"AND THERE THEY GO! Harry Potter zooms through the impossible joint-blockade of Slytherin beaters Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle and races after Draco Malfoy. The two Seekers are fighting neck-to-neck after the Snitch…any time now, either team could win. Though if I may offer my humble opinion, I'd bet my entire stock of Chocolate Frogs on Harry reaching the Snitch first—what? I'm just offering my opinion—AND GRYFFINDOR SCORES! Ginny Weasley, Gryffindor's newest Chaser, just snuck a good one past the clueless Slytherin Keeper. Way to go, Ginny!—okay, okay, I am focused, Professor McGonagall—now the Houses are tied with 60 points each!

"And, wham! Keeper Ron Weasley blocked a rather pathetic attempt at scoring by the Slytherins. It seems like the Quaffle is heading straight toward the Seekers! Watch out, Harry!—oomph, hey!—and, er, Malfoy too, I suppose…

"And can you believe it, Malfoy ducked at the last moment to avoid the flying Quaffle! The Quaffle's not out of the way yet, it—oh no! Harry's hit! OUCH! That must hurt…but he's fighting to remain on the broom. Malfoy takes the advantage and dives after the Snitch and—what? He can't do that!—Harry's been pushed off his broom by Malfoy! Foul, I say, foul!

"Harry's hanging on with one hand, but he's not giving up. Wait a minute…it appears—yes! What a turn of events! Harry swings his body forward, reaches out with his free hand and – HARRY POTTER CAUGHT THE SNITCH! Gryffindor wins! Take that, Draco Malfoy. Gryffindor wins, 210-60!"

-

Harry Potter dragged his tired body—aching joints and twitching muscles and all—into the locker room. All of his other teammates had already showered and had gone on to the post-game celebration. But he had to be detained by an impossible, adoring crowd from the moment he stepped (dropped, Harry mentally corrected himself) off the Firebolt. He had to plaster a fake smile on his face when the only thing he wanted to do was push aside every well-wishing classmate surrounding him. He had to be the bloody Seeker-Who-Saved-the-Day. It almost made being the Boy-Who-Lived preferable. Almost.

He had little recollection of what happened during most of the game. It was always like that: zoning out completely so that the only thing he was conscious of was the golden Snitch flying just beyond his reach. He had come to rely on Dennis Creevey's enthusiastic commentary to tell him who scored and how far along the other team's Snitch-hunting progress was. But there was no need for that today. Harry was well aware of Malfoy's malicious smirk as he "accidentally" gave his shoulder a little extra push…

Harry sighed and, setting heavy foot in front of heavy foot, slumped his way into the shower. When he finally made his way into the stall and turned on the hot water, he felt like crying from the sheer comfort of it.

Instead, he yelped. Steaming water met throbbing welt on his left hand—the result of hanging onto his broom one-handed for Merlin knows how long—and a burst of searing pain ensued. Harry was suddenly grateful for gloves, so grateful that he swore he would wear two pairs for his next game.

But for now, Harry curled his stiff fingers into a fist and proceeded to take his shower one-handed. He would get it bandaged by Madame Promfrey later. At least his wand hand was uninjured.

-

The hum of casual conversation died down the moment Professor Severus Snape entered the dungeons, robes billowed impressively behind him as he walked in big strides to the front of the classroom. He slammed a bundle of scrolls onto his desk.

"As most of you performed abysmally in your essays on the property of belladonna extracts, you will not be brewing the localized anesthetic potion today, lest I be accused of letting my dunderheaded Seventh Year N.E.W.T. class concoct poisonous substances," Snape said in a tone that made even the Slytherin students in the classroom pale. He waved his hand at the blackboard and the pre-listed instructions for the anesthetic potion disappeared. The letters rearranged themselves to form another potion recipe. "You will spend today contributing to the school's supply of Calming Draughts. For homework, twelve inches on the property of belladonna extracts—researched correctly this time or I will not accept it."

Calming Draughts were easy to brew even for Harry, who enrolled in N.E.W.T. level potions only because he needed the class in order to apply for the Auror's program. He breathed a sigh of relief. Today would be one of those rare Potions lessons that he might actually enjoy.

Or not. No sooner had the thought sprung up in his mind did Harry feel the familiar hair-raising sensation at the back of his neck. Professor Snape loomed over Harry, dropped Harry's essay forcefully in front of him and hissed into his ear, "You are not permitted to work with Miss Granger today, Mr. Potter. And I would suggest you consult that precious map of yours to find out where the library is. If I read another essay that sounds even remotely similar to Miss Granger's, I will request to have you thrown out of my class on grounds of cheating and plagiarism."

"I can't, you git," Harry whispered underneath his breath.

Snape narrowed his eyes. "What did you say?"

Harry lifted his head to stare defiantly at his most hated professor. "I said I can't brew the potion without a partner, sir!" he said as he raised his left hand. "I injured my hand because Malfoy tried to push me off my broom yesterday. Why don't I see you accusing him of cheating, Professor, when it's against Quidditch rules to push anyone off a broom?"

"As you did not in fact fall off your broom, Mr. Potter, your accusation against Mr. Malfoy is entirely unfounded," Snape replied coolly. Harry noticed Draco Malfoy smirking at him out of the corner of his eye. He seethed. "And as this is Potions and not Quidditch, ten points from Gryffindor for wasting my time."

"You can't do that!" Harry protested, indignant.

It was Snape's turn to smirk. "You will find that I can well do as I please." He turned his face towards the far wall and stretched out his hand. "Accio third book from the right, top shelf." A blue book with no title on the cover flew across the classroom and landed in Snape's hand. Harry could tell from its look that the book was boring. "Since you are so injured, Potter, read chapters six and seven, every word of it."

Harry flipped to chapter six and noted the title, "Occluding the Mind Under Stress." He groaned. Next to him, Hermione shot him a sympathetic look and smiled apologetically.

