A/N...Sorry for the wait.

Chapter 34

Severus groaned. He raised his right arm and covered his eyes with his forearm, trying desperately to cling to the last vestiges of sleep. He did not want to awaken; surely he could not have been asleep for more than a few minutes at most.

Why am I so bloody exhausted? And exactly how long have I been asleep.

Not long enough was the obvious answer. It had been fully dark when he had arrived in Erin's rooms and it was still dark. But no matter if he had only been asleep for five minutes, his mind was beginning to click back into gear. Severus knew there was no hope of him burrowing back into the sweet oblivion of blessed somnolence.

Potter!

In a second, Severus's thought processes clicked into high gear and his eyes snapped open. He lowered his arm so that it came to rest on the slight weight that lay across his chest and pressed against his side. He inhaled deeply, the sweet scent of lavender and sage invading his senses and he smiled and speared his fingers through the curtain of golden-red hair spread across his black robes; Erin's shampoo was intoxicating and Severus happily admitted that he was addicted to everything about the warm bundle curled against him, not least her scent.

Severus recalled summoning Dobby and directing the elf to watch over his young hero while he gave into the overwhelming urge to come to Erin; he had not been alone with her since she had returned to the castle with Dumbledore. Earlier, Dumbledore had insisted that Erin return to her rooms and wait for word of Harry's fate; her face had been tear-streaked and had smelled the fear radiating from her regarding Harry's ultimate fate. She had, after all, witnessed the frantic attempts to revive the moribund child and she knew the fact he was still alive, that his lungs were inflating and deflating and that his heart was still beating did not necessarily mean that he would have escaped this latest flirtation with death unscathed. She was an educated woman; she knew the consequences of oxygen deprivation to the brain.

It had been hours after the horrific events in the lab that Severus had finally felt happy enough with the boy's condition to leave his side and visit Erin. Severus had known that Dumbledore had dropped in on her before he had retired to his own rooms, so that when Severus had arrived, she was already in possession of the fact that Potter was going to recover fully, with no intellectual impairment. With Dumbledore being the bearer of the good news, it had saved Severus the necessity of making the inevitable insulting remark about Potter's already limited supply of neurones making any intellectual impairment a mute point... a comment that he knew Erin would not have found in the least amusing and which he was now ready to admit would have been a total falsehood. Still, he doubted he would have been able to resist the temptation to insult James Potter's progeny.

Even having had a front row seat for the series of disastrous events that had overtaken the boy in the last two weeks, old habits die hard. Still he had to dredge deeply these days to come up with anything approaching the old enmity he had always felt for the boy.

Severus's thoughts were cut short when Erin sighed and snaked her arm more firmly around his torso. He smiled when his thoughts returned to the enthusiastic welcome he had received... how long ago had it been, hours or mere minutes? Erin had been giddy with relief and she had welcomed him with passionate enthusiasm. But he had not been totally addled by exhaustion or lust—even if it had been a close run thing. Like anyone with an emotional investment in another person, when that person had had a narrow escape, one's relief was often expressed with passionate intensity; and Erin definitely had an emotional investment in Harry Potter.

Severus did not doubt that she had been as pleased to see him as he had been to see her, but he knew the intensity of her welcome had not been entirely due to him; he had been dishevelled, his robes stained and dirty, his hair the greasy mess it so frequently was, and he knew he smelled a shade too much like Mundungus Fletcher without the underlying tobacco aroma.

Not so long ago, Severus had been jealous of Erin's regard for Harry Potter. Now though, he had come to terms with it... albeit reluctantly. Somehow the boy had managed to worm his way into Erin's psyche—no, that was wishful thinking... it was her heart more than her psyche—and Severus knew that was not going to go away. Severus gazed up at the high ceiling, his eyes unfocused and unblinking, his hand still playing idly with the red-gold tresses.

Harry Potter! Why, when he was in the first flush of romantic love, was Harry bloody Potter in the middle of the picture? How had he arranged his life so that the only two women he had ever had romantic feelings for, were both such an important part of the boy's life? Lily, the mother who had sacrificed herself for him and Erin, the woman who had taken it upon herself to be there for the boy, regardless of the dangers that accompanied him every minute of every day.

Severus shut his eyes and sighed. His own life had been inextricably woven with the boy's ever since he had gone to Dumbledore to beg the powerful wizard to protect Lily and by association, her husband and son. Severus cringed internally every time he relived that scene... he was disgusted with his younger self's selfishness. How could he have voiced his request like that? As much as he had hated James Potter, he had not really wanted him to be killed by the Dark Lord, even less had he wanted Lily's innocent infant son's life snuffed out. But in his fear, he had only thought of Lily.

Severus could remember flagellating himself for ever having spied on Dumbledore that day at the Hog's Head; he had been there on the Dark Lord's orders to apply for a job himself, but the Dark Lord had not specifically told him to spy on the old mage that day. It had not been known that Dumbledore would be interviewing another for a teaching position; Severus had just been trying to ingratiate himself further into his master's good books, but he had not expected to hear anything worth communicating. How could he have known that what he heard that day would alter his world forevermore, and forge the beginning of an unwanted and grudgingly accepted link to the orphaned Boy Who Lived.

Severus had not thought that his and Potter's bitter association could get any more complicated than it had been at the beginning of the boy's schooling, but he had been wrong. He had been comfortable and self-righteously complacent in his role of harsh authority figure. Dumbledore had hit the nail on the head when he had said that Severus saw only what he wanted to see, and he had wanted to see that the boy had the same character traits as his clever, brash and sickeningly self-assured father. During the last five years, Severus had had the odd moment of doubt about the boy's ultimate resemblance to James. A lot of doubts if the truth were known, but it had not been until his journey to Potter's home this summer that his doubts had coalesced into painful fact.

