UPDATE: The previous chapter chapter has been redrafted for the final time (the second half). It is not entirely necessary to reread to understand the story, though recommended. I don't mean to be inconsiderate, as I know your time is valuable, but the situation called for it. Thank you, Vine, Verrine, for walking me through it! I could not have done it without your help.
Disclaimer: I do not own "Harry Potter" or any character from it. I am not making any money off this story.
It hurt to move. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to blink. He was so tired that he felt nauseas. He felt dizzy, and it seemed each step he took would leave him on the ground with a broken ankle. Every day, he went to work thinking it would get easier, or less exhausting.
It never did.
All he wanted was to get home and crawl into bed. Of course, it wouldn't be that easy. Though he was too tired to eat, it was his responsibility as a parent to make sure Teddy had a proper dinner. With their home so heavily warded, delivery was not an option, so someone would have to make an attempt to cook. And then, he would feel guilty if he didn't spend time with Teddy. He spent too few hours with him as it was. It wasn't fair to Teddy or himself. It also wouldn't be fair to Severus, if he was left to watch the toddler while Harry napped.
The past couple years of his life had revolved around being fair to Severus, however the past week had brought that to the spotlight. Since their dinner in the Three Broomsticks, Harry had had several emergency appointments with Doctor Brown. He had stopped seeing her personally some time ago, since the Dreamless Sleep situation resolved. But that was before Paris, before Severus had admitted to caring for him as more than a master, and as more than as a friend.
To his surprise, she hadn't told him he was a terrible person when he admitted to her how he felt. She had berated him for telling Severus he had considered giving him away, though. Apparently it was only natural that he would have considered giving him away, but telling Severus about it was crossing a line. Yet he was expected to be completely honest with him. She told him that she expected him to use common sense. He wondered if he had any.
While Harry preferred to pretend nothing had changed, Severus opted to take a completely different route. Doctor Brown had said she hadn't told Severus anything, but he didn't believe her. Severus knew Harry felt the same way he did, and as Doctor Brown was the only one who knew, she had have leaked him information. He didn't do anything unusual, other than keep a certain physical distance from him that they had since returning from abroad. It was the little things he said, often in a humourous light, that told Harry he knew. It made it difficult for Harry to be in denial.
He was in line at the Floo, waiting his turn to throw the powder in and return home. His brain was overwhelmed with what he had to do over the next several months to pass the Auror Training Programme, and he wasn't paying too much attention to his surroundings. That is, until a familiar voice called his name.
Harry turned to see Ron jogging towards him. Ron had always been fit, but the Auror Training Programme had proved to be exceptionally good for him. He was sunburned, though from what Harry had no idea. It pained Harry that he didn't, because Ron was supposed to be not only his first friend, but his closest. Ron was a brother, and yet Harry had barely seen or spoken to him in a month.
Ron gave Harry a quick one-armed hug. "How the hell are you? I've been meaning to catch you for weeks now, but time gets away from me."
He tried to smile, but his facial muscles were tired, too. "I'm good. Well, tired, but that's not new."
Ron frowned. His eyes searched Harry. "Are you okay, mate?"
What Ron really wanted to know was if Harry had gone back to taking Dreamless Sleep. He wasn't tired because he wasn't sleeping. He was tired because being responsible for so many things left him feeling overwhelmed. He was tired because the Auror Training Programme had him running for sixteen hours a day, using every bit of energy his body was capable of producing to cast spells, deflect curses, and write lengthy reports.
Still, he wouldn't tell Ron that. "Yeah. Are you getting ready to finish the programme?" His friend only had a week left, before he would be declared an Auror.
"Yeah," Ron beamed. "Hey, you want to pop by our flat tonight? Hermione is having one of her Spew meetings, and I'm obligated to stick around for support. There'll be food there. You can bring Severus and Shorty."
Teddy had learned in day-care that he was a 'big boy', and would object to the nickname the Weasley boys had placed over his head. Still, what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him. "Teddy would just be a distraction to the other members, and it's too late to get a babysitter on such short notice."
"Did you not hear me mention food?" Ron raised a brow.
