This story is written for the Snarry Games (team Phoenix) for the prompt: Ministry of Magic. Thanks to Naatz for beta-reading above and beyond the call of duty.

No colour-changing apples, shower curtains, fat pink toads, Welsh Green lizards (or possibly frogs) were harmed in the making of this story. Do not attempt Cat's Cradles without an inexhaustible supply of patience, string, fingers, toes and/or cats. We are not responsible for the outcome of any wandless spells. Wearing brass or other gold-coloured metal rings is not recommended, without first checking for arcane inscriptions. Temporary tattoos are temporary. Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls. Phoenix-tear sherbet lemons are not sugar-free. Summoned coins are taxable income. No resemblance to any Dons, whether Quixote, Mafia or Oxford, is intended. May contain nuts. Dual patronuses are doubly canon-compliant, we double deer you to prove us wrong. Exposing Floo powder to moisture voids warranty. All care is taken with the Knight Bus service, but no liability is accepted. Do not get caught red-handed. Do not fold, spindle or mutilate the Snape. Do fondle the Harry. Feed stray Gryffindors. Keep off the Slytherin. Broomstick riders do it with polish. Commit random acts of Snarry. Do not taunt Happy Fun Snape. D.A. Rules, O.K.? Team Phoenix for the win!

Take a little walk to the edge of town, go across the tracks,
where the viaduct looms like a bird of doom as it shifts and cracks,
where secrets lie in the border fires, in the humming wires,
hey man, you know you're never coming back,
past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks.
On a gathering storm comes a tall handsome man
in a dusty black coat, with a red right hand.

— Nick Cave

It had taken months of covert doses with every meal to build up even a partial tolerance to the poisons favoured by Dolohov, the Carrows and the Lestrange brothers. Bellatrix never bothered with poisons, but then, she wouldn't recognise subtlety if it Cruciated her. The Dark Lord didn't use poisons either – Avada was better for impressing the lackeys – but occasionally he'd send Nagini on murderous missions.

Snape added snake venom to his regimen almost as an afterthought.

Even the weakened doses had taxed his never-hearty constitution: robbed him of rest and racked his joints and muscles, left his eyes bloodshot and his skin jaundiced, carved deeper hollows in his eyesockets and under his cheekbones. All he could do was to hope that, when hex came to curse, his work would be enough to keep him alive.

It wasn't.

Not when his throat had been half torn out. He lay in a pool of his own blood, fading in and out of consciousness. Potter had left him during one such blackout, probably thinking him dead. Soon Potter would be right about him. Perhaps then the next green gaze to greet him would be Lily's.

But the thought of Lily felt remote, not the immediate anguish it had always been. He'd lost not only blood but key memories of her. At least they'd been sacrificed in a good cause. Potter would see those memories, and then he'd know everything. That Snape had been true, despite it all. And that Potter would have to sacrifice himself just like Snape, another pawn in Dumbledore's unfinished chess game.

Snape should have been at peace, knowing that he'd done his duty. He'd saved the school. He'd ensured Potter would defeat Voldemort.

But Snape was too stubborn to just lie down and die, even when that was what he was actually doing. One hand squeezed tighter at his blood-slippery throat as the other fumbled for his wand. He held the tip to his torn neck and feebly hummed the chant that could heal the deepest gashes of Sectumsempra.

As the tissues began to seal, the notes grew steadier, more effective and the humming graduated to true song. It's working! So much for your plan to kill me off, you snake-faced sonofabitch!

He really should have known better than to let himself feel such triumph, even in the privacy of his own head. Because at that moment, Riddle started to reach out through the Mark, draining his Death Eaters of their magic, in a last-ditch effort to save his own worthless arse.

The sudden magical drain hit Snape like another rending physical attack. Magic poured from him, as vital as memories and lifeblood. His chant faltered and fell silent, his senses swam and he blacked out.

When he struggled back to consciousness, the chant wouldn't work. His wand was as useless as the Shack's shattered timbers. He let it fall from his hand with a choking cry as blood oozed again under his clutching fingers.

To come so close... And then to die after all... robbed of everything...

He screwed his eyes shut against sickening dizziness. His hand clamped agonisingly to his throat, delaying the inevitable. Driven by sheer, stubborn will to survive, he continued to search with his free hand for anything that might help.

His fingers brushed a small lump in his pocket, and a memory rose, one he hadn't given away to Potter: a sherbet lemon tucked inside a cryptic note in Dumbledore's handwriting, 'I sweeten the bitterest pangs'.

He'd been carrying the damn thing ever since he found it in the Headmaster's desk, as a keepsake of the old man that the Death Eaters would never identify.

Should've carried Blood Replenishing Potion instead! He panted; it was the best he could do for a fatalistic laugh.

Why not? he thought distantly, dizzily as he unwrapped and slipped it past dry lips. Maybe I'll choke on it. It'd hurt less.

The sugar shell dissolved swiftly to set something else free. Warm salt fluid trickled down his throat. A burst of radiant heat poured through his wounds, healing them, burning away every last trace of venom.

Phoenix tears.

He summoned all the renewed energy of the last gift from his mentor and tormentor, his victimiser and victim. He seized his wand, pressed the tip to his Mark, and flung himself down the link, gritting his teeth and wrestling mentally with Riddle, determined to wring his magic back from the thieving bastard.

From a distance, he sensed Riddle's disbelief that he was still alive, and that disbelief let Snape win back a fragment of his old power. But suddenly Riddle's attention shifted from him to the world outside, and with a final burst of shock and terror, Riddle was gone. The Mark, which had been writhing under Snape's wandpoint like a serpent nailed to a door, abruptly went dead.

For the first time since he'd taken the Mark, Snape was free of the mental presence of Voldemort. He was healed of his mortal wounds.

But on a level far deeper than flesh, he was crippled. When he tried to Disapparate, it was all he could do not to splinch himself.

There was nothing for it. He'd have to make his way out of the Shack on foot, and slip away under cover of celebration or mourning. At least he was still alive.

But, after that piece of rare good fortune, his usual wretched luck reasserted itself all too soon. He'd barely got past the Whomping Willow when a Stunner hit him in the back of the head with all the finesse of a flung brick. From his face-first reunion with Hogwarts' grounds he awoke in a maximum security holding cell at the Ministry.

In the long weeks of incarceration that followed, he sometimes wondered what he could've done, where he could've gone, if only he hadn't been robbed of most of his magic that day. Mostly, though, he wondered how much damage Riddle had done with Snape's stolen power, before Potter finally finished the bastard and Snape's pulsing Mark went still at last.

At least Potter had survived. Snape deduced as much from one of the scraps of old newsprint that were all the jailors would give him for toilet paper. It was an undated headline, no doubt intended to taunt him.


Should Be Released Soon, Say St. Mungo's Specialists

Snape scowled. "Lucky sod. At least that's one of us," he muttered, before he put the Daily Prophet to its most fitting use.

The simple fact that Snape was still under arrest a month later told him that Potter hadn't believed the memories Snape had given up, at such great cost to his own bitterly-guarded privacy. So much for any hope that even one person might believe I'd been following Dumbledore's orders when I killed him. Snape assumed they would drag him through a show trial as fast as possible and dump him in Azkaban to die, with or without the help of dementors.

A media circus, just as I thought. Snape squinted at the flash of multiple wizarding cameras as he was chained to the iron chair in the centre of the court. Not just the Prophet, but every other rag in the Wizarding world seemed to have been invited.

Someone very short in bright pink robes stood up from the centre bench. "Hem-hem. Criminal proceedings", said Umbridge in a ringing voice, as the Court Scribe's quill – and the Quick-Quotes quills of Skeeter and the other reporters – began taking notes at once, "into multiple offences committed by Severus Tobias Snape, resident at number ninety-six, Spinner's End, Halifax, Yorkshire. Interrogators: Dolores Jane Umbridge, Minister for Magic..."

The simpering voice went on, but the words were lost in the roar of shock in Snape's ears. Umbridge is Minister? What the hell happened to Shacklebolt? It took all his willpower to keep his dismay from his face. So much for throwing myself on the mercy of the court. Only question now is, have they kept a dementor aside just for me?

The pantomime of justice played on. Since Potter hadn't had the charges against him dismissed, Potter certainly wouldn't speak on his behalf, so he was relieved when the brat stayed away altogether. Snape counted it a small mercy that Potter hadn't chosen to lead the public gloating over Dumbledore's killer getting whatever comeuppance they had in store for him.

The brand new Minister for Magic sentenced him to a brand new punishment, something she'd evidently dreamed up to celebrate her appointment to Minister. Compared to the medieval barbarism of the previous system of punishment, her new retribution – whatever it would turn out to be – was "highly modern and efficient", at least according to Umbridge herself. She assured the press, and the throngs of morbidly curious gawkers filling the benches lining every wall, that it was "a model of penal correction that will bring the Wizarding world into the new century."

But the manacled chair at the lowermost level of the huge courtroom felt just as cold and confining to Snape as when he'd been chained there after the First War. Though the fear wasn't quite the same. This time, instead of the despair of the dementors, he felt the uneasy dread of the unknown.