He could never have guessed that Lily's son lived in a hell that even surpassed his own childhood torment. The discovery of a beaten and battered Potter had shaken him to his core, but he had made every endeavour to maintain his nasty façade in his interactions with the boy, even whilst he had done everything in his power to heal him and return him to the persona Severus had still been trying to convince himself was the real Harry Potter.

Living with Harry over the last couple of weeks had made it impossible for him to continue with his previously erroneous conceptions. Yes, he could definitely be a cheeky little snot, but often, Severus had pushed him to the limits of what a teenage boy could reasonably be expected to tolerate without exploding; expanding levels of testosterone had a strangle-hold on teenage boys and anger was as much a part of the equation as seemingly never-appeased horniness. He remembered both from his own youth.

But it was Erin who had finally made him see the light fully. Lily had loved her son to distraction; that is what a mother did. Severus could admit that now, even if the knowledge still twisted his gut. Lily was dead and Harry was alive. However, he no longer begrudged Harry his life even as he would always mourn Lily.

Yes, Lily had been Harry's mother and she had protected her infant son with everything she was... brave and loving and totally self-sacrificing. Erin, on the other hand was not a mother, and yet Potter had somehow managed to bring out similar instincts in her as a mother would have. And as Potter was no longer an engaging infant, there had to be something about the boy that he, Severus had never been able to see... or perhaps that should be... had never allowed himself to see.

Erin was a clever, intuitive and kind-hearted woman, but she would not be taken in by a boy who was undeserving of her affections and attentions. She had seen Harry in all his guises: the abused and pathetic victim, the angry adolescent, the teenager with a crush on an older woman and the unfortunate boy with a cerebral link to an evil psychopath. But even with the mental stretch it must take to embrace this final, seemingly unbelievable circumstance, Erin looked past the freakishness of this connection and saw only an engaging young boy in need of nurturing.

Something about Potter had endeared him to her, and Severus knew that if his relationship with this beautiful woman was going to have a future—and that was most definitely his wish —then he had to come to terms with the fact that Potter would be part of the picture. Erin was not going to abandon the boy, and Harry would not send her away either. He had given up the idea of a romantic attachment far too easily for it to have been anything more than a daydream.

Severus sensed a lightening of Erin's conscious state just before a small hand crept upwards to stroke his whiskery jaw.

"What are you thinking about so intently?" she asked in a voice husky with residual sleep. "I can hear the wheels turning."

A corner of Severus's mouth quirked upwards and he grasped the hand caressing his jaw and raised it to his mouth to kiss the palm. "I was thinking that you have held me prisoner here quite long enough. It's about time that I fought free of your choking stranglehold and return to my patient."

"My choking stranglehold?" said Erin in a mock thoughtful voice. She made no effort to raise her head from Severus's chest, but she wiggled her hand free of his grasp. Immediately, she dug her fingers into the side of his rib cage, tickling him with single-minded relish.

Severus raised an eyebrow at her antics, but he did not in any way wriggle or squirm to escape her marauding fingers, nor did he explode with uncontrolled laughter. "Exactly what are you trying to do?" he asked dryly.

Erin stopped her attack and lifted her head to glare at Severus. He looked down his nose at her. "I am tickling you. You are supposed to laugh hysterically, wriggle and squirm and try to get away... or launch your own attack, if that avenue seems prudent."

"Ah," said Severus thoughtfully. "I see."

Erin wedged her arm between her and Severus's chests to give herself a better view of his oh, so smug face. "You're not ticklish?" she said, sounding peeved. Severus shook his head.

"Not even a little? Somewhere on this cast-iron body?"

Severus raised his eyebrows again. "Really, my dear Miss Hanson, would you really expect me to admit to any weakness that would give the enemy an advantage?"

Erin raised her own eyebrows, and then she grinned evilly. "Oh, I think I have already ferreted out exactly what your weakness is, Professor Snape."

"Do tell, Miss Hanson?"

Erin made a welter out of squirming upwards along the length of Severus's body, causing him to shut his eyes and try to suppress a torturous groan of longing. When her face was on a level with his, she hooked her leg over his robe covered thighs and while moving her lower body over his, she took his endearingly ugly, stubbled and tired, but oh, so dear face between her hands and kissed him long and hard on his grateful mouth.

The kiss lit the tinder, but what she was doing with her hips caused the conflagration. What more proof did she need of his weakness?

&&&&

Severus turned off the taps and climbed out of the deep, claw-footed tub, picking up the thick white towel draped on the vanity. He made short work of drying himself and donning the fresh clothing one of the house-elves had brought from his quarters.

Erin came in as Severus was adjusting his shirt collar so that just the merest line of white showed above the neckline of his robes. She snaked her arms around him from behind, resting her cheek against his back. "You look good enough to eat, Professor," she said in a voice that should not belong to someone who had, not long ago, feasted sumptuously.

Severus rolled his eyes. "How can you possibly be hungry?" he asked, tongue very firmly planted in his cheek.

Erin laughed and insinuated herself under his arm while he tried to tame the bane of his life... his hair. "With her arms still wrapped around him, she looked up into his face. "More than two years of being celibate," she said, "And discovering that the feast I am able to indulge in now, is so much more delicious than any I have ever had before."

Severus's movements stilled and he studied the very feminine form draped around him in the mirror. He pulled her tightly against him with an arm around her waist. He held her head steady with a large hand while he very thoroughly refreshed Erin's memory about the first course of the feast they had so recently shared.

It was Severus who reluctantly pulled back. "Right now my love, my greatest desire is to disappear somewhere where we can both gorge to our hearts' content. Unfortunately, I have a patient whom I need to check on.