Every month, Hermione sent Harry invitations to attend the meetings for S.P.E.W . Although the cause was to promote freedom for all individuals, no longer just house-elves, the unfortunate name had stuck. Harry hadn't been to a Spew meeting in years, since he bought Severus. He doubted they would be as boring as they used to be, considering that they had actual members now, and the discussions were far more relevant to Harry than they ever had been. But since he had a slave, going to the meetings would be hypocritical.
Besides, he was so tired.
"I heard you, Ron." He tiredly said, moving up in the line. "Maybe next time, 'kay? Give me a date, and I'll put it on my calendar or…something."
That wasn't good enough for Ron. "Look, I know you have responsibilities, but it's important you come. Hermione has sent you more than one invitation for this one. They're going to be discussing some pretty serious stuff, I reckon."
"You reckon? Don't you and Hermione talk about these things?" Harry picked up a handful of Floo powder.
If Ron flushed, you couldn't tell underneath his pink skin. "We do. I just sometimes don't really listen. Look, promise me you'll show, okay? Mum would love to take Teddy. I'll ask her for you."
"Don't-"Harry protested. He didn't want to be a burden to Mrs. Weasley, and he also wanted to stay home and relax.
Ron wouldn't take "no" for an answer. "See you at 6:30, Harry." He disappeared in the sea of people leaving the Ministry after a hard day's work.
One thing Harry had learned about relationships since leaving Hogwarts was that they took work to maintain. As a student, they flourished naturally because they saw each other every day. As an adult, it wasn't that easy. If you didn't put in effort, you would end up seeing each other only twice a year, when dropping and picking up kids at King's Cross. Hermione had put in plenty of effort in the past, with Spew invitations, bringing by dinner, and planning Weasley family outings that Harry rarely attended.
That meant it was time for Harry to step up, and remember that the Floo worked both ways, even if it meant falling asleep during the meeting.
Severus rubbed his eyes. He had spent all day going over a formula, trying to figure out where they were going wrong. It was complex, going far beyond the simple algebraic ones most learned in Potions class if they did not obtain their N.E.W.T.S. It was important that they get that particular product right, because Master George was in talks with a distributor to make it available in joke shops across the country. In the past, he had prevented the world from shattering into pieces, from genocide occurring in a way it never had before. He would feel mighty foolish if he could not figure out a single formula.
A knock on the door broke his concentration. He turned to snap at Master George for the interruption when he saw Master, balancing Teddy on his waist.
He inclined his head. Panic raced through his body. Master had never come to visit him at work before. Surely he had gotten the note Severus had left on the table, indicating that he would be working late. Something had to be wrong. "What are you doing here?"
Master sighed. "I'm on my way to the Burrow to drop Teddy off. I've been roped into attending a Spew meeting. Would you like to come with?"
Spew, Master's name for Hermione's pro-freedom group. Originally labelled the Society for Protection of Elvish Welfare, it had garnered quite a few chuckles from Hogwarts staff when she had first debuted it as a youngster. However, now that the existence of slaves was well-known by Wizarding public, and was being used as a means of punishments for terrorists, the organisation was gaining some respect. It was not uncommon for Hermione to be labelled as a consultant for many newspaper articles.
Obviously, Severus had some invested opinions in the topic. Slavery was a topic he knew a lot about. Though he desired change in how it was used in their society, he lacked any ability to do something about it. Slaves had absolutely no power in the Wizarding world, not even ones owned by Harry Potter.
"Are you asking me out on a date?" Severus peered through a vial, trying to discern any flax fragments in the potion. "If you are, I must admit I am disappointed. I was hoping for something a bit more romantic." Since their supper at the Three Broomsticks, Severus had found it most entertaining to bring it up at random invterals, just to see Master's reactions. He was blessed that Master failed to realise that if one stopped reacting, the instigator would stop. It made for limitless fun.
Master bristled. "Look, if you don't want to come, don't. You don't have to be condescending. I just thought I'd ask. Forget about it."
That attitude was most unlike Master. The man was human, and had a temper, however he usually reserved it for obnoxious people in his workplace and paparazzi. Though it was human nature to hurt those you were closest to, Master rarely spoke that way to Severus. He valued too much how his words might be taken by him.
