted into a kind of muted dread and his dark eyes flickered back to the artifact. For an instant his lips moved silently, his own words echoing ominously in his head: ". . . a death sentence stamped on his forehead . . ."

The Potions Master licked his lips tiredly and forced himself to speak. "What circumstances?"

Albus leaned back in his seat, fished a peppermint out of his robes and put it in his mouth. He sucked on the sweet for a moment, watching the man he'd come to love like his own in pensive silence as the carunculous danced, flashed, and whirled. When he spoke, his words were slow, but steady and without hesitation. "When I saw you holding him at the Headquarters that night, Severus, touching him so intimately, I was heartbroken. And furious. How had I once again failed you both so thoroughly? I left immediately. I did not trust myself to remain and face you. When I returned to my office, I spent hours watching the Scaccarium. You are a Vessel, Severus, and in the moment you touched him, you changed everything. Entire boards shifted. Pieces rearranged themselves."

Severus's brow furrowed and he shook his head in a tense, aborted motion as he discerned where this was headed. "No."

The Headmaster did not seem to hear him. "Your destinies are now intertwined. One cannot be separated from the other without one or the both of you dying. You hold one another's lives in your hands."

The fire popped loudly, and the younger man stared at him blankely, pale, and empty-eyed.

When the silence seemed to have gone on for too long, Albus leaned forward again, forcing Severus to meet his gaze with numbing intensity. "Do you understand what I am saying to you?"

Severus's Adam's apple bobbed heavily. His voice was little more than a breath. "You are giving this boy to me?"

Albus shook his head gravely, beard swaying and gaudy lime green hat shivering with the motion. "No. You, Vessel, have taken this Hero for your own. I am merely forcing you to reap what you have sown. I told you before, Severus: there are some things that I cannot protect you from. You have guarded him for five years. Now you must continue in that stead and protect him from all things—including yourself."

"Have you any idea what you are demanding of me?"

"I am telling you that—by your own actions—you can no longer jump ship as it pleases you. Do not put this on me, Severus. You have done this to yourself."

Severus gripped the arms of his chair so tightly his knuckles turned white. "And what will you tell your Golden Boy?" he hissed. "Will you tell him of this? Did you learn nothing last year? He does not like being deceived or manipulated. He does not like being used. If he discovers what the Scaccarium is—that you have been manipulating—"

"He will not find out." Albus's tone brooked for no argument and for a moment the Potions Master stared, knowing that he was well and truly caught. Absolutely ensnared.

He did not dare leave Potter now—he couldn't even if he wanted to—and, in regards to protecting the brat, his position at Hogwarts was too advantageous for him to willingly give it up. Albus could be tossed into Azkaban for using a Scaccarium and he wasn't about to allow that to happen. For over seventeen years, the Headmaster had been his rock—infallible. He'd burned too many bridges to cut ties with Albus now, and he'd crossed too many to cut Harry off.

Too many. It was all entirely too much.

Abruptly, Severus pushed himself to his feet, too agitated to remain seated. His left hand trembled and he began to pace in tight, furious circles. Furniture clambered out of his way with loud scrapes and wooden clanking noises. He did not notice.

"You . . . you . . ."

"Have done the best I could, Severus." There was a silent "which is more than can be said for you" that hung ominously in the air.

The former Death Eater froze in mid stride and very slowly turned his head to look over at his mentor. "And what is to say that you have not lied to me?"

"Why should I?" The Headmaster's gaze narrowed and he thinned his lips dangerously. His eyes glittered. "What purpose would lying to you serve? Do you believe that I relish the situation in which we've all become embroiled? Do you think I would have chosen to allow you to stumble into such a quagmire?"

Severus looked away, unable to meet the old man's eyes. The censure in Albus's voice was almost painful.

"I have put myself at great risk in showing you what I have and in telling you what I know. I have only done so because you must understand what you risk by playing this game. There is no turning back now, Severus—no more running away, or hiding behind those who could protect you. Not in this. His life is now yours, dear boy. You must bear that burden alone."

The elderly wizard sighed, and the harsh edges left his expression, leaving him worn and tired. "I have deceived and mislead you, Severus, but I have never lied to you."

"You have broken me," the man whispered, almost choking on his own impotence.

Albus looked at him levelly. "Physician, heal thyself."

Severus opened his mouth, but no sound left him. His body trembled for a moment with a shiver of rage, not fear or agitation. Then he spun sharply on his heel and stalked towards the door, his fury wrapped 'round him like a cloak. When he reached the doorknob, he paused, one hand on the cool metal, and turned slightly, to sneer faintly at his employer.

Albus had returned to his budgets.

The tall, lanky professor felt a flash of something like hatred burn hot inside him and turned a bit more, wanting the other man to see the injustice of this abuse on his face. "What? No lemon drops?"

The old man looked up from the paperwork and seemed infinitely sad as he watched his child. He smiled, but the expression was painfully false. "I seem to have lost my taste for them."

Severus stared for a moment, something like pain moving through him at the way his mentor said the words. But he had humiliated himself enough for one day, so he did the only dignified thing he could do: he turned and walked away.


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The Gryffindor ran his hand idly through her hair, feeling the warm, soft press of her body against his beneath the sheets. She stirred in his arms, but did not wake up. He stared up at the red canopy of his bed, seeing in the shadows faces and shapes that weren't there. The young man hummed silently, strains of an old wizard song floating through his mind, and tried very hard not to think of anything.

He was so angry . . . so bloody frustrated

"Give him time," she'd urged him. "He's just going through some things right now."

Right.

Some things.

Things that got Draco Malfoy killed.

Things that put him in the Hospital Wing for days.

Things that made him keep secrets.

Ron used his free hand to pull the bedclothes up closer around him and Hermione.

If he was honest with himself, that was what hurt more than anything: Harry was keeping secrets.

Growing up in a large family pretty much precluded keeping any sort of secret. He was absolutely bloody transparent when it came to secrets. Merlin, half of Hogwarts—Harry included—knew how he'd felt about Hermione before he did. He hadn't even been able to keep his relationship with Hermione under wraps when push came to shove.

He had no secrets from Harry.

But now all that seemed to be between them were secrets.

Things had never really been the same after their fight Fourth Year. Yeah, maybe he should have listened to Harry and Hermione and, yeah, maybe he did overreact . . . But what was he supposed to do? Harry was a brilliant person once you got to know him, but he was Harry bloody Potter. And the fact that Harry hated the attention and was generally pretty clueless when it came to the wizarding world somehow only made him more popular—though exactly how that worked Ron wasn't sure.

First Year, it had been kinda funny (not to mention an ego boost) to see Harry fumbling his way through things. Even with Quirrel and the Stone, it hadn't been too terrible. Then in Second Year, there had been the spiders and the parselmouth. Ron still shivered to recall that. Then Hermione got hurt. That hadn't really been fun at all. Then in Third Year, things changed. It all just seemed . . . so much more sinister. Werewolves and Grims . . . Sure, the dog had only been Sirius, but Ron still had nightmares about being drug under that the Whomping Willow and into the Shack. No one seemed to think about that, though: after all, Harry Potter saved the day again, didn't he? Then in Fourth Year . . .

He had really believed that Harry put his name into the Goblet. Truly. How was he supposed to know that it was yet another ridiculously complicated plot to kill off Harry Potter? Really, if they wanted him dead so badly, why not just poison his food, or have some nutter randomly attack him in Hogsmead? Why all this sneaking about was needed, he didn't know.

Fred and George used to joke about that last year—how the Dark Lord seemed incapable of killing Harry without making a year-long production about it. It had become a running gag between the two of them . . . until their Mum found out. Then she had just started crying and Dad had sent them to bed without supper.

That was starting to happen a lot he'd noticed . . . People would just clam up when it came to talking about what they thought Harry would do when he graduated. Harry hadn't seen it, but Hermione had. Hermione had told him that it was because they didn't want to get their hopes up in case Harry died or something. The Headmaster and McGonagall made it a point to talk about Harry's future, though. In fact, McGonagall seemed to have made getting Harry into the Auror Program her raison d'être. Ron wanted to join them in talking about Harry's life after Hogwarts—as though to prove to everyone that he would have a life after Hogwarts—but his throat seemed to close up whenever he tried.

He couldn't picture a life without Harry Potter. Not the Boy-Who-Lived . . . No: Harry Potter, his best friend. He'd never had a friend like Harry. Harry was funny, and brave, and no one else would listen to Ron rant about the Cannons anymore except Harry. But he was also stubborn, and proud, and he could hold a grudge like nobody's business. And he had a temper, though no one ever seemed to realize it.

And they were mates.

There were things about Harry that he didn't like. The attention. The pride. Harry's unwillingness to accept help from anyone. … The Snape thing . . . They didn't agree on everything, after all. Some of it was Harry's fault, and some of it was his. There were things about Harry that he just flat out didn't get. The idea of holding any bloke the way he held Hermione was enough to make Ron physically ill. It just wasn't . . . well, it just didn't feel right. And the Snape thing . . . that was just kinda sick.

It was Snape, for Merlin's sake.

Snape.

But the idea of not being Harry's friend was enough to send chills down his spine. It was like someone asking him to give up a finger or something. He liked his fingers. And he liked Harry . . . in the friend way.

Hermione shifted in his arms and he looked down at her, frowning as he thought.

Things couldn't go on like this. If they were going to be friends, Harry would have to trust them. . . . And if Harry was going to trust them, then he'd have to keep a level head when things got weird. Things usually had a way of getting weird with Harry.

Ron nodded resolutely and hugged Hermione closer.

Something was going to have to give, but this time, he was willing to at least meet the other boy halfway. The rest, though, was up to Harry.


