The WelcomeWitch, watching him spit the gum Portkey on the floor, said with an expression of distaste, "We do have bins, you know..." Her voice trailed away at the expression on his face as he Vanished the gum and came closer. Her eyes flickered down to a register on the desk. Touching it with her wand, she asked, "What was that name again?"

"Nymphadora Tonks," he enunciated with the sarcastic clarity of extreme impatience.

The register on the witch's desk flipped open. "How do you spell that, sir?" she asked timorously.

"T-O-N-K-S."

The witch smiled weakly. Then a line in the register glowed, and she sighed audibly. "Spell Damage," she said, closing the book with evident relief. She cast a spell, aiming her wand at the floor. "Just follow the..."

"I know, I know," he muttered, following the silent glowing arrows.

It was early dawn and the corridor lights had not yet been adjusted to daybright levels. Even so, he cast a Disillusionment Charm on himself as soon as he was out of sight of the WelcomeWitch.

The arrows stopped outside a room where he heard someone gasp in pain. The door was slightly ajar, and he peered through the gap.

A mediwitch was casting a spell to raise the head of the bed as Severus terminated the spell on himself and entered the room as silent as an assassin.

"Stop!" called Tonks faintly, wincing as her waist bent to raise her upper body.

The mediwitch looked up at Severus without curiosity. To Tonks, she said, "It will be easier for you to drink your potion if your head is elevated."

"That's true," said Severus.

Tonks eyes widened when she saw him. She sat half-inclined, her hair long and black spilling about her, but not hiding the dark bruises on her pale skin.

The mediwitch poured into a cup from a bottle of Skele-Gro on the side table. "The faster you drink it, the faster it works, and you will be in pain for less time. You need to drink the entire bottle."

"I know!" said Tonks and Severus together. The mediwitch rolled her eyes.

"Yes, I'm sure you do. We get a lot of experts on this floor. Too smart by half, the lot of you."

She swept from the room. Tonks raised the glass in a mock-toast and drained it, shuddering at the taste. Severus rushed to her side, grabbed the bottle and refilled the cup to the brim.

"Sadist," she muttered.

"What's your point?" he retorted, and stood next to her, refilling her glass as she continued to drink until the bottle was drained. Then she turned greenish, and he grasped one of her wrists and pressed with two fingers on either side of the tendons just above the hand until her queasiness subsided. He fetched a chair to sit by her side.

"Which bones did they remove?"

She looked down at her side. "Let's see, I think I can...yes!" She lifted the gown up to reveal a nightmare of massive, blue-black bruises and half-healed scars. "They had to take out some of the ribs on this side. Bellatrix hit me with a Bone-Shattering Hex, and then I fell down some stairs. Glad I wasn't conscious for that part. Oh, and why would they give me Blood-Replenishing Potion? I never heard of broken bones causing blood loss."

Keeping his voice carefully neutral, Severus replied, "The Bone-Shattering Hex was designed to turn the victim's bones into shrapnel, piercing the flesh in all directions."

If it were possible, she turned even paler and let the gown drop, concealing the devastation of her injured side. She forced a grin. "How was your night? You look exhausted."

He slumped forwards in the chair, hands on his knees, greasy hair covering his face. "There was...a fatality."

"Who?" Her mouth was suddenly dry.

He spoke only after several seconds, quietly as if he couldn't bear the taste of the name in his mouth. "Black."

She stared at him but he kept looking at the floor, avoiding her eyes. "How?" she whispered.

"Lupin told Albus that Bellatrix attacked him right after she hexed you."

Tonks' face crumpled, but then she hissed in pain, her grief interrupted by newly-forming ribs asserting themselves. Severus conjured a pillow and held it against her side like a splint. Tonks clutched Severus and the pillow to herself and sobbed.

Over her shoulder, Severus stared at the wall, face expressionless.

Presently, Tonks' sobs subsided, and she calmed herself with a few breaths as deep as she could manage. Severus helped her to lean back on the mattress by pressing against her side with the pillow he'd conjured. A few more tears ran down her face.

"If I hadn't been hurt, I might have..."

"There's no point in second-guessing yourself," he interrupted.

Her face twisted. "Ow!"

He leaned forwards and resumed pressing against the pillow along her side.

"Thanks," she said. He found a tissue and she dabbed her eyes. She glanced at him. "Can you try not to look so angry?"