He looked back at his formulas, and exhaled. Master George would have to wait at least another day before Severus made any sort of progress. Right now, there were things more important than potions.
A meeting of young radicals and hipsters, determined to change the world through bake sales and fundraisers. Severus would serve as nothing more than a circus act, or an example to be made of at best. He hadn't been to Hermione's flat in ages, since Master was still denying his sexuality by being with that awful woman, Mistress Di'Angelo. From what he remembered, it would be clean, but crowded and noisy, what with university students living nearby, and being far too close to the train.
But Master would be there, and Severus was assuming that there would be food. There were ways to make the best out of a bad situation.
He emptied his vials, and hurried after Master, catching him just before he entered the Floo. "Wait."
He turned, pushing his glasses up his nose. Master's eyes had dark bags underneath them, and his hair was even more wild than usual. He was pale, and looked like he needed a good night's sleep. The stress of his life had to be getting to him. "What is it?"
"Sev'rus!" Teddy reached his arms out so that he almost fell out of Master's arms. His hair was black, as dark as Severus' and Master's. As Teddy was young, he had no way of understanding that as far as hair role models went, they were the poorest of examples.
Severus rubbed his stained hands on his trousers to no avail, before taking him. "I am not hard to please. Just because I am disappointed with your delivery doesn't mean I am going to turn you down altogether."
Master smiled, tiredly. "Misery loves company, right?"
Why they so often interjected themselves into situations inspiring misery, Severus would never know. One might label them masochists if Severus' past did not make that entirely unfunny. "Right."
They ducked into the fireplace. As Master prepared to drop the powder, he had one more thing to add. "And it was only so unromantic because I was nervous. A man like me gets jittery around one of your stature."
"If you're going to flatter me, you're going to have to do better than that," Severus said.
As Master dropped the powder, he might have muttered "damn" before calling out for their destination. It was a miracle they arrived at the Burrow instead of Burrator dam.
"Harry!" Hermione flung herself into Master's arms as she typically did.
The amount of people in the flat was remarkable. Severus had expected four or five people, but not closer to fifteen. They were mostly young, save a couple in their forties wearing bright floral shirts, and an elderly gentleman. They milled about, eating crisps and raw vegetables off of paper plates, and gossiping to each other about that week's headlines.
He crossed his arms over his chest. Paying careful attention only to the floor, he crossed the room to the only other familiar face.
"Hey!" Ron was practically jovial as he invited Severus to take a seat at the table. "Firewhiskey?"
Gratefully, Severus accepted both offers. "It is…rather full in here."
"It is." Ron agreed. "Her lease is up next month, so I think we're gonna get a new place. When she first moved in, she lived alone. She said it was a perfect size, because we weren't going to live together until we were married, or at least older. Well, we're older, and it's kind of too small. And this is coming from the guy who grew up in the Burrow."
Severus made a noncommittal noise. Though he appeared and felt normal in many settings, others still gave him unease. He was terribly claustrophobic, and had to focus on the floor to avoid making eye contact with so many people. It was like the childish perspective Teddy had when playing games, that if he couldn't see them, perhaps they couldn't see him.
Ron's voice changed, in the way everyone's did when they noticed he was uncomfortable. Their pitch and tone went from natural to as if they were comforting a small child. "If this is too much, you can go hide out in our room. There are loads of books in there, even a telly. You could listen in to the meeting, or-"
He was fine. If he could work at Weasley Wizard Wheezes, if he could testify at Lucius Malfoy's trial, if he could dance the delicate dance he and Master were currently, he could survive in a flat full of strangers.
"Hey." Master came over, both of his hands quickly taking both of Severus'. "It's, um, kind of crowded in here."
He removed one of his hands from Master's to take a sip of the burning liquid that was guaranteed to help him through the night. "If you're uncomfortable, we could go home."
"If you-" Master stopped, while Ron snorted. "God, everyone seems to have a sense of humour tonight. Everyone wants to pick on me for some reason."