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He was naked in the desert, wearing only his new glasses. The cracked, thirsty earth felt warm beneath his bare feet. A wind blew, ruffling his hair, and Harry turned away from the breeze, wrinkling his nose. It smelled like ashes and decay.

His body ached faintly and he winced slightly as he looked around. The land was flat and bare and, despite the unfamiliar stars in the sky, there was something strangely familiar about this place—the faint imprint of a fever dream.

"Hello . . .?" He spoke normally, but his voice sounded like nothing more than a whisper in the strange emptiness. " . . . Hello . . ."

"You've decided."

The voice startled Harry and the Gryffindor whirled around, empty hands raised to defend himself against an attack that was not coming.

Draco—or rather, the shade of Draco—sneered slightly at the gesture. The translucent boy was wearing his Hogwarts' robes—the same torn and hastily straightened ones he'd died in—but otherwise, he looked just like the boy Harry had passed in the hallways everyday. Somehow that was comforting.

The blond stuck his chin out slightly, seemingly either unaware, or uncaring of Harry's nudity. Harry couldn't seem to find the presence of mind to feel ashamed of his body and met the other boy's gaze without fear. There was no anger there, simply the smug self assurance that was so inherently Malfoy it made the breath catch somewhere below Harry's breastbone. A deep ache took up residence deep inside him.

"Well, let's have it then, Potter," the Slytherin ordered briskly.

Harry looked away as the ache within him swelled and made his eyes sting slightly. Almost as an afterthought, his hands twitched inwards to cover his flaccid penis, but the motion was halfhearted and Draco did not seem to take note of it in the least.

"Come on, now," he snapped, taking a step closer to the shorter teen. "None of that. Stiff upper lip and all." The words were stingingly derisive, but Harry had the distinct impression that the derision was not aimed specifically at him.

The brunet scrambled for a reply that would not come and shifted unhappily from side to side. His tongue felt thick and clumsy and there was the distinct flavor of raw, bloodied meat in his mouth. He licked his lips in search of a wound, but tasted only the dry, harsh air and dust of the desert. "I beg your pardon?"

A bird cawed unseen in the darkness of the moonless sky and the civility of the conversation struck him as absurd. He couldn't meet Draco's eyes.

"What have you chosen?" the Malfoy heir persisted, looking rather annoyed at Harry's recalcitrance. "You're running out of time."

Harry turned away, looking up at the sky. Automatically, his eyes sought the Dog Star, but he could not find it. Instead, strange, fierce constellations stared back at him with ambivalence, fixed motionless in the sky.

"Potter!"

The cry forcibly drew Harry's attention back to the irritated phantom and he blinked as though refocusing the world would change what was happening. Draco's silvery-blue eyes were sharp and narrowed, waiting impatiently.

"I haven't chosen anything."

The blond snorted sharply in response. "Bullocks." A thin, pale hand waved dismissively through the air, breaking their eye contact. For a moment, the pale Seeker looked down with a thoughtful frown, as though thinking of a different way to pose his question. Then he looked back up, a conspiratorial half-smile curving his thin, aristocratic lips.

Before Harry could move away, the shade took a quick step forward, bridging the gap between them so that he was practically pressed flush against the other boy. The Gryffindor shuddered reflexively as one of those awful, pale hands was pressed against his stomach, expecting the cold chill he'd come to associate with ghosts. Instead, though, there was only a mild tingling, like static electricity buzzing through him. His body leaned into the hand slightly, craving the sensation, and a light, pleasant hum settled under his skin, making him feel almost electrified.

"There's a snake in your belly," Draco whispered quietly in his ear. Harry shivered at the electric feel of lips brushing against the sensitive shell of flesh. "And it's trying to get out."

I don't understand. But when he opened his mouth, only one word left it: "Heka."

He didn't know what kind of reply that was, but for a moment Draco held still against him, cool, translucent, and entirely too close. When the Slytherin pulled away from him, he had a strangely thoughtful look on his face, pensive in a way Harry had never seen before.

"I am no easy meat." He said it as though it was a warning of some sort.

Harry's mind scrambled to hold onto the words and lock them into memory, but the seemed to slide away from him like water. Draco took another step away from him.

"Wait!" Something like panic blossomed inside Harry and he reached out to grip the other boy's arm in desperation. His hand grasped at air.

Draco smiled at him, a harsh expression.

Harry tried to take a step forward, but his feet couldn't seem to move. The aborted motion made him bend over sharply, arms extended imploringly towards the blond. "What is this place?" he heard himself grind out in frustration.

Draco simply continued to smile and pointed down at his companion's feet. Harry's eyes followed the gesture and he stared in astonishment as the cracks in the earth closed up. The ground turned black and smooth, like expensive lacquer, and seemed to solidify, feeling both firmer and less real at the same time. Harry raised his eyes, knowing what he would see even before he saw it. Grid squares, both white and black were forming around him, and the corresponding players began to appear.

Their roles were obvious, but their sides were indistinguishable. There was no white or black, only the polychromatic swirl and sway of wizarding robes and skirts of various colors. Severus, Mad Eye, Bellatrix, and the shattered remains of what was once Lucius Malfoy masqueraded as bishops, while Narcissa Malfoy stood cold and proud, half hidden behind the knight Micah Jasperstone. Voldemort and Dumbledore faced one another with grim expressions from the far sides of the board, each a strangely garbed king. Hermione was behind him, looking stern and strangely beautiful in her Gryffindor robes, an unusual rook. Ron was at her side, maneuvering behind and in front of her with the ease that only a knight could manage. Peter Pettigrew made another curious knight, eyeing the youngest Weasley son with darting, frantic eyes across the board. Behind him, the rook Randolph Lestrange looked on with hungry eyes, on his side and immobile.

The Sword of Gryffindor rose slowly out of Harry's square, the black of the board clinging to it in a strange, liquid way. A part of him wanted to grasp the hilt of the sword and cut his way through to the end of the board. To Voldemort. Another part of him was repulsed by the sight of it.

Harry turned to Draco, but a flash of motion out of the corner of his eye arrested his attention and he stepped back, just in time to see Richard Goyle lunge towards him gracelessly. Without a thought, he grabbed the Sword of Gryffindor and impaled the man. As the blade slid into the Death Eater-pawn, it seemed to burst into flames, and the elder Goyle dove forward into the sword, undone by the force of his attack. By the time his stomach touched the hilt, he was little more than a human-shaped cinder.

The Gryffindor jerked the blade out, stunned by his own actions, and the charred husk fell heavily to the ground in front of him. He took a step back, unable to leave the confines of his square. The untarnished blade of the sword shone brilliant in the star light and the teen tried to avert his eyes, but could only look upwards. The fearsome constellations he'd seen before now wheeled and writhed above them, living things that hissed and snarled down at the heedless people on the board.

He swayed on his feet at the immensity of the sky and a cool hand touched his wrist, grounding him. Draco had stepped into his square.

Their eyes met and Harry tried to think of something to say, but he could not.

Draco smirked, an expression that was both easy arrogance and casual, tentative friendship. "When you reach the eighth square, you'll be a Queen."

Then a flash of green light hit them, sending them both tumbling to the ground, and the last thing Harry felt was the hard press of a body and the comforting familiarity of soft, dark robes.

"I've got you."

Then he felt nothing at all.


o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"Is everything in motion?"

Kingsley nodded in the fireplace. "I've sent the lot over to one of our people in the Department of Family Affairs. Hopefully, it will all be done by the New Year."

Albus closed his eyes wearily. "Good. This has proceeded much more smoothly than I'd hoped."

"Fudge will never know what hit him," the Auror concurred with an uncharacteristically satisfied smirk.

"Once Harry is out of harm's way, we can move onto other projects." The Headmaster ate another peppermint, crunching the hard candy distractedly. "Have you been gathering what you need?"

"Yes, Albus. It will be the best birthday present Arthur's ever had."

"Do whatever you need to do—within reason, of course. Alastor and Nymphadora are at your disposal as well."

The disembodied head in the fireplace nodded again. "I've also been putting in a few words here and there about young Mr. Weasley. If he can keep up his grades, the program may yet accept him."

Albus smiled, the first genuine smile Kingsley had seen since the call began. "Excellent. I know he was very disappointed when he only received an Acceptable in Potions. Is there anything more?"

For a moment the younger man frowned as though considering something. Then he looked back up at his old friend from the flames. "When will you tell Harry? You know you can't keep this a secret forever."

"I will tell him as soon as I can be assured that it is a possibility. He will not protest, I think. There will be a bit of noise once it's made public, but that will no doubt fade soon enough. Given these dark times, the world has bigger things to worry about."

Kingsley did not look convinced. "Albus, given these dark times, I doubt the world has anything bigger to worry about than Harry Potter."

The Headmaster smiled faintly. "Too true, old friend. But I will worry about the world. For now, just take care of your small part of it."

A snort of laughter was his only reply as the Auror's head vanished from the flames. Albus straightened slowly and went back to his desk to finish the budget and prepare for his next appointment. He did not even notice how hard he was working to avoid looking at the clock where Harry's hand was set on 'Somewhere I Don't Belong' and the word 'Prepared' was inscribed along its length.


o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Harry woke up alone, but he was somehow unsurprised. He felt different. Better. Tired, but better. He felt . . . determined.

He knew that Severus was going to fight this once again in that vicious, half-hearted way of his. And he also knew that he wasn't going to allow it. Not this time. No matter what happened, he would not be chased away. He was sick to death of this stilted obsession. Either it went somewhere, or he gave it up entirely. Something had to give.

He lay with his eyes closed for several minutes listening to the fire crackle and the tick of a clock, before opening his eyes to stare blurrily at the world. He was laying on a couch, still naked and covered with a thick comforter. The dark fabric of the couch and the blanket blended into a navy blue blur. A fire danced merrily in the enormous hearth several feet away. There was a low sitting room table between him and fireplace and on it sat his new glasses. He could see the flames dance and flicker through his lenses.