Not that he was about to give them the satisfaction of knowing it. Snape hid his expression behind the fall of his matted, greasy hair. Even without Legilimency, he'd still seen enough of human nature to know that whatever she was talking about wouldn't be good. The blood quill wielding bitch seems to enjoy making Quick-Quotes quills dance to her tune too. Just my luck she's changing the old punishments. Now I can't even look forward to the old-fashioned peace and quiet of being locked in a cold stone box and left to rot.

Umbridge turned from simpering at the benches and smirked triumphantly at Snape as an attendant brought in a flat rectangular object swathed in cloth. She propped it up facing Snape and drew off the cloth with a flourish, revealing a portrait of a sleeping man he'd recognize anywhere.

Dumbledore! Something unexpected – a burst of excitement Snape didn't dare think of as hope – gave him strength to shout, "Wake him! Ask him why I did it!"

"So you admit you murdered Dumbledore!" Umbridge cried as the court resounded with ominous mutterings. "Why should I ask it anything?" she continued smugly, "It's only a picture."

"He knows the truth! He'll clear my name! Ask him!"

"Sadly, the man himself was of advanced years. His mind..." She trailed off with a mock-tragic sigh before resuming, "In any event, to suggest that mere paint and canvas could act as a legal witness is to add contempt of court to your crimes!"

The excitement had soured to an ache of bitterness. He wanted to spit, but she was standing too far away. "Then why did you bring him here?" he growled.

"Isn't it obvious?" she inquired sweetly, before turning her smile on the press gallery, "It's only proper that you are confronted by the image of your victim, when you are punished for your crimes." She faced him once more.

"Severus Tobias Snape, you have been found Guilty, both of the wilful murder of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by use of the Unforgiveable Killing Curse, and of membership in the terrorist organisation known as the Death Eaters. You are hereby sentenced to bear before the eyes of the Wizarding world, the visible and indelible stain of your bloodthirsty crimes. You will henceforth suffer the righteous indignation of society for the rest of your life, and any attempt to hide the mark of your shame from wizarding eyes will result in punishment both swift and severe."

She turned her back on him, facing the tall benches packed with shadowy figures in purple robes. "Witches and wizards of the Wizengamot. The verdict has been given. Let justice be done, and be seen to be done!" She raised her stubby little wand like a conductor's baton, and a ripple of movement passed through the robed throng. Hundreds of wands lifted in eerie synchrony, their tips bristling like a forest of spears. At her triumphant scream, "Mark him!" cursefire blasted toward him from all directions, immolating his wand hand as it lay chained to the arm of the chair.

The one mercy was that the agony was so intense he swiftly blacked out.

The envelope was stamped 'DE-SST19600109'. The Ministry excelled at abbreviating. In their eyes and records, the entire life of 'Snape, Severus Tobias' was reduced to convention and convenience: initials, birthdate. And of course, preceding and overshadowing everything else was the two-letter label of his crime.

By the time he'd regained consciousness, the courtroom was empty except for a couple of grizzled old guards, who unlocked the chains, shoved the envelope at him (he'd taken it in his left hand) and told him in bored tones he was free to go. Or as free as he was allowed be, as the document had stated in many more words. His wand hand throbbed, and his fingertips were already oozing blood around the nails. He held it awkwardly, slightly out from his body so it wouldn't brush against the rough prison-gray robe which was all the clothing he had left after his incarceration. I'll worry about the curse later. I've got to get home. There's a public Floo near the Apparation platforms. Damned if I'll give them the satisfaction of seeing me run like a scared Squib at the sight of the first drawn wand.

Just as Snape got out of the lift, an explosion rocked the entire Atrium. He could see Ministry workers in front of him thrown by the force of the blast like discarded dolls, but instead of falling they spun in midair, helpless as leaves on the wind. In the red glare of the epicentre, the cause of all the commotion was wielding a broom like a gigantic wand.


For an instant an insane thought hit Snape. He's coming to speak for me after all. Then he scowled at the ache of the new curse radiating from his wand hand up his forearm. The dull burn was so similar to the Dark Mark.

"RUN!" Chief Auror Robards bellowed at a family waiting at the Apparation platforms. "NOW!"

Snape's guards abandoned him and ran to join the fray, but Potter seemed not to notice them, or Robards' warning cry. "Take that!" Potter cried, turning away from them. The spell he threw at no visible target shook the foundations of the Ministry like an earthquake. The tremors shifted the restored Fountain of Magical Brethren on its base, and the jets of water from the golden statues trickled to a halt.

Potter's appearance was almost as odd as his behaviour. His untidy hair bristled like dandelion fluff, and he was wearing hospital-issue flannel pyjamas. One foot was clad in only a sock, and the other was bare. He shrugged off the Stunners and Impediment Jinxes thrown by increasingly desperate Aurors, as if they didn't exist. All the while, he fought empty space, like Don Quixote battling an invisible giant. As Robards' latest hex bounced off the back of his head and smashed a chandelier, Potter laughed, unselfconscious and childlike, and swung his broom again, with a swish and a flick. In that laughter, Snape could almost hear notes of Bellatrix Lestrange's manic joy.

"Reinforcements'd be nice," groaned one junior Auror to another, where they crouched behind the overturned reception desk by the lift. "How the hell do they expect just five of us to bring that back to St. Mungo's?"

Meanwhile the 'that' in question turned to face them. Snape clamped down on a startled flinch. Before he could move, that green stare halted on him and its former blankness shifted to startled recognition. The exuberantly-flourished broom halted mid-wave, the wildly-flung spells sputtered out, and a deathly silence settled over the entire Atrium.

This is it. It's all over.

In the silence and smoke Potter walked right up to him. Snape grit his teeth and hunched his shoulders, steeling himself against useless running.

At least Potter isn't spiteful enough to be truly cruel. I hope he'll make it quick.

"You!" the boy cried, but no Avada followed. "I've got to save you..." He rubbed his forehead and frowned.

This close, Snape could see that Potter's mop of hair wasn't just bristling, it was spitting pinpoint sparks from every hairtip. In the silence he could hear the crackle of sheer magical overflow. There was something achingly familiar, something seductive, in all that dark energy.

The realisation crashed over Snape like an icy wave. Riddle's stolen magic! Potter must've absorbed it all when he killed the bastard! Snape's mouth went dry. No-one can hold that much magic for long and stay sane. Riddle didn't, that's for damn sure. This little sod's a magical timebomb, and when he goes off, it'll be with my magic along with all the rest!

Snape should have been mortally terrified. But the truth was, he'd been far too afraid for far too long. He'd just been tortured out of his senses. He'd just been permanently cursed, on top of being robbed of his power. He was exhausted, starving, and rapidly approaching the last frayed ends of his wits. After everything I've lived through, am I going to get killed now, for no reason at all, by a random nutter using my own bloody magic against me? Outrage seethed in him at that ultimate insult, crowding out fear. All he could think was It's my magic, dammit, and I need it!

Potter gave an uneasy glance around and whispered something that was clearly meant only for Snape's ears, but resonated through the entire Atrium as if he'd cast Sonorus. "...D'you know what I've got to save you from?"

What from? Memories poured through Snape's mind, of a dank dark cell, of countless beatings and hexes and humiliations he'd been unable to prevent. All that, and now this, one last horrific irony, one final insult after being tried and cursed, after screaming in helpless agony in front of the entire Wizengamot. "You want to save me?" he hissed in disbelief. "You stupid bastard!" he cried, at the end of his tether. "Where were you when I was on trial?" He reached out and seized the little sod by the throat. His grip was slippery with sweat, no, blood: his own blood, cursed to stain his hand and everything it touched from now on. Snape thought it only fitting that he was making his very first mark on Potter. "Where were you when they cursed me with this?" he roared, shaking Potter with his bleeding hand. Potter wheezed, but didn't even attempt to struggle. Snape was so horribly tempted to tighten his grip and crush Potter's windpipe. Instead he thrust his face at Potter's and snarled, "You're Too. Fucking. LATE!" before shoving Potter away.

Potter staggered backward, shocked and panting, a gory handprint on his throat. His broom clattered to the floor, and all around them bodies fell like marionettes with their strings cut.

"Together!" Robards yelled, "Stun him!"

Snape barely managed to duck before the backwash from that many synchronised Stunners took him down as well. Potter – his eyes wide and startled and focused entirely on Snape – didn't have much chance to do anything.

"Why is he here?" Snape asked the closer of the two young Aurors as they stood up from behind the desk. She was the only one who seemed to be eyeing his right hand with fear instead of outright disgust.

"Who knows why he goes anywhere? He's mental," she muttered wearily. "This is the fourth time he's escaped already. Those healers better figure out how to keep him at St. Mungo's, and soon, rather than wasting time studying his wandless Imperius."

"Yeah," grumbled her colleague as he dusted off his robes, "Or all of London could go the way of Arthur Weasley's old place."