Erin rested her forehead against Severus's chest. "God, I'm a selfish cow! You wanted to leave forty minutes ago. As much as I need you, Harry needs you more."

Severus kissed the top of her head. "Dobby would have summoned me if I was needed."

"When can I see Harry?"

"It's only four AM. Leave it till breakfast and come to the hospital wing and dine with Potter." Erin followed Severus into the bedroom where he sat on the bed to pull his boots on.

"What about your breakfast?" she asked.

Severus smirked and looked sideways at her through a curtain of clean hair. "I've already feasted."

&&&&

When Severus entered the hospital wing, the first thing he noticed was the elf sitting on the edge of a chair with his large eyes fixed unwaveringly on Potter's face, wringing his long-fingered hands agitatedly. Dobby started when Severus came into view. He should have heard the ringing footsteps on the flagstones, but he had not.

Dobby jumped to his feet and began to twist his ears. "Professor Snape, sir! I is not knowing whether to come for you or not, sir."

Severus frowned at the elf. "What in Merlin's name are you on about?" he asked impatiently. His black eyes raked over Harry's recumbent form; his respirations were regular and unlaboured, but to be sure that the boy's oxygen levels were normal, Severus lifted up the edge of the covers to check Harry's toe-nail-beds; he had to check the boy's feet because his hands were still swathed in thick bandages. The nail-beds were nice and pink, and combined with his pink lips and the twin splashes of colour in his cheeks, Severus was sure that Potter's oxygen saturation was adequate. His pulse was strong, if a little fast. There was a fine sheen of perspiration on his forehead however, and as the room was not in the least overheated, Severus felt a jolt of concern. Touching Harry's forehead, Severus could tell that he did not have a fever, but when he pushed the damp fringe back, he could see that cursed scar was inflamed.

He turned to look at the elf again, who was looking more and more guilty by the second. "I is watching Harry Potter carefully, Professor Snape, sir. I is checking for all the things you is wanting Dobby to check for, sir, but everything was as you is saying it should be."

"What has you so upset then?"

"Harry Potter was having a bad dream... a very bad dream, sir." Tears welled in Dobby's large eyes. "Harry Potter is being very restless and he is moaning. I is trying to wake him..." The elf began to howl. "...but Harry Potter is not waking up!"

"That's enough!" snapped Severus and Dobby slapped his hands over his mouth, muffling the noise even as tears still leaked from his eyes, dripping onto the maroon jumper he had on, creating large dark splotches.

"How long ago was he dreaming?" asked Severus, noting that the boy seemed peaceful enough now.

Dobby twisted his ears again and Severus snapped, "Stop that this instant!" Dobby complied immediately but he stopped one form of self-punishment for another, banging his clenched fist against a bony thigh. "I is sorry, sir."

"The dream?" asked Severus again, ignoring the elf's need to debase himself.

Dobby's voice had dropped to an almost inaudible level. Severus strained to hear because he did not want the elf to descend into hysteria, which was always on the cards with Dobby, especially when all was not right with the boy he lived to worship.

"Harry Potter is starting to dream about an hour after Professor Snape is leaving the hospital wing, sir," whispered Dobby, and he was now punching his skinny little leg so hard, Severus leaned forward and grabbed the offending fist.

"If you insist upon harming yourself, I will be forced to tell Professor Dumbledore and insist that he give you your marching orders. Is that clear, Dobby?"

Dobby's eyes opened wide with horror and his bottom lip began to tremble again. But at Severus's raised eyebrow and forbidding expression, he made a mighty effort to pull himself together. He closed one hand over the other and gripped tightly, but he refrained from wringing them together. His voice was still very reticent when he continued his tale, however.

"Harry Potter is being restless at first, but then he is starting to moan and his face is being... is being..." Dobby screwed up his ugly face in what Severus assumed was an approximation of what Harry had been doing whilst in the throes of his dream. "I is trying to wake Harry Potter then, but Dobby is not able to, sir."

"How long has he been settled?" asked Severus. The dream was worrying enough in light of what the boy had dreamed the previous night, but what was just as worrying was that he and the elf had been standing beside the bed conversing and Harry had not woken.

"Harry Potter is being quiet just before Professor Snape is returning."

Severus took a deep breath and keeping his eyes on the even rise and fall of Harry's chest, he said, "Very well, you may go. I will take care of Mr Potter now."

Dobby cast Harry one last anguished look before he Disapparated with a loud crack. Immediately the elf had gone, Severus took out his wand and pulling the covers back, he began to cast diagnostic spells from the top of Harry's head to his groin, checking that all of his vital organs were functioning properly. He was infinitely relieved to see that the boy's near-death experience had not had any lasting ill-effects.

Why then, was the boy lying there as if he was laid out and ready for burial?

As if he had heard Severus's mental question, Harry began to stir. It was not an easy awakening. Harry squirmed around for a minute; he threw himself onto one side, staying put for all of five seconds before flipping over onto his stomach and rubbing his face backwards and forwards across the pillow as if he was trying to relieve an itch. This activity did not seem to have provided any relief for whatever ailed him, because the still mostly asleep boy threw himself onto his back again and raised an enshrouded hand to his face and rubbed his forehead vigorously, giving the scar a thorough workout. Throughout the whole of this performance, Harry's face was screwed up, as if he was in pain.

Severus sighed and grabbed Harry's wrist to prevent him rubbing the scar raw with the rough gauze bandages. "Wake up, Potter!" Harry groaned but did not open his eyes. He tried to pull his hand free but Severus tightened his grip.

"Potter!" Still no response.

"Harry!" The green eyes blinked several times and when they opened fully, Harry's gaze remained unfocused. Severus shook his head and frustrated with how long it was taking his patient to wake up, he grasped the boy's lower face between pincer-like fingers and forcefully turned his face towards him.