When Snape settled himself into the teacher's chair in front of the room, he once again addressed Harry, this time in a louder voice so the entire class can hear: "Oh and Mr. Potter, detention at eight o'clock tonight. You will not be permitted to leave until you successfully brew the Calming Draught under my direct supervision."

For the rest of the class, Harry was too infuriated to read much about Occlumency.

-

Walking down to the dungeons always gave Harry an unsettled sense of dread. He had gone down that same path under too many circumstances: detentions, Occlumency lessons, actual Remedial Potions (courtesy of Minerva McGonagall's promise to get Harry into Advanced Potions his Sixth Year), emergency meetings pertaining to the Order when gathering at 12 Grimmauld Place wasn't possible… and now, for a make-up lesson.

Harry knocked on the door timidly. He wondered which Snape he would meet tonight. Over the past two years, he had come to realize that there were many facets to the generally-grumpy Potions Master. Snape was the embodiment of evil during the first half of his Sixth Year, when Harry was still mourning the loss of Sirius and blamed Snape for everything. During Christmas break that year, Snape became a mentor when he found a depressed Harry Potter wandering the halls of Hogwarts and offered to teach (really teach, Harry's mind supplied) him Occlumency to alleviate his aimless boredom. But then Snape reverted back to being a snarky old git when school was in session again, and had remained thus except during Order meetings, when he would be Harry's compatriot on the same side of the war.

The door swung open to reveal a menacing-looking Potions Master. Harry gulped. He would spend time with the snarky-old-git Snape tonight. "About time you show up, Potter," Snape spat as he led Harry to his personal lab. "Inside, now."

Harry was attacked with a string of instructions as soon as he crossed the threshold: "You are to brew three batches of the Calming Draught tonight. The ingredients are all cut and set out on the table in front of you. Do not bottle up the potions when you are finished, notify me instead. I will inspect your potions to judge the level of satisfaction." He pointed a finger at Harry's bandaged hand. "If you dare to even use your injury as an excuse, you will serve detention with Filch for the rest of the week."

At Harry's quiet "Yes, sir," Snape exited the room. Harry looked around the unfamiliar surrounding. Snape's personal lab was not much different from the students' lab: all the furniture was Hogwarts-supplied, and Snape's cauldrons were as old and rusty as the ones that students used. Harry noticed that the ingredient cupboard was stocked with a wider variety of strange looking oddities, but completeness of collection aside, it was actually far less extravagant than Draco Malfoy's personal potions kit.

He set to work. As his left hand was merely badly scraped and not disabled, he had no problem adding the pre-diced ingredients into the cauldron while stirring. In precisely one hour, three simmering cauldrons of Calming Draught were laid before a pleased Harry Potter.

Harry walked into the adjacent room, into Snape's office. "I'm done, sir," he informed Snape.

Snape's expression turned from annoyed to incredulous to… approving as student and professor walked from office desk to lab table. "Acceptable," Snape said grudgingly, unable to find any fault with the potions.

Harry could not suppress the grin that crept involuntarily onto his face. "Thank you, sir," he managed to say.

When Snape finished bottling the Calming Draughts, Harry was still beaming. Snape's glare did little to abate Harry's joy. "Stop standing there grinning like an empty-headed simpleton simply because you brewed a First-Year level potion," Snape said, irritated. Harry ducked his head, smile still evident on his face.

Snape considered Harry for a brief moment. "On second thought, Mr. Potter," Snape said and Harry raised his head. "If you agree to brew more Calming Draught, I might be persuaded to overlook future similarities between yours and Miss Granger's essays, provided I can discern true effort on your part."

What did Snape just say? Harry was rendered speechless at Snape's sudden generosity, though there was no need to fumble for words—he was open-mouthed, gaping at his professor. Snape arched an eyebrow, his expression clearly amused. "Well? Is my proposition acceptable for the illustrious Harry Potter, or will he choose to continue gaping like a plimpy stranded on land?"

Harry snapped his mouth shut and his face flushed red upon realizing his ill-mannered display. He wished with all his heart that he could accept Snape's offer, yet: "I would like to, sir, but…" He dropped his eyes to his bandaged left hand. "I wasn't lying in class. I really can't use my hand to cut up the ingredients."

Snape harrumphed and motioned at Harry's injured hand. "Let me see your hand, Potter."

Instead of extending his hand, Harry retracted it behind his body. "It's okay, professor, I… it's going to go away in a few days and I don't have another Quidditch game until two weeks from now –"

"But you have another Potions class in two days," Snape pointed out.

Oh, Harry inwardly grimaced. He stole a glance at Snape and breathed a sigh of relief when the Potions professor was offended neither at his preoccupation with Quidditch nor at his momentary amnesia about having Potions classes with him on a regular basis.

"Well?" Snape said, a hint of impatience in his voice. For emphasis, he extended his hand, palm upward, towards Harry.

Harry did not know why he was so hesitant all of a sudden about letting Snape examine his injury. But he knew he didn't want to offend his grouchy professor, especially not since Snape was acting oddly amicable. Slowly, Harry placed his hand into Snape's proffered arm, his face flared red of its own accord when Snape's grip tightened around his wrist.

Snape paid no attention to Harry's unease. In one swift move, he tore the bandage from Harry's hand, revealing a broomstick-width welt of bruises and scraped skin. Snape's eyes narrowed. "Was your broomstick not polished, Potter?" he asked.

"It –" Harry started speaking but quickly stopped. His voice had somehow gone up an octave. The subsiding blush on his face returned as he quickly cleared his throat and tried again. "It's not the wood itself that scraped my hand, it was my glove. It ripped sometime during the game and, well, it was designed rather on the rough side to increase friction for a better grip. But when Malfoy tried to push me off the broom, I grasped the Firebolt the wrong way and, well, I didn't want to fall off so I kept holding on even though the glove cut into my hand and it hurt –"

Harry stopped abruptly once he realized he was babbling. He hadn't meant to bring Malfoy into the conversation. What would Snape think of his injury now? Would he lash out on Harry as badly as he had in class, in defense of one of his Slytherins?