"I'm not angry," he lied. In truth, Severus was very angry. It was absurd, harbouring resentment towards a dead man. Already he resented more dead people than his rational mind could accept, and here was one more.

The door opened and a tall stocky woman with iron-grey hair in Healer robes entered. Severus glared at her wearily, but she merely nodded in approval as she approached.

"Someone who knows something about newly-forming bones," she said, gesturing at the pillow Severus was still pressing against Tonks' side. She smiled at Tonks. "You can do that for yourself, if you don't have a visitor to do it for you."

Severus was adjusting his grip on the pillow and didn't see the Healer take out her wand and perform a diagnostic charm. Severus happened to glance up, and stepped to the side, but he was too late. He felt a slight warmth as the charm went through his body. Tonks looked at him questioningly and he made a show of stretching his arms and shaking out his fingers before stepping back to resume his pressure on the pillow, silently cursing his carelessness.

"The worst is over, I think. Everything is healing nicely and there's no sign of infection. Before you leave us I'll write you a prescription for some dittany to clear up the scarring." The Healer was looking at Severus, a peculiar expression on her face. Severus avoided her eyes.

The door opened and Remus entered. His eyes widened when he saw Severus. "Did you...?" Remus glanced sideways at the Healer.

"I told her what happened," retorted Severus.

Remus frowned. "Was that wise?"

"I can see how much you wanted to tell her," sneered Severus. "And then you could share your grief together."

"I can see how much you wish you could have seen Bellatrix do it," retorted Remus, glaring.

"STOP it, both of you," Tonks burst out. "Remus, I can't believe you said that. Severus, you need to grow up."

The sneer faded from Severus' face. Expressionless, he looked from Tonks to Remus before he swept from the room.

"I shouldn't have said that," muttered Tonks, pressing the pillow to her side and wincing.

"How can you stand it," said Remus, still fuming. "Tip-toeing around that man's massive ego and all its attendant insecurities."

"Don't, Remus. Just don't." Her voice broke, tears running down her face. He sat on the bed. "Ow! Mind the ribs," she murmured through her tears.

He half-knelt on the bed, one foot on the floor, and pressed the pillow against her side as he had seen Severus doing. As she sobbed against his shoulder, he felt his anger at Severus vanishing along with the last vestiges of his composure, and soon, his body twisted at an awkward angle on the side of that narrow bed, he felt his own tears flowing silently into the shoulder of her ugly hospital gown.

Discreet from years of practice, the Healer glided across the floor and left the room, closing the door with an almost inaudible snick. For such a nice girl, this patient had some unlikely friends. Of the only two she'd met who weren't Aurors, the werewolf was the nicer.

And what had happened to that first bloke, the one whose hostility was so palpable it nearly drove her from the room? That he'd had at least half the bones in his body re-grown was extraordinary enough. But the degenerative changes in his spine so characteristic of repeated subjection to the Cruciatus Curse was not the sort of diagnostic result she expected to find in someone who was not a permanent patient. The handful of people who had survived such injuries usually arrived at the hospital and were never to leave.

The object of her scrutiny had just reached the bottom of the stairwell opening into the main lobby. Seeing the crowds of people arriving for morning appointments he decided to Apparate, and soon had the castle within sight, striding up to it at a furious pace.

Then his left forearm burned so fiercely he staggered and nearly fell. He leaned against a tree for a few minutes, composing himself, before walking back to where he could Apparate.

"Crucio!" said a familiar voice, and he dropped to the ground, trying not to scream.

But the torture ended a lot sooner than he expected.

"Bella!" said a cold voice sharply. "I did not tell you to punish him when he arrived."

"But surely you would want me to, Master?" Bellatrix protested, falling to her knees in suppliant dismay. "You were saying he was sipping tea in his dungeon while we fought..."

"That's between him and me," interrupted Voldemort. "Leave us!"

Somehow she continued to cower while rising to her feet and leaving the room at a half-run.

At the sound of a solid metal door closing with an air-sucking thunk, Severus opened his eyes to find himself staring at a pair of shoe-clad feet and the bony ankles at the bottom of two skeletally-thin, pale and blotchy legs. He tried to smile but managed only a thin grimace as he accepted the hand being offered to him. He tried, and failed, to stop himself from moaning in pain as he was pulled to his feet.

With his other hand, Voldemort conjured a chair and lowered Severus into it. "After we win this war, you will have your choice of Healers to sort out your back," said Voldemort. "A crippled Potions master is of no use to me."

