Disclaimer: I do not own "Harry Potter" or the characters from it. I do not make any money from the writing of this story.

Chapter Ninety-Two

Severus' memories of his recent past were often blurred. He would never be certain of whether the Monster gouged his eyeballs, or if he had just imagined it. He thought that he remembered being terribly sunburnt at Master Muller's, but as it was early spring, could that have been the case? He didn't remember so many of the moments that his master cherished, as he had been, at that point, too deep within himself to function.

However, he remembered explicitly a moment that occurred during his first night with Master. It was shortly after they had arrived at the home Severus now regarded as his. He had knelt in the corner to make a bed of blankets. He remembered his fear and frustration at not knowing what his purpose was, and how afraid he was to ask his master. He remembered green eyes filled with an emotion that Severus had not known how to discern, which had also been frightening. The words Master had spoke would stick with him forever; "By trying to get better. That's what you're here for; do you understand? It's for you to get better."

Getting better had taken a bleeding long time, and he was starting to doubt that he would ever arrive to the end-point.

He chewed on the end of his cigarette, staring out the bedroom window from his position on the windowsill. He knew that he was an intelligent man, and not one to miss the most subtle. However, that left him to wonder how often he had missed some of the most obvious things.

He was broken. Utterly broken, and quite unrepairable. He wasn't shattered or broken in two clean pieces; he was a machine that had somehow stopped working, and no one knew quite how to fix it. They might tinker and solve a problem for a time, but he would always stop working within a matter of days.

He hadn't realised that until recently. He thought that he was fragile, but was in working condition. He had discovered otherwise several months ago when Master left. Every day since, he struggled to reconcile who and what he was, and found himself filled with an anguish that he could not quell. He felt his chest tighten so that he could not breathe, and hot tears fill his eyes. He often looked at his arm with revulsion, and had tried more than the once to remove it entirely.

Never in his life had he endured such pain. All the clever punishments that Master Mering and the Monster could come up with would never compare to the torture he felt just by living. While working, he would feel mildly ill when remembered that he was earning money for a man who not only owned the clothes on his back, but Severus himself. As he struggled with that, he remembered how the man's small hand fit so well in Severus' long ones, and the endless adoration Severus felt for him.

He was a walking contradiction. Before his breakdown, he hadn't ever felt such inner conflict; now, he was beginning to wonder if it was a war he'd ever win.

Severus inhaled slowly, filling his lungs with smoke. He held it for a moment, before breathing out just as slowly. It was a terrific exercise, as the nicotine-induced changes in his brain helped calm his nerves in addition to the deep breathing.

They had an unspoken understanding about Severus' cigarette smoking. There was so much that Severus was not allowed to do without expressed permission. Anything else that could take the edge off – potions, alcohol, masturbation – first required consent from the man who owned him. It made sense, as anything that would directly affect a slave's behaviour, efficiency, or offspring was his master's business.

When Master Mering had drilled those rules into Severus - once in the most literal sense - cigarette smoking had not been mentioned. Due to the well-known adverse side effects, the law either hadn't been updated in some time or it was a mistake on Master Mering's part. In any case, it was something he could do that did not require his master's permission, and so he took full advantage of it.

It tortured Master, he knew. Master made regular hints that he didn't care what Severus did with his sperm or what he drank, but didn't want a Muggle machine breathing for him in the future. When Master said that, however, what he failed to appreciate was just how often Severus wished Master's opinion of his habits did not matter.

Speak of the devil. He flicked ashes out the open window as he heard the front door open. "In the bedroom!"

Severus had stopped picking Teddy up from daycare. They had seriously considered the use of glamours, but had decided against it because, Master said, that Severus shouldn't have to feel like he should hide who he was in public.

Severus knew the real reason, though; there was no guarantee that he would be able to keep Teddy and himself safe if he saw Master Weston again.

Master came into the room. He must have smelled the smoke in advance, as Teddy wore a bubble-head charm. "Severus, we talked about smoking in the house."

"I am near a window." Severus indicated, nodding his respect in his master's direction.

"Yeah, and you're half-heartedly blowing smoke out of it, too." Master dropped Teddy onto Severus' lap. "Take your son."