"…I'm going to wear a second pair of gloves from now on, just in case. More protection, you know," he finished quietly.

Snape made no response. He raised his free hand and began to trace the skin around the welt on Harry's hand. Harry flinched initially, but soon relaxed when his brain registered how good that felt. Snape's fingers were surprisingly soft, nothing like his own calloused hands. They were also long and elegant, not beautiful but still good to look at. Harry bit down a gasp when Snape's fingers sought out his, lightly touching the webbing between his fingers, the knuckles, the fingertips…

"You don't take care of your hands, Mr. Potter," Snape murmured. "And it appears that false bravery had compelled you to not use any healing charms on your injury."

"It's against Quidditch rules," Harry explained. "Heavy injuries can be charmed and healed, but minor cuts shouldn't be meddled with."

"Really?" Snape asked, clearly not convinced.

"Well, it's not a rule, exactly, more like a convention," Harry hastened to clarify. "It's more for the professional players, actually. When they get injured and get a lot of press about it, it wouldn't be good if all of a sudden they're healed and the articles about their injuries in Quidditch Illustrated had to be pulled off the press, would it?"

The hand that was caressing Harry's fingers stopped. Harry couldn't help feeling disappointed at the deprivation of touch. "So it's another one of those celebrity things," Snape said coldly.

"No!" Harry protested and shook his head violently. He bit his lip from letting anything else burst out, well aware that whatever retort he let slip would only further goad Snape on. He felt Snape letting go of his hand entirely and noticed that his professor took an ever-so-slight step away from him.

"Well, get to work then. Three more cauldrons of Calming Draught and you will be dismissed."

Harry raised his left hand. "But I –"

Snape curled his lips into a sneer. "Ah, yes, our celebrity needs catering to." Before Harry could protest, Snape took a few swift steps, opened his ingredient cupboard, and meticulously took out the necessary ingredients for brewing three more batches of the Calming Draught. A whispered: "Accio cutting knife" when he returned to the work bench, and Snape set to prepare the items for brewing.

All Harry could do was stare. For more than six years, he had known his professor to be an exacting taskmaster. Snape ordered people around, but he never did any work himself. Snape made scathing comments about everyone's essay, but he hardly ever made suggestions besides non-constructive, disparaging remarks. During a few worse-than-horrible Potions lessons, Harry had verbally questioned Snape's qualification as Potions Master, since Snape never bothered to (in Harry's exact words) "explain what the hell we were supposed to know and never give a damn about showing us how to actually do it right." That outburst cost his house fifty points and earned him an entire week of detention with Filch.

But now, Harry had front row seats to watch the Potions Master at work. Each cut, each movement, was precise, quick, and efficient. With one hand, Snape used his long fingers to hold the ingredient in place; with the other he chopped and sliced and diced. Gracefully and effortlessly.

Harry could see the interlacing of Snapes' ligaments as his hand guided the cutting knife to the precise point where it should go. He noticed the rhythmic tightening and relaxing of sinews as the knife rose and fell—something fascinating to watch. Without realizing it, Harry took a few steps closer toward the work bench, his eyes never leaving Snape's working hands for a moment. The ghost of Snape's touch on his hand still tingled. Harry's face heated up again. He wondered what that hand would feel like…elsewhere.

He quickly banished the thought when he felt a twitch in his groin. No. Wrong place to think about this. Wrong time.

But that it might have been the wrong person did not cross Harry's mind.

-

Harry's refusal to magically heal his hand earned him a vicious disapproving glare, but Snape said nothing as he set the class to brew the local anesthetic potion while Harry once again attempted to plough through the title-less blue Occlumency book. Harry's speculation was right, the book was extremely boring, and halfway into chapter six he found himself staring at something—someone—else.

Snape was making his usual rounds across the classroom, finding fault with everyone's potion except those of his Slytherin students'. But now that Harry was not the target of Snape's diatribe, he was noticing other things… Snape walked in measured steps, his arms were often crossed in front of his chest, he had perfect posture, and despite the same sallow skin, hooked nose and greasy hair—Snape was strangely attractive. Harry felt his throat go dry. No, he did not just think that thought. How could he think that about such an ugly git?

But he was fascinated. Harry's eyes trailed after Snape as discreetly as he could, periodically glancing at Draco Malfoy to make sure the blond didn't notice Harry's visual stalking. Harry found that he loved the intense concentration that Snape's face displayed whenever he was looking into a student's cauldron. He briefly wondered whether Snape was concentrating to evaluate the potion or concentrating on coming up with a sharp-tongued insult to destroy the student's self-esteem. Maybe both, Harry concluded as Snape lashed out on a terrified Hannah Abbott, citing specific things she did wrong in the most unforgiving way possible.

Harry's eyes followed Snape's swift movement as he stepped over to Malfoy, who was whining about not being able to read the instructions on the board clearly. "Professor, I can't read the instructions well enough," the blond shamelessly said. "Can you help me with the next step?"

Harry inwardly cursed Snape for favoritism. The Potions professor said nothing to Draco. Instead, he pinched a dash of crushed unicorn horns from Malfoy's ingredient dish and sprinkled the powder into Malfoy's cauldron—Malfoy's polished, rust-free cauldron—while his other hand reached for the stirring rod and blended the new addition into the bubbling mixture with steady, counterclockwise strokes.

Harry noticed Snape mindlessly rubbed his fingers together to dust the crushed unicorn horns off his fingers. He was suddenly reminded of that same hand, those same fingers, tracing up and down his own two nights ago. Harry envied the ease with which Snape commanded the movements of his hands. He yearned for that same touch to be on his hand again, mapping, exploring, touching.

"Oomph!" Harry groaned painfully when an elbow connected with his stomach.