"My Lord is merciful..."

"No doubt you have already heard the old fool's account of the battle?"

"I heard enough to know that it didn't go well for our side," Severus replied from between clenched teeth. His spine a pillar of agony, he gripped the arms of the chair, using the strength of his forearms and all the willpower he could muster to keep himself upright.

Voldemort watched him silently a moment. "I'm not torturing you for information." He smiled hideously. "At least, not today. Wormtail!"

"Yes, my Lord?" The hunched figure of the former Marauder appeared as if from nowhere.

"Fetch the Dalwhinnie."

"Yes, my Lord."

Moments later he reappeared with a glass of amber liquid. As Severus was unable to release the arms of the chair, Voldemort made Wormtail lift the glass to Severus' lips. After about half a glass Severus was able to take one hand off the arm of the chair and hold the glass for himself.

"Would you like more of the pomegranate juice, my Lord?"

The Dark Lord turned his crimson glare towards Wormtail. "Did I ask for more pomegranate juice?"

Wormtail cringed. "Forgive my presumption, my Lord."

"Leave us, Wormtail." He waved a hand dismissively, preoccupied with watching Severus closely. "Better?"

"Yes, my Lord," Severus answered honestly as he drained the glass.

"Ever since I first enjoyed single-malt scotch, I have found it hard to believe that Muggles invented it," continued the Dark Lord in a conversational tone. "Surely a substance with such extraordinary properties must have been developed by a wizard, no?"

Severus shrugged. "I think it's possible that Muggles stumbled across a few great things by accident, my Lord."

Voldemort laughed. "If you said that in front of the others, I'd have to punish you."

"I know, my Lord." He flexed his shoulders against the back of the chair as the Dark Lord laughed again. There was still a considerable amount of pain, but at least he'd be able to walk out of there. He sat up straighter and looked the Dark Lord in the eye. "You understand, my Lord," Severus began smoothly, "that I couldn't fight with you, side-by-side, in the Ministry, and continue in my role at the school."

Voldemort waved a hand dismissively. "That is patently obvious. Wormtail! Where does he get to?" He looked under his chair.

"Crawling about with the other vermin, no doubt," muttered Severus.

The Dark Lord regarded him with those penetrating red eyes. "I could have used a Potions master at my side during my rebirth," he said mildly. "Someone who could have made the potion properly. Not that I regret no longer resembling my worthless Muggle father, but my health would have been better."

Severus gulped. "I wasn't questioning his loyalty..."

The door opened and Peter Pettigrew scurried in. The Dark Lord shook his head at Severus. "Don't misunderstand me. Question anyone's loyalty. If you have doubts about anybody, come to me first." To Wormtail, he said, "Refill his glass." He turned back to Severus, resuming his more conversational tone. "Like I was saying, if my new body was stronger, I'd be able to enjoy a glass of whisky with you, for instance."

Cringing at the Dark Lord's words, Wormtail rushed to the sideboard, almost knocking the bottle over in his haste, and refilled Severus' glass with shaking hands. Indeed, his entire body was shaking as he turned towards the Dark Lord. "My Lord...I am sorry I could not do any better..."

"No matter. If we spend too much time resenting the events of the past, we miss opportunities in the present. Better, Severus?"

"Yes, my Lord." Severus sipped more whisky gratefully. A relaxed warmth had replaced most of the pain in his back. He shifted in the chair, adopting a more relaxed posture. "To be honest, my Lord, I expected you to be much angrier."

The red eyes glowed. "I am angry, Severus. Very angry. But what would I do?" He turned his hands palms up. "Fly into a rage and kill all of you? I would be playing right into the old fool's hands."

Severus shook his head. "He knows you are smarter than that, my Lord." He leaned back in his chair and loosened his collar. The warmth from the whisky was making him feel a little flushed.

If it were possible, the Dark Lord's reptilian face looked almost thoughtful. "Yes, he knows me better than anyone. In that way, he is almost a worthy adversary."

Feeling emboldened by the whisky and the Dark Lord's relative solicitude, Severus leaned forwards in his chair and said, "My Lord, maybe I can devise a potion that would make it possible for you to drink something stronger than pomegranate juice." He spread out his hands. "All you have to do is ask."

The Dark Lord smiled and nodded. "I did think of that. You are a talented man." He smirked at him. "Very talented."

Severus looked down at the glass of whisky in his hand.