"We're not laughing at you, we're laughing with you." Ron poured Master some Firewhiskey. "You just need to start laughing."
By the time Hermione called the meeting to order, there was enough alcohol in Severus' system so that the crowd didn't bother him as much. When he realised the shortage of available seating in the room, he insisted Master take a seat, before sitting as his feet. The Firewhiskey gave him the ability to not care about the glares people in the room were giving Master for daring to let Severus showcase his proper place.
"Everybody, this is Harry and Severus." Hermione indicated to the both of them. "Severus, Harry, this is everybody."
Master awkwardly squirmed. "Hello everybody."
While the members discussed their old business, pertaining to press releases, certain columnists, and a wealthy slave owner in Wales, Severus paid careful attention. He did not know enough about the particular issues to make comment, but it occurred to him as the idealists spoke that they needed someone in the group who actually knew first-hand of what they were talking about. For example, they were talking about buying out a man who owned no fewer than three female slaves of a childbearing age. They had no idea that it was impossible to buy him out. Their value far exceeded what anyone could pay for them, because of the amount of children his slaves could produce for him to sell off or keep as slaves. It wasn't as simple as buying them from him and keeping them from reproducing to limit the amount of slaves in the world – people had tried that over the years, with poor results. They often ended up bankrupt, miserable, and disrespected by society, or imprisoned. Nine times out of ten, the slaves ended up dead.
"New business." Hermione declared half an hour later. "Mr. Peabody, would you like to lead the discussion?"
The man wearing the bright floral shirt spoke. "Thank you Hermione. Since we have begun attending S.P.E.W. meetings six months ago, it has become clear to us – Mrs. Peabody and I – that our priority is not limiting the laws of what people can do to slaves, or keeping them out of the wrong hands. As long as slavery is a legal practise in our country, they will be there and there will be nothing we can do to control it."
Master's hands found their ways to Severus' shoulders and squeezed. Severus placed a hand over his master's as he listened.
"You cannot control what someone else does to their property, which is what slaves are."
That elicited a groan from the group. "They are not property. They are human beings." A young girl with dreadlocks interjected.
"Yes, however in the eyes of the law they are mere cattle." Mr. Peabody reminded them all.
Severus was used to being spoken about as if he were not in the room. Dumbledore had had a fondness for doing that, and as a slave it was seen as a non-issue. In the first couple months Master had owned him, he was often spoken about while in the room, usually because the speakers were not entirely certain he was coherent enough to understand. Or they assumed he did not care what they were saying, which he hadn't at the time.
He was quite comfortable being owned by Master. He understood that he was his property, and bore no shame over that fact. Still, he did not appreciate the constant use of "they", nor did he appreciate being compared to common cattle.
"What are you saying, Peabody?" Ron took his eyes off his crisps. Apparently he participated more in these meetings than he liked to claim, likely to save his own reputation amongst friends.
"I'm saying that unless we find a way to prove that slaves deserve a salary, or find a way to remove their enslavement curses, our efforts will be in vain." Mr. Peabody said.
Not entirely in vain. If the organisation could help one person, then that was a wonderful thing. S.P.E.W. had saved Severus from certain doom, which he was incredibly grateful towards. Every other Death Eater slave would be certain to feel the same way, except that raised a question of ethics: were Death Eater slaves deserving of being helped? Hadn't they asked for the punishment they had received? Would it be unnecessarily cruel to take them out of the torture they had suffered to place them in Azkaban?
That raised even more questions in Severus' mind. He had met many slaves in his life, and doubted many of them wanted freedom. Again, he was reminded of Plato's Cave. If given the opportunity to be free, most would turn back to their comfort zone and decline the offer. Would they be wrong to force freedom on slaves, who had grown up knowing nothing else? That also seemed unnecessarily cruel.
Master's thoughts seemed to be in the same vein. "I disagree. I think we should try making the enslavement of anyone else, including the children of slaves, illegal. But taking the ones that are already in that position out of it seems like a bad idea."
"That's rich, coming from you." Dreadlocks Girl snorted in derision. "You're just saying that so you can keep Severus waiting on you hand and foot."
"Hey!" Ron objected loudly, mouth full of crisps.