"My son?" Severus intoned, carefully setting the cigarette aside. While Severus appreciated being allowed to think of Teddy as his own, he doubted he would appreciate whatever it was Master was insinuating.

Teddy rolled up his sleeves to reveal a plethora of dried watercolour on his arms. "I coloured like you!"

He stared at Teddy without really seeing. Since that night several months ago, Teddy had taken an interest in the tattoo on his arm. He constantly asked to see it, and liked to run his sticky fingers down it whenever it was uncovered. It felt wrong to expose it to an innocent child, whose biological parents had died fighting against everything the Mark stood for.

He does not know what it means. He knows that you have one, and that no one else he knows does. He finds it intriguing, as any child would take interest any tattoo. He painted his arms to be like you, and that does not have to be regrettable. He loves you.

He felt a smile spread across his face as Teddy pushed up Severus' sleeves. "You did. Good job. I am sure your daddy is proud. Perhaps we can colour your robes green and silver next."

"Over my dead body." Master ushered Teddy out. "Go wash your arms. Severus, seriously, please don't smoke in my bedroom."

With Teddy gone, Severus took another long drag of the cigarette. He paused, considering his next action, before blowing the smoke in Master's face. "I do believe it is our bedroom."

The bedroom Severus used had now been sitting empty for months. Severus could not recall when he had last slept in it. He felt far more comfortable in bed with Master, and was flooded with nothing short of joy whenever he remembered that his master felt the same way.

Master coughed. "It is. I suppose we should bring all your stuff in here."

That would not be too monumental of a task, as the possessions Severus had accumulated over the past two years surmounted to a handful of robes, some Muggle shirts, jumpers, and trousers, socks and underwear, a single pair of shoes, a cat, and six books that he kept downstairs on the bookcase.

"We could move your desk in there." Severus suggested, putting out the cigarette. "It would be nice for you to have a study."

Master opened his mouth, and then closed it. He didn't respond, instead moving to his own wardrobe and beginning to rearrange the clothing to make room for Severus.

The bedroom must remain as it is. If they ever got into a fight, Severus needed a place to call his own to go and cool off. If Severus, for whatever reason, felt unsafe with Master, he needed a separate place to sleep. Pairing an individual who could not take sleeping potions with a person that suffered from chronic nightmares was a disastrous combination, and so it was likely they would occasionally need separate sleeping spaces for practical purposes.

"Upon second thought," Severus slowly said, "perhaps we should keep it should we ever have company."

Master threw his work robes on the floor, and pulled on a shirt. "Are you ready to go?"

He would never be ready to go. He had spent the entire day in terror for what was about to occur. Months of research had led to significant progress, and it was finally time to reveal to S.P.E.W. what they had been up to. He was not sure how he was supposed to command respect in front of a dozen strangers who were well-acquainted with how he had been at his worst. He was not sure how he would get them to take him seriously, nor how he would react if it did not go well, which it likely would not.

Teddy ran back into the room with all of his attention on Gik, who was sleeping on the bed. He had done a poor job of washing his arms, and his shirt was wet. The bobble-head charm was still in place, causing his jet-black hair to stand on end.

Severus exchanged a look with Master, who smiled broadly.

Most people would consider what Severus had a mere pittance, but he knew how fortunate he was. He had Master, and a small child who thought well enough of them to mimic. It did not matter what the people at S.P.E.W. thought of them and the research. Regardless of how their night went, nothing that was truly important would change.

He bent and gave Master a light kiss. "I will meet you at the Floo in five minutes."

Spew now stood for the Society for the Protection of the Enslaved's Welfare. As the enslavement of Death Eaters had brought awareness to the issue of slavery, membership had sky-rocketed in recent years. There were hundreds of card-carrying members across the United Kingdom that offered their support through spreading anti-slavery propaganda and the contribution of research funds, and roughly thirty people regularly attended Spew-sponsored gatherings and protests. To become a member of Spew, one had to pay a small membership fee and sign a contract that said "I affirm that I am committed to S.P.E.W.'s mission of protecting all lives, whether free or enslaved, and will take a stand against any actions to the contrary".

It was rather ironic, then, that their family was so unwelcome at their monthly meetings.