The boy reached out a careful arm, still unwilling to leave his comfy position on the couch, and was surprised to find the air pleasantly warm against his skin. He snagged the spectacles from the table and pushed himself upright, swaddling the enormous blanket around him. It smelled like Severus.

He settled his glasses on his nose and blinked as the world was brought into painfully sharp focus once more. These were much better than his old pair. On the table in front of him he could now see his clothing, neatly folded in a pile, with a note and his wand resting atop them. He leaned forward to retrieve the slip of paper. As he moved about, the torches on the wall suddenly flared to life, illuminating the room with sharp clarity. The moment his fingers touched the parchment, words appeared:

I've gone to see the Headmaster. Be thankful it is Sunday, you lazy thing, because you've slept right through breakfast. See the House Elves about a bite to eat at the kitchens; I would tell you the way, but I rather think it would be a moot point. Try not to get into anymore trouble today, Mr. Potter. Any probing into your current whereabouts could become rather inconvenient rather quickly.

The boy smiled despite himself and stood to get dressed. His skin had the tight, tingly feel of more cleaning spells than had been necessary and he dressed hurriedly. It didn't take long, though: he'd not been wearing very much last night. He was not so much rushed to get dressed as he was rushed not be naked. Harry could think of only so many reasons why Severus would go see Dumbledore after what happened over the past few days, and none of them were good. Once he was back in his pants and robe, he stood, keeping the blanket wrapped tight around him, and looked around the chamber curiously.

He'd been a bit too distracted last night to notice anything, but now not even his own precarious position could fully restrain his curiosity. The sitting room was a large rectangular chamber made of large, gray stone. Directly in front of him, the fire extended a bit into the room, away from the bookshelf lined walls. Enormous, seemingly ancient books were crammed into every inch of the shelves stacked in various strange ways to make room for even more volumes. What little free space there was on the shelves was cluttered with strange wizarding knickknacks, ornately shaped potions vials of glass, wood and metal, and liquid filled jars of varying shapes and sizes, all with something obscure and unpleasant looking in them.

The floor was made of the same stone as the walls and large, plushy carpets of forest green and dark blue were cast about. One was in front of the door to the chambers to his left, one was beneath the sitting area, another was beneath the immense oak desk in the area to his right and a fourth was behind the sitting area, in front of the two large doors that seemed to be that area's only real asset. There were two big cushy-looking arm chairs on either side of the sitting area, each with a small table that matched the table in front him. The one to his left looked well used, but the one to the right didn't seem to have had frequent occupants. Their fabric matched the black/navy blue of the couch.

The area by the door was dull. Only a small table stood beside it to the right, and to the left rose another set of the high shelves. The desk on the other hand was an organized chaos of potions vials, herbs, loads of scrolls and papers, quills, inkwells, something that looked disturbingly like a dried and cured human hand, and various other sundry looking items. Harry also noticed his glasses—his old glasses that he'd been told were lost—sitting atop a pile of scrolls. He decided to leave them there. He liked his new ones better anyway. There was a doorway on the other side of the desk, but it was black inside and he couldn't see where it led. In the corner next to the doorway, there was a rather out-of-place looking rocking chair made of some ancient, dark wood.

The wall behind him had three small, ordinary looking bookshelves—each with three shelves and all filled with what seemed to be compendiums of magazines and newspapers. There was one on either side of each door with the third bookcase set between the two. On top of one of them sat an issue of last year's Quibbler, the so-called "Harry Potter Edition," and his own picture blinked up at the ceiling in a strangely two dimensional way.

Harry shivered at the flat image of his face and returned to the couch before he gave into the urge to prowl around. Severus had trusted him a great deal in leaving him alone in his quarters. He had no doubt that the man was fully capable of waking him up and tossing him out on his ear after last night. That the cagey spy trusted him this much was touching and Harry refused to take advantage of the rare demonstration. He unwound the blanket and folded it carefully, setting it on the arm of the couch once he was done.

As they were in the dungeons, there were no windows. Really, Harry couldn't image why there would be windows here. Snape's office was near the entrance to the dungeons, just above ground. The windows there looked out onto the main gates that led to Hogsmead. As far as he could understand, this section of the dungeons was under the lake. There would have been nothing to see except the underbelly of the squid. Or maybe the occasional cavorting merfolk. Quite frankly, the idea of either made Harry wrinkle his nose. He hadn't been all that fond of merfolk since Fourth Year.

Unbidden, his mind went to Ron and he shivered at the sudden chill that moved through him. He just wanted to kick himself over what had happened last night. The things he'd said. He really hadn't meant to knock Hermione down, but they never stopped pushing . . .

"Do you have any idea how bloody hard we're trying? Any idea at all how hard it is to be Harry Potter's best friends?"

He sighed heavily and sat back into the soft cushions of the couch, staring at the flames. Ron was right, of course. He was being entirely unfair. And the Headmaster was right, too: they wouldn't let him push them away.

But they wanted to know about Draco, and Severus, and the Dursleys and a hundred other things he didn't want to—no, couldn't talk about.

They were his friends. His first friends. And he loved them like they were a part of him. He'd have to make this right somehow. Somehow. And he'd have to find a way to do it that would keep everyone involved safe.

Somehow.

The Gryffindor frowned in contemplation at the fire, unintentionally biting at his lower lip as he rolled the issue around in his head. He wanted things to be the way they were before. He just wondered how much they would demand before they forgave him his stupidity.

A familiar tingle suddenly made his hair stand on end and Harry stiffened slightly. "Dobby?"

The Elf instantly materialized with a 'crack,' blushing at having been caught spying. Harry frowned at him slightly and the little creature had the good grace to look utterly abashed.

"Harry Potter was not in his bed, sir. Dobby was worried. Winky was saying that she is seeing Harry Potter come visit Mr. Death Eater Professor Snape last night, so Dobby is coming to see."

Harry frowned darkly and a chill went through him. "Do you know if anyone else saw me? Did Winky tell anyone else?" If the Elf started gossiping, this could be an utter disaster . . .

But Dobby shook his head vigorously. "Oh, no, sir! Winky is being very, very fond of Mr. Professor Snape, sir! She is even crying less, sir. Hardly at all. And Winky is not touching the butterbeer once in over a week! Winky is deciding to be keeping his secrets and won't let any of the other Elves clean his quarters anymore." The bat-like ears on the Elf's head seemed to wilt a moment. "Though . . . most Elves is being to frightened to come here now because of Mr. Death Eater Professor Snape's temper, and he is locking us out quite often . . ." The elf slumped and tears started to form in his eyes at the memory.

The boy patted his friend on the shoulder to cheer him up and wondered what the professor could have possibly done to terrify the House Elves so much that they stopped cleaning. "Er . . ." He stared awkwardly at the servant, scrambling about for something calming to say. The last thing he felt like dealing with was a sobbing Dobby. "It's alright. I'm sure it's nothing personal."

The tiny creature let out an enormous sniffle.

"Come on, now. None of that. I'm not upset that you found me. Thank you for looking for me. You really are a good friend."

That did it. The sorrow on the Elf's face immediately transformed into a look of pure joy and he beamed at the human. "Harry Potter is so kind!" Dobby latched onto Harry's leg, hugging him tight. "Harry Potter is missing breakfast! Would he be liking something?" Enormous, tennis ball-shaped eyes sparkled up at him, practically glowing at the thought of being useful.

Harry considered trying to shake the Elf off him, but figured that that would be either insulting to Dobby, impossible, or both. So instead, he smiled down at the Elf and wracked his brain for breakfast foods. "Um . . . May I have fried eggs, bacon, toast with jam and butter, pumpkin juice, fried potatoes, and some tea? And tea, fried eggs, fried tomatoes, black pudding, and toast and marmalade for Sev—er . . . the professor."

Dobby nodded happily, ears flopping back and forth with the motion. "Yes sir!"

Harry couldn't help but smile and he patted the Elf's head affectionately. "Is twenty minutes alright?"

The House Elf released him and seemed to bounce back a step. He paused suddenly and gave Harry a sly look that the Gryffindor remembered all too well from Aunt Petunia's kitchen. "Dobby is very happy to be seeing Master Harry Potter happy again. Dobby was sad when Harry Potter was sad." The creature smiled slightly, and Harry suddenly felt uneasy. "Dobby will be keeping Harry Potter's secrets, but if Mr. Death Eater Professor Snape is making Harry Potter unhappy again, Dobby will have to be protecting Harry Potter again, sir. It is for Harry Potter's own good, sir."

Harry's jaw dropped and the Elf vanished with a crack before he could respond.

The teen leapt to his feet in protest. "Dobby!"

But the Elf did not return.

For a moment, Harry remained standing, feeling distinctly uneasy about the prospect of Dobby "protecting" him from Professor Snape. It didn't help that a part of him wondered if he didn't genuinely need the protection from Severus . . .

The young man scowled and dropped back onto the couch. Dobby would be fine. He couldn't actually hurt the Professor, and—if what he said about Winky was true—he doubted the overly emotional female Elf would allow any harm to befall the Potions Master. . . . Though, in his experience, House Elf logic and ideas about what constituted harm were shaky at best.

Harry shrugged off the thought with a frown and eyed the blanket on the arm of the couch again. He was starting to feel antsy . . . itching for something to do. Besides, the fold really had been shoddy the first time—not nearly as even as it should have been. He stood, grabbed the blanket and began folding it again more neatly. As he brought two of the corners together, he realized that the chair to his right was the one he and Severus had sat in last night. His face flushed brilliant red at the memory and he quickly banished it. The last thing he needed was to get into an argument with Severus while half his blood was flowing southward. He looked away from the chair and finished folding the blanket, humming to keep away memories of Severus whispering the word 'fuck' in his ear.