Harry blinked again before the haziness in his gaze dissipated and screwing up his eyes in his short-sighted way, he brought Severus's taut face into blurry focus. "Professor," he managed to rasp past the dehydrated tissue of his throat and soft pallet before the tension around his eyes intensified into a mask of pain.

"Oww!" the pain was not just that of a sore throat. Harry placed his hand over his heart and rubbed hard. "God, what the bloody hell happened to me? Was there a herd of hippogriffs stampeding through the potions lab?"

"You remember working in the potions lab, then Potter?"

"Y-e-a-h," drawled Harry, his hand still rubbing the spot on his chest that Severus had exerted so much pressure on to get his heart working again. "And what's this all about?" He held his bandaged hands up.

Severus dragged the chair Dobby had been sitting on closer to the bed and sat down, leaning in close. "I will explain everything shortly, Potter. But first, I would like you to tell me about your dream."

"Dream?" said Harry, his brow creasing again. "Who said I had a dream?"

"You don't remember dreaming?"

"Not especially... umm... Professor, can I have some water?"

Severus tried to hold onto his limited patience; he stood and poured a glass of water from the jug on the cabinet. Harry took the proffered vessel awkwardly between his bandaged hands and chugged the whole of the contents. He closed his eyes in blissful relief. Severus took the glass away.

"Here," he said and Harry jumped a little when he felt his glasses slipping over his ears.

"Thanks," he said and with his vision restored and his thirst quenched, Harry made the mistake of forgetting his other obvious discomforts and when he tried to sit up, he gasped and fell back to a lying position.

"Bloody hell!" he exclaimed, biting his lip against the waves of pain that crashed through him, especially his back. He tried to snake a hand around to investigate the area but the bandages put paid to any tactile exploration.

"I suggest you stay horizontal for the moment," said Severus.

You think? thought Harry dryly.

Severus pointed his wand towards Poppy's office and Harry opened his eyes in time to see a squat jar and a vial of potion zoom through the air. He broke the seal and handed the potion to Harry, who only looked at it askance for a second before swallowing the foul concoction. Harry hadn't needed to ask; he knew the potion had been a pain reliever, having been dosed with it more times than he cared to think about over the past couple of weeks. Lately, on the odd occasion, he had stressed over the amount of potion he had been dosed with for one thing or another and wondered whether it was possible he could become reliant on them. It worried him to realise how eager he was to swallow such unpalatable concoctions at times like this. And at the moment, he was scared to think about what might have caused this latest indisposition, especially the fact that he could not remember anything.

Now, Harry relaxed as the many aches and pains began to fade but he snapped back to the present with a jolt when he felt the covers being whipped off. "You should be able to move easier now, so roll onto your side for me," said Severus. 'You have a couple of contusions on your flanks and this balm will ease the pain there even more effectively than the potion.

Holding his breath, Harry stiffly rolled to the side, but he relaxed somewhat when he only experienced a twinge in his flanks. He flinched and yelped when the cold salve touched his skin, but once again, the magical concoction worked within moments and Harry found the remnants of the back pain virtually disappearing.

After Severus had finished applying the salve to the two nasty bruises over Harry's kidneys, he straightened the boy's pyjama top and spelled his hands clean. The bruising had been caused by a modified concussive hex Severus had directed at Harry's adrenal glands so that they would be stimulated to release a bolus of adrenalin into his system... the last resort to get his heart beating again.

"Are you hungry?" asked Severus, once he had finished making Harry as comfortable as possible.

Harry peered at a sliver of black visible between two halves of the drawn curtains covering the window opposite his bed. "It's still night, isn't it?" he asked confusedly.

"It is," answered Severus. "But your body is probably in need of sustenance after what it has been through.

Harry considered for a moment. What he wanted most was to demand to know exactly what had happened to his body, but he knew that Snape would tell him only when he was ready. As to the question of food, Harry considered before, unsurprisingly, shaking his head. "I'm not really hungry. But I'd kill for a cup of tea.

Severus nodded and while he strode to the fireplace to place an order to the kitchens, Harry laboriously pulled himself into a sitting position.

Severus allowed silence to reign as he and Harry both sipped refreshing cups of tea. Both had subjects on their minds they were eager to delve into, but by unspoken agreement, they waited.

Dumbledore entering through the main doors of the Hospital Wing brought the peaceful interlude to a close. Harry awkwardly placed his cup back in its saucer; Severus had actually placed it between his bandaged hands as picking it up himself had proved impossible while leaving enough room at the rim to apply his lips to.

Dumbledore spread his arms wide as he strode to Harry's bed. "Harry, my boy. I am so relieved to see you looking so well."

"I don't know about well," mumbled Harry in what he thought was a low enough voice not to carry. He was suddenly feeling tired and not a little grumpy.

"Much, much 'weller' than you were several hours ago, my boy," said the headmaster, unperturbed by Harry's moodiness. But this simple statement was Harry's green light. His disgruntled expression encompassed both Severus and Dumbledore.

"Okay!" he said. "Is anyone going to tell me what happened?" he held up his white-mittened hands. "The last thing I remember is slicing up eucalyptus leaves for Professor Snape."

Severus and Dumbledore exchanged resigned looks... there was no way they could keep this from Harry. And yet, both were worried about what this latest disaster would do to Harry's state of mind. Dumbledore inclined his head slightly towards Severus, giving him the spotlight— a position Severus was not at all sure he wanted. Still...

"That is indeed the last thing you were doing Po... Harry."

Harry blinked. He had heard his given name fall from Snape's thin lips more than once over the last fortnight, but it was still somewhat of a shock. Though he had to admit to himself that it was a shock he preferred infinitely to the usual disdainful, 'Potter'.