When they stepped through the Floo, Severus did not let go of Harry's hand. Though he had spent some time at Hermione's new flat before, he was not at all comfortable when there was a meeting. Harry understood; he felt eyes on them at all times, judging them as if they were doing something wrong.

"Harry!" Hermione bounced over, almost tackling her friend in her enthusiasm. She reached on her toes to give Severus a small kiss on the cheek, before turning back to Harry. "I've got to talk to you later tonight. I need your advice."

He saw Hermione less than ever. They were both so busy with their studies, and did not always make it to Weasley family dinners. She had bags under her eyes that were nearly as bad as his own, and her bushy hair was tied up in a knot on the back of her head.

"Yeah, sounds good." He put down his son and let go of Severus' hand. The urge to return the kiss Severus had given him just minutes ago was almost impossible to resist, but somehow he managed to awkwardly pat his shoulder instead. "Break a leg."

Harry could recite Severus' presentation nearly word-for-word. After thoroughly analysing Severus' research, they had begun practising for how Severus would present his research to the members of Spew. Harry had played the role of the audience; Severus had told him that his performance excelled, particularly when it came to asking stupid questions.

He reached in his pocket for a sweet. Teddy was usually a pretty good kid, but the sounds he made came in only four forms: screeches, screams, squeaks, and squeals. Usually, Severus spent Spew Meetings sitting comfortably with Teddy at Harry's feet, occupying him with peppermints to keep him quiet. The members of Spew sent them judgemental looks, but he didn't care if they judged their parenting choices tonight if it helped Severus get through what had to be a very difficult time for him.

Severus had researched the enslavement curse for several months, sine February. He was relentless, constantly working alongside Harry late into the night, and on the weekends. Every so often, he would share something he discovered that excited him, which Harry rarely understood.

Despite how much he claimed to have hated his previous job, Severus was in his element in academia. He was extremely good at what he did, and for whatever reason Harry didn't understand, he seemed to get enjoyment out of it. He was beginning to mention the possibility of getting the research published in the future. Harry strongly encouraged it, although he had no idea how one went about getting research published, or if it would be possible for Severus as a slave.

He may not always be. Harry squashed that thought before it could take flight. He had learned to trust his gut when it came to being a hero, father, and when it came to Severus' needs. He wanted, more than anything, for Severus to be both happy and healthy, and was willing to do whatever it took to ensure that he was. Right now, Severus said that he needed things to remain the same, and despite how much Harry wanted Severus to be free, he knew in his Severus-gut that, right now, Severus was right.

Severus' eyes caught his from the centre of the room, and Harry flashed him a smile. It seemed that was the motivation that Severus needed to begin.

"For three months, while you have all been working on the aforementioned clothing drives and the Peabodys' research, we've taken a different approach. Since early February, we – Master and I – have been analysing the enslavement curse that is used on slaves, and we have made a modest amount of progress. It is quite complicated, and so I shall refrain from lecturing; if you wish to know the finer details, we can by all means discuss them at the end of the meeting or set up an alternative time to meet."

To the untrained eye, Severus appeared to be cool and collected. However, Harry noticed that he wore the high-collared robes he wore each day to work, which hid the steel collar looped around his neck. His hands shook ever so slightly, which made Harry wish he could support Severus by holding his hand.

He couldn't. He would not deny Severus what dignity he was desperately trying to maintain, if not earn.

"We suspect that the enslavement curse acts much like an Unbreakable Vow. The enslavement curse binds an individual to another by-" Severus stopped.

Harry was sitting on the couch, listening to Severus practise. "It's good; go on."

"No." Severus frowned, jotting down notes on parchment. "In science, it is important to be precise. 'Individual' implies that a slave is a person, which is inaccurate. Instead, I shall say something such as 'It occurred to me that the enslavement curse acts much like an Unbreakable Vow in that it forces one to follow through, lest they die'."

It seemed exactly the same to Harry. "Yeah, that's a lot better. Say that."

Mr. Peabody raised his hand, interrupting before Severus could call on him. "How did you address the bond a slave has with its owner?"

The Peabodys' research was dependent on the idea that a slave was fundamentally changed by the curse. They believed that a slave was loyal to their master because of something the enslavement curse did to their very being. Harry knew it wasn't true, because he trusted Severus when he said that, at least anecdotally, that was not the case.