Though Severus could not see his master, it seemed the man took her comments in stride. "I am not. I love Severus, and will do whatever it takes to give him happiness. Some slaves might claim to want freedom, but they don't know what it really entails. They don't know about balancing a chequebook or how to make important decisions or how to ask someone on a date."
Those were not problems limited only to slaves. Master had enough gold so that he never paid attention to his vault balance. And he had proved just earlier that evening how terrible he was at asking one out.
"Then they can learn." Mrs. Peabody said. "We can set up classes, taught in groups or one-on-one. We could assign each slave a mentor, to guide them through all areas of life."
That would require a lifelong commitment from the mentor. That would be quite a thing to commit to, especially from the majority of S.P.E.W., who were under the age of thirty-years-old.
"That is, if we could find a way to reverse the spell." Hermione chimed back in, taking control over the situation before it spiralled into an attack on Master. "There's been a lot of research on it by various groups in the past, but it is very spotty, badly organised, and simply badly executed at times. I don't know a lot about spell creation, much less reversal, however, there are some in our midst who do know quite a bit about it."
Of course. He had been lured and trapped, by Gryffindors no less. Their motives for wanting Master and Severus both here were suddenly very clear.
All eyes on them, Severus suddenly began to desire more Firewhiskey. He was not used to speaking in front of people he did not know well.
"No." Master tightened his grip on Severus' shoulder. "I won't make him do that."
"You have a conflict of interest." Dreadlock Girl rudely stated. "If you are so supportive of slave rights, let yours speak."
Dreadlock Girl did not stop to consider that perhaps Severus was more than comfortable letting Master take centre stage.
He took a deep breath, speaking very carefully so that his voice did not waver. "My master's opinion of this matter is irrelevant to the fact that I cannot do what you are asking."
"You can't?" Hermione asked, gently. "I know it would take a long time to research, possibly years, but no spell except the Killing Curse is completely irreversible."
That much was true. However, some spells were so intricate that they might as well be. "I am not saying that this is an impossible spell to counter. It may be possible, but asking a slave to do it is, as she says," he motioned to Dreadlock Girl, "a conflict of interest. Even if my master ordered me to do it, I doubt I could. Trying to reverse the spell is akin to trying to escape from my master, or even harming him. If my bond did not kill me while I tried, it would certainly render my efforts useless."
"However," he said, "I do know a bit about spell creation and reversal. I am willing to impart my knowledge on the subject to Ron, Hermione, and Mr. and Mrs. Peabody, if they should so desire. There are also contacts I might introduce them to, to further educate them on the matter."
"What about us?" Dreadlock Girl interrupted. "Why wouldn't you share this information with the rest of us?"
Severus looked at her coolly. "Because I don't like you."
Two Firewhiskeys and one half hour later, the meeting was adjourned. Most of the members left, citing an early morning and children as reasons to hurry home. Others lingered, to berate Master for owning a slave, or thank him for his work in helping one. Due to those reasons, Severus and Master were amongst the last to leave.
"Wow." Master said, joining hands with Severus as they walked down the stairs of Hermione's building. "Are they really going to try and-"
"-they are." Severus was surprised the day hadn't come earlier. One would have thought the activists would have been researching the counter-curse since the punishment was announced by the Ministry for Magic. "I must admit, Master, that you chose a very interesting locale for our first date."
"Oh, God." Master rolled his eyes. "You're going to insist on commemorating this as a date, aren't you?"
Severus smirked. "Not just any date. Our first."
"Commemorate this: sometimes, I think I might hate you."
The water pressure in the master bedroom was high, so that the hot water beat hard against your back. Hermione complained that it made you feel like you were getting shot, but Harry loved it.
Still, he was beyond exhausted now, and needed nothing more than to crawl into bed. Though tomorrow was Saturday, Severus had already committed to going to George's. He had Owled their regular babysitter to come watch Teddy for a few hours in the morning, so that he could sleep in. It made him feel a bit guilty that he had to do that, but it was only temporary. Someday, he would be out of the Programme and be able to be a better dad.
Right now, he wasn't any good to anyone half-dead.