When the blanket had been yet again reduced to a neatly folded rectangle, Harry sat stiffly on the chair and Occlouded his mind, falling into a light medative state as he waited for Severus to return. It did not seem like a long time had passed when he heard the doorknob rattle slightly. He turned expectantly as the door opened.

Severus entered with a dramatic swirl of his robes and drew himself up short when he caught sight of Harry still sitting on the couch. The door slammed shut loudly. Harry looked back at him curiously and for a moment the two merely stared at one another in silence. To his credit, the man did not look surprised, or even displeased to see the object of his indiscretions perched on the edge of his sofa. Nor did he look pleased.

The expression in his eyes was dark and measuring, as though he were trying to come to some sort of decision. Harry simply waited.

At length, Snape moved again, walking slowly (for him) across the room to stand next to the fire. He watched the flames for a moment and then turned to look at the Gryffindor. "You stayed." His voice was without inflection.

Harry sat back against the thick cushions. "It wasn't the kind of thing one should leave after." He wondered briefly what would have happened if he had left, but brushed the thought aside almost immediately. He hadn't left. He wouldn't leave. Not this time.

"It?" the man repeated tonelessly. "No. I don't suppose 'it' was."

Harry felt his lips thin slightly. "You're still feeling guilty about this?"

For a moment the man's eyes narrowed and something indecipherable danced over his face. Then he looked away, choosing instead to stare at the wall behind Harry. "I am guilty of not feeling guilty enough to stop wanting this." He said the words carefully, as though they would break if he put it in any other terms.

"You didn't take me. I mean, we didn't really have s—"

"I wanted to," Snape hissed uncomfortably. He did that curious twisting motion he always seemed to do when faced with something he didn't want to discuss. "I want to." He looked back up, easily ensnaring the boy with his eyes. "You have no idea how close you came last night—"

Harry shook his head, breaking eye contact. "You wouldn't have done something like that to me if I didn't want it."

"You sound so sure of yourself, Mr. Potter."

Harry smiled tentatively. "Gryffindor."

"Fool." The word was said without rancor.

Harry looked away, smile fading despite his best efforts. The fire popped loudly. "I've ordered breakfast from Dobby. For both of us. I got you fried eggs, fried tomatoes, black pudding, and toast and marmalade."

Snape watched him with fathomlessly dark eyes. "Rather presumptuous of you, wasn't it?"

"You have it every Sunday for breakfast." When the man's gaze narrowed, Harry shrugged uncomfortably. "I've seen you. At breakfast, I mean."

Finally, the Potions Master looked away, brooding at the fire once more. "I don't know what you like to eat." The words were a whisper.

When it became clear that he had nothing else to say, Harry stood and forced himself to walk over to the fire. He stood on the opposite side of the mantel from Snape and stared down at the flames, relishing the heat through his thin robes. After a moment, he spoke in a quiet, pensive tone. "Most anything, really. Beggars can't be choosers and all. But I really like Cornish pasties and fried bacon. I hate Bubble and Squeak." He made a face at the fire.

Severus turned and watched his companion for a moment in silence. "I've always been partial to raspberry scones, myself."

Harry looked up, eyes devoid of humor. "What do you want, Severus?"

". . . I do not know."

"Well, I know what I want. And I am not going to wait forever for you to figure it out."

The man stiffened and turned his back to Harry and the flames, a tight, strained expression on his face. "Then leave. You are not bound to me. I will not stop you." He shuddered, though if it was because of the sudden chill that had swept through him, or the feel of those green eyes burning into his back, he wasn't sure. "Leave."

Harry remained by the mantle, staring at the man's back. "You know what really gets me the most about all of this? You can't even see what's happening to me."

The shudder that moved through Severus was more pronounced this time. "I told you to leave."

"I'm waiting for my breakfast," the boy snapped in response. He pushed himself off the mantel and stalked towards Snape. "Are you even listening to me? You are all I think of. I want—"

Severus whirled, his robes flaring out around him and snarled at his unwelcome house guest. He flowed across the room, his mere presence forcing the boy back a step. "Want? Want! Always on about what you want! You don't know what you want, Mr. Potter! You. Are. A. Child."

"You sure as hell didn't seem to think so last night!"

Snape blanched.

Harry paled and bit his lower lip.

"Get out."

"No."

A muscle in the Potions Master's jaw jumped and he squeezed his hands into tight fists and slowly lowered his head to stare at the ground. His entire body appeared to be trembling. "Mr. Potter. Leave. Now."

Harry planted both his feet firmly on the ground, determination etched into every line of his body. "No."

Severus moved so fast that the act seemed nothing more than a frantic flash of light and shadows. Then, quite abruptly, Harry found himself pressed back against the wall of the mantel, head ringing with the force of impact, and feet dangling a good foot or so off the ground as the tall man held him up, one stained hand wrapped tightly around his throat. The boy instantly panicked, kicking out futilely with his feet and scratching desperately at the iron grip cutting off his air as a series of choked gasps tore free of him. He could feel the blunt edges of the fingers cutting into his flesh and bruising him.

Snape smirked at his captive's struggles, a cruel smile distorting his already graceless features, and a spark of something almost mad shone in his eyes. Harry's robes had fallen open and Severus ran his free hand down the Gryffindor's thin chest and slipped it easily into the flimsy pajama pants to caress bare flesh. He leaned forward until their noses were almost touching, still choking the youth with one hand and slowly rubbing his other hand up and down Harry's penis. "Is this what you want? This is who I am Potter, what I am. You have no clue—"

The flailing ceased as he was fondled and the hand holding Snape's wrist tightened, cutting the man's tirade off. Harry glared at him with a look that bordered on hatred, his pupils dilated wide as the flush in his face turned a purplish blue. A pink tongue darted out over swollen lips. "I walked out on the two most important things in my life last night just to be with you," he rasped. "You are all I want."

Severus froze, wild eyes locked on Harry's bloodshot green gaze, and he withdrew his hand. Then, slowly—ever so slowly—his fingers opened stiffly. They moved like broken bits of wood, as though he wasn't controlling them at all, and Harry's throat slipped out of them with the ease of water. The boy slid straight down the wall into a heap and stared up at Severus. There was no anger on his face, simply a look of frustration. And pain.

"Why?" he asked as he stared up at his teacher. His voice was scratchy. "Why do I want you of all people? You're such a pedantic arse. Why you?"

The helpless frustration in the boy's voice was too much and Severus's eyes fluttered shut as bile rose in his throat. He turned away and his legs gave way beneath him, sending him crumpling to the floor in a heap beside his would-be suitor. He trembled, hiding his face in his hands as he knelt before the boy, and Harry watched him for a moment with hard eyes.

They were only inches apart, yet neither reached out to the other.

The Gryffindor stared at the man's obvious suffering for a moment in silence. When he spoke, his voice was weary and troubled. "Why do you touch me if you don't want me?"

"Because I do want you, you imbecile," Severus rasped into the soft fabric of the rug.

The fire crackled loudly. Neither of them seemed to notice that their food had arrived, and neither of them moved as the carefully prepared meal went cold.


o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

A week passed.

Classes resumed, Severus was summoned to a fruitless meeting for no apparent reason, and Harry watched him writhe under Crucius in a dream. He woke up in the Hospital Wing screaming Snape's name. Dumbledore was strangely silent on the issue.

Everything felt gelled to Harry, as though he was more of a bystander than a player in the events surrounding him. On Tuesday he went to have tea with the Headmaster and they actually had tea. With a minimal amount of encouragement from Harry, Dumbledore regaled the teen with tales of his youth and stories of the days before Grindelwald. There was no Occlumency lesson.

"My friend," the Headmaster had explained, "is indisposed this week, so your lessons will be on hold until after Christmas break. Unless, of course, there is a problem."

Harry was grateful for the reprieve and did not question it. He did, however, make sure to practice his Occlumency every night before bed. He even took to practicing in the mornings when he woke up. It seemed to center him—clear his head. At any rate, the only visions Harry seemed to be having were of the meetings Severus was summoned to, and those only seemed to be torture sessions.

It was also beginning to look as though visions were the only time he'd see Severus. Kettleburn was still teaching Potions' class because, according to Dumbledore, Snape was using the time to council each of the Slytherins separately. Personally, the Gryffindor thought that the man was just avoiding him. Part of him was furious at the behavior, but he honestly hadn't expected anything less. The professor would happily stand in front of a dozen Avada Kedavras for "the cause," but the moment Harry tried to catch his eye, the man vanished faster than Peeves after setting off a dung bomb in Filch's office.

However, on more than one level, the reprieve was something of a blessing. He was still reeling from what had happened in the man's quarters on Sunday. He'd left the Potions Master a crumpled heap on the floor and staggered back to the Tower without breakfast. Thank Merlin the man had had the foresight to return his invisibility cloak. As it was, only Ron had seen him reappear in the dorms, and the youngest Weasley son merely breezed by him with a flat, knowing look.

Between Snape, Malfoy, and Ron and Hermione, Harry was nearly beside himself. He was torn between wanting to tell the world to bugger off, wanting to hide in his trunk, and wanted to just go out and kill Voldemort (or be killed) and get it all over with. Unfortunately, none of those were viable options, so all he could do was grit his teeth and avoid everyone's eyes—especially the Slytherins. If he had had to deal with Snape on top of everything else, he might very well have broken down.