"Do you remember that your hands were becoming reddened and painful?"

Harry nodded. His shrouded hands were kind of numb at the moment, but he remembered clearly how they had begun to throb and sting. Another scene suddenly popped into his mind... he remembered the sharp, sudden smart of the small knife he was using slicing into his hand. And then... nothing. Nothing until he had woken up here this morning. He relayed this to the two older wizards.

Severus nodded. "And then you made the mistake of putting your injured hand to your mouth to try to ease the pain. An automatic response; something that we have all done. Unfortunately for you the action accelerated the allergy that had suddenly manifested in your body."

Severus recounted the horrific tale of what had happened over the next few minutes down in the laboratory. Harry listened with a growing sense of disbelief. When Severus fell silent, Harry raised his eyes to Dumbledore.

Albus could see exactly what Harry was thinking. Am I even going to live long enough to fulfil my destiny? He smiled reassuringly at the young boy. The smile said, 'we are all here for you, Harry, and we are a formidable team'.

Harry wished he could believe it.

"Have you any idea why you might have developed an allergy to such an everyday thing as eucalyptus, po... err, Harry?"

Harry shrugged. "I don't really like it," he said, the shock he felt after being told his heart had stopped beating for a significant period of time, still apparent in his voice. "The smell," he elaborated. "Aunt Petunia always sprayed it around everywhere, especially my cup... err, my room." He drew his knees up and picked at a thread in the cotton bedspread.

"Hedwig," he said weakly, by way of explanation as to why his room might have been targeted more than the rest of the house. In actual fact, Harry was sure that his aunt just sprayed industriously wherever he spent the most time... she had sprayed the cupboard under the stairs two or three times a day, whether he was confined in there or not. He knew it had been part of her decontamination process; she had been decontaminating the house from any germ foolish enough to cross the threshold, and she had tried to decontaminate him of the freakish influence of magic. The smell was one of his strongest memories of Privet Drive.

"So you grew up inhaling eucalypt fumes?"

Harry shrugged and then he nodded. Severus sighed. "That would be enough to form a powerful catalyst," he murmured, looking at Harry intently. Harry stared back, strangely taking comfort from the endless tunnels of the man's usually cold eyes. That coldness was tamped down by concern at the moment.

"So," said Harry, lowering his eyes and self-consciously picking at a thread on the cotton quilt. "You saved me again."

Severus ignored this comment. He stood and took Harry's nearest wrist in his fingers, bringing an end to the picking. He took out his wand and pointing it at the bandages, he incanted a whispered word and the bandages disappeared. He turned the hand over; it was still covered in thick, olive-green paste that had not dissolved or been rubbed off, even though it had been covered with gauze and bandages. Severus banished the paste to reveal delicate pink skin. There was no trace of the weals or blisters. The other hand was similarly healed.

"Your hands can be exposed to the air during the day but you must not do anything more strenuous than using eating utensils and turning the pages of a book. Even writing might irritate the skin on your hand. I will rebandage them before you sleep... daily applications of the paste will speed up healing. "

"And because you will remain in here for the next two days, you will not be tempted to do anything foolish."

Harry looked to Dumbledore to intervene. The old man shook his head. "It is more than these ancient bones are worth, Harry, to countermand your healer's orders," he said cheerfully.

Harry knew that this was so much bunkum, but truth be known, he felt as if two days in bed might not really be enough... he felt utterly exhausted. He had been after his last near-death experience too; the pain relieving potion was probably adding to his exhaustion.

Harry was vaguely aware of Snape walking off a short distance with Dumbledore. As he slid back down in the bed, he saw them with their heads together in intense conversation. He was awake enough to be slightly annoyed that there were apparently more secrets, but too tired to really care. His eyes were screwed shut and his mouth was opened wide in a yawn when he heard approaching footsteps again. He opened his eyes to see both wizards looking down at him.

"Harry," he said, "Professor Snape tells me that Dobby informed him that you were having quite an intense dream earlier."

Feeling at a total disadvantage lying down, Harry hoisted himself back into a sitting position. His head was reeling with tiredness. "I don't remember any dream... I already told Professor Snape that. And when was Dobby here?"

"Dobby was keeping an eye on you while I went to have a rest and freshen up. He assures me that you became quite distressed while sleeping, so it stands to reason you were having a dream."

"I don't remember," said Harry emphatically. Why were they so interested in his dreams anyway?

"Harry, you have not experienced any scar pain or headaches since you returned to Hogwarts?" asked Dumbledore.

"No," said Harry.

"Are you sure?" asked Severus. "You were rubbing your scar when you were waking up.

Harry automatically raised his hand to his scar and traced its zigzag shape with a fingertip. Then he rubbed it with the heel of his hand. "It hasn't really pained me since we got here," he said contemplatively, "Not really... but it always prickles."

"Always?" said Dumbledore.

Harry nodded. "Yeah. I'm so used to that though, I hardly even notice." Both men continued to stare at him, making Harry feel like a side-show exhibit at a fair. Dumbledore was stoking his beard and Snape was rubbing his temple with a long finger.

"Can I go back to sleep now?" Harry asked. He just wanted to go to sleep and try to forget what they had just told him. It was way too freaky to think that his heart had actually stopped beating and that he had technically been dead. Wouldn't Voldemort love to know that?

Probably not. Because you didn't stay dead, Dung Brain!

Harry realised that Dumbledore was talking to him again and he tuned back in. "... told me about the dream you had last night in his rooms."

"Oh," said Harry. "Do you think it was important?"

"I think it may be, yes. And as tonight's dream was distressing you, it too may be significant."