"Harry, pay attention to what you're reading," Hermione warned in a whisper.

Was his staring that obvious? Harry felt his face warm as he dragged his eyes back onto the same sentence he'd tried to read at least ten times. Nothing was making sense. Maybe he had occluded his mind against learning about Occlumency. Maybe he should do the same with Snape…

-

Snape looked as cheery as ever when Harry went down to the dungeons for his make-up lesson that night, one minute late. "Apparently you are incapable of correctly interpreting the numbers on the face of a clock, Potter," he said as soon as the door swung open. "Which would explain why your performance in my class is so lamentable, since basic counting skills are expected from even the most hare-brained student."

Harry wisely kept his mouth shut.

Snape pointed to the work bench once they stepped inside the lab. "All the ingredients are on the table. If you encounter any problems, I will be in my office," he said curtly.

It wasn't until Snape left the lab that Harry realized he was missing the most important item for his potion-brewing. He wasn't exactly in the mood to deal with the nasty sarcastic Potions professor, but it was either bothering Snape now or calling for him later to help clean up an explosion.

"What is it?" Snape snapped. He had just started grading essays.

"Um, sir, I need the instructions on how to make the local anesthetic potion," Harry said.

"Hmm, instructions, Potter?" Snape stood up from his chair and loomed over Harry. "Shouldn't you have committed it to memory by now, as your dear friend Miss Granger has?"

"Hermione's different, I swear she has photographic memory or something!"

"But I have provided and prepared for you everything necessary for brewing your assignment."

"How should I know what to do with the 'everything' unless I have the directions as well?" Harry argued, feeling justifiably angry.

Snape stared meaningfully into Harry's eyes. "Why not?"

For a second, Harry's breath hitched. Snape was looking directly at him with eyes so dark, so very unfathomable. This was not how Harry imagined a staring match with his hated professor would be, so completely lacking in animosity, so intense. Snape was not angry at him… he was trying to get Harry to realize something.

"Why… why not what?" was all Harry could stutter.

Snape broke the gaze. He turned around and fished a piece of parchment out of a thick folder before turning back to Harry. "Mr. Potter, think back to the previous time you were here. Did I provide you with anything less today than what you had two nights ago?"

Harry shook his head. Then—then it dawned on him. "I didn't," he said, in awe. "I didn't need instructions to brew the Calming Draught, and I hadn't even noticed!"

Snape twitched the corners of his lips upward and smirked. "Excellent deduction, Potter." He gave Harry the piece of parchment. "You know more than you think you do. Never forget that," he said. "Now go on, make the potion before I reconsider my newfound opinion regarding your intelligence."

Harry ran back into the lab. A compliment, from Snape. He steadied himself on the corner of the work bench. Snape was being nice, again—what was this world turning into?

He glanced down at the parchment he was just given. Directions for Brewing the Localized Anesthetic Potion, the title read. The script was most definitely Snape's. So he had taken the time to write out the complete instructions just for him.

Harry felt his heart racing. Without wanting to awaken other bodily reactions, he quickly set to work.

-

After Harry's hand healed, he continued his bi-weekly visits to the dungeon.

"Do not let your wandering mind ensnare you tonight, Mr. Potter. I will not tolerate another explosion in my private laboratory. Do I make myself clear?" Snape loomed over Harry as he administered his warning.

"Crystal," Harry huffed and rolled his eyes. Snape gave him a look that promised consequences worse than the Cruciatus curse. "Yes, I understand, Professor," Harry quickly corrected.

Appeased, Snape turned on his heels and headed into his office.

Harry had gotten to the point where no matter what insult Snape's acerbic tongue hurled at him, he was no longer offended. He had come to know how to read the man—the result of staring at him entirely too much during class. His performance in Potions class was still horrific and Snape picked on him as relentlessly as ever, but he no longer sensed true malice from Snape.

And besides, Snape almost always harped on his lack of attention, and he had no excuse for that. He had suffered one too many elbow hits from Hermione for daydreaming while a burning cauldron emitted black smoke right in front of him. Harry freely admitted to his best friend that his mind was elsewhere. What Harry didn't tell Hermione was that the object of his daydream was right there in the classroom with them, the very person who either infuriated him or pushed him to the point of tears during every class.

And yet, time after time, Harry found himself knocking on Snape's door, giving up his evenings to brew potions. He tried to tell himself that this was all for Remus' sake, that once he learned how to brew the Wolfsbane Potion he would be able to always be there for the last remaining person who had a close tie with his parents. But even Harry had to admit to himself that he was near hopeless in potions. Hermione might have been able to succeed under Snape's tutelage, but not him.

Yet why did Snape let him into his lab week after week? Why did Snape never do more than raise an eyebrow or deliver a few half-hearted insults when Harry fouled up on making the relatively simple base for the potion? Why did Snape –

"Potter!" Harry jumped. The cauldron in front of him was shaking, seconds away from exploding. "Evanesco!" Snape cast the spell just in time to banish the unstable concoction before it erupted.

Harry felt all blood drain from his face. "I'm sorry, sir," he choked out. "So sorry!"

Snape, exasperated, sighed audibly as he waved a hand in dismissal at Harry. "Perhaps you are not in prime condition for brewing a potion tonight. Go. Come back again Thursday."

Now slightly trembling, Harry found himself unable to move. "I'm sorry, so sorry…" he kept on chanting.

Snape walked up to Harry and grabbed his shoulders. "Get a grip on yourself, Potter. It was an accident, you were distracted, and I failed to properly supervise you tonight." When Harry did not respond, Snape shook him, hard but not violently. "Harry, snap out of it!"

Harry blinked. Did he hear that correctly? Snape calling him by his given name? He shot his eyes up and looked at Snape. Snape's eyes were dark, but not unkind. "You called me Harry," he said.

A trace of amusement flashed through Snape's eyes. "That is your name, is it not?"