He wrapped a towel around his waist, and opened the bathroom door. He had sauntered across the room, and was about to throw the towel over a chair before he realised he wasn't alone. Two black eyes appeared from the mound of blankets on Harry's unmade bed.
"Christ, Severus. Don't do that." Harry's heart beat rapidly, startled. It was one thing for Severus to walk across the room nude, but it was quite another for Harry to do the same. There were double-standards in their relationship for good reason, especially now that the tone of it had begun to change.
"I could not sleep." Severus' words were barely discernible from underneath the covers.
Nearly every other night, Severus would go downstairs or knock on Harry's door, with a thinly veiled excuse of why he couldn't sleep. That usually translated to Gik being nowhere to be found, and Severus either being worried about her or lonely. That problem was solved with the chip Harry had secretly had implanted in her ear, so that he could track her. He didn't dare tell Severus however, as the Mark on Severus' forehead served as a 'chip' of its own, and he figured he might be too sensitive about the topic.
"Gik is curled up next to your perch. You know, the one I put by your window so you can use it as a raven, which you've used about two times." Harry grabbed some shorts, and went into the bathroom to slip them on behind a cracked door.
"Your gift was given with good intentions," Severus said, poking his head out of his fort of covers. "This isn't about Gik, though."
Harry knew he was selfish. He knew it, and it was one of those things he was working on. He just didn't feel like discussing any earth-shattering issues at the moment. He wanted to sleep, and he wasn't sure he could do that with Severus in his bed. Once, it had been all right. Now, he wondered if it was crossing a line.
He's the one in your bed. If he's uncomfortable, he can get out. He knows that. Common sense prevailed, and he got into bed, taking most of the covers from his friend.
"It's about the way I asked you out. Good God, stop being such a diva. I'll bring you flowers next time, and take you to a nice restaurant."
The corners of Severus' mouth lifted slightly. "I am worried that Spew will succeed in their efforts to find a counter-curse."
"I knew that was coming." Harry folded his glasses, and placed them on his bedside table. "Mind if I Nox the lights?"
Severus lay still in the dark. "I have never seriously entertained the thought until now. What if they do?"
Harry hadn't given it much thought since leaving the meeting, and there were a couple of reasons why. "It doesn't concern us, Severus. If they found a counter-curse, it would probably be illegal to perform on slaves without going through a lot of legal hoopla. For Death Eaters, they are being punished, meaning it would never be reversed. At the very minimum, the Ministry would leave it up to individual owners, who all would laugh at the idea." He thought the members of S.P.E.W. had good hearts, but the majority of them weren't equipped to deal with the reality of the situation. They didn't spend every waking moment of their lives considering the welfare of a slave, and couldn't understand all the factors that went into it until they at least tried.
The room became silent, save for the ticking clock on the wall. For a moment, Harry thought maybe Severus fell asleep. He was relieved for an easy way out, and closed his eyes to sleep himself when Severus spoke.
"If it became an option, would you want me to be free?" Severus asked. "I wouldn't want to burden you."
So much for sleeping. "Severus, I am way too tired for this ridiculousness. You are not a burden. I love you, and you're going to live here until I die."
"You die?" Severus intoned. "One might think I would die first."
"If you don't let me get some sleep, it could go either way. You'll be the death of me, or I'll have to strangle you if you don't let me alone." He tried to inject some humour into his words so that Severus would know that he was partially kidding, but wasn't sure if he was succeeding.
Severus climbed out of the bed. "Are we still going to Doctor Brown's tomorrow?"
Shit. He had forgotten about their appointment. "Um, yes. At two o'clock."
"I will get home from work by one then. Goodnight, Master."
"G'night." Harry burrowed himself under his covers. His whole body ached, and his mouth felt dry. He was starting to feel a bit chilled. It occurred to him to take a Pepper-Up potion, but that would require the effort of getting out of bed. He closed his eyes, and tried to not think about things so that he could sleep.
He had thought Severus had left the room, but dry lips hesitantly brushing his cheek told him otherwise. He peeked over the mountain of covers, just in time to see Severus' shadow exiting the room.