Nothing weakened Occlumentic shields like too much alcohol.

Severus looked up from the bottom of his empty glass to the depths of those penetrating red eyes.

The Dark Lord laughed. "If I doubted any other man as much as I've doubted you, I'd have killed him years ago. But you amuse me, Severus. And you're so extraordinarily capable. You've assisted me greatly over the years." His red eyes sparkled merrily. "Whether you wanted to or not."

Severus swallowed a sick feeling in the back of his throat and smiled back. "Then I will just have to work harder at winning your trust, my Lord." He raised himself out of the chair to stand on slightly wobbly legs. "I must get back to the school. Some of my students have parents in Azkaban and are no doubt distraught."

"Of course. Give my regards to the old fool. Incidentally, Severus, you do know that Bella dispatched an old adversary of yours? I'm surprised you haven't mentioned it."

"I would have thanked Bella if she hadn't hexed me," replied Severus, the petulance in his voice not entirely feigned. "And I am encouraged to find you only slightly discouraged after this...setback, my Lord."

The Dark Lord shrugged. "We have lost a battle, my boy, not the war." He gestured at the door to his sanctum and it opened. When he turned back to Severus, the smirk had disappeared from his serpentine face and his red eyes were glowing fiercely. "Severus, if you disappoint me, I shall be very angry indeed. Now go see to the children."

"I won't disappoint you, my Lord," replied Severus automatically.

When he arrived at the school, Blaise was waiting for him. "They want to kill Potter, sir. I already told them it's not in their best interest. Is your back bothering you, sir?"

Severus stopped abruptly in the corridor. Blaise had been following and almost crashed into him from behind.

"Why?"

"You're limping."

Severus frowned and looked about. "Mind what you say in the corridors," he hissed.

Blaise shrugged. "Loads of middle-aged men have sore backs, sir."

Severus snorted. "Who are you calling middle-aged? I was the youngest teacher they'd hired in..."

"How long ago was that, sir?"

"Any more cheek from you, and I'll have to take points from Slytherin," retorted Severus, and he pulled himself straighter before resuming his pace towards the Slytherin common room. He paused before the door. "Well?"

Blaise nodded and smiled. "Fine, sir. Just a little slower than usual."

Severus gave him a brief, jerky nod in return and entered the Slytherin common room, his tread soundless and his back straight.

"I don't care. I'll keep on saying it: Potter's dead," Draco was speaking vehemently to many scowling faces, who were nodding in agreement. Severus paused to draw a Silencing Charm around the group.

"Then you would also be dead," he said silkily, approaching Draco from behind. "Assuming you were not thwarted in your plans by your insistence on discussing them in public places."

"Sir, this is hardly a public..."

"What if I were a spy from Dumbledore who walked in here and stumbled upon your little group hatching its nefarious plans openly in the middle of this room, without any safeguards?"

Everyone except Draco looked sheepish. Draco said, "Sir, it's not our fault if we were only following orders of the Headmistr..."

"Only following orders? Have you any idea how many monumental acts of stupidity have been justified by those words?"

Draco protested, "Sir my father has found it highly useful to..."

"Lucius Malfoy's favourite expression is, 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.' In that sense, currying favour with the Minister for Magic is prudent and has proved to be an effective tactic." He looked from student to student, sparing none from his venomous scrutiny. "On the other hand, turning your backs on your Head of House for the sake of a Ministry stooge accomplishes nothing other than the betrayal of an allay and has left you vulnerable to exploitation by someone who advocates the torture of Death Eaters in custody."

Several gasps could be heard around the room. "They wouldn't dare," said Draco confidently. But his fair complexion was whiter than usual.

Severus continued remorselessly, "If you hadn't been so blindly ambitious, ignoring common sense in favour of slavish devotion to that woman, some of you may have even gotten into this DA and learnt something about duelling, for instance."

"That's pretty unlikely, sir."

"Perhaps." Severus conceded with a shrug. "It was more likely that you would grovel before a Ministry that has an agenda to consolidate its own power, a Ministry that wants all witches and wizards to be helpless so that they are dependant upon its Aurors," he spat out this last word, "for assistance in defending their families."

He glared in turn at each of them. They were slumped about the squashy furniture in various positions of sullen teenage defiance. None dared look at him.

Except Draco. "You could have started a duelling club for us, sir. Dad says the Dark Lord trained you himself."