The Aurors left to help escort their captive back to St. Mungo's. Snape headed for the public Floo, trudging past the Apparation points he could no longer use. Practically a Squib. Snape paused by the side of the fireplace, watching Potter carried off.

He Flooed out while the Atrium was still abuzz about Potter. The less Ministry attention I attract from now on, the better.

Snape's peace and quiet lasted a day. The next morning, Potter stood on his doorstep, staring up at him in a way no sane person ever would: as if Snape's doorway framed the Mirror of Erised and not a scowling, exhausted ex-spy. Potter's scrawny throat was still stained with a vivid red handprint.

"Sorry I'm late," Potter murmured softly, as if they'd had an appointment. "I was a bit poorly. But," he beamed suddenly, "I'm all better today."

Snape racked his brain for any methods of escape, of contacting the Ministry. Then Potter's stare caught his and a haze settled over his thoughts, warm and soft as featherdown. He found himself stepping aside and letting Potter in.

The mug in Potter's hands cycled from green to blue to purple, before turning striped like a Gryffindor tie.

Snape didn't recall agreeing to a tea party yet here he was, with the Boy Who Lived sitting crosslegged on the sofa.

"I can be normal. I reckon I am normal," Potter mumbled to his psychedelic mug. "They're the ones who drugged me, 'cause they didn't want me to know how normal I am."

"'They' are St. Mungo's mediwizards?" Snape frowned. Something's wrong. I've got to fight ... but fight who? There's nobody here to fight. Just Potter.

"It's not like I agreed to go there and be the guinea pig for all their tests. They locked me up!" the brat reasoned with the mug. "What else am I supposed to do?"

"You're not 'supposed to' break out of a hospital as though it was Azkaban! But then," Snape continued in a mutter under his breath, "you always were annoyingly impatient."

"Patient?" Potter echoed distantly. Snape glanced at him, thinking that he'd misheard. Potter was staring wide-eyed into the bottom of his mug, which was currently pristine, antiseptic white. "Patient S-M-dash-P-H-J-nineteen-eighty-oh-seven-thirty-one, S-M-dash-P-H-J-" Potter muttered, scared and pale. The same brat who'd held off a team of Aurors, the same one who'd got past his defences, into his home... Imperius! I have to resist it!

Perhaps it was the sheer Ministerial mundanity of Potter's endless litany of letters and numbers, or perhaps it was Potter's distraction that lifted the magical haze from Snape's mind and left him stranded in bleak reality.

By then the boy's expression was fixed in a horrified rictus as he gazed into the white depths of the mug. Under his blank stare, the dregs of his tea went up in a sudden gust of steam. "NonoNO!" Potter dropped the mug and it exploded into shards. "My name is Harry Potter. Why can't you call me HARRY?" His arms flew round his head in a convulsive movement, as if trying to squeeze or shake out painful thoughts. He staggered blindly to his feet.

'Harry,' Snape nearly echoed, but he shook his head sharply, dislodging the last lingering traces of the haze in his mind, and barked "Potter!"

"Help me!" the wretch gasped, "They'll come for me!" This was the first time Snape had seen Potter so terrified, pale as a ghost and so tense he was trembling, his words reduced to a hoarse, choked whisper, "I can't go back!"

"They won't expect to find you here." Think! I should be able to contain him somehow, before he tries Imperius again. At least the walking disaster seems to be behaving himself with me, unlike with the Aurors. Maybe he remembers being scared of me at school. Snape gave a bitter little smirk, Or perhaps it's just the influence of whatever delusion he's having at the moment. All I have to do is distract him until I can signal his keepers, and keep him till they come for him... but how? It's not as though I've got enough power for a patronus.

If, as Snape suspected, Potter was armed not just with his own power but all of Riddle's might, and that of all the Death Eaters Riddle had robbed, then no walls would hold him, no wards would bind him, no wizards would subdue him, not for long. But perhaps I can persuade him instead. Use his weakness. He must have one. That Gryffindor sense of heroics, for starters.

Unfocused spellfire flared Killing Curse-green in Potter's bristling hair. The magical outburst matched the eerie glow of his eyes. "You don't believe me, do you? God, I don't believe me either. Is he in my head or not? Why can't anyone just TELL me?"

It was almost instinctive to grab Potter by the shoulder and give him a short, sharp shake. "Riddle is dead! You killed him."

Potter muttered something, his stare blank, but at least the deadly glow subsided.

"You are not Riddle," Snape said slowly and clearly, lowering his head andcrouching a bit so they were eye to eye. "But the way you are now, you're almost as dangerous."

"I am? But..." Potter's voice faltered. "How can I stop me?"

"Control yourself. Stop running." Potter was taking deep breaths. He nodded briefly and Snape continued, "Go back."


"You have to convince them you're sane. That's your way out."

"I can't! Not them. No!"

"Potter... Listen. Riddle was insane. Power-mad in the most literal sense. Do you want to go the way he went? Turning on the world until the world turns on you?"

Potter's expression flickered through uncertainty over a flash of fear, then hardened into a look of determination. "All right," he said, his glare icy.

"All right?" Snape echoed, hating the inanity of the question but needing to know.

"I'll go!" Potter swallowed. "OK, I'll go." He glanced up at Snape, and his face lit with hope. "Will you come with me? Please?"

Damn. It was all going so well at first, all according to plan. Persuading Potter to return of his own accord, while I lie low. Sending him back to the Ministry, before they burn this place down looking for him.

Snape squeezed Potter's shoulders and released him, pulling back and standing tall once more. "Everything will be fine," he told Potter firmly. "I'll wait for you here. Go."

Potter nodded, took a deep breath and stepped away. He Disapparated from the doorway. It was the polite thing to do, even though Snape's house contained no such luxuries as anti-Apparation wards.

Snape breathed a sigh of relief.

The distillation apparatus in the rain-spattered window of Dervish and Banges was a brewer's wet dream. Delivery tubes stretched up like organ pipes from a grapevine cluster of small alembics. Below, the tendrils of condenser coils wound around a shining quartz base like a squid's twisting tentacles. Within each, liquids dripped, bubbled, and steamed seeking exit. Above the shop window, tinsel and holly branches hung, and a hinkypunk peered gloomily out at them through the bars of its cage. The glow of the hinkypunk's lantern reflected, magnified, in the apparatus' labyrinth of glass. Snape squinted against the glare, leaning forward as far as the window and his nose permitted. His gaze swept from section to section of the intricate device. They're using Bluebell Flames when ordinary fire would do. What a waste of magic! And that condenser coil's not properly sealed. They're losing brew to vapour.

Something moved below, at the shadowed base. It rattled, rotated like a gyroscope and woke three more which flashed and whistled and hopped up and down in alarm.

Sneakoscopes! Snape flinched and snatched his hands behind his back, backed away from the window, checked it for fingerprints. Nothing much. Perhaps there was just the smallest red smear. A fingertip had brushed the glass when he startled.

"You, out there! Move along! This isn't Knockturn!"

Old Dervish. Snape called out in reply, "I'm just looking!" You half-blind half-wit. "It's a shop window. That's what they're for," he added in a grumble under his breath.

Silence. Then the uneven thud of approaching footsteps, the tap of the old man's cane, and the creak of the opening door. A wizened face appeared in the narrow gap.

Under that distrustful, unfocused glare, Snape stood taller and lifted his chin, as if he was proud of himself. "I was just looking," he repeated levelly, projecting a calm he didn't feel. Behind his back his hand clenched. "I don't want any trouble." I'm just trying to calm the stupid sod down. I'm not begging, he told himself firmly.

The door opened a bit wider. Snape winced. To eyes sensitised by his long walk in the gloom, the glare within was bright enough to obscure the nuances of Dervish's expression. The shopkeeper gasped and his eyes widened, misty grey like the caged hinkypunk. He let go of the door and it swung wider till the knob slammed against the wall.

"Snape!" Dervish spat. The Sneakoscopes howled like guard dogs.

Shit! He's got me at wandpoint and I haven't even got a wand! Has anyone else on the street heard him? Can't even turn and look, got to keep eye contact. Got to bluff the old sod. Why hasn't he hexed me yet? Must be waiting for backup. Fuck, I won't survive a mob!

"Piss off! Or I'll summon the Aurors!" The door slammed in his face.

Prick! Snape scraped his rain-soaked hair out of his eyes with his left hand. I should never have come to Hogsmeade. He gave the shop and its keeper one last haughty glare before trudging off down the street. He ducked into the nearest alley, out of sight, hopefully out of danger; dodging water falling from eaves and picking his way among puddles as best he could. On a wall by the alley's exit was a sodden poster.


Easily identify DANGEROUS

CRIMINALS thanks to the

Ministry of Magic's


For fear of tracing charms, Snape couldn't touch the poster to tear it down. He couldn't even spit on it. He settled for growling "Fuckers!" under his breath, before stalking away, the energy of anger lengthening his stride.

To make a perfect evening even better, by the time Snape had made it to the nearest public Floo, the downpour had not only soaked through his clothes, it'd leaked inside the plastic bag of Floo powder in his pocket, and the stuff was caked into a soggy, unusable mess.