Harry furrowed his brow, trying to dredge his memory for anything that may have been part of a dream. He usually remembered his dreams, if not the whole thing, then random bits and pieces. He would have thought that if the dream was upsetting him as much as Dobby seemed to think it had, then he would remember it.

As he delved deeper, a wavering image began to appear but it would not coalesce into a firm picture. Harry could see that it was a person... a person who seemed to be kneeling with his head bowed. There were definitely a couple of other people in the background, but the picture was too vague to make out details. But the person in the foreground was very pale... very, very pale. The bent head lifted and the face that was exposed practically blended in with the pale hair. The young man looked like a ghost; the white face was screwed up in agony and his body trembled.

"Malfoy!" Harry whispered.

"What!" barked Severus and Harry jumped.

"I... I think it was Malfoy. I... he... I..." Harry shook his head. "It can't have been though," he rushed on. "This guy didn't look in the least sneering or superior... he was scared." The last was whispered.

Dumbledore looked worried. He took a deep breath. Harry was expecting him to continue to question him, but instead he stepped closer and put his long fingered hand on Harry's head and ruffled his messy hair slightly. "Thank you, Harry. Now, we shall leave you to get some more sleep."

Harry slid down the bed again, slipping off his glasses and placing them on the bedside cabinet. He watched the blurry outline of the two wizards as they moved towards Madam Pomfrey's office, their heads close together. Harry swallowed and propped himself on his elbows to watch them.

"Err, sir..." Albus and Severus stopped and looked back at the slight figure in the bed.

"Yes, Harry," said Dumbledore.

"Umm... err... will someone be staying in here?" Harry could feel his face burning and he wanted to pull the covers up over his head. He sounded like a frightened little kid. He was a Gryffindor for God sake.

But the truth was, he was frightened. With everything that had happened to him in his nearly sixteen years, his heart had never actually stopped beating before. It had continued to work valiantly no matter what situation he had found himself in... a basilisk biting him... falling off his broom from a great height, Dementors doing their best to kiss him... dark wizards trying to kill or capture him, and Voldemort himself casting two killing curses at him. But a simple leaf, or more specifically, the oil in the leaves, had come closer to killing him than any magic or magical creature had so far. What if his heart stopped again?

Harry was relieved to see that Snape did not sneer at him... in fact, for Snape, he sounded perfectly understanding. "I am not going anywhere, Harry."

Harry breathed a sigh of relief and threw a tight-lipped smile at Snape before his shaky arms gave out on him and he flopped back on the bed. He was asleep in less than a minute.

&&&&

"He is not going to take kindly to this Albus," said Severus. they were sitting in two of Dumbledore's conjured easy chairs at the top of the ward.

Albus nodded wearily. "I am aware of that, Severus. If you can think of another way, I am all ears."

"And you are convinced the boy is not dreaming, but is still having visions?"

"It is all I can think of," sighed Albus. "How would he have known the word, 'Horcrux'? I am convinced that there could not be more than a handful of wizards alive today who have ever heard the word. Considering your own tender years..." Severus rolled his eyes, "...that you are one of them, surprises me greatly."

"The book was ancient and written in an arcane language... some, within generations of long ago Malfoys may have been great readers and very learned, but none that have passed under my nose have been brilliant scholars... far from stupid, of course, but not interested in anything that did not relate to the here and now and their elevated place within the structure of our society. It is doubtful that dusty tome had been read for a long, long time." Albus looked at Severus with a penetrating gaze, devoid of his trademark twinkle. "You did well to rid that library of the darkest piece of knowledge it contained, Severus, despite desecrating such an ancient tome."

"It scared me witless to think that a wizard could ever do such a thing... that anyone would even consider it." Severus returned his mentors steady gaze; his eyes were deeply troubled. "Are you sure that the Dark Lord would have made a Horcrux?"

Albus sighed and stroked his beard. "I have been sure since Harry's second year. Now, I am very much afraid that he may have made more than one."

Severus eyes widened. "More than..." Horror struck, he shook his head in denial. "Surely not even he would be so foolish."

"He thinks nothing is beyond his capabilities, Severus. He thinks he is so all powerful that he would be able to mutilate his soul multiple times without there being any consequences other than making himself immortal. He is gravely mistaken."

"It is because he had a Horcrux that he did not die when the Killing Curse rebounded, isn't it?"

'Precisely."

Severus turned around and gazed at the shape huddled beneath the bedclothes at the other end of the ward. "If the boy is still having visions, why is he no longer suffering the agonising pain that has accompanied these episodes before?"

"I believe that my efforts to enhance the wards against evil intrusion directed at Harry only worked on one level. The wards work well enough to keep the pain that accompanies Harry's visions at bay... well, the worst of the pain anyway.

"Unfortunately, there is obviously still a window through which Harry is still able to divine what Voldemort is thinking or feeling. Not everything, obviously, or else Harry would be totally lost in Voldemort's mind; he only seems able—thank goodness—to pick up intensely significant scenes."

Severus shook his head. "I have never heard of anything remotely like the connection these two have. How is it happening? Why?"

Dumbledore shook his head. "My boy, I only have theories... theories that may be woefully wrong. I wish to have more information before I enlarge further. Therefore, Harry needs to be Legilimized so that we can see exactly what he dreamed. Both times."

"What about the pensieve? That would not be as invasive."

"Ultimately it would be more so. Unfortunately with dreams, one cannot just siphon off the specific memory. One cannot isolate it. I would have to remove too big a block of Harry's thought matter. Most of the block—when he is asleep and not dreaming—would just be fog. Removing so much matter would be extremely painful and likely send him into shock. It would be much more painful than if he was being Legilimized."

"Then you must be the one to Legilimize him, Albus," hissed Severus.