Harry made no reply. He raised his arm, took Snape's left hand from his shoulder, and cradled the larger hand between his. He could barely hold back a noise of triumph when Snape did not pull away. With both hands, he explored every inch of Snape's hand: the long fingers, the neatly clipped nails, the bumps of his knuckles… Harry noticed that there were a few drops of potions still stained on Snape's hand, a living testament to how he had just saved Harry once again. Harry rubbed his thumb over the center of Snape's palm—was that a hitched breath he heard?—then trailed down his palm, his wrist…

Snape abruptly pulled his arm away. But Harry grabbed it again with his Quidditch-honed reflex. "Please." He pleaded. "I know it's there, I've seen it before. I just want to see it again, closer this time."

Snape did not respond. Harry took Snape's silence as a yes. Carefully, he rolled up the sleeve of Snape's robe, unbuttoned the cuff of his undershirt, and pushed back the clothing to reveal the Dark Mark. He felt a shudder run through his spine. The arm in Harry's hand was now slightly trembling. "So that's what it looks like up close." He poked a finger tentatively at the skull. "Does it hurt?" he asked.

"No," Snape answered, his tone quiet and without emotion.

Just as Snape had explored Harry's hand a few weeks ago, Harry now caressed the Dark Mark with the same gentleness. He traced the outline of the skull, noting that the edges of the Mark were literally seared into Snape's skin—he winced at the thought of how much it must have hurt when Snape received Voldemort's branding; he ran two fingers lightly up the length of the snake lodged in the skull's mouth. He repeated both gestures several times. Finally, he pressed his palm over the entire Dark Mark.

"One day," he murmured. "I'm going to make this go away."

Neither of them could recall later on how long they stood there, hand holding arm holding hand. Nor could they remember who—after what seemed like an eternity—pulled away first, releasing their mutual grasp, one retreating into the dungeons, the other heading back toward the Gryffindor Tower.

It wasn't planned, but both Harry and Snape independently decided to continue their façade when interacting in public. To the careful observer, their sniping was no longer venomous. Occasionally, during those brief moments when they would lock gaze, Harry could see a flash of fire hidden deep within Snape's eyes. He was sure that the same fire was in his eyes too.

Two times a week, after what would certainly be yet another failed attempt at making the Wolfsbane Potion, Harry would find Snape sitting in his office, waiting for him. There they would sit in the guest couch, side by side. They never spoke. Their communication was with their hands.

-

"Remus!" Harry exclaimed as he ran up and wrapped the brown-haired wizard tightly in his arms. Headmaster Dumbledore had permitted Harry to spend winter break at 12 Grimmauld Place with Remus Lupin, who inherited the house from Sirius Black.

"So good to see you, Harry," Remus smiled. "I've been looking forward to this for months!"

"This is the first winter break that I don't need to stay at Hogwarts," Harry grinned. "And I'm glad I get to spend it with you."

"Me too," the older wizard agreed.

Harry dusted his robes free of floo powder. "So," he asked. "What are we going to do for the next two weeks? We can only play so many games of Exploding Snap."

The smile on Remus' face faltered at Harry's words. Grabbing Harry by the arm, he led them into the sitting room. "There's something I need to tell you, Harry," he said as he motioned for them to sit down. "I… er… invited a guest over to spend the week after Christmas here with us. I hope you're okay with this."

Harry, who was worried at Remus' sudden change of demeanor, relaxed at hearing the revelation. "Of course, Remus, this is your house." Harry motioned his hand back and forth between them. "And this still means we get the time between now and Christmas to ourselves."

"That's true," Remus replied, his voice strained.

Harry looked at Remus for a long moment. "Who is it?" he asked.

"Harry, I need you to know that in life, things happen and people aren't always who they appear to be."

A smile spread across Harry's face. "So…is this a girlfriend?" Harry guessed, excited at the thought.

"Well, not quite," Remus said. "But he is someone special –"

Realization dawned on Harry's face. "Oh, a he. So you're inviting your boyfriend over."

Remus nodded. "Harry, I know this seems too soon since Sirius… since he passed, and I wasn't planning to start a relationship so soon, but things just happened."

Harry looked at Remus with amused eyes. "Why are you so apologetic? I'm happy for you, Remus, no need to worry about my reaction."

Remus attempted a smile that did not reach his eyes. "But what if I tell you…"

"What is it?" Harry felt his knees trembling from a sense of foreboding. Whatever Remus was going to say, he knew he would not like it.

"It's Draco Malfoy."

"What?" Harry shot up from his seat.

Remus followed Harry with beseeching eyes. "Harry… please sit down. Let me explain –"

"I don't want to hear your explanation!"

Remus continued on as if Harry had not interrupted him. "Draco took refuge here at Grimmauld Place quite a bit over the past few months. His family is increasing pressure on him to take the plunge into You-Know-Who's service –"

"And what does that have to do with getting involved with him romantically?"

Remus rose to his feet shakily so he could look Harry in the eye. When he managed to speak again, he sounded weary, but determined. "You shouldn't judge Draco by his family. There are many good qualities in Draco. He may be a Slytherin, but he holds goodness as his ideal, too fiercely even, as he would resort to trickery and manipulation to achieve that goal. He's not afraid to stand up against his family. He –"

"He pushed me off a broom!" Harry exploded. "During the Quidditch game last term, he pushed me. He was trying to kill me, Remus. Kill me."

Remus took a deep breath to steady himself. "Harry, listen," he said. "I got to know Draco. He lashes out at others whenever he feels threatened. I know him, Harry, he doesn't have it in him to kill. In many ways, he's still the child that he was when he was my student."

"Your student," Harry spat, eyes glaring daggers at the former Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. "That's despicable, Remus Lupin." He turned around and proceeded to head upstairs.

"Used to," Remus called after Harry. "But not anymore. We're equals now."