I can find a corner out of the rain and wait for the powder to dry, that'll only take about a day. Or I can try and call the Knight Bus. It might work...

Lacking a wand, Snape was forced to raise his empty wand hand. Trickles of rain-diluted blood ran down his sleeve as he waited, and waited. He was just about to lower his hand when, with a BANG, the triple-decker bus burst into existence. The conductor stared at him through the glass panes of the bus' closed door, and the windows on that side of the bus filled with the heads of gawping passengers. All eyes were fixed on his upraised hand, and fascinated horror filled every face. Snape lowered his hand, feeling as though he'd been caught in some obscene act. The bus took off with a roar, as fast as if the purple monstrosity itself was terrified of him. It even managed to splash him with filthy water from the gutter, before it Disapparated with another BANG.

So much for that brilliant idea, Snape thought bitterly as he started to trudge away. I'll just have to nick dry powder from somewhere, or hole up somewhere dry and wait out the rain.

So wrapped up was Snape in his sodden misery that the magical ropes lashing whip-fast out of the darkness caught him by surprise. Tripped up by them, he crashed to the ground. Fighting as they trussed him, he rolled over to his side just in time to see the boot before it thudded into his ribs. The breath wheezed out of him as he flopped onto his back, looking up at his attacker. The wizard standing over him had short black hair, slicked down to rattails by the rain, and pale eyes behind Impervius-charmed glasses. For a moment he looked worryingly like an older James Potter. Or like his son would, if he grew up to become a dead-eyed vigilante. Then Snape blinked rain out of his eyes, and the resemblance faded as he recognised the man at last.

Banges. Decades younger and fitter than old Dervish, and even more hotheaded and protective of their precious shop. Just what I fucking need.

"That's a pretty red hand you were waving back there," Banges said in mockingly conversational tones as he grinned viciously down at Snape. "But what makes a murdering Death Eater like you think you can use a service for law-abiding wizards?" Anticipation gleamed in Banges' pallid eyes as he Mobilicorpused Snape into an alley, "I can see I'll have to teach you some respect for your betters."

He dumped Snape on a pile of garbage in the corner of the alley. Bits of glass stabbed into his back, and the stench hit his trained sense of smell nauseatingly hard. Then Banges' boot sank into his belly and he dry-heaved, spitting the acid which was all he had in his stomach. "You may have had Dumbledore fooled – and the poor old sod lived to regret it – but you never fooled Dervish, and you never fooled me," Banges snarled at him. From bitter experience, Snape knew better than to talk back. Sadistic pricks like him love shows of resistance, they get their thrills from breaking them. I won't give him something to work against, even if it's all I can do.

"If only Dumbledore could see you now, he'd have the satisfaction of knowing that the whole Wizarding world can tell at a glance these days, what a piece of shit you really are." Banges' tones abruptly dropped to a menacing growl. "Now you listen to me. I don't want to see your ugly face around here ever again. Not at Hogsmeade, not at Diagon Alley, not anywhere decent Wizarding folk gather. You stay the hell away from the Wizarding world, or anyone who owns a respectable business will make you sorry your poor bitch of a mother was ever fucked by a Muggle."

There was that smile again, though it never touched the eyes behind those disturbingly Potter-esque glasses. "We got an agreement?" Unfazed by Snape's stubborn silence, Banges nodded. "Silence gives consent, that's what they say in court. So, yeah. We're agreed. Let's shake on it."

And with that, Banges seized Snape's cursed hand in his own gloved one, and did his damnedest to squeeze the blood from Snape's pores and the screams from his throat.

Agonised and on the verge of passing out, Snape thought he heard a shout, "Oi, you in there!" Then the pain subsided and he was Side-Alonged somewhere warm and scented with goat. Hay rustled under him, straws tickled his nose and scratched his belly as someone Accioed the glass out of his back. The same voice muttered a Somnus charm, and he knew no more.

Snape came to much later, face down on a pile of hay in one of the goat pens behind the Hog's Head. He raised his head blearily and the goat who'd been munching on his bed gave a bleat of alarm and galloped into the pub. Snape patted his pockets. The bag of Floo powder was still there, and even better, someone had cast Dessicatus on it. He dusted the worst of the hay off, and followed the goat into the pub. I might as well push my luck and ask Aberforth for the use of his Floo.

Home at last!

Snape flopped into the armchair and pulled a threadbare woollen blanket over and around him like a cloak. He reached one arm down beside the armchair, groped around briefly in the gloom and came up with a nearly empty bottle of cheap gin. He unscrewed it, downed the last dregs and winced at the taste. He dropped the empty bottle and curled up in the armchair, his cursed hand dangling in midair over the side as he waited for the alcohol to kick in and warm his guts, and maybe, if he was lucky, help him to sleep where he sat.

No such luck. The silence was split by a startling crackle of static, as the cobweb-covered radio in the corner suddenly switched itself on.

"This is the WWN," an announcer intoned, "bringing the wizarding public a broadcast by the Minister for Magic."

"Witches and wizards of Britain," Umbridge paused to assure attention. "Now that civil disturbances are a thing of the past, our future is bright. In our reborn society, we can look forward to prosperity unprecedented in our history. We have triumphed over the forces of social and political unrest, and the dark days are behind us. In the peaceful era that is now before us, we will have no need for outmoded forms of policing, for old-style Auror forces, with their overt, vigilante justice. Instead, let us move forward together into a time when policing reflects the enlightened, educated ideals we all hold dear. As a former Hogwarts Headmistress I can personally attest that the proper educational methods always have a positive outcome..."

Snape bared crooked teeth in a snarl and tried to tune the radio to another station. Turning it off was no use, it was running on magic, not electricity, and he had no means to stop the magical broadcast being forced into his – and every other wizard's – home.

"Hem-hem," the radio crackled with static as Snape fiddled stubbornly with the tuning knob. A pause followed, but when the girlish, sugary voice resumed it was as clear as ever, despite all Snape could do. "Even in our secure society there is much to be done. This devastating day," she gave a deliberately tragic sigh, "a year since my predecessor Minister Shacklebolt's untimely death, is a poignant reminder of the continuing price we pay for our security. The dangers among us are not magical creatures, nor are they Muggles. Once they were wizards like ourselves, but they forfeited their rights as wizards, by supporting the deceased ringleader of the previous period of civil unrest."

Snape gave up on the tuning knob and reached for the volume knob, turning it all the way down with such a wrench that the knob broke clean off and rolled under the sofa, behind the pile of empty bottles he was saving for the recycling money. In the flickering shadows cast by the few candle stubs, Snape didn't have a hope of finding the knob. Not as though I can summon it anymore. He sighed, wishing for another mouthful or three of gin. Can't turn the volume all the way down on Ministry broadcasts anyway. Meanwhile, this particular broadcast continued, as loud as ever.

"Many of these war criminals have fled the Wizarding world altogether, no doubt hoping to drown out their own guilty consciences in the din of Muggle society. However, it pains me to inform the good people of Wizarding Britain, that the most evil, heartless, irredeemable individuals still live among us. Even though the death of their leader has fortunately stripped them of their dark magics, they will never fully repay Wizarding society for their vile deeds. Had the last war gone differently, were we under the rule of monsters like them, we would all no doubt have been murdered in our beds. But because we are kinder, better than they are, we have mercifully spared their lives. We have not even incarcerated them, since we have seen time and again that criminals as hardened as these can break out of any gaol. Furthermore, after the catastrophic failure of my predecessors' use of dementors, we have rightly abandoned the use of Azkaban prison, which was by no means as secure as my predecessors once claimed." The radio paused to emit a rasp of static. Its plastic grille curved itself into a saccharine smirk, evidently mimicking the speaker. "Instead of imprisonment, we have destroyed the war criminals' wands, and furthermore, for the benefit of public safety, we have clearly marked the most vicious individuals with red hands, symbolic of the innocent blood they have shed. The Ministry of Magic has taken these measures so that you, the law-abiding citizens of Wizarding Britain, may immediately identify these criminals on sight, and so that" her simpering voice rose to a crescendo, "you may take every precaution to safeguard yourselves, your property, and your children against them."

The hateful, saccharine voice went on, but Snape did his damnedest to ignore it, mulling instead over that last piece of bile. It's as good as a gilt-edged invitation to all the idiots in the Wizarding world to take out their hate on me, while Umbridge's Ministry sits back and cheers them on. Finally the broadcast ended, and the radio immediately went dead. Its batteries had gone flat years ago, and only the magical signal had revived it. Now, at last, the room was silent. But Snape could no longer take comfort in that silence, couldn't use it to retreat from the world into the dubious delights of dreams. Not now that his heart was pounding like his head, and his throat was as dry as his palms were not. His gaze flicked round the walls like a hunted bird, unable to settle anywhere. All around the feebly flickering circle of candlelight the darkness loomed, but the room was small enough that Snape could still make out the bookcases, lining the walls like the padding on an insane asylum's cell. More comfortable than Azkaban, perhaps, but these four walls are no protection at all from a tide of Ministry-approved bloodlust.