Harry itched to jump to Severus' defence. It was gravely insulting to be told that their affection for each other was, in part, a result of the enslavement curse. Whenever Severus was told that, it made him doubt everything that he thought and felt. It ate him alive, and Mr. Peabody had no right to do that to him.

"With all due respect, your insistence that a slave is a species that must worship its master is insulting, and leaves me quite frustrated. It seeks to undermine everything that Master and I have worked toward over the past two years, which I understand you have not been privy to witness." Severus paused, before adding, "However, I will grant you that an owner's ability to control a slave via the Mark on the forehead is something to consider."

Severus growled at his parchment. "Master, have you any ideas how I should explain the counter-curse design? I could tell them that the counter-curse will remove the Mark's power to affect the slave, but if I do that, I should explain the finer details"

"Yeah; don't. It's really dry and boring. Just tell them you're in the process of designing a counter-curse. Trust me, they don't care as much as they think they do." Harry mostly understood the counter-curse Severus was devising, but wasn't going to wish the amount of effort it took to understand on the members of Spew.

Severus paused. "How should I propose the experimental stage of the research?"

Harry considered this for a long time. "If you have to tell them the details, be ready to be crucified."

"The counter-curse will not work at first. These things take time to develop, and unfortunately, it is often through trial and error." Severus paused. "It is more than likely that we will kill the first several slaves that we try this on; I realise it seems unethical, but there is really no way around it."

Outrage was clear on every face in the room. "That's murder!" A man objected.

An analogy Severus had used to rationalise this to Harry involved furniture. If one dismantled a table, you might call it 'destructive', 'wasteful', or 'irresponsible'. If one slaughtered your pet, you might even call them 'cruel'. In any case, 'murder' was not a word one would use. Slaves were not people, and so the rules for people did not apply to them.

Severus shrugged. "That is a matter of perspective. Ideally-"

Dreadlocks Girl, whom Severus and Harry both despised, challenged him. "Says the man who knows a thing or two about murder."

Dumbledore. She means Dumbledore. Everyone in the room is looking at him, and they know that he killed him. It took every bit of self-restraint Harry had to not run to Severus' aid. He watched the man he loved close his eyes, and regulate himself before answering.

"Yes, I do know quite a bit about the fine line between murder and mercy killings." Severus' voice quavered, but his eyes were dry. "That is my point. We could purchase elderly slaves, which are not only inexpensive but have little to live for."

He paused, getting ready to lay the bombshell. "Preferably – and I understand this seems worse – we could purchase infants. They are astronomically expensive, and require time to care for, but we would not have to worry about the Mark killing them in the process, as they have yet to understand their status. It would, in that way, control for more variables. We would also be keeping them from a lifetime of pain, regardless of whether we succeeded."

There was not a person in the room who did not protest at that. Severus held up his hands, not only to try to stop them from talking, but in self-defence. He had lost the authority he had once held in the classroom. "Silence! One at a time!"

Dreadlocks Girl pointed a finger at Harry. "You're horrible! If you care about freeing slaves, why aren't you freeing your slave? You don't want him to be a guinea pig?"

"He's not allowed," Harry simply said, handing Teddy another sweet. "We care about him far too much to risk something happening to him. He is a very important member of not only our immediate family, but our extended family as well. We'd be lost without him, particularly Teddy. My son has already lost three parental figures, and I'm not going to let him lose another over an experiment."

"Are you saying your slave's life is more valuable than others?" Dreadlock Girl again challenged.

"No. I'm saying that infant slaves aren't loved by too many people. They've probably got their mums, and in very rare cases, a dad, but if they are being sold to us, they likely wouldn't get a chance to see them again, anyway." Harry reasoned. "It sounds cruel, but if Severus says we're doing them a favour, I trust him. He, as you've pointed out, knows what he's talking about."

"And on that note," George interjected, "we obviously need Severus to continue his research if it doesn't work. Colour me biased as well, as Severus is both my friend and best employee, but I'm not in the habit of offing those who are trying to solve my problems." He paused. "Nor am I in the habit of discussing the value of another, specific person's life while they are in the room."

The room filled with silence. Even Teddy seemed to feel the tension in the room, as he looked up at Harry, and then at Severus, before resuming his play.