-

In his bed that night, Harry couldn't banish the gnawing thought in his mind: Malfoy and Remus are equals, you and Snape are not.

Just when he was about to fall asleep, another thought crept into his consciousness: If Malfoy hadn't pushed you off the broom, you never would have gotten to know Severus.

Severus.

Harry's last thought was that he would apologize to Remus the next day.

-

Reconciliation with Remus did not mean Draco's subsequent presence at Grimmauld Place was welcomed. When Draco tumbled out of the fireplace the day after Christmas, Harry's glaring match with the blond began. By the next day, they were exchanging hexes whenever Remus was not nearby.

From the end of a hallway, Harry saw a shadow approaching. He drew his wand and prepared to cast the Jelly-Legs jinx. The length of the shadow was shortening as it rounded a corner. Anytime now…

Harry whipped out his wand and let the words of the hex roll off his tongue –

"Harry!" Remus exclaimed as his legs gave way and crumbled to the floor.

Harry reached out his arms, lightening fast, and steadied Remus by the arms. "Oh Merlin, I'm so sorry, Remus!" Remus' body was shaking and his face unusually pale.

"Finite Incantatem!" a voice said behind Harry. Draco walked up and snatched Remus from Harry's arms, giving his nemesis a venomous glare in the process.

For once, Harry found himself wanting to appease Draco. "I didn't mean it," he said quietly. "Not for Remus, at least. The hex was meant for you."

"For me, eh, Potter? Well, you failed miserably at that and now you've hurt Remus."

"I said I didn't mean it!" Harry shifted to face Draco directly. "And don't you act the part of an angel when I have a scar on my left hand to prove you capable of doing much worse than I would ever allow myself to –"

"Enough," Remus yelled, though he managed not much above a hoarse whisper. This diverted the two young wizards' attention from each other as they, both concerned for Remus, stopped their bickering and led Remus onto a couch in the sitting room.

Harry found himself turning to Draco for reassurance. "Will he be all right?" he asked.

The blond wizard did not answer Harry directly. "So he didn't give you the potion for the last full moon?" he asked. Remus shook his head. "How can he not? I thought Dumbledore made him promise that he would brew the potion for you no matter how much he doesn't want to!"

"He has been," Remus explained. "He skipped only for the last full moon. I must have gotten too reliant on the potion month after month. My body didn't use to react this badly." He rubbed the bridge of his nose absently. "Come to think of it, I haven't seen him since the last Order meeting, and that was at least two weeks before the last full moon."

Harry did not have to ask to know that the "he" Remus and Draco were talking about was Snape. He had not been permitted to visit the dungeons during the final week of school leading up to winter break. Snape had been insistent on Harry completing all his academic responsibilities before he was to leave for Grimmauld Place.

His heart jumped with a not-too-pleasant realization. The week before winter vacation was about two weeks since the last Order meeting. And if no one had seen Snape since…

"He would never do that," Harry spoke up suddenly. "Something's not right with this." At Remus' and Draco's questioning looks, he clarified. "S – Professor Snape would never not get something done when it comes to potions. He would never stop supplying the Wolfsbane Potion, ever. Something must have –" He wanted to say something must have happened to him. "– distracted him."

Draco narrowed his eyes. "And how would you know my Head of House so well?"

"I –" Harry found himself at a loss for words. "I just do," he supplied, feeling lame. "I just do."

-

When Snape did not materialize at Grimmauld Place to deliver the Wolfsbane Potion to Remus the day before Harry and Draco were to return to Hogwarts, any shred of doubt about Snape being in trouble left Harry entirely.

"He's not here. What'll happen to you?" Harry asked Remus, though at the moment he was far more concerned for Snape than for Remus' well-being during the next full moon.

Remus put up a strained smile. "I'll survive."

Maybe it was the way Remus tried to remain so optimistic when he was doomed to face a full-blown transformation in a little more than a week. Maybe it was Harry's attempt to hold onto a part of Snape—you know more than you think you do. Never forget that—when the Potion Master's whereabouts was still unknown. Maybe it was his sudden realization that Draco Malfoy and he could come to a truce when it came to Remus… whatever the reason, Harry found himself at Grimmauld Place's make-shift potions lab, with Draco Malfoy.

"Before we make the actual potion, we first need to brew the base," Harry explained. "All the required ingredients are listed on the parchment right…here. We will floo to Snape's personal lab tonight to get the ingredients, he gave me access to the lab during my… er… make up lessons." He paused slightly before continuing in a wishful tone, "If everything goes well, we'll have seven batches of the Wolfsbane Potion for Remus before we need to return to Hogwarts."

Draco smirked at Harry. "Impressive, Potter, I never thought you had it in you to give instructions in a coherent manner. But then again, I didn't think you capable of stringing two coherent words together."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Are you going to goad me or are we going to work together to try to help Remus?"

Draco regarded Harry for a long moment. "This isn't only for Remus, isn't it? You're doing this for Snape."

Harry gulped. "Wh… what do you mean? Of course it's for Remus."

"I see you, Potter. Don't think it escaped me how you would stare at Professor Snape during every Potions class. And don't think I'm so stupid as to not notice how Snape lets you play the part of the impertinent brat. There's something going on between you two, what with all the extra 'lessons' you went down to the dungeons for twice a week."

Anger flared inside Harry. "You were stalking me!"

Draco shook his head. "No need to. You know, Potter, you're horribly inept at being discreet. If it weren't for the sake of my Head of House's reputation, I would have exposed your indecent –"

"Nothing indecent has happened!" Harry protested before he had enough sense to wince at his outburst. Denying Draco's accusation had concurrently confirmed that there was something between him and Snape. His face felt unusually warm under Draco's triumphant smirk. "We… he was teaching me how to make the Wolfsbane Potion. How do you think I just happen to know exactly what ingredients we need and what sort of preparation is necessary for us to brew it right now?"