This isn't like it was in the First War, when I was stuck in Azkaban pending trial. This is far worse. There's no one this time to do a Dumbledore and testify on my behalf. There's not even any mission to make it all worthwhile. Nothing. Nothing left to live for, even. No-one left to live for, not for almost twenty years. He sighed. His breath plumed like a dragon's in the chill air.

No reason to live, but so many reasons to die, at least one for however many people are willing to kill me. I'd let them, but I'll be damned if I'll give the Ministry the satisfaction. I've survived Hogwarts and Azkaban, the Marauders and Dumbledore, Nagini and Riddle. I'll bloody well survive this. Or if not, then I'll take as many of the bastards with me as I can.

That bleak, bitter determination to survive for sheer survival's sake ran under the surface of his thoughts, beating in his brain as vital as blood. He spent each night staring into the darkness, listening to every sound. Unable to cast wards on the building, he knew he was as vulnerable as a crab without its shell. Forgetfulness – of his caution or of his curse – was a luxury he couldn't afford, not even for an instant.

For the sake of his survival, he'd had to accept that he was crippled. Once the second most powerful and skilled wizard alive, now he was practically harmless. Practically armless, too, on his right side, for all the use his hand was. Mostly he kept it clenched in an aching, futile fist behind his back. He had to restrain himself from being swept away in his reading. He had to remember to turn every page with his left hand alone. He had to modify his movements every time he reached for knife or pestle or stirring rod; the wandless art of potions was one of the few left to him. Even in matters as mundane as clothes, the curse intruded. He was grateful most of his wardrobe was already black, because that was the one colour dark enough to stand any chance of hiding the stain.

Fortunately, unfortunately, he was surrounded by reminders of his curse, besieged by them. He was reminded every time he touched something and stained it with his own blood. He remembered with every new day he managed to survive on stale bread and black tea and his mother's decade-old jars of homemade jam; every time he was reduced to a number in Ministry summonses and subjected to mandatory Ministry harangues. He was reminded by every door that slammed as he approached it, every passer-by who crossed the street rather than use the same footpath. And every time he got another of those bitter reminders he cursed at them under his breath, all those spells he'd studied and improved upon and invented running through his thoughts. But just like him, every last one of his curses had been crippled, reduced to words as impotent as a Muggle's swearing.

You want me to kill myself? You want me to starve? Potter wasn't the only one who saved the lot of you, and this is how you repay me? By branding me a criminal? Treating me like a leper? A Death Eater? If it wasn't for me, you'd know exactly what real Death Eaters do, you pathetic, miserable sods! You wouldn't be here to spit at me and hex me and whisper behind my back. You'd be Demented or dead or wishing you were! Fuck you. Fuck you all!

Knock-knock-knock. Knock. KNOCK!

Who the hell would be out this late... no, early?

Knock-knock-knock! The persistent pounding rattled the door.

Bastards! The bedsprings creaked almost as loudly as Snape's joints as he crawled out of bed. At least whoever-they-are are waiting instead of just blasting my door down. I suppose I should be thankful for small miracles, Snape thought sourly as he snatched up the carving knife from the bedside table, and stalked downstairs to unlock and open the door.

Under the flickering streetlamp, snowflakes settled in Potter's dark mop of hair. A bright red cape streamed heroically behind him, flapping on a wandless wind charm. Underneath it the brat wore nothing but scarlet long-johns covered in gaudy gold lightning bolts.

Snape's hand tightened on the doorknob, but slamming the door would be a useless gesture. If he wants to get me, a bit of painted plank won't even slow him down. "So," Snape groused, "I see the psychiatric ward finally threw you out for being overqualified." It'd be vaguely witty if it weren't so true. St. Mungo's has probably dedicated that entire wing to caging the Golden Boy.

Potter didn't even flinch, just stared up with that perpetually wide grin of his. "They'd never chuck me out, they like me! I got out all by myself." He shrugged, scruffy as a sparrow, and added softly, "S'good to see you."

On the street, the overhead wires began to hum, and the solitary streetlamp flickered and died. Potter's eyes glowed in the sudden darkness, as if reflecting all the lights that weren't shining from Snape's house. Potter – never beefy at the best of times – now looked too scrawny to hurt a chizpurfle. But any air of harmlessness was belied by the blue sparks of raw magic, seductive and ominous, that burst from each bristling hairtip. That unfocused discharge had killed the streetlamp as dead as Riddle, without Potter even having to give it a moment's thought. But beneath that blue-lightning halo, Potter's lips were equally blue. His teeth chattered in the late night hush. Drawn by a glimpse of white skin, Snape glanced down to stare at Potter's feet.

Oh damn. It's snowing and he's barefoot! And he's too far gone to even notice it, the bloody fool! If he carks on my doorstep, then I'm well and truly fucked.

Snape sighed, put down the carving knife – Not much point in carrying it now – and held the door open with his foot. "Inside," he grumbled, "Before you catch your death."

Potter tilted his head, considering. "How many points do I get if I catch it?"

"Your game will be over," Snape informed him grimly, "And I won't be able to restart play for you, whatever my experience as a Quidditch referee."

Potter grinned at him and padded past into the relative warmth of the sitting room. He left a trail of wet footprints on his way to the kitchen, and began rummaging in the kitchen cupboards. Snape flinched involuntarily at the sound of breaking crockery. Haven't I saved his life – saved the Wizarding world – enough? I damn near laid down my life, and look at the thanks I got for that!

"Thanks, by the way, for helping me last time I was here." Potter poked his head round the kitchen doorway and grinned. His response was as neatly timed as if he'd been Legilimencing Snape all along, without him even knowing. And what a bloody disturbing thought that is! Eager to distract himself from the uncomfortable prospect of Potter rummaging around in his head as easily as his cupboards, Snape concentrated with difficulty on Potter's words. Hang about, he believed me? Something I said in the heat of the moment to persuade him to leave? "So it worked," he replied in a reasonable facsimile of a bored drawl, careful to keep any hint of a question from the words.

"Not yet," Potter hitched one shoulder in a half-shrug. "But I'll keep trying. They aren't really bad, I know that now. They're just, um. Scared. I'll have to go back in the morning, to explain things to them again. I played Exploding Snap with the new healer today," he added as he came back out of the kitchen and sat down with a bounce on the sofa. "The rotten sod cheated!"

It wouldn't take much to cheat you. Snape shook his head. Unbelievable. He must know my advice failed him, but still he thanks me for it, and keeps trying? Gullible idiot. Sooner or later, someone's going to use that trusting nature against him, and turn him and his wandless Imperius into a weapon. One Dark Lord was more than enough to put up with, and I'm buggered if I'll let anyone else step into Riddle's smoking shoes.

Sounds like another trip to Hogsmeade is in order after all. But what wizard would treat me any better than Dervish and Banges? I don't even want to think about the price I might end up paying for the ingredients I need.

"But just saying thank you isn't enough," Potter resumed suddenly, "I want to do something to pay you back for helping me. What do you want?" he asked earnestly. "How 'bout money?" he asked before Snape could answer, "D'you want some?"

Like Umbridge wants a girdle, Snape thought, but aloud he only grumbled, "Where would you get money? You can't just summon it from Gringotts!"

"Bet I could!" Potter puffed out his scrawny chest with injured pride, though he deflated a moment later. "But yeah, that'd be stealing." He scratched his head, setting off a firework-fountain of sparks, before his troubled expression brightened. "I know! I can just summon all the coins people've dropped! There must be thousands of Galleons worth, all over the place. And that's not even stealing, not really!"

"No!" I don't even want to think of the power needed to cast Accio over such a wide area. Snape's concerns were rather more pressing and personal, anyway. "All they'd have to do is follow the coins here and then they'd arrest me!" And worse.

Potter looked thoroughly woebegone. "I was just trying to help! M'sorry. I won't do it." He heaved a huge sigh. "You're never happy."

"You noticed!" Snape parried archly, "Perhaps there's hope for you yet."

"Well I've got to thank you somehow. ...Oh yeah, I know!" Potter patted the pockets his hospital-issue pyjamas didn't have. Then, having finally realised he wasn't carrying whatever his current obsession was, he started looking everywhere else.

"Stop ransacking my house!" Snape winced against the onslaught of a migraine and glared at the unwitting cause of it.

"It's around here somewhere..." Potter finished his noisy rummaging through the kitchen drawers, and started groping inside the umbrella stand by the door. Then he peered inside random books, looked under the doormat, and finally crawled behind the sofa.

"Potter..." Snape growled in warning.

Potter sprang out from behind the sofa like a shock-headed jack-in-the-box, triumphantly waving... Gryffindor's sword! Snape remembered very clearly what it looked like, from having to create a fake for Bellatrix then lead Potter to the real one so he could retrieve it in the most heroic – in other words, unnecessarily dangerous – manner possible.

"Found it!" Potter singsonged, beaming at him. The sword swooshed down, barely avoiding Snape's nose, and came to a halt pointing right at his heart.