Harry felt emotion fill him as he watched Severus struggle to continue. Any facade of dignity he had presented was quickly withering away.

Thankfully, Mrs. Peabody saved the day by speaking. "Bravo. Mr. Peabody and I were contemplating the same thing for our own research, if and went we get to that point. Hermione, we should begin donor appeal to our other members. We must raise a lot of money." She paused. "I am not a publicist, but I imagine we should be quite vague."

If there were a rug in Hermione's flat, Severus would have happily crawled under it. All he waned to do was go home, where he planned to hide under the covers for at least another twelve hours.

He kept his arms crossed over his chest, fighting against a chill that a warming charm couldn't fight. He forced himself to sit rigidly, refusing to let his body shake or teeth chatter. A tight pain was forming at the bottom of his head, but he couldn't afford to let himself relax.

Sitting in the warm kitchen with a half-emptied glass of red wine in front of him helped. He had to remind himself that even though the majority of S.P.E.W. thought him to be irresponsible and heartless, Master and Teddy both thought the world of him. He had to remember that the more intelligent people in the room had not argued with his research or methods at all.

In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Peabody were helping him finish the bottle of wine. They were, naturally, drilling him about his research. A testament to their commitment to the cause, they were not at all angry or upset that Severus had taken it upon himself to research the spell. All they cared about was making a counter-curse available, which would be more likely if people took different approaches to their research.

"There is the ob-objectification of the slave to c-consider, as well." It was humiliating, regardless of what Dick said to the contrary, to stutter and shake when he was upset. He hoped the Peabodys did not notice. "The c-curse turns them in-into ob-objects. It is not j-just a legal issue."

"Yes. Even if we can create a counter-curse, they will still be slaves," Mr. Peabody pointed out. "The Ministry classifies them as slaves, and they will still legally belong to someone."

That was true. There was no counter-curse against the Ministry for Magic. It was Severus' safety net, and what allowed him to continue working on the research without fear. "That is why D-Death Eaters will not work for our research. They are- We are slaves because we are being punished; to remove our curse would be equivalent to breaking one out of Azkaban."

Mrs. Peabody sighed. "If only that was an option, the poor dears."

Severus paused, glass of wine in hand. After his first few weeks of slavery, Severus had found himself frequently misunderstanding what people said. For example, he had thought "getting better" meant more training, and still felt a moment of panic when Master mentioning sleeping with him in the literal sense.

Severus took what Mrs. Peabody had said to mean that she wished the slaves were in Azkaban, as it was better to be imprisoned on a remote island than servicing an old man in a box room. However, he highly suspected she may have been referring to something else entirely.

He sat his glass down without taking a sip. "Some of them have broken out of Azkaban before. I do believe they would have again if given the chance."

"I imagine that's why the Ministry is taking the route that they are." Mr. Peabody began refilling his own wine glass. "They say they do not intend to make it a practise, but I am not sure I would trust them on that. Harry's not too worried about it, I reckon?"

You are missing something terrible, he realised as a coldness filled him. He was unable to properly hide his shaking now. Finishing his glass of wine might have helped with the shakes if he were able to handle the glass without spilling.

He could see Master across the room, talking to Hermione in a low voice. He had his back turned to Severus, so that he could not see the current situation playing out.

"He does not worry about these things enough, I am afraid." Severus kept both eyes on his master, willing him to turn around.

Mrs. Peabody tried to be reassuring when she said, "I wouldn't worry about it, Severus. You've not done anything illegal or to attract attention. Although, that does prompt me to wonder why you've continued with your research. It is risky, Severus; no one is expecting you to be a martyr."

Illegal. Azkaban. Wouldn't worry. Risky. He had obviously missed something of great importance. His teeth began chattering, and his vision began to blur from tears that he struggled to retain.

He excused himself from the table, and made his way to his master on shaky feet. He had worked hard throughout the evening to maintain a semi-professional demeanour, but he was quickly beginning to wear-out. A meltdown was now inevitable, he was afraid; however, there was a substantial difference between having the meltdown at home and at Hermione's following a meeting.

Severus tapped the younger man on the shoulder and spoke before being addressed. "Master, we must go home."