Draco regarded Harry pointedly. "I'm not doubting you, Potter," he said quietly, seriously. "All I'm trying to make you realize is this: you, Harry Potter, have no right to judge what's going on between Remus and me when you yourself are in the exact same situation."

Harry did not know what to say. He had no response for Draco. So he did the natural thing: he changed the topic. "Come on, let's activate the floo. We'll need to get started soon if we are to have the potion ready for Remus by tomorrow."

He mentally thanked the stars when Draco decided to let him off the hook with a mock: "Yes, Harry." They went looking for Grimmauld Place's supply of floo powder.

-

"I can't believe you two managed to do this. Thank you so much!" Remus beamed at Harry and Draco, his hands holding seven days' worth of the Wolfsbane Potion.

Draco placed a hand on Remus' shoulder. "Well, it's me you're talking about, after all, of course it has to work." Harry rolled his eyes at that. Draco's expression turned serious. "Take care of yourself, okay? I'll be fine at Hogwarts, Father can't storm down the castle to abduct me for the Dark Lord. I'll come here if things get too heated. I know for a fact that he hasn't managed to plot Grimmauld Place on the map yet."

Harry walked away from the couple exchanging parting words. As delighted as he was at successfully brewing the Wolfsbane Potion (Draco brewing while you stood by to watch helplessly, his mind piped up), he was worried. Snape's lab and office did not look right when he and Draco visited to fetch the ingredients. It looked too… unoccupied. As organized as Snape was, he had his share of tipping over inkwells and dropping a few sheets of parchments. But the rooms were in perfect condition, as if no one had set foot in them since the house elves last cleaned them.

He knew the Order had already dispatched a searching team to look for Snape—Remus had told him and Draco that much. But they've searched almost every place outside of Hogwarts, and still no sign of the Potions Master.

Harry absently rubbed his scar. It hadn't hurt during Christmas break, nor did he have any strange visions about Death Eater meetings. And none of the headlines in The Daily Prophet had mentioned anything remotely related to Voldemort—the news media being newly obsessed with disparaging the Department of Magic lately. So no fatal accidents, just a strange disappearance.

"We'll floo directly into his potions lab, it's connected to the fireplace here," a voice said behind him. Harry blinked himself out of his daze. Remus and Draco were done with their goodbyes, and now it was time to go back to Hogwarts. Harry didn't even bother to hide his worry for the Potions Master anymore. He nodded at Draco's suggestion and headed with him to the fireplace.

"See you, Remus!" he said before stepping into the floo.

Remus smiled at the two boys, not quite successful at masking his own worries.

-

"Dobby!" Harry called as soon as he and Draco rolled out of the fireplace in Snape's private lab.

Dobby materialized with a pop. "Dobby is here, Harry Potter. Dobby is excited to is seeing Harry Potter again. Dobby is thankful for Harry Potter giving Dobby socks!"

"Dobby," Harry interrupted before the overexcited house elf could attribute gratitude to Harry for every good thing that had happened in his life. "I need to know when anyone had last seen Professor Snape. He didn't show up to brew the Wolfsbane Potion for Professor Lupin and we are worried that something might have happened to him."

If possible, Dobby's eyes grew even wider from panic. "Dobby is not knowing, Harry Potter! Dobby is hearing Winky saying that Professor Snape is moved out. No elf is seeing Professor Snape since Christmas."

Harry's heart fell. What Dobby said confirmed the timeline that he pieced together from Remus and Draco.

"Dobby is thinking at first that Professor Snape is coming again, because Professor Snape is leaving his wand on desk. But Winky has not seeing Professor Snape –"

"His wand?" the two Seven Years asked in unison.

"Yes, Dobby not knowing why Professor Snape not bringing his wand with him. Dobby show you Professor Snape's wand. Follow Dobby, Harry Potter and y-young m-master Malfoy."

Draco smirked and mock elbowed Harry. "You don't have to call me that anymore since he freed you on Father's behalf." He nonetheless made sure that Harry was between him and Dobby as the elf led the way to where Winky had placed Snape's wand.

Harry's heart raced as he and Draco were led to what must have been Snape's private quarters. Harry was sure that the place was heavily warded against intruders, but Dobby's house elf magic somehow got them inside the door. Snape's room was not extravagant. It had only the necessities, and a lot of books. Both boys immediately turned their eyes toward the bed located in the center back of the room. There it was—pointing away from the castle, resting on the nightstand—Snape's wand.

"That's Snape's wand all right," Draco muttered. "Father made him use it to hex me once when I disobeyed him at dinner."

At the mentioning of Lucius Malfoy, Harry's eyes widened with fear. "Do you think he was set up by your father into some trap, Malfoy?"

Draco regarded Harry as if he were the biggest idiot in the world. "Are you just thinking of that, Potter? About time!" Harry had the decency to blush. "No, I'd already thought of that when Remus and I first discussed what might have happened to Professor Snape. As far as I know, Father hadn't planned anything. He's not even suspecting Snape of being unfaithful to the Dark Lord, so no danger from him here."

Now Harry was gaping at Draco, wide-mouthed. It hadn't occurred to him until now how much Draco was committed to the side of the Light. Draco knew about Snape's double loyalty, and he was willing to go against his father if that meant protecting Snape.

As if reading Harry's mind, Draco gave him a strained smile. "It's not always so hard. Father's an opportunist who wants to be on the winning side no matter what. If you end up defeating the Dark Lord, he'll find a way to move himself back into the Ministry, just like he talked himself out of Azkaban last year."

Both teens were silent for a moment, the realty of the Voldemort war heavy upon them. It was Harry who spoke up next. "Look," he said and pointed to Snape's wand. "It's pointing away from the school again, even after Dobby picked it up and set it down pointing the other way just now. I think Snape's placed a tracking spell on himself. Let's follow the wand."

"First good idea you've had, Potter," Draco said. He glanced out the window in Snape's quarters. "Due north, toward the Forbidden Forest. Let's go."