Ohshit! Don't flinch. Whatever the hell had happened to the sword after the last battle, Snape knew damn well it hadn't been stashed behind his sofa. Potter must've summoned it there, with that impudent magic of his that knew no limits but Potter's own will.

A glassy green gaze traced Snape from the point of his nose to the tip of his bedsock-clad toes. "Kneel... actually, wait." He wordlessly summoned a cushion from the sofa and set it on the floor between the bookcase and the coffee table. "We oughtta do this properly. There." He tugged at Snape's arm as a not-so-subtle hint.

Snape certainly wasn't one to ignore even subtle hints, especially from an armed lunatic. No sudden movements. Moments like these, Snape didn't know whether to laugh or curse, not that he could truly curse any more. Gathering the tatters of his dignity, he lowered himself to his knees, then down to sit on the cushion. He shifted away a bit, trying to keep the movement unobtrusive.

"Don't be scared," Potter reassured him graciously. "I only slay dragons. And basilisks, foul beasts!" he added, scowling.

Potter's dark, strong magical aura made Snape's skin prickle in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with fear. Apparently spying on Voldemort for decades has left me with a danger kink. Snape squirmed. He told himself it was just that the thin cushion was nowhere near enough padding between the floor and his bony arse.

"D'you believe in magic?" Potter asked suddenly.

That has to be a trick question. "What are you wittering on about?"

"You know," Potter leaned forward, eyes wide, and whispered "Magic. Like fairytales."

Snape gulped as the pointed blade trembled so close to his Adam's apple. "Sometimes." I should've locked the mad sod out when I had the chance. If only there was a lock that'd keep him out.

"Good. You've got to believe," Potter advised happily, "Otherwise, what's the point?" The determined gleam in his eyes was all the stronger by contrast with the deep shadows below them. "For your service to the Wizarding world, for your dedication and good deeds," the flat of the sword rested on Snape's left shoulder. "I dub thee," The blade whooshed, almost slicing the curtain of Snape's hair, and his ear with it, before coming to rest on his other shoulder. "Sir Severus."

The realisation that, far from hacking him to bits, Harry wanted to honour him, left Snape so giddy with relief that his mouth overrode his caution. "There's no need to call me 'Sir'."

Harry just blinked at the quip. Clearly he didn't remember that particular moment of classroom cheek. "But you deserve to be a knight," he informed Snape earnestly. "Besides, it's too late, you're my knight now. C'mon, up you get! Knights don't kneel." The natural way Harry reached for Snape's cursed hand to help him up, surprised Snape as nothing else could've done. But Harry didn't even seem to notice the moment of shock. He was too busy waving his sword at the front door. "'Then let us boldly advance to the fight, thus we shall show our valour and might,'" he quoted, swinging the blade too close to Snape's head... "and... and, er, how'd it go?" He scratched his head and suddenly grinned, "...and WIN!"

Someday I'm going to find out who donated the Tales of the Brothers Grimm to St. Mungo's. Then I'm going to hunt the bastard down, reach down his throat, grasp him firmly by the balls and turn him inside out! "Very well," he told Potter, with a gritted facsimile of patience, "But not tonight."

"You sure?" Harry's eyes shone like a mirror, awed and amazed enough to make Snape wonder who exactly Harry saw in his place. "It'd be an honour to fight by your side. You're very heroic, Severus."

Snape's face heated. "Later. I'll watch your back, brat."

The words sounded like a promise made to keep. Which is bloody ironic, given what I'm going to do to him. If I'm lucky and everything works.

It took Snape a long time to prepare for his next journey to Hogsmeade. It had taken the absolute necessity of obtaining potion ingredients to force him to actually go there.

When Snape reached the old Order entrance to the yard behind the Hog's Head, he was relieved to find it still usable, and even more relieved to find all the goat pens empty. Aberforth will have let them in out of the cold and wet by now. They'll be tripping up the drunks and trawling for stray shoelaces, purses, brats or anything else vaguely edible. Snape sidled in through the pub's rear entrance. The Red Cap he'd planned to meet was already there, waiting at the farthest table from the bar, and sipping curded goat milk from a tall glass with a pink paper umbrella. Two fur sacks rested at his feet. A couple of goats got close enough to nibble at the sacks' leather drawstrings, and the Red Cap flashed the beasts a scarlet-eyed glare. One kept at it, but the other gave the Red Cap's iron boot an interested nudge and sniffed his wiry grey beard. The Red Cap tossed the paper umbrella at the goat, who promptly ate it.

Snape slid onto the chair opposite the Red Cap, and wished him a "Good evening." The goats gave a few nervous bleats and fled, heading for safety behind the bar.

The Red Cap stirred the remaining milk in his glass with a stalk of sage and gave Snape a jagged-toothed scowl. He didn't look even remotely friendly.

Snape eyed the creature's cap sitting on the edge of the table. It had faded since last time. Snape covered it with his right hand, gritting his teeth at the contact. They both watched the rusty brown wool saturate with blood. The Red Cap seemed captivated by the sight.

Finally the Red Cap grunted and reached down a taloned hand to hoist one of the sacks up onto the table in front of Snape.

Snape peered inside. Even above the boozy, smoky reek of the pub, he could catch a mixture of aromas: the bittersweet woody greenness of freshly gathered magical plants. Training as ingrained as instinct kicked in and he identified their species without having to rummage around and risk damage to the foliage. As he pulled the sack closer, a smaller bag fell out, and clinked as he picked it up. When he opened the bag, he glimpsed a soft white radiance, faintly iridescent, like a Lumos. Quartz crystals, full to bursting with magical charge. Three of them! One more than I asked for. Incredible!

The Red Cap stared at him, rather imposing for someone whose chin barely reached the table edge and who had a milk moustache in addition to his hairy one. As Snape re-sealed (but did not release) the bag of crystals, the Red Cap's glare turned shrewd, calculating.

"Are you two done?" Aberforth muttered, not quite looking Snape in the eye. "I've got a respectable business to run. And before you say it," he added defensively, "yes, 'respectable' wizards do drop by every so often."

"I'm just as capable of buying a drink as them," Snape grumbled, defiant and not even remotely honest.

"Yeah, and I'll have the MLE breathing down my neck for selling you a bottle of Ogden's. They do enforce these occasionally." He pointed to the fireplace. Above it hung two of the usual Ministry posters in heavy frames.

'Wizarding Secrecy Act #4564-263: Muggles and Muggleborns with living Muggle relatives are Strictly Forbidden!' declared the first one.

'Wizarding Safety Act #5603-12: Magical Creatures of Ministry Classification XXXX or higher (including but not limited to Pure- or Half-Breed Centaurs, Giants, Trolls, Vampires, Veela and Werewolves) are Forbidden Entry (except on presentation of pre-approved Ministry permit #MCXXXX-256). Permit-holding Creatures may enter only during daylight hours. Leashes, bridles, or handcuffs are required at all times. Strict supervision is mandatory.'

A third sign under the framed scrolls said 'No robes, no wand, no galleons – no service!' The sign was hand-painted wood like the sign above the pub's front door, and was much older and grimier than the framed posters, though tacked to the bottom of the sign was a strip of new parchment that said '(In accordance with Wizarding Decency Act #69-181)'

Snape smirked at Aberforth and nodded at the second framed sign. "Got a 'pre-approved Ministry permit' for those goats?"

"Very funny, lad," Aberforth glared.

The Red Cap rolled his eyes and threw a galleon on the table. He tossed the sage stalk to the goats, tapped his own empty glass, and gave Snape a waiting look.

"Irish Coffee." Snape didn't give a damn about the Muggle origin of the drink, he was desperate for something hot as well as alcoholic. The sugar and caffeine would boost his energy levels, and it had been longer than he cared to think since the last time he'd tasted cream. When the drinks arrived, he spent the next few minutes slowly sipping from his mug, basking in the warmth of the drink and the pub, enjoying the soothingly low lighting from the single fireplace on the other side of the room and the stub of a candle in the centre of their table. There was so little to enjoy in Snape's life, but that had only sharpened his ability to make the most of small pleasures. The candle's soft flicker gilded the worn, uneven surface of the tabletop, where some nitwit had scratched 'D.A. RULES, O.K.?' into the wood years before.

At last, Snape's mug was empty. He resisted the urge to lick it clean. Instead he asked his unlikely benefactor "What do I owe you?" with a nod at the sack of ingredients and the bag of crystals. He didn't really want to think about the task (or body part) the Red Cap would want from him in return. Red Caps were as ruthless as anyone who thought human blood was a fashion statement.

The Red Cap dumped the second sack on the table. Inside were several dozen faded wool caps, the bloodstains on them ranging from dull brown to rusty grey. The Red Cap gave him an expectant, even eager glance. Bloodthirsty.

That's it? Snape boggled inwardly. But he was careful to keep his surprise off his face. He certainly wasn't about to do anything to ruin a deal like this. He nodded impassively, reached for the first one and gripped the scratchy wool in his fist. "This will take a while."

The Red Cap nodded and settled back to watch, as rapt as any Muggle punter following the races on telly. Hobnailed boots went up on the table, and the Red Cap started to snack idly on his empty glass, crunching it like crisps.