Albus looked at Severus over the top of his glasses. "I know you can use Legilimency with much more finesse than you demonstrated with Harry, Severus. Your skill surpasses mine; it surpasses Lord Voldemort's."

Severus shut his eyes and turned away from the sight of Harry huddled beneath his covers. Even though he could not see Harry, the shape under the covers was too reminiscent of the boy cowering on his office floor after having his mind raped. It also brought to mind the Harry who had to be forcibly restrained while he, Severus invaded his mind to try and counter the Dark Lord's invasion back at the Burrow. He rested one elbow on the palm of his other hand, rubbing his forehead with stiff fingers. He started when Albus put a hand on his shoulder.

"I know you were punishing Harry for being his father's son, Severus. You were not ready then to interact in such an intimate way with him. That decision was my mistake. Everything was snowballing out of control and I truly believed I needed to hold myself aloof from Harry... for everyone's sake.

"But you are ready now, my boy. And Harry will accept your efforts now, because your recent history has changed both your perceptions of the other."

Severus did not answer. He wished he was infused with Albus's certainty. Oh, he knew that he could make a much better showing of Legilimizing the boy... if the old man had stated an unarguable fact today, it was that he, Severus was an amazingly gifted Legilimens. Another unarguable statement was that he had deliberately turned those unspeakable lessons into torture sessions... and he had enjoyed it. Severus's hands clenched on the arms of the chair

It was true that Harry had not put in any effort, but if his teacher had made an effort to teach the discipline rather than just attacking and expecting the boy to know how to empty his mind, how to layer his memories and how to push an intruder out, then Harry would have had something to work with. At the very least, he could have him to read one of the excellent reference works that he had in his library.

The sound of the double doors opening drew both men's attention to the other end of the ward. Erin slipped through the narrow gap and softly pushed the door closed again.

Severus felt his heart lift at Erin's appearance; her mere presence made the most distressing situation so much easier to bear. Erin shortened the distance between them, stopping at Harry's bed and gazing at Severus and Albus questioningly. Severus turned his head to Albus again "You must be the one to convince the boy of the necessity of undertaking this exercise, Albus," he said in an undertone, "As you must be present when we do this."

Albus nodded. "I would have been there whether you requested it of me or not. Harry needs to know that we are all here for him; I have been entirely too remiss in distancing myself from him." Albus rose and Severus followed suit, watching with admiration as Albus banished the chairs with a careless wave of an elegant hand.

Albus put a hand against Severus's back and guided him towards Erin and Harry. After our young Gryffindor has eaten his breakfast—if Erin can cajole him to do so—will be soon enough to speak to him."

Dumbledore smiled at Erin and patted her hand as he deposited Severus at her side and continued towards the door. "I shall see you both later."

Severus cast a glance at Harry, who was still slumbering peacefully, before gathering Erin to him and kissing her soundly. "You could have slept for another hour," he murmured, his lips against her temple.

"I couldn't go back to sleep after you left. I just dozed for a short time."

Severus drew his wand and though not quite as adept at making sumptuous furniture appear out of thin air as his mentor was, he managed to conjure a comfortable enough two-seater sofa. He pulled Erin down by his side and together they sat and dozed lightly until Harry began to stir.

&&&&

After taking another dose of potion and having more salve applied to the area over his kidneys, Harry managed to eat a small amount of breakfast, taking pleasure in Erin's presence. Snape had made himself scarce while they had eaten, returning in time to have a cup of tea with them. Harry was surprised to realise that he had accepted that Snape and Erin were a couple and while still not entirely comfortable around the man, he was happy to see that Erin was obviously very content. Snape too looked less like a predator when in the young woman's company.

When Dumbledore had joined them though, Harry had become nervous. He noticed that Snape began to look a little tense and that even Dumbledore was a little less animated than usual. After conjuring an extra cup, Dumbledore refilled the teapot, poured himself a drink and sat on the side of the next bed to enjoy it, making easy conversation that belied the tense atmosphere.

Finally he directed his penetratingly blue eyes at Harry. "Harry, these latest dreams that you have had, worry me greatly." Harry's heart sank. "To begin with, I need to know exactly how close your connection to Voldemort still is after I made the attempt to enhance the protective wards around the castle to stop him penetrating your mind.

"It appears that you are still able to divine what he is thinking, if he is in a deeply emotive state."

"But..." said Harry. "They might just have been ordinary dreams."

"They may well have been, but we need to be sure. And I do not think they were ordinary dreams... at least not the first one because you have knowledge of a word that you would never have heard in the ordinary course of your life."

Harry swallowed. He knew he was not going to like what the headmaster said next. He could not really remember either dream, and if Dumbledore thought it was important, they were going to have to extract the information from him somehow. Dumbledore didn't keep him hanging by his fingernails.

"Harry, I am afraid that we are going to have to Legilimize you." Harry, who had leaned forward and wrapped his arms around his blanket-covered thighs at the beginning of this conversation, now slumped back against his pillows and covered his face with his hands, pushing his fingertips under his glasses.

"I don't suppose it'll make any difference if I refuse," he murmured into his hands.

"I know you will not refuse, Harry. You may not like what we have to do, but I know you are as determined as we are to find a way to stop Voldemort."

Harry lowered his hands and stared at Dumbledore. "I thought I was the way."

Dumbledore took a deep breath. "Ultimately, it will be you, Harry, but we may be able to make your job easier if we can find out his secrets."

Harry was silent. He drew his knees up again and stared at the tent they made under the covers. Erin took his hand and squeezed it.

"We are going to do everything in our power, Harry, to make sure you have every advantage when the time comes for the final denouement."