-

Harry had no idea what he expected to find in the Forbidden Forest. Maybe a clue to Snape's whereabouts or even the Potions Master himself, scowling at him and Draco for daring to interrupt his peace and quiet. Whatever he expected, it wasn't a near-dead, unconscious Snape twitching uncontrollably somewhere deep in the bowels of the Forest.

"Snape!" both boys screamed at once and rushed to Snape's side.

Harry's scar hurt as soon as he made contact with the professor. "It's Voldemort's doing!" he said as he raised one hand to rub the searing pain on his forehead, his other hand not letting go of Snape even if that would stop the pain.

He heard Draco swear under his breath, face paled with worry. Draco really did care for his Head of House. But Harry didn't feel any calmer with the added alliance, for Snape was still twitching, and had probably been twitching unconsciously for many days.

Draco gasped when he worked Snape's outer robe open. Harry leaned forward to take a look and was horrified. Covering Snape's upper torso and down toward his legs was a nasty shade of black, spreading throughout his body, emanating from his Dark Mark. The black was spreading extremely slowly, probably why it had been weeks and Snape hadn't died yet. Apparently the curse also made Snape immune to other methods of dying, for the Potions Master showed no signs of malnutrition or dehydration even after close to a month of involuntary fasting.

"The Dark Lord has found him out," Draco said grimly. "He cursed Professor Snape and left him here to die."

"What should we do?" Harry screamed, panicked. "He's not responding! We've got to find a way to stop the black from covering him!"

"Stop stating the obvious, Potter!" Draco snapped. Whatever truce the two had managed over the past days had vanished in face of the tense situation. Draco turned to Harry. "You're rather useless at this point. Stay here. I'll go into the castle and call Professor Dumbledore for help. Just make sure you don't do anything stupid." With that, Draco shot up from his kneeling position and sprinted toward the castle.

-

There must be a way to stop this, Harry thought frantically as Snape spasmed before him. He glared at the Dark Mark resentfully. Only weeks ago, he had touched the Mark with such tenderness. If he had known then what pain it would cost Snape, Harry would… he would have done something, just not caressing the Mark as if it personified the man who was slave to it.

No, Snape was not a Death Eater. He was one only in name. Harry thought back to all the private moments he glimpsed during his biweekly meetings with Snape, when Snape's guard was at his lowest. That Snape, Harry recalled, had a morbid sense of humor—but a sense of humor nonetheless—and was sometimes almost kind. That Snape knew when to push Harry but, unlike his public counterpart, knew when to back off when Harry got too upset. That Snape somehow always managed to be there for Harry, even if it meant offending him. That Snape was now being eaten alive by the curse seeping out of the Dark Mark; he was being swallowed up by a façade that was no longer who he was.

"Stop doing that to him, you blasted beast," Harry hissed in frustration. The Mark was burning angrily, the skull glowing and the snake wiggling as if it were alive. "Stop taking Severus away from us, from me."

Why should I let him go? A responding hiss from the snake. He belongs to my Master but he betrayed him. This is the punishment pronounced for traitors.

Harry shook his head wildly. "No, Voldemort's not his master. He has no hold over Severus."

The snake cringed at hearing Voldemort's name spoken aloud. Harry decided he liked the feel of saying Voldemort's name in Parseltongue. Are you his new master? The snake spoke again. Are you the one who urged this useless excuse of a wizard to betrayal?

"No," Harry answered levelly. "By the strictest sense of the word, I am his subordinate. But neither of us is holding power over the other. We're equals."

The snake flicked about angrily at Harry's words. There is no such thing as equals. Don't you get it, boy? The world revolves around power, on how much power one has over another. And at this moment, I have power over this traitor.

"No!" Harry shouted, at the snake or simply to bolster his resolve, he wasn't sure. "He's mine! I may not be his master like Voldemort once was, but he. is. mine." He narrowed his eyes at the snake, feeding all his determination into the glare. "Get out," he hissed. "Leave him, now!"

The snake thrashed about and the skull alternately glowed and dimmed. Harry's scar was giving him a splitting headache, but he held onto Snape, his palm placed over Snape's heart in a protective gesture. He willed the snake to back down, willed the blackness covering Snape to go away.

"I said before that I would make your Mark go away," Harry whispered to Snape while still eyeing the snake. "And it's going to happen, it's going to happen right now."

Harry felt his magic swirl around him. It was powerful; he didn't realize he had such strong magic in him. The snake, though still defiant, was beginning to fade away, taking the now retracting blackness with it. The skull cracked and was becoming invisible as well.

At some point, Harry realized that the hand that he had placed over his scar was no longer there. It was now upon his own chest, covering his heart, just like his other hand was covering Severus'. Harry blinked and suddenly understood: heart magic, he was using heart magic to command away the Dark Mark. It was heart magic that gave him the scar on his forehead when he was a baby. Now he was using heart magic to purge a living scar.

Harry watched in amazement as the snake and the skull faltered. He watched as the same cloud of blackness that had caused Snape so much pain was now suffocating the Dark Mark and destroying it. He couldn't hold back a triumphant smile as the Mark gradually became paler and paler, then disappeared completely as the last trace of blackness faded out.

Snape's skin was back to its normal sallow tone, and the Potions Master cracked his eyes open. Catching sight of this, Harry collapsed on top of Snape and did the first thing he thought to do—he crashed his mouth against Snape's.

As soon as he was conscious enough of what was going on, Snape turned his head slightly from the attack of Harry's mouth. "Ten points from Gryffindor for assaulting a teacher," he said after catching a quick breath. Before Harry could respond, Snape turned his head back and proceeded to claim the mouth that was so willingly offered to him.

Behind a particularly robust tree, Draco Malfoy smirked at the two kissing wizards. It was a good idea after all, he thought to himself, to turn back to check on the situation before fetching the Headmaster.