"You of all people know I have no time for extracurricular activities," snapped Severus. Internally he winced. How weak an explanation was that? Better insult them some more, he thought, before they think of that, too. "You are all just as helpless as the Ministry wants you to be," he spat, and turned and left the room in a swirl of black robes.

Draco's words stung more than he cared to admit. Albus' excuses for not letting him start a duelling club were similar to those he'd made all those times when he didn't give him the Defense Against the Dark Arts position.

As he strode down the corridor to his quarters, the impact of his heels on the stone floor was sending fresh bolts of pain up his spine. In his bedroom, after trying, and failing, to remove his shoes by hand, he spelled them off and crawled under the covers. Not bothering to remove the rest of his clothes, he was asleep in seconds.

A few days later, there was a timid knock at his office door. He had been preparing the end-of-year reports for all the students in Slytherin, and was nearly finished, tossing another parchment on the towering pile beside his desk. Severus threw his quill down on the desk in irritation.

"Come in," he snapped, unwarding the door with an irritated flick of his hand.

The heavy door swung open, revealing Tonks in her Auror robes.

"Are you alone?" said Severus coldly.

She rolled her eyes. "Really, Severus. Who would I be with?" She crossed the room to sit on his desk after she made space for herself by levitating a stack of parchments to the floor.

"Those don't belong... never mind." Severus rubbed his eyes wearily. "You have made a rapid recovery."

She shifted a little stiffly on his desk. "I'm still a bit sore. But I was going to leave today if I had to crawl. I couldn't take any more of that food." She reached into a pocket and removed a shapeless bundle. When she tapped it with her wand it became a corked glass flask filled with clear green liquid. "I had a gifted Healer." She offered the flask to Severus.

He accepted the flask, holding it up before one of the torches to examine its colour. Uncorking it, he cautiously sniffed its contents, frowned, and opened a desk drawer to remove a spool of paper tape and a watchglass. He spilled some potion into the concavity of the watchglass and tore a couple of inches from the paper tape to dip the end into the liquid. As it soaked into and crept up the tape, it split into its constituents, displaying a rainbow of magenta, silver, chartreuse, and other magical primary colours. Some of the bands of colour glowed, and one showered gold sparkles on the watchglass in a tiny soundless spray.

Severus Vanished the wet piece of paper and remaining liquid in the watchglass. He folded his hands on the desktop. "Congratulations. I can't remember the last time someone brought me a potion I couldn't identify in under five minutes."

"You have no idea what it is?" asked Tonks in amazement.

"I know what its ingredients are," he retorted.

"'But knowledge of a potion's constituents is never a predictor of its emergent properties,'" quoted Tonks.

He raised his eyebrows. "You never looked like you were paying that close attention."

"Do you want me to tell you what it is?"

"Of course not." He picked up the flask again. "It's got the sort of analgesic and regenerative properties common to most healing potions. But the proportion of giant cane toad skin..."

Tonks slid off his desk and sat in the chair opposite, watching him ponder. As he held the potion up to the light again, his face lost its customary sneer. He set the flask down and found his quill and a clean parchment and began to take notes.

After several minutes, Severus' writing hand jerked, splattering his hand and the parchment with ink. "Who...gave you this?" he asked, his voice a near-whisper.

"I told you already," replied Tonks. "My Healer. You were standing next to my bed when she did a Diagnostic, and were caught in it. Did you know that?"

"Yes," he whispered, dark eyes huge in a pale face.

"She didn't want to tell me anything at first, citing patient confidentiality and all that, but I pointed out to her that first of all, you're not her patient, and secondly, I'm an Auror who could get her interrogated and Obliviated if necessary.

He nodded approvingly. "Nicely done."

She chuckled. "I knew you would like that part. Anyway, I said I knew about your back problems, and could she help? She told me they developed a potion during the first war to treat severe Cruciatus damage to the spine. So I persuaded her to fetch me some. This is only one dose. That means you have to drink it all at once."

"Yes, I am familiar with the definition of dose."

"And she said you could probably make it yourself."

He held the ink-spattered parchment aloft in triumph. "Not 'probably.' I can." He set the parchment down and grasped the flask, uncorking it. "Why did they keep such a useful potion a secret, though?"

"That's what I said. She said they were told how You-Know-Who punishes his followers. If the potion was kept secret, Death Eaters seeking treatment for their aching backs would be forced to come forwards."