It was bad enough to have to walk into the Great Hall and see the heavy, dreary black banners that marked a death in the school. In the Wizarding World, mourning lasted for forty-five days and nights. Though Harry couldn't seem to mourn properly, he had the sinking feeling that, like his grief over Cedric and Sirius, the curious hollowness Draco had left in his wake would never really fade, no matter how many days and nights passed. He felt guilty for losing Cedric, Sirius, and Draco in the shuffle, and so tried not to think about them at all. Avery and Goyle were consigned to a small, dark place inside him that he did not think about at all. He knew he'd have to kill people someday, and he didn't feel any solid emotion he could grapple with regarding them, so they were simply locked somewhere quiet. It was a surprisingly easy thing to do when he felt so numbed and simultaneously over and under whelmed.

Avoiding thinking of so many things, however, gave him only one issue to brood on: his relationship—or rather, lack thereof—with Ron and Hermione. For nine days Ron and Hermione didn't speak to him and every time he thought about approaching them, he got a heavy lump in his throat. By the time Monday rolled around again, he was sick of it. He cornered them in the dorms after Transfiguration class, standing directly in front of Common Room door so that couldn't pass.

Ron glared at him and Hermione avoided his eyes.

For a moment the Trio stood in strained silence, ignoring the First and Second Years who stared at them in obvious interest. The tension between the three, coupled with the strain of Malfoy's death had cast a heavy blanket over Gryffindor Tower that no one seemed to be able to shake. Even the other upperclassmen had taken to avoiding Ron, Hermione, and Harry.

Without acknowledging the ears straining to hear him, Harry forced himself to look at the two people who'd been at the epicenter of his life at Hogwarts. He pressed his lips together and exhaled heavily. "We need to talk."

Hermione moved first, acknowledging his quiet request with a nod of her head before Ron could refuse him. When she met his eyes, he flinched at the unspoken censure there. He'd never meant to hurt them with his silence.

Ron set his jaw into a hard line, barely broken by the faint stubble that Harry had failed to notice the other boy growing. "The dorm." His voice was flat.

Harry didn't even bother to hide his sigh of relief and nodded.

The other Gryffindors' eyes followed the group as they headed towards, and then up, the stairs to the boys' dormitory in a tense silence. No one called out to them as they passed. Ron opened the door and stepped inside, holding the door for Hermione and Harry. Thankfully, the room was empty. Without consulting one another, they all went to Harry's bed.

In lieu of the real thing, Harry had taken to sleeping with Severus's cloak at night and it lay in a rumpled heap on the foot of his otherwise neat blankets. Ron picked up the cloak in his right hand and stared at it expressionlessly. Hermione clambered up onto the high bed and tucked her legs beneath her, neatly arranging the pleats of her skirt. Harry swallowed hard and watched the other boy stare at the cloak, dread coiling in his stomach.

After a moment, Ron looked up from the cloak and met Harry's surprisingly steady gaze. He handed the shorter boy the cloak. "I don't want any secrets between us," the redhead said as he relinquished the dark material.

Harry suddenly looked away, unable to meet his eyes. He plopped down on the bed, up towards the pillows and wrapped the cloak around him as though cold. "I don't want that either, but things are so different now. . ." He wanted it to be like First Year again, but he couldn't say that. He reclined against the pillows as Ron sat down and leaned back against one of the thick wooden posts. "It's not only my life—my secret—at stake. I don't want to see anyone else hurt because of me."

Hermione frowned at him unhappily, her hazel eyes suspiciously bright. "Then trust us."

Harry's lips parted and he looked at her for a long moment. Then his mouth closed and his eyes dropped to the now rumpled red coverlet before drifting up to Ron. It was the Weasley's blue eyes that centered him: blue as ice, but without a hint of cold—simply . . . expectation. Waiting.

And supportive.

He swallowed around a cause-less obstruction in his throat and hunched back into his cloak.

These people were his friends. They had followed him into blood and uncertainty. They had stood beside him when the whole world though he was mad. They tolerated his stony silences, his fits of temper, and his constant disregard for their advice. They tolerated him. Full stop. Being the Boy Who Lived didn't stop that, and being gay didn't stop that, and feeling as though his entire body had been turned inside out hadn't stopped that. No matter what he did or said or felt, nothing shattered or bent within these people.

They were his friends.

Harry swallowed again, with only a bit less difficulty, and cleared his throat. The next time he opened his mouth, he told them. He told them nearly everything.

He told them about Draco. Without the advantage of a Veritaserum buffer, the words were stilted and occasionally he felt his eyes burn fiercely, but his voice never once cracked. Somehow, that counted as a victory of some sort, right? He told them about Mary and Goyle and Avery and the night in the woods. He told them about the funeral and the awful hollowness in Narcissa Malfoy's eyes. He told them about his dreams of Voldemort and about the Prophecy. He told them about the silence between him and Remus.

He didn't mention the Dursleys at all, nor did he speak about the week he and Snape spent alone at Headquarters. In fact, Snape's name was mentioned very few times, and then only in passing. As much as he wanted to share that with them, he knew he couldn't. Somehow, wanking off with one's teacher just wasn't something that should be discussed . . . especially since he would have to tell them about what happened the next day. He wasn't ready to face that yet. He didn't want to deal with the memory of Snape's hand 'round his throat.

To their credit, Ron and Hermione listened in silence, though the youngest Weasley son's face was pale and his ears were bright red by the end. Hermione had tears in her eyes, but restrained herself admirably from flinging herself at Harry.

It was Ron who moved first, shifting about on the bed with a scowl, before turning those pale blue eyes back to his best friend. "What happens now?"

Harry shrugged, unsure whether Ron meant them, or the entire situation. He wrapped the black cloak tighter about his body, taking comfort in the soft familiarity and faintly chemical scent.

"You can't protect us forever," the redhead said after a moment of silence. He looked away, plainly frustrated.

Hermione watched the two of them carefully for a moment before scrubbing her eyes to rid them of excess moisture. "We'll help you."

It was a statement—a decision.

Harry looked at her for a moment and then nodded in acquiescence, feeling somewhat better. This was not a fight he'd win any time soon, he knew. And it wasn't one he particularly wanted to win.

Ron reached out and tugged lightly on the black cloak and Harry tensed noticeably. The other boy merely offered him a wan little smile and said, "Snape's cloaks look just like this, you know."

The sheer subtly of the question caught Harry off guard. He had expected demands—rants—not . . . that. When had Ron learned subtly?

They looked at one another and the weight of the statement seemed stifling. Then Harry nodded and pursed his lips in sudden decision. "I rather like them." The words sounded forced and, though he had been going for noncommittal, his tone came out as pleading.

Ron's jaw tightened and darkness danced briefly over his features, but he only nodded and sat back. Hesitantly, Harry looked over to Hermione. Her mouth was set in a tight line of disapproval and her face looked pinched, but she didn't say anything either.

They were all quiet and tense for a long moment before Harry, still ensconced in the robe, looked back to Ron. "He said yes."

Hermione started. "Who?"

"Dumbledore." Harry cleared his throat unnecessarily. "He said—he said that we could probably do the D.A. again, but he wants all the Heads of House to approve it. He said they'd talk about it at the next staff meeting and that one professor would be assigned to supervise. And that we'd have to change the name."

"Defensive Academics," the bushy-haired prefect responded in a heartbeat.

Ron shot his girlfriend a sharp look. "Been sitting on that one for a while?"

The girl blushed and glared simultaneously and Harry could help but smile.

Ron grinned when he caught sight of the expression on the Seekers face. "It'll be alright in the end, you know?"

Harry felt his smile widen of its own accord. "I know." And for the first time since Fourth Year, he rather believed that was true.

Hermione smiled shifted on the bed so that she was leaning closer to the boys. "So let's talk lesson plans."

The other two groaned in unison. Harry didn't even notice that the cloak had fallen off of his shoulders.

The next few days became a whirlwind of activity for Harry. There was Quidditch and even more studying than he'd been doing before, and tea and more stories with Dumbledore, and class work, and a hundred other things he seemed to have been missing all term. It was a strange thing to simply stop going through the motions and to suddenly begin to live again. But Ron and Hermione were there and the minute a sulk seemed imminent, there was something new to do or discuss or a new Weasley Wizard Whiz just out of the laboratory. And there were letters, too . . . letters from the Weasleys and from Dumbledore—notes to see if he was okay.

It was Technicolor and unbelievably real. For the first time all year, he had fun.

But he did not forget—not for an instant.

Sometimes he thought of Draco or Sirius or Cedric, and sometimes even the Dursleys snuck in there, but more often than not, he thought of Severus. How the man looked when he was angry. How he looked when he was aroused. How he looked when he was grieving. How he looked when he was under Cruciatus. How he looked when he had been worrying those rosary beads like they were the last things on earth. How he looked just before they kissed. How he looked just before he pushed Harry away.

He'd become important to him somehow. Severus Snape . . . was an important person to him. Snape had taught Harry the meaning of 'burning gaze'—a look so intense, it was physically scalding. Sometimes, Harry thought that he might like to teach Snape something too.

It was strange. If anyone had said a year ago that he'd be attracted to his greasy, cruel Potions Master, he'd have fallen over laughing . . . If he hadn't hexed the bastard right then and there. Now, though, it seemed funny that he hadn't been drawn to the man before.

Snape was not handsome, no matter how one looked at him. His skin had a faint jaundiced look, like candle wax; his hair was as greasy as it appeared; his teeth were a bit crooked and slightly yellowed, like aging parchment; his nose was too big and had distinctive hook to it where it had obviously been broken once too often. He was arrogant, smarmy, and could be downright boorish when it suited him. The man was just flat out unpleasant.

But somehow that didn't deter Harry in the least, because Snape was brave and fierce and brilliant, and the way he touched Harry was enough to turn the Gryffindor into butter. Severus's touches and caresses were claims and brands and each one seemed to burn the Potions Master deeper and deeper into his thoughts. He knew without knowing that Severus was fiercely and wildly jealous and that, once he claimed something as his, he would never willingly relinquish it. Strange and harsh as his ultimatum to the other man had sounded, he knew perfectly well that Snape wouldn't let him go now. Odd as it seemed, he had already won the fight.