"Okay, grab the baby." Master did not take his eyes off Hermione. "That's wonderful, Hermione. Why don't-"

He isn't listening. We must leave! While the possibility of Severus leaving on his own existed, he was far too frightened from what the Peabodys had said. He knew how it would end, which was to say he would be exactly where he started from two years ago – crying while hiding beneath a bed.

Severus tugged on his master's sleeve. "We have to go now."

"Harry." Hermione got Master's attention by nodding in Severus' direction.

Master turned, his expression changing from one of annoyance to sympathy in an instant once he saw Severus' state. He patted Severus' cheek. "Don't worry about Teddy. Just go home, and we'll be there in a few."

You will be fine at home. He will be there shortly, and then you can talk all about it. It will be fine. He took a deep breath as Master turned his attention back to Hermione.

However, the trouble was that he could not exhale. His chest had tightened, and his lungs refused to cooperate.

Something is risky. Something is not safe. I have suffered so much; I am not willing to be a martyr. He had an image of arriving home to find a group of armed Aurors waiting for him.

His legs began to weaken as a sob got caught in his throat. When he fell to the floor, he made the only choice he could to attempt to preserve any dignity; he hid his face in his hands as he buried himself in master's trainers in an attempt to muffle his sobs.

Almost immediately, he was wrapped in Master' arms. He smelled of Rue and Dittany, which were both ingredients used in Master's precious but forbidden purple potion, Dreamless Sleep. The small buttons on his shirt were hard and cold as they pressed into Severus' face. The man's arms were no longer twig-like, but well-defined from his Auror training; despite his significant height disadvantage, Master was able to easily lift him.

Still unable to control his sobs, Master had to talk loudly over him. "Hermione, can we use your bedroom? Come with us. Ron, watch Teddy, please!"

He felt humiliation in addition to his stress and terror. He had tried so hard, yet was now seen as less functional than the three-year-old. They likely thought him to be mad, to need carried out of the room while carrying on so.

However, even knowing how ridiculous he seemed, he could not stop. He desperately gulped for air, and what little he was able to obtain was sacrificed in choking sobs. He buried his face in Master's shoulder, balling up the fabric of his checked shirt in his hands.

Master settled himself on Hermione's bed, pulling the covers over Severus and himself. Fingers combed through his hair. "Ssh, it's okay. You've got to breathe."

Hermione shut the door behind them. "What's the matter with him?"

Whatever gesture Master made in response, Severus could not see. It did not matter. There was so much wrong with him that he didn't even know where one would begin. The problem most obvious at the moment was that he lacked the most basic self-control, and had humiliated both Master and himself at a S.P.E.W. meeting. There were a multitude of less-obvious problems, from which Severus did not know where to choose in order to start.

"What is the-" Severus gulped for air "-Ministry doing with- slaves? My- my-"

Master fingers stilled. "You know how I sometimes have to choose between treating you like an adult and making you feel safe? This was one of those times. Severus, love, you are safe. It's okay to cry, but you've gotten too worked up; please try to breathe."

"You didn't tell him?" Hermione asked.

'Tell me what?' Severus wanted to scream. He was suddenly filled with rage, but did not think his master would look upon him too kindly if he began using him as a punching bag.

"Some of the Death Eater slaves have been causing trouble. They're running away, trying to kill their owners, committing crimes." Master explained. "They've become impossible to sell, because they are too much of a liability. The Ministry has responded by euthanising those who have done illegal things, but you don't have to worry. You're not doing anything illegal, and even if you were, the Ministry would have to come through me to get to you. I promise you that I would tell you if I thought you were in any danger."

Master slid his arms beneath his shoulders and drew him up so that Severus could rest a cheek on his chest. "I thought it'd give you anxiety to tell you, so I just cancelled our subscription to the Prophet and hoped you wouldn't find out."

So that was where their copies of their country's leading wizarding newspapers went off to. Severus noticed that his nose was dripping all over Master's shirt, but the man did not seem to care.

He was safe. He would continue to be safe, as long as he was being held by Master. Those were the only moments where he felt as if nothing could hurt him. Whenever he wasn't being touched or held, he craved it. It was like getting water after an eternity of thirst. He was already beginning to feel distress at the thought of having to move, which was inevitable.