"The Mill by Spinner's End."

The flames in the pub's fireplace flared as if burning the whole ramshackle place to the ground, but they died swiftly, leaving only darkness and ash. The chill of the night air washed away the last traces of the pub's smoky warmth, and instead of a properly-burning bed of coals there was only a dispiriting crunch of burnt matchsticks underfoot.

Snape was standing in a huge coal furnace in the abandoned mill near his house. The furnace's rusty belly was almost as large as a dragon's, and it resonated like a kettledrum as he clambered out. He pulled an old mustard tin out of his pocket, and tipped in a palmful of Aberforth's Floo powder, careful not to spill a grain. Every time he Flooed out of the Wizarding world he had to nick enough powder for a return trip. Floo was the only easy method of travel available to him now, and he clung to it like a lifeline.

He left the mill and followed the overgrown path through its grounds till he came to the gate where the spinners once entered. From there it was just a short walk to the house at the end of the row. He knew well that it was as cold in there as the streets outside, and no one had ever sat up awaiting his return.

But as it happened, someone was waiting for him at Spinner's End after all. On his doorstep, like a cat on a mat, sat a small owl, perched on a sealed scroll. As he approached, the owl gave him a heavylidded, sleepy look. He felt rather sorry for the bird, sitting out in the freezing rain. It was scarcely more than a hatchling, and its downy feathers looked like kitten fur. A soggy pink bow was tied around its neck. Who'd put a ribbon on an owl?

Snape set down the sack of ingredients and reached out both hands, intending to scoop up both owl and scroll.

As he extended his right hand toward the owl, yellow eyes snapped wide and the owl screeched, enraged or terrified at the sight of the cursed blood. Its beak dug into his flesh and its claws clung and tore.

Snape swore and shook the owl off his hand. It flapped wildly, righted itself in midair, and landed on a windowsill. The owl puffed up its feathers until it looked twice as big as it really was. It fanned its wings wide, snapped its beak and hissed at him like a rabid alley cat.

Bluffing. Not that there's anything wrong with those claws or that beak, vicious little bugger. "Get off out of it!"

The owl gave one last accusing shriek and flapped off. The scroll the bird had delivered lay soaking in a puddle. Now Snape could see the wax was imprinted with the Ministry's seal. He considered leaving the damn thing there to rot, but the next moment it rustled, shook off the water, and levitated in front of him like a Howler, unrolling itself with a crack of sealing wax and a burst of sparks.

"From the Office of Penal Corrections, Department of Wizarding Public Safety, to Criminal DE-SST19600109," the note read itself out in a loud and pompous voice, as if denying him the excuse that the letter had arrived in an illegible state, "This is to inform you that your next mandatory visit to the Ministry of Magic (Department of Wizarding Public Safety, Floor 13, Room 101) has been scheduled for 7:45 A.M. on Monday the 28th of December 1998. Failure to appear promptly at the scheduled time will result in arrest. Have a pleasant day."

Snape scowled. So this is what got me stuck in a Ministry cell for almost a week over the New Year! It would've been even longer if the Aurors hadn't finally straggled back to work after their holidays and eventually got around to working out what to do with me. His protests that he'd never received a letter had been met with the usual response. They'd demanded proof, which by their definition meant questioning, and questioning in his case was always defined as torture. Their excuses were always the same, had been ever since the First War. Unlike most prisoners, he couldn't be trusted to break under any of the usual interrogation methods: Veritaserum, Legilimency, even Imperius. He'd had far more than his fair share of experience at enduring Cruciatus as well, but that little fact never seemed to matter. Apparently it was far too entertaining to watch him thrash and scream. In the First War, they'd also amused themselves by trying to cut, burn or hex the Dark Mark off his arm. Now they had another permanent curse to play with. They couldn't try to remove the new mark, because this time the Ministry had put it there, but they didn't have to go to any such lengths to have their fun either. The simplest touch would do, if it lasted long enough.

He tore up the belated Ministry letter, clutching the pieces in his wounded hand, feeling hot wetness seep into the scraps of parchment. They struggled in his palm as if the stain burned them like acid, then went limp. Snape dropped the sodden scraps down a stormwater drain and picked up his sack of ingredients in his good hand. He didn't realise how deeply the owl had clawed and bitten him until he felt the trickling down his fingers and saw the drops: one, two, dark round stains splashing on the cobbles. The curse kept his hand permanently wet, but it never made him bleed fast enough to drip.

Once inside, he dug a matchbox out of his pocket, lit a candle and trudged into the kitchen. He pulled an eyedropper bottle of healing potion out of a cupboard and carefully deposited single drops into each of the open gashes. The potion reacted strongly on contact with his cursed skin, its purifying magic sizzled and spat sparks in protest. But Snape just grit his teeth and his hands stayed as steady as if carved from stone. It wasn't until the precious bottle of potion was safely sealed and stowed that he let out a shuddering breath and the tension across his shoulders ebbed. He closed his hand into a fist, then spread his fingers wide, testing the flex of the newly healed skin. Once he was satisfied that his hand was as healed as the curse would allow, he lit two more burnt-down candle stubs and positioned them around the kitchen, where they'd cast the most light on the table. He couldn't really afford the waste of burning more than one candle, but he was in a mood to do anything that might distract him from the silence, the darkness and the cold: from the emptiness of this room, this house, this life.

As always, his greatest solace was in work. So he opened the sack of ingredients and laid them out on the kitchen table, setting the bag of charged crystals carefully to one side. Since he'd been robbed of most of his power and had his wand broken, brewing was the only magical art he could still practice, and even that now required far more preparation and patience than ever before.

He got out two of his mother's battered saucepans. Over the years, what with Mum and me, these things must've held almost as many potions as meals. He sharpened the carving knife to a razor's edge. When all the mundane preparations were complete, he opened the bag of crystals and selected one, cradling the softly-glowing thing as gently as a soap-bubble in his good hand. He sighed with a relief more than merely physical as the magic of the crystal radiated through his magic-starved body. It was as blissful, as necessary, as heat to a freezing man. He gazed into the gentle iridescence, smiling as his constant, aching hunger eased.

For a while, at least. With a sigh, he set the noticeably dimmer crystal aside. Now for it. As the old saying goes, 'Make hay' and potions 'while the sun shines'.

He laid the hellebore on the chopping board. As with any ingredient, he was careful always to touch it with his good hand only. I don't even want to think of what my cursed blood would do to a Draught of Peace. The knife fluttered in a well-practiced chopping motion, accompanied by a rapid ratatatatat of steel striking wood.

As the finely minced hellebore simmered down to syrup, he put a moonstone into his mum's mortar and started grinding it to powder with patient rotating strokes of the pestle. The rounded end of its handle pressed against the pad of callus he'd developed in his palm from decades of such work.

Though he hadn't had decades of ignoring distracting thoughts of Potter as he plied his pestle.

The brewing Snape needed took him the rest of the evening, but at last he looked down through the shimmering silver vapour into a cauldron, well, a saucepan, full of perfectly-brewed Draught of Peace. Beside it on the gas stove simmered another saucepan of richly purple Sleeping Draught. I can't risk Potter deciding, for whatever mad reason, not to cooperate. No, Snape tightened his resolve as he turned off the gas jets and began to ladle the sleeping draught into phials, better if he's not awake to protest.

The whelp didn't bother to knock, just walked right through the wall and the bookshelves, startling Snape so badly he almost dropped the gin he was holding.

"You look like you've seen a ghost," the whelp had the audacity to say.

Snape had been taking a steadying sip from his glass. It was a bad move, since Potter's words left him spluttering.

But fortunately Potter didn't notice. He padded across the sitting room, heading for the kitchen. "Got anything to eat?"

Snape eyed Potter over the rim of his glass. The brat was still dressed in hospital pyjamas, but though his hair was still bristling and crackling, it wasn't spitting many sparks at all today. And that last question was almost a reasonable thing to ask, given Potter's scrawniness.

"Tsk. Sit down!" I have to distract him somehow. Keep him harmless. Keep him here.

"Did you miss me?" Potter beamed as he came back out of the kitchen. As usual, the brat skipped the formalities and flopped down on Snape's sofa in the same lazy way he used to slouch in class. He wrapped his "cape" around himself in a weirdly regal gesture, though the effect was rather ruined by the resulting jester-bell jingle from the curtain rings still dangling from the hem of the garish red thing.

"Beyond words." Snape drawled. I miss you like I miss spying on Riddle. Smoking a pipe next to a cauldron full of Erumpent fluid is less dangerous than spending time with you. It's only a matter of time before you blow this place to bits, and me with it.

"I was really good this time. Scarpered right under their noses," the imp bragged.

Little bastard wouldn't know stealth if it bit him on the arse! How many of St. Mungo's walls did he tear down this time?

Potter brought out a lump of cheese and yesterday's part-loaf of bread from behind his back with the showy flourish of a Muggle 'magician'. He cheerfully bit off a chunk of each.