Dumbledore fell silent and he, Erin and Snape waited. Harry knew that he didn't really have a choice; he knew he couldn't refuse Dumbledore, and Dumbledore knew it too. But if these dreams were visions, then he needed to know as much as the adults did. They had learned so much from this connection he had with Voldemort, including how to save the Muggle boys.

He did not miss the pain that usually accompanied these visions, but if he had to be Legilimized after every dream that he had, was he any better off? Maybe he should ask Dumbledore to remove the extra protection he had erected. No, he would wait until after the Legilimency to see how badly it hurt.

Harry glanced at Severus who was leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest. He was not looking at Harry, but staring out a window at the blue sky beyond. Harry flicked his eyes to Dumbledore. "You'll do it, yeah?"

Harry had known before he asked, that no, the headmaster was not going to do it and it was hard to hold his tongue while Dumbledore explained why Snape was the still the best person to invade Harry's mind after everything Harry had been through for those few months.

Dumbledore explained that Snape was so much better at Legilimency (a claim that Harry was yet to see the proof of) and that as Snape had also been in Harry's mind before, and he knew the landscape.

Harry wasn't sure how different individual brain landscapes, could be, but he did trust that Dumbledore was not laying down this edict just to upset Harry; there had to be truth in what he said.

"Potter," said Snape, and at a look from Erin, he amended what he was going to say. "Harry, this will not in any way resemble the battles you and I fought in my office, I promise you that." Erin's free hand wrapped around his where it rested against his leg. "The experience this time will be very different, and not just because you and I have been through quite a bit together this holiday."

Harry looked at Erin and then back at Snape. He wasn't surprised to see that she had taken one of both their hands; she had joined them together with her as the link. It had been like that for a while now; she was the calm at the centre of his and Snape's storm.

Severus sensed that Harry was going to listen to him without prejudice, probably because of Erin's presence. "The major difference with this exercise and our previous encounters is that you will not be trying to expel me from your mind. You just have to relax and concentrate on the vague memories you have of both dreams.'

Harry thought about that and decided that it made sense. He needed to let Snape in this time, not throw him out. Not that he had really mastered that particular art, but the effort he had put into it had, Harry was sure, contributed greatly to his headaches. It had certainly contributed to the stress he had experienced last year. He tuned back in when he realised that Snape had not finished talking.

"Another thing that will be different Harry, is that I will be using my skills in a manner that is designed to cause you the least amount of distress." Severus stared at Harry, hoping that the boy would believe him to be sincere. He had not actually come out and apologised for his past treatment, but he had more or less said that he had mistreated Harry and that he would address the issue to the best of his ability. It was as good as an apology. He hoped so, because actually saying, 'I am sorry', was not something Severus found easy.

"So, Harry, are you willing to allow Professor Snape to see if these dreams of yours are significant?" asked Dumbledore.

Harry bit his lip. God, how he had loathed those Occlumency lessons. He turned his head and studied Snape. Harry wasn't sure what it was, but he did not see the Professor who had made his life hell for the last five years of his life. When Harry thought about it, he had not really seen that person for a while. He did not think he could have been through what he had suffered over the last couple of weeks when Snape had been such a presence in his life... often a snarky presence, sure, but always a helpful one, without having developed a certain degree of trust.

Also, there was something different about the man these days, and it was more than just the clean hair. Snape's face has lost much of the permanent nastiness that had always graced it; the deep groove between his eyebrows that formed the perpetual glower and the deep lines of discontent that ran from the corners of his mouth to his jaw, had almost disappeared. The man was certainly no oil-painting, but he was no longer the angry, nasty and bitter specimen he had been not so long ago. This persona was definitely much easier to trust.

Harry nodded and he felt the tension leave Erin's hand which was still clamped around his own. She smiled at him, relieved by his acquiescence, even though she could not know what Harry was acquiescing to... unless Snape and she had earlier had a deep and meaningful about the magical disciplines of Occlumency and Legilimency. As if she had divined his thoughts, or perhaps used Legilimency on him, Erin disabused him of the notion that she knew nothing of the discipline.

"Harry, Severus used Legilimency on me once. I didn't fight him and the only discomfort I felt was a slight pressure. Afterwards, I had a very slight headache which quickly disappeared after I had some potion.

Harry wanted to ask why on earth Snape would have needed to perform Legilimency on Erin and more to the point, why she would have willingly subjected herself to a mental invasion, but he held his tongue. He looked at Severus again, and after scratching his forehead, he finally nodded.

"Fine! If you think you'll find something out, then do it."

Relief seemed to flutter through the three adults like a light breeze riffling through a copse of poplar trees. It was obviously important to all of them that he be a willing participant. He stared at Snape intently before relaxing back against his pillows.

None of them, Snape included, wanted him to suffer. That knowledge had a profound effect on Harry. Snape had done everything possible to help him ever since that fateful night at Privet Drive. Harry knew this, but this was the very first time that he had really felt as if he and Snape were on exactly the same page.

He knew now that Snape was really his ally; he knew that he was not just doing things for him because Dumbledore told him he had to. Harry knew that he probably had Erin to thank for the softening of Severus Snape, but it didn't matter. If Snape had really been the man whom Harry had always been convinced he was, then not even Erin would have been able to get through to him. The potential had always been there for Severus Snape to be a decent man.

Knowing it in his own heart made the knowledge so much more real to him than all of Dumbledore's protestations of Snape's dependability over the years had. The weight that seemed to have settled upon his shoulders since Sirius's death and since Dumbledore had told him of the prophecy, lightened... Harry now knew that he had another significant ally in the fight against Voldemort.

TBC: I am grateful to all of you who ploughed your way through this very late update. Thank you all for staying true to the story. I hope this chapter made the wait worthwhile. I made it a long one to try and appease any discontent due to the wait.

Once again, I am sorry.

Lesley~