"The Ministry knows better than to come after you." Hermione supplied. "I went down there and talked to them myself when the news came out. They've no intentions of recalling all former Death Eaters, as that would be admitting they made a mistake. You know the Ministry will never do that."

He burrowed his cheek in his Master's shirt. It was well-worn, the weave beginning to fray with age. He knew he was supposed to respond to their explanations and comforts, but he wasn't sure what to say. Master was correct in his assumption that, regardless of all logic to the contrary, the recent events would leave Severus very afraid.

"Better?" Master asked.

No. No, he was not better. He was sick to his stomach as he wondered which of his former coworkers had been killed. He felt tremors as he thought of how close he was to receiving the same treatment. Though his existence was, at times, miserable, he did not want to leave his family - the only family he had ever had - by ceasing to exist. His feet had begun to hurt even when he stayed off of his feet and wore no shoes. He had regressed, becoming less functional now than he had been at Christmas. Outside having a family, he could not think of any aspect of his life that was 'better'.

Severus gave a jerky nod, his nose rubbing up against the buttons on Master's shirt. He was still struggling to regulate his breathing and heart-rate, but he would be fine. He always overreacted to these things. While his master was not always right (because owners were not always right), he needed to believe Master was right about this.

Master's chest moved up and down in a slow, calming rhythm. "As I was saying, Hermione, I don't understand why this is a bad thing."

"It's complicated." Hermione pulled her knees to her chest. "I've never had to make a decision this big before."

The lids on Severus' eyes felt increasingly heavy, and they finally fluttered shut. As he tuned out their conversation, his hands still tightly clutched Master's shirt, so that the man could not slip away without waking him. The slow hug would have to eventually end, but as he enjoyed hearing his master's heartbeat, he would prolong it in whatever way possible.

What if Master couldn't keep him safe? The Ministry for Magic had a tendency to move quickly when least convenient to wizarding citizens, which was a small part of the reason Severus had ended up enslaved to begin with. What would happen if the Ministry showed up to his work one day? Like with Master Weston, Severus could not resort to wearing a glamour all the time, and while the wards on their home were as strong as the magic of the wizard who cast them, he was not convinced the Ministry would not be able to eventually overcome them.

Master's fingers slid from Severus hair to the nape of his neck. The pads of his fingers began slowly rubbing small circles in Severus' tense muscles. "Do you love him?"

"Of course I love him." Hermione answered quickly.

Severus' shoulders began to relax, then droop. The effort Severus was putting into behaving like a normal person while in public was exhausting. It left him feeling vulnerable and more dependent on Master than he used to feel, but Master didn't seem to mind. He seemed to enjoy doting on Severus like he did, which Severus could scarcely understand, but was eager to milk while it lasted.

Hermione paused from ranting about her sex life. "Is he asleep?"

"He's playing dead," Master said fondly as he returned to running his fingers through Severus' strands.

Severus kept his eyes shut. It felt as if his body was moulded into Master's, and though it was an unfamiliar bed in someone else's home, he felt as thought he could go to sleep. He felt small and cared for in Master's arms, and knew that if he opened his eyes he might be prompted to move.

The arm that cradled him wrapped around him tighter. "Any commitment I've ever made, Hermione, I didn't really stop to think about. If I'd considered how this would end up, I wouldn't have done it. I'm glad I did, and I wouldn't trade these guys for the world, but I didn't know I'd feel this way."

Leave it to Master to recommend acting rashly as opposed to thinking through a serious matter.

Hermione was quiet for a moment."I'd like a long engagement."

"Why?" Master shifted slightly under Severus.

"I'm not ready to be married."

Severus did not have room to talk, as he was unable to form commitments. However, he did not see the point of an extended engagement when one was already in a monogamous relationship of several years. He was a believer in doing or not doing; half-baked plans bore little point.

Apparently, Master seemed to think the same thing. "Then why bother? Say 'not now, I don't know you well enough' - which I find hard to believe after ten years – or break up with him."

She sighed. "I don't expect you to understand."

The tension in Master's body was clear. No longer was it comfortable to curl up on his chest; the panic that had left him began to return as desperate sob got caught near his heart. He buried his head in Master's breast, desperate for the despair to escape him.