And—for reasons that he didn't even want to consider—he rather liked the idea of being owned in that singular sort of way of Severus's. Every time the man touched him, Severus owned him. That, he felt, was something that he could become accustomed to.

The only thing he was waiting on was for Snape to figure that out.

But he could be patient, if only for this one little thing. Hogwarts was a hard place to hide—even for someone as good as Severus Snape. And ultimately, Ron had been right: somehow everything would be alright in the end. He didn't know how he knew that, but he did. He was as sure of it as he was that Snape would be back before very long. Severus was not an unselfish man, after all.

And so life, however arbitrary it may have been, continued . . . without Draco Malfoy.


o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"You have sacrificed more than anyone could have possibly asked, Madame." There was no hint of a twinkle in Albus's eyes as he spoke and the somber expression made him seem even older than usual. "I must ask you: are you certain this is what you desire? You know the risks you take—better than most of your predecessors, I'd wager."

Narcissa met his eyes evenly and was fiercely proud that she could maintain her composure without breaking down into tears or having a fit of passion. Or perhaps she had simply exhausted herself. Tears and passion, Lucius had always said, belonged behind closed doors. A Malfoy was always congenial and composed. She was a Malfoy.

The woman took a fortifying sip of tea, ignoring the throb in her left arm with the motion. "I have never been one to leap blindly into the void," she murmured to the lip of her teacup.

The Headmaster sighed quietly. "True, but there would have been other ways, my dear. Your actions, though well intentioned, have been rash, and—"

"My actions are my own," the matriarch interrupted calmly. "I accepted the Mark freely. I do not regret it. If you can find no use for me, then I shall look elsewhere. Such services are always in demand. You are not his only opponent." She set the teacup on the edge of the table and stood, her black skirts rustling as she prepared to go.

"I do not trust you."

The words were said so quietly that the fire seemed to cover them. Narcissa froze, hand paused in mid air where she'd been reaching for her shift. She dropped her chin and turned slightly, the action making her eyes look incredibly large and beguiling. The Headmaster was not affected.

"What have I done to warrant such hesitance?" There was no offense or anger in her voice, merely cool, clinical curiosity.

Albus smiled slightly at the question, a look of indulgence. "What have you done to prove anything to the contrary?"

Silk gloved hands smoothed down the front of her skirts as Narcissa watched the headmaster with flat, guarded eyes. "Guilty until proven innocent, then? I do not require your sponsorship so much that I need to play that game."

"But you admit that you require it?" he asked her with keen eyes.

"I would not be here if I did not!" she snapped suddenly. The flash of anger vanished just as quickly as it had come, though, and the icy blonde sniffed as though dismissing the moment and looked away. Her eyes stared distantly at a landscape painting for a moment as she collected herself. "I have a vested interest in seeing the Dark Lord's fall, Headmaster."

She moved to study the painting more closely, skirts whispering around her. "He has taken everything from me. My son. My husband." A hard pain shot up the bridge of her nose and ever so slowly, the painting blurred as tears formed lightly in her eyes. She blinked them back. "Stolen from me. Sacrificed to his hubris." She turned, unable to fully hold back the manic look in her eyes. "I can do this, Headmaster. I must do this."

Albus took a slow, measured sip of tea. "Why come to me then?"

The woman smiled faintly, a humorless expression, and he voice was low and steady. "I have blood on my hands. I bear the collective sins of the Malfoy House. Before this is all over, these things will come to light, and I will be brought to task for the transgressions of my husband and son. You and I both know that people are slow to act and quick to blame. When Harry Potter destroys Voldemort, the Malfoy name will be brought into question. It is time to atone for our past mistakes."

"And you do not believe that the blood already shed is enough to atone for whatever you may need me to sweep under the proverbial carpet?" He sounded genuinely curious.

The Lady sneered. "Blood binds, it does not free. I am bound by blood."

The Headmaster nodded in acknowledgement. "Perhaps." There was a strangely loud click as he set the teacup and saucer down on the table. "But to whom? And for what purpose?"

Slender hands clenched into fists and a stricken expression flashed across his companion's face. "For what is owed to me!" Narcissa cried in frustration. "For the husband I lost and the son who died for my sake! For the man who orchestrated their downfalls! For the Mark I accepted because I would have eventually been killed otherwise! And even for the heartless Headmaster who slept while my child breathed his last! For that purpose, Professor!" At the end her voice cracked and she could feel a single, hot, treacherous tear sliding down her cheek. Frustrated by her own lack of control, she turned and dashed the wetness away with a gloved hand.

Pain radiated through her, an aching hollowness that had nothing to do with her left arm, and left her feeling utterly shattered inside.

The Headmaster remained silent.

"For what is owed to me," she whispered harshly to the wall.

Albus shifted in his chair, watching the woman's bent form with sad eyes. "Ah. So you believe I owe you this?"

Narcissa slowly turned her head and looked at him with an unfathomable expression. "I believe that I am a woman alone who is trying to stand up for her life. I believe that I have nothing left to offer in this little game of yours except myself. I believe that this war must end and I owe my child the courtesy of helping that end come about. And I believe that regardless of this Mark or your sufferance, I will not survive this, so everything else is negligible. What more do I have to give? Or to lose?"

"Yourself."

Exhausted, grief-stricken blue eyes met infinitely sad ones and Narcissa smiled once more. The expression twisted her pained face unnaturally and was somehow ghoulish. "I am gone. He knows about your little snake in Snape's clothes, Headmaster. How long do you think Severus can keep this up? How long will you allow him to?"

Behind his beard, Albus's lips thinned into a firm, unhappy line. "Lucius?"

"My husband and I did not always agree about everything, but we did share everything. Even such delicate information."

"And how do you know that I will not betray you, Mrs. Malfoy," the elderly man asked bluntly. "You are only of use to me as long are useful to me. Is this truly a void you wish to test?"

She swallowed heavily. "It is all I have, Headmaster. Surely even you can understand something as primal as revenge." Her eyes narrowed darkly. "Something as Slytherin."

"Human," he corrected, tugging idly at his beard.

The two of them stared one another in the eye for a long, long moment. Finally Albus nodded once, a grim expression on his face, and stood. He extended his aged hand to Narcissa, prompting her to come closer. Her hands were small, soft, and surprisingly warm within their black silk confines.

The Headmaster's eyes were dark and hard as they shook. "Welcome to the Order of the Phoenix, Lady Malfoy."

Something inside of Narcissa clenched and coiled at the words, a heaviness settling deep within her. She set her jaw and nodded firmly, ignoring the aching pain in her arm. "Thank you, Headmaster." The gratefulness in her voice was genuine.

It was done.

She felt her strength leave her and almost collapsed back into her chair, exhausted. She distantly heard the Headmaster call her name, but made no effort to fight her exhaustion.

It was done.

It was truly done.

And they are all going to pay.


o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Birthdays were a time to take stock of one's life—one's accomplishments. He was thirty-eight years old today . . . And what had he to show for it all?

His robes swirled about his ankles as he paced. A House Elf—the doting, sniveling creature Barty Crouch had left in his wake—was unobtrusively dusting off a bookcase. Occasionally, her immense red-brown eyes would flicker to the agitated human and she would frown unhappily, but thankfully she remained blessedly silent. Severus didn't quite know what he'd do if she had said something.

It had been sixteen days since Draco Malfoy had met his untimely end. Twelve days since he had held Harry Potter down in his lap and touched him in ways no one should be permitted to. Eleven days since Albus had damned them both to a lie they could not lead and he had subsequently driven the boy from his chambers. From his life.

How was it possible for the world to keep going when so much of it was falling apart?

He had told himself it was for the best. He had told himself that he could do this without this monstrosity of a relationship. He had told himself that this would work.

He had lied.

Severus pivoted on his heel, feeling a negligible thrill of satisfaction as his robes snapped behind him with an audible 'crack' and startled the Elf. Her duster knocked into one of his innumerable trinkets and there came the light tinkle of shattering glass, but he ignored it.

He found himself ignoring a lot of things lately. He ignored the Slytherins' silence regarding Draco. He ignored the swell of pity in the rest of the staff's eyes when they saw him. He ignored the returned letter of condolence he'd sent to Narcissa Malfoy. He ignored this intractable Elf that had waited on him hand and foot since he had opened his door to the sycophantic creatures again. He ignored the way Harry's eyes followed him everytime they saw one another. He ignored the dark looks Granger and Weasley shot him. He ignored the throbbing in his arm that he now knew was not the Dark Lord. He ignored Albus's heavy disapproval.

But he found himself unable to ignore his chair where they'd touched, or the boy's glasses on the mantel, or the dark swirl of jealousy he felt whenever that stupidly heart stopping smile was directed at anyone else.

He did not want Harry to smile at anyone else. And why was that half-blood Seamus Finnegan always hovering over the whelp anyway? It was enough to set his teeth on edge.

Abruptly he stopped, garnering another worried glance from the Elf.

Potter. It always—always—came back to a Potter. He should by all rights be furious with the brat . . . with himself . . . Instead he just felt hollow. Why did it feel this way?

"Master Snape, sir?"

Severus scowled and tuned to face the Elf, barely resisting the urge to cross his arms over his chest. "I am not your Master, Elf," he snarled.

She ignored the comment in favor of smoothing down the front of her pristine tea towel and looking abashedly at her large, bare Elf feet. "Winky is worried that Master Snape has been being upset, sir." Her voice was curiously melodious. "Winky is thinking that Master Snape, sir, might be happy if he is having his Harry Potter again."

Severus blanched. "What?"