"Withholding medical information for the sake of law enforcement is the tactic of a despot." He sniffed the potion more boldly than before, ventured a small sip, and grimaced.

"Must be revolting, what with toad skin in it," remarked Tonks with a sympathetic cringe.

Severus looked thoughtful. "As revolting Potions ingredients go, toad skin is about in the middle." He lifted the flask. "Cheers."

After he drained the flask, he turned paler and slightly greenish and sat quietly for several moments willing himself not to be sick, forcing himself not to flip through his mental catalogue of Potions ingredients more disgusting than toad skin.

After he trusted himself to speak again, he quipped, "I suppose it's only fair, considering all the disgusting concoctions I've foisted upon others through the years."

Tonks replied quietly, "Being injured and in pain isn't fair."

He looked into her eyes. She was more ambivalent about him than she used to be, but on the whole, she still fancied him. And she was starting to fancy Lupin.

But Lupin wasn't here.

"I'm surprised to see you. After what happened in your hospital room..."

"What happened in my hospital room was what always happens. You got into a fight." She sighed. "Remus is my friend, you know."

"More than you know."

"I may not be a Legilimens, but I'm not stupid," she retorted. "He thinks he's too old for me."

"Then I'm definitely too old for you."

She shrugged. "I'm sure he thinks so. To me, you're both basically the same age even though your birthday is earlier in the year than his."

"You know when my birthday is?"

"I looked it up."

"Why didn't you just ask?"

"Would you have told me."

He snorted. "Of course not. What might you do?"

"I'd make you a big chocolate cake and take it to you at the head table. Then I'd lead all the Slytherins in a chorus of 'Happy Birthday.' Albus would join in, don't you think?"

He looked disgusted. "You realise that would be acceptable grounds for the use of an Unforgivable?"

She stood and came to sit once again on his desk. "Then I would get to arrest you."

"Moody tried to arrest me once. I should hate to do that to your face, whatever it looked like."

She chuckled. "Do you really mean it when you threaten to mutilate my face? Or are you just sweet-talking me?"

He seized her forearms and pulled, sliding her across the polished surface of his desk, scattering parchments hither and thither, until she landed in his lap with a small shriek. Recovering quickly, she wrapped her arms around him and turned her face upwards to kiss high on his neck. He smelled of lye soap and Firewhisky and she caressed the stubble on the juncture of his neck and jaw with her lips, willing herself to push aside the doubts she had about this man as he wrapped his arms about her.

"How's your back?" she murmured.

"What do you think?" he replied, sliding his hands down to her bum and pushing her against his body. "Now you're close enough to tell." He smirked.

She ran her hands down the muscles on either side of his spine, gently massaging as she went. "Your back muscles aren't as tense as before. How do you feel?"

"You tell me," he murmured. Since drinking the potion, the pain in his back had vanished, replaced by the sensation of warm oil trickling down his spine. For the first time in months, he was completely pain-free. And the young woman squirming about in his lap who brought him that wonderful potion was now moving her hips up and down, rubbing against his erection. He felt dizzy with pleasure, but kept his face composed until...

"Hey!" He almost jumped out of the chair.

Tonks grabbed the edge of his desk to prevent herself from falling. She grinned at him in glee. "You're ticklish?"

"I'm not!" he protested.

"Yes, you are. When I touched your ribs under your arms..."

He interrupted her with a passionate kiss, at the same time pinning her arms behind her back. "Try and tickle me again..."

"And I'll suffer your displeasure?" She snickered.

He thought of a suitably caustic reply but when she rubbed against him more forcefully, he decided he didn't care if he had the last word. In one motion he spelled the chair further away from the desk, swung one of her legs over and turned her so that she was sitting sideways in his lap instead of straddling it, and slipped one hand under her knees and the other around her back.

He started to lift her when she yelled, "Stop!"

Confused, he settled back in the chair.

She hugged him. "I didn't mean, 'Stop.' I meant don't lift me. You'll bugger your back."

He nodded and released her. She slid sideways from his lap and would have landed on the floor except he grabbed her hands and pulled her upright before standing and leading her through the portal that lead to his private rooms.

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

I have decided to end this story here. Between two jobs, two kids, and a marriage, I donít have the time to do justice to a very long fic, and this seems to be a natural ending point. Some subsequent chapters Iíd written before HBP were too absurdly AU to use as I prefer to be as canon as possible. But if a plot bunny seizes me with ideas for more, Iíll write them. So this ending point is provisional, for now.