Master's hand began to stroke the back of Severus' head. His body relaxed as if he knew how his muscle tension affected Severus. In all likelihood, he did.

"Why, because I can't get married?" Master's tone was not confrontational, though his words suggested otherwise. "I am, in all but name, you know. The only differences are that we don't have legal recognition, and divorce isn't exactly an option."

"I know it's not a contest," Hermione said gently. "It isn't comparable, though. You're not yet in a long-term relationship. It's not the same."

The rise and fall of Master's chest was proof to Severus that Master was deliberately choosing to remain calm for his sake. "It is the same. Severus and I are in this for the long-haul. It's just he and I; there isn't anyone else, and there's not going to be."

There's not going to be. Master's words hung heavy in the air, not clear enough to not question, but too ambiguous to offer a clear explanation.

Several nights ago, Master had woke in a cold sweat. 'What have I done?' he had whispered. It had suddenly occurred to him that by choosing to get involved with Severus, someone who he had already vowed to live with permanently, and someone who he had promised he would stay loyal to regardless of how far they went sexually, he had committed himself for life. He was no less bound to Severus than Neville and Hannah Longbottom were to one another.

Master had gotten in married, in all but name, in secrecy, at the age of twenty-years-old. He had assured Severus that he had no regrets, but had expressed to him that it was terrifying, nevertheless.

Master broke the long silence. "Sorry to do this to you, but if you want to run to my place for a bit, I'll put these jokesters to bed and we can sort this." At Hermione's consent, Master warned. "Severus, I'm going to put a featherlight charm on you."

It was one of the few advantages to being an object. He rather liked feeling loved by Master in this way, but doubted that it should ever happen outside the privacy of their home again. He could not continue to dissolve into a sobbing disaster; he had to find a reasonably healthy coping mechanism, or he would never be able to move forward.

Master brought him up to their bedroom and placed him in the bed. Gently, he pulled Severus' robes over his head, before tucking him underneath the covers.

He waited for a goodnight kiss, but when one did not come, his eyes shot open to find Master heading toward the door. "Master?" The urgency in his voice surprised even himself.

Master paused. "Yes?"

Severus hesitated. "Am I getting better?"

The bed sank slightly as Master sat on the edge and took Severus' hand. "Now who's the dunderhead that asks stupid questions? You're so much better than you were before. You've got a lot of stuff to figure out, and there's no pressure; if there's something that we can't figure out between you, me, and Dick, it's okay."

That wasn't okay. To say that it was okay to leave some puzzles unsorted was to say it was all right if Severus was a mere shadow of a person. Still, he appreciated his master's attempt to make him feel better. "I am sorry about tonight."

"Don't be." Master kissed Severus' hand. "It happens. I love you, even if you are an emotional train wreck. And I'm sorry about not telling you about the Death Eater thing; I'll show you the back issues tomorrow, if you'd like."

That would not solve the problem. Getting Severus exonerated would be the only thing to solve the problem, which the Ministry would not do if a counter-curse to the enslavement spell did not exist. Severus did not want to be freed, and so the lack of choices he had in the matter was both overwhelming and frustrating.

"You're still scared." Master said. "Why?"

Hermione was waiting for him downstairs. He still had to put Teddy to bed, as well. The man spent his day with intense mental exercises as he attempted to learn Occlumency, and was clearly exhausted. Although Severus had the ability to occupy most of Master's time, it was his responsibility not to. "My only saving grace is that I am owned by a tremendously famous, quite short, nearly blind man. Put yourself in my shoes," he paused to reflect upon the pain in his feet, "or lack thereof."

Master chuckled. "Goodnight. I love you."

Severus usually fell asleep in a matter of moments. He faced too many emotions throughout the day, and the work of raising a toddler left him physically exhausted. Given the events of his evening, he should have fallen asleep before Master left the room; however, he lay awake in the dark, alone with his thoughts. He lost track of how long he stared at the ceiling, but it was a long time.

Coming up Next in Unwell...
Chapter Ninety-Three: Truly, Madly, Deeply

A/N: My apologies for changing the chapter numbers once again. I also need to slow down, because this story is going to be finished in a reasonably short time frame. Thank you, once again!