Winky looked up at him beneath her thin lashes, both reserved and coy. "Winky is asking for Special Assignment, like Dobby. Winky is watching out for Master Snape now, sir. Winky is keeping Master Snape's secrets and his silences, sir. Dobby was being most put out with Master Snape for damaging Mister Harry Potter, so Winky is going to be with Master Snape now." She hesitated and watched him carefully. "Dobby . . . Dobby can be being a bad Elf sometimes, sir, but he is not mean and he is trying his best. And Dobby is Winky's friend, so Winky wants to be keeping him out of trouble."

The Potions Master clenched his jaw and glared fixedly at the Elf. If she said she was keeping his secrets, then she was keeping his secrets, but the only one with any authority over the Elves was the Headmaster, and he was getting damned tired of that old man constantly sticking his nose into his business. "How long have you been on 'Special Assignment,' Elf?"

"Since Master Snape is coming back from his Manor, sir."

The breath caught in his throat and he choked, turning away to bark out a painful cough. Fucking Albus Dumbeldore—

A glass of water appeared next to him with a 'pop,' hovering in the air as he struggled to catch his breath.

He turned away from the water, still doubled over in a coughing fit, and his chest rattled till it felt as though something tore inside him. Deep, gasping breaths were pulled into his lungs and shuddered through him as his eyes misted over.

Sodding Lord Albus bloody fucking Dumbledore! Bastard!

"Master—!"

"SHUT. UP," the human rasped, still choking and bent double.

The Elf watched him in silence for a moment as the man regained his breath and slowly righted himself. Her large, liquid eyes were curiously expressionless.

Severus took deep gulps of air. "Have you been spying on me?" he demanded without looking down at her.

"Winky is keeping Master Professor Snape's secrets, sir." The creature sounded affronted that he'd dared implied anything to the contrary. Perhaps she was—House Elf honor and mores were never something he'd paid close attention to.

He straightened his robes and resumed his stalking, almost running Winky over before she hastily moved.

"Winky is thinking that Master Professor Snape should be talking with Harry Potter, sir."

Severus shot her a look that was pure poison. "Mind your place, Elf! I do not need a servant's advice on my personal affairs."

The Elf sidestepped the man as he turned sharply on his heel to begin a new circuit of pacing.

"Master is surely wise," she agreed in a placating tone as she wrung the end of her tea towel in her spindly hands, "but sometimes he is not seeing the butterbeer for the foam."

Abruptly, Severus stopped, his robes whispering about his ankles with lost momentum, and he tightly pinched the bridge of his considerable nose and squeezed his eyes shut. "Merlin deliver me from my just comeuppance in the form of match-making Death Eater's House Elves."

Either she hadn't heard him, or she was ignoring him. Winky turned back to the table she'd been dusting and repaired the ornamental vial she'd broken with a wave of her hand. "Master is missing Harry Potter, but does he not wonder if Harry Potter is missing him?"

I miss you.

"Winky is knowing Harry Potter is missing him. Winky is hearing the things Dobby is saying. But maybe Harry Potter is not going to be happy always missing Master Professor Snape. Maybe Harry Potter will be finding people so that he does not have to miss Master Professor Snape so much."

Something dark and vicious coiled inside the Potions Master at the thought of Harry Potter "not missing him so much" anymore. Or worse: the thought of the boy "finding people."

But isn't that what he'd threatened? That he wouldn't wait forever.

He'd given Severus an ultimatum—one the older man was loathe to concede to . . . And one whose alternative he would not tolerate.

With every choice in his life currently pushing, pulling, and dragging him to the boy, who was he to blow against the wind? And these half-hearted struggles of his ultimately amounted to nothing anyway.

Could it really all be so simple?

Severus was a man who prided himself on control, and around Potter it seemed he had none. Not even the boy's father had the dubious honor of inspiring such emotion in him. Rage, fear, anxiety, lust, loathing, possession, attraction . . . All the shackles he thought time and circumstance had relieved him of had come crashing back into his life in the form of a lightening bolt scar, a firm, unyielding mouth, and impossibly green eyes. How was it that this one insignificant Gryffindor could so upend his reason and routine? And yet he did so . . . effortlessly.

How could Severus vent all of what he was on the slumped shoulders of that impossible brat? Whether it be anger or affection?

The Potions Master held few illusions about himself. He was not a nice, pleasant, or kind man. He was violent, both physically and emotionally. He was volcanic. He was snide and cruel. He was in no small measure sadistic. He would invariably hurt the boy. Regardless of whether or not the wounds were visible, it was inevitable.

"I will not accept any resignation from you at this time, Severus. Not in any form."

. . . And that was the crux of it, wasn't it? This . . . Hero . . . was his now. Handed over to him on a golden platter by the Great Lord Albus Dumbledore.

Kyrie eleison.

Or perhaps he was stolen . . . an apple from the Tree, devoured by the Serpent himself.

Severus stopped in front of the fire, arms crossed over his chest. He stared at the mantle where the glasses watched him with cracked, sightless lenses. He stared at the wall where he had tried to crush the boy's throat but could not close his hand. He stared at the floor where those horribly green eyes had glared at him in bruised accusation.

"Why do you touch me if you don't want me?"

He closed his eyes and turned his head away.

Et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus?

What was he to do now? Where were they to go?

Did Albus really believe that love would win the day? Was this even love?

No.

You have to break in half to love someone like that.

This was lust. Obsession. Need, desire, and possession. This was a craving the way a dehydrated man craves water or the insomniac cries out for sleep. This was not love.

Did it even matter?

The boy—young man—was his now, to save or dispose of as he chose.

To save.

He had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could not destroy this thing . . . Those fragile bones beneath his fingers would have given way so easily . . . And yet his hand would not close.

"Well, I know what I want. And I am not going to wait forever for you to figure it out."

I want—

I want—

What did he want? To claim this child? To bed him? To own him? To possess him? To devour him?

Yes.

And it would destroy them both.

And if he did not, they would both supposedly be destroyed.

A thin, stained hand covered Severus's mouth for a moment, and he closed his eyes slowly as though battling nausea.

Albus would not forgive him this debauchery. He did not vocally blame him, but he would never forgive him.

The professor's hand slid up from his mouth to massage his temples as he squeezed his eyes shut. He could not escape this—was not even sure he wanted to.

"I would sooner tear the veins from my own flesh one by one—it would amount to the same!"

"Master?"

The Elf's voice startled him and he jumped before leveling a vicious scowl at the creature. "What?"

"Your clock, Master."

Severus's eyes swiveled towards the mantel before he could stop himself. "I don't have—"

A clock. A garish, purple wizard's clock was sitting on his mantle. Next to it was a little slip of paper that read, "Happy Birthday, Severus!" in familiar, loopy letters. The clock had a single magenta hand that was pointing to where the 4 should have been; instead of a 4, though, the words "in a snit" were scrawled in brilliant green in the same handwriting.

If possible, the man's dark scowl hardened even further. The long fingers of his right hand twitched upwards, curling towards his wrist as though tempted to pull out his wand and hex the offensive gift.

Winky watched him with unabashed curiosity. "Sir?"

Abruptly, his fingers went slack and he stared blankly at the clock.

You had to break in half to love someone. He was not that much of a fool yet.

And yet . . . he just . . . wanted to see him. Just for a moment.

Severus closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I need some air." He straightened his shoulders and headed towards the door with long, ground-eating strides. "You are not to be here when I return."

"Yes, Master."

He slammed the door behind him, cutting off the Elf's last word.

The dungeons were quiet—no mischievous Slytherins playing about, no Gryffindors stirring up trouble, no Ravenclaws worried over assignments, or Hufflepuffs looking for their friends. Simply silence. It echoed inside him. Hogwarts had died with Draco Malfoy . . . just a little bit. He felt the hollowness within him, neighboring the dull ache of Harry Potter.

His footsteps guided him up the stairs and through the doors—a dozen sets of doors, each unremarkable and a bit grayer than they were before. Forty-five days of mourning. How was that enough to encompass a life? Minerva averted her eyes when he passed her and he did not care. He was tired of caring. And of thinking. And of being.

"Do this for the remembrance of me."

And then he was in font of the Forbidden Forest, headed towards Draco Malfoy's memorial. A bit of marble was not enough to encompass a life either. Nor were memories. But it had been a "nice" service—everyone had said so—and that would have to be enough for the part-veela, not-quite-heroic son of a Death Eater. The air was cold and whispered in the trees, somehow both thin and thick, and his robes felt far too hot.

He was tired.

However, it was not exhaustion, but surprise that made him stop short a few meters from the grave.

Because there, sitting in front of the raised plaque as though he somehow belonged there, was Harry Potter. The boy looked tired, but somehow less fragile than the last time he'd seen him. But then again, Severus had been trying very hard over the last few days not to see Harry Potter.

How predictable that the boy would be here waiting for him. How . . . blasé.

He must have moved or inhaled sharply, because the Gryffindor suddenly looked up, green eyes almost . . . normal looking behind the shiny, thin frames of his glasses. He looked up at the man without saying anything, still as a statue in front of the memorial.

For a moment they stared at one another as the cool November wind moved between them, filling up the void. Severus's hands balled into fists and he found himself unable to speak, the words trapped behind tightly clenched teeth. "Couldn't you even let me mourn in peace?" The words clogged his throat and constricted his breathing.

Harry looked away first. "I'm allowed to mourn, too, you know." He turned to look at the lonely little stone that rose in memorial to Draco Malfoy. He reached out and his fingers danced over the words carved into the stone. Friend, inspiration, hero.

The Boy Who Never Died's mouth twisted unpleasantly. How clumsy. How inaccurate.

Draco had died friendless. He had inspired no one, stood for nothing. He had died because he was a millisecond too slow. Because nobody had cared if he died. Because no one had listened to him—Harry least of all. He had died a silly, senseless death. He was not a hero at all.

Severus looked at the ground, feeling uncomfortable and intrusive. "I suppose you do," he said flatly in response to Harry's comment. He closed his eyes and tried to banish memories of what they had done from his mind. "Heaven forbid the world does not bow before the will of the Famous Harry Potter." The words were intentionally cruel, specifically designed to evoke a reaction.

But the boy disappointed him, neither flinching nor turning around to glare. In fact, he totally ignored Snape's presence.

The man snarled and took a step forward, intent on grabbing the boy, shaking him, dashing his head against the stone, anything. . . . Because it wasn't enough. Being here, seeing him everyday—seeing and never, ever touching—never acknowledging . . . It just wasn't enough. And it was better to kill Harry Potter than to never touch him again.

Harry released a low, bitter chuckle, his fingers still dancing over the stone. "You never bowed to my will. To this—"

"This is nothing, Potter! NOTHING!" Severus snarled. He grabbed the teenager by the forearm with bruising force and yanked him away from the memorial stone to his feet, shaking him roughly. Harry went limp, neither struggling nor protesting, instead simply staring up into his eyes with an unnervingly patient expression. "Just because we—I—made a foolish error—just because I lost control—"

The boy smiled abruptly and the expression was so sudden that Severus stopped again, the words once more unwilling to come. He was suddenly painfully aware of how close they stood, how warm Harry's body was pressed against him . . . the scent of him.

A small hand rose and cupped his cheek in a terrifyingly tender gesture and Harry leaned even closer, still smiling. "I make you lose control?"

Severus's grip on his arm went slack.

"I like that," Harry murmured as he leaned against the man.

The Potions Master's arms fell limp to his sides and he turned away. "I cannot do this."

"We already have. We already are."

"I cannot do this," the man repeated. But he did not move away.

"Why not?"

"This is wrong."

Harry looked up at him and he unwillingly found himself staring into those overly magnified green eyes. The boy frowned slightly. "Why is it so wrong?"

"You are—"

"I am not a child."

"An innocent."

Green eyes narrowed darkly for a moment and then Harry suddenly stepped away, bumping into the stone in his haste. The loss made Severus feel cold and he turned away, unable to meet that suddenly cold gaze. He swallowed heavily.

"You never asked," Harry said after a moment.

The wind blew and the grass bent heavily as though it was too weak to support itself. "Asked what?"

Harry raised his chin and tilted his head to the side slightly to the right so that he was looking down at his professor. "What happened at the Durselys'."

Severus's head swung up suddenly and he felt the air grow chill as the weight of the words settled around them. He stood up straighter unconsciously. "It is not my concern." Please do not tell me.

Harry looked down slightly and tilted his head to the left. "You don't want to know?"

"It is not my concern."

"Am I not your concern?" It was not a question; it was a challenge.

Yes. "Yes."

"So ask me."

"Harry . . ." His mouth moved mechanically, uncomfortable with its given task. "What happened at the Dursleys'?"

For a moment, Harry simply stared at him. There was nothing innocent or young in his gaze now; it was weighing, judging, calculating. Slytherin. Severus did not lower his gaze.

The wind blew and the trees shivered beneath its force.

"I killed him."

The wind stopped blowing.

"My uncle," Harry elaborated. "He cursed my parents. He struck me. He was going to put me back in the cupboard. I couldn't bear it. I lost my temper. I Cursed him and his heart burst and he died."

There was no emotion in his voice. No inflection. No regret. Nothing.

Severus stared into his eyes expressionlessly for a moment. He knew that he should feel something in the face of such cold news. Anything. Disappointment, shock, fear, revulsion, anger, sorrow, grief . . . But they all slipped past him. All he could feel was exhaustion and the chill of the air against his skin. He sighed heavily. "What Curse?" He had not missed the emphasis on the word "curse."

Harry smiled sadly, as though laughing at some private joke. His eyes seemed to tear up behind his thick spectacles. "Cruciatus. Wandless magic." He shrugged and gave a shaky laugh as a tear slid down his cheek. His voice trembled slightly as he spoke. "He—he knocked me down into the sitting room table and, um . . . I got so mad . . . It wasn't fair that I was supposed to hurt this much and no one was going to do anything. And I hated him and I hated everyone because no one even cared and Sirius was dead and it was my fault. So I wished it more than I had wanted anything else in my life and he started screaming. And he fell down—" Harry's voice cracked piteously "—and I—I couldn't make the Curse stop and he kept screaming and screaming and then he made this awful little gagging noise and this big bubble of blood came out of his mouth. And he . . . he died."

Severus watched him, trying to regain control of himself for a moment in silence. Then: "You never told anyone?"

Harry took off his glasses and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. "Moody. Dumbledore. No one else. No one but you."

The man watched him closely, unable to conjure the proper thing to do or say. For a rare moment, he was totally at a loss. "You mustn't kill people." The words tasted like bile and sounded foolish the moment he said them.

Harry laughed brokenly. "It will never stop. Killing, I mean."

Severus shook his head with sudden vehemence and found himself striding forward to grip Harry by the shoulders and pull him upright. "No. No, that's not what I meant, Harry. You must not kill people. You mustn't."

Harry stared up at him and swallowed weakly, his voice thick with tears that he refused to let fall. "Then we're all going to die." He smiled slightly. "It's okay. It's just . . . hard. I didn't love my uncle, but I didn't mean to . . ." he trailed off and dropped his head. "No one deserves to die like that. I don't want to hurt people anymore."

"You can feel his power in him, Severus, just as I can. That power must be trained before he loses his temper and lashes out at someone." The words came back to him in a rush and Severus felt ill. Not because of the boy he was drawing into his arms and holding close, but because of all things this boy would have to endure.

Harry was right: it wasn't fair.

Those small hands latched onto his robe and gripped him tight, pulling the older man close until all either of them could feel or smell or remember was the other . . . so close it burned. And it still wasn't enough. Severus tilted Harry's head back and rough, stained fingers roughly pushed the youth's reluctant tears away before the older man pulled him into a deep, hungry kiss.

Harry responded eagerly and Severus pulled away after a moment, dragging the boy even closer.

Only sixteen years old.

He squeezed his eyes shut, one hand petting Harry's hair gently. "We must be very careful," he murmured.

"I know."

"No one can know."

"I know."

"No one."

"No one," Harry agreed, his arms wrapped tightly around the older man's waist. He laid his head against Severus's chest gently. "Are you doing this because you pity me?"

"No. I do not pity people."

"Then why?"

"Because you need someone. And I would rather it be me than anyone else."

"Oh." Harry looked up at him again with a strange, detached kind of curiosity. ". . . Do you need me?"

No. Yes. Severus pulled back to look at him critically for a moment. "It has been a very long time since I needed anyone, Mr—"

"Harry."

". . . Harry."

The boy smiled faintly and pulled away. "Ah. I see." He turned and sat down on the grass in front of the memorial, staring at the marble once more. "Sit with me?"

Severus frowned at his back, unsure what to make of such a response. "It is cold."

Harry pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on them. "I can bear a bit of cold for Draco. I owe him, you know."

Severus sat down next to the boy. Yes. He knew. He watched the young man in silence for a moment. "You belong to me now." There was no compromise his voice.

"I belonged to you anyway." Harry closed his eyes. "You were just being stubborn."

Having nothing to say to that, Severus simply sat in silence. The cold seemed to be seeping into his very bones, but he could not bring himself to care. There were, after all, other things to be concerned about. Like how to keep this little liaison under wraps. And the Dark Lord. And whatever Dumbledore was plotting. And how to keep Harry from dying or getting his idiot self killed. And classes. And Narcissa Malfoy. And the Death Eaters. And Lupin. And those damned Elves.

So much . . .

Harry sighed quietly and Severus repeated the action, watching the boy. This was wrong.

But that was the least of either of their problems. Nothing about the life of Harry Potter was right, so what was this little bit of happiness in comparison? Nothing.

Besides . . . Severus found his eyes wandering to the top tower of Hogwarts—the Headmaster's office—and frowned slightly. There were all sorts of monsters and abominations in the world, by both design and necessity. This was only a small aberration. He could live with that.

Happy Birthday to me.

Though, when he really looked at it, perhaps that was all it was really about. Control. Time. Aberration. Change. And this thing with the—with him . . . Perhaps one's life really only came down to the least onerous choice. And given the alternative . . .

His dark eyes flickered back to his companion, carefully tracing the soft, unbroken curve of the youth's cheek with his eyes.

The least onerous choice?

Yes. He could most definitely live with that.

"Squeak, squeak, squeak, my lords . . ."

Harry opened his eyes. "What did you say?"

The man shook head and pushed himself to his feet, roughly brushing off his robes. "Nothing." He held out a hand with an impatient frown. "Come, Harry; you'll catch your death out here."

Harry smiled slightly and accepted his hand. "No. Not yet. I've too much to do before I die."

Severus's eyes dimmed slightly, but he remained quiet, and Harry followed him back to Hogwarts in silence, holding his hand for as long as possible.

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"A clouded dream on an earthly night
Hangs upon the crescent moon.
A voiceless song in an ageless light
Sings at the coming dawn . . .
Birds in flight are calling there,
Where the heart moves the stones;
It's there that my heart is longing for,
All for the love of you.

A painting hangs on an ivy wall,
Nestled in the emerald moss.
The eyes declare a truce of trust,
Then it draws me far away
Where, deep in the desert twilight,
Sand melts in pools of the sky,
Darkness lays her crimson cloak;
Your lamps will call me home."

Loreena McKennitt
The Mystic's Dream

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Fin

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Continued in:
The J. Alfred Prufrock Arc Part II -
Prologue: Through a Mirror Clear

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