Snape snarled mutely as Potter ate. Greedy sod, that would've lasted me through tomorrow! Oh, why the hell am I worrying about food when I might not even live to see tomorrow?

"I reckon they won't even notice I'm gone till morning." Potter went on rather thickly around the last mouthful of food in the house.

Then I've got all night. Long enough. Snape summoned up a thin smile. "Would you like some tea to wash all that down?"

Potter nodded.

I'd better use plenty of sugar to mask the taste of the Sleeping Draught.

"They padded my cell. It's all boring now, no window or anything. Not even a door." Sparks from Potter's fringe fell into the mug in his hands. He slurped his tea like a five-year-old and immediately glanced up, grinning. The sheer bliss of that grin made Snape wonder if he'd added too much sugar after all. "But you're better to look at than a window. More fun too."

"At last. My life's ambition – to outperform glass in the entertainment stakes – has been achieved."

The sarcasm rolled off Potter like water off a particularly dimwitted duck. Instead of pouting properly, he had the nerve to beam and pat the sofa beside him in invitation. Then he took a loop of string hanging off his neck like a noose and hooked it around his thumbs and index fingers. Slowly, the string was woven into a sun. Ten rays spread out to each of Potter's fingertips, and for a second the string gleamed, catching the light like silk. Then the sun disappeared as Potter's nimble fingers looped and pulled more designs out of his woven web. Spindly runes twisted into and out of being, as swift as the shuffle of a Tarot deck. Potter hummed and a small smile lingered on his lips as he watched the lantern-show flicker of arcane symbols in the space between his palms. He glanced up from his net. "Wanna play?"

"'Play'?" Snape spat the word, scowling and digging in his mental heels at the first subtle pull of wordless Imperius. "I don't bloody well think so!"

Potter scowled right back. "That's what I thought at first. Cat's cradles, what a crap idea of therapy that was! But then, I had a lot of time to think. And not a lot to do." His fingers crawled quick as spiders, up and down the netting that now ensnared Snape's hands, like two flies in a web.

Manipulative little sod! How'd I get this close to him? I was on the other side of the room.

"Tsk. Grumpy as a goblin!" Potter murmured, gazing oh-so-innocently up into Snape's eyes from a distance of inches. "Would you like a hug?"

"Would you like an honest answer?" Snape parried acidly, tugging at the loops that entangled his fingers. "Now stop that before it's curtains for you." He glared pointedly at Potter's "cape". The rings dangled, jingling faintly.

"Are you mocking me?" Potter pouted. "I can tell if you're lying, y'know."

Snape's breath caught. What if he can? All that power could well have improved his Legilimency to Riddle's level. Perhaps even beyond. Still, Snape maintained eye contact, taking the chance that his natural talent for Occlumency would suffice.

The candle on the table guttered, the crockery in the cupboards rattled, the very earth beneath them gave a tiny, uneasy shiver. Potter shifted a few loops so that both of Snape's hands were doubled into fists, trussed around with string, drawn tight and close to Harry's face, in a posture both threatening and powerless.

"This is ridiculous," Snape growled, firing Potter a quelling glare.

The green eyes were dazed now, unseeing as he pulled Snape's bound hands toward him.

"Stop it!" Before you bring this shambles down around my ears!

The candles flared, their flames reaching briefly for the ceiling, but then they subsided and the earth tremor came to an abrupt stop. Potter looked up, his glass-green eyes wide and tragic. "...sorry."

"Enough." Snape let out a shaky breath. "One more outburst like that and you'll find yourself back in your cell."

"You wouldn't do that," Potter declared. He sounded so confident, so certain.

"Try me." If I only had the strength for wandless Imperius like that, you'd be guzzling my entire stock of Sleeping Draught by now, you little sod.

"Are y'mad at me?" Potter breathed. "Really mad or just a bit?"

"What do you care?"

"I do! Just... don't leave! Ginny got really mad once, 'cause I broke her house, and she didn't stay after that... I'll get better!" Just as Snape thought that Potter's ramblings couldn't get any more delusional, he heard "I've vanquished dragons, see?" The brat slipped one hand right out of the elaborate knots. He hooked the string with his index finger and pulled it out in a long loop as he reached with that hand into thin air. His hand vanished briefly and when it reappeared, the loop of string was hung with what at first glance looked like bizarre Christmas ornaments. They turned out to be several Petrificus-dried lizards, their skins transfigured into unnaturally bright, metallic hues. As Snape stared disbelievingly at them, it struck him that the one in the centre might've just been an unfortunate, half-transfigured frog. With wings.

Some 'dragons' they are! Bloody cheat! Before Snape could sneer aloud, Potter plucked the garland of lizards like a guitar string, and the whole netting loosened around Snape's wrists. "Here. Take 'em." Potter extended his weird little offerings. "I slew 'em for you."

Never one to turn his nose up at potential ingredients, Snape untangled his fingers from the net and accepted the luckless former lizards (and possible frog). Not knowing what else to say, he mumbled "Thanks," and set the lizards on the table. "They're..." he stared blankly at the bulging eyeballs and curled tails, searching his scant lexicon of tactful words, "...useful."

"Good!" Potter grinned. "I'll defeat more." Potter fiddled with the string and wove another net between his fingers. This one had a crescent moon-shaped hole in the middle. He peered at Snape through the hole and snorted. "It's got your nose."

"Don't be absurd," Snape grumbled. Moving on impulse, he pinched the sides of the crescent moon to turn the net inside out, tugging it off Potter's fingers and deftly stretching it into a star, as if to show the brat how it was meant to be done.

"You like me when I'm absurd." Potter beamed as if Snape had just given him an O in Potions. "Dunno why, really, but I'm not complaining." His fingers plucked at random star beams, playing them like a harp, before taking the construction off Snape's hands. The string was partially stained red now, bright enough to be almost festive. But Potter paid no attention, either to the stain or to his own hands' proximity to Snape's steadily seeping skin.

Since I was cursed, no one's ever come close enough to even brush against me. Until now. Until him. How bloody ironic.

"See?" Potter said, as he was done transferring a Cat's Cradle from his fingers to Snape's, his eyes worshipping each carefully-preserved loop that snapped into place, even though there was nothing remotely worthy of such attention in Snape's stained fingertips and knuckles. "I can't finish this without ten more." Potter's skinny hands transformed the simple netting, pulling it around and sideways into the three-dimensional shape of something winged. "And my toes are too short."

Snape arched an exceedingly dubious eyebrow.

Blood continued to spread along the string from Snape's right hand, picking out smaller runes and signs from the web, in a red that contrasted vividly with the string's natural white. Snape watched the stain with caution at first, worried that Potter's hands would pick it up from the string, but it didn't transfer. Looks like I'd have to touch him directly for that. Snape had just enough time to feel relieved at that, before the string burst into flames. The shape it had formed lifted free of their hands and hovered in mid air. Fiery wings like a phoenix breathed warmth over Snape's chilled fingers and gleamed in Potter's owlish lenses, before they faded into a starlike scatter of sparks. White ash fell like snow, then Harry sneezed and the ash swirled in midair, blown in a cloud over a tall pile of books, where white ash became white (and red) string once more. Instead of the winged shape it had formed before, the string was now neatly coiled into something that might've been a sleeping serpent, and might've been a bird's nest. Snape eyed it with all the paranoia of a committed bibliophile already smelling the smoke of a thousand singed tomes.

"Wasn't that fun? See, we can do fun things together!" With a newfound enthusiasm that made the magic crackle in his bristling hair, Potter grabbed Snape's good hand. He would've grabbed the cursed one too if Snape hadn't yanked it back in time.

"I doubt it."

Potter didn't answer. He was looking at Snape's palm instead. "Huh. Your fingers are all stained," he mumbled. Just as Snape was about to comment on Potter's habit of stating the obvious, Potter's fingers softly traced the rough spots between thumb and forefinger of his good hand – calluses from the ladle – and the fresh yellow smudges on his fingertips. "Just like they were at school."

Snape blinked at the evidence of his brewing. Perceptive little sod! I'll have to brew a cleaning potion, and use it, before I let myself be seen.

"What've you been making?"

Something that'd get me thrown through the Veil. "Poisons," he deadpanned.

"Oh." For a second, Potter seemed disturbed by the concept.

Snape held his breath and flexed his fingers, unsure whether to expect the brat to accuse him or to cheer him on. As usual, what Potter did end up doing was nothing Snape had expected. "S'ok." he extended one curtained arm and squeezed Snape's shoulder, with a dreamy smile. "I won't tell anyone."

Snape looked past the glassy-eyed absurdity, and beneath the chaos of sleepy thoughts there it was again: a glimpse of a sober coherence. A sane, scared young man, so terrified of being a danger to everyone around him, that he assumed the role of a fool instead. Is that what they've reduced you to? Well then, Harry Potter, I won't tell your secret either.

Potter insisted on using seven empty bottles for Snape's new 'dragons' and a jar for the winged frog. Snape untied them from their tether one by one and they bobbed like flotsam on invisible waves, settling inside their new homes. Potter pressed his nose against the glass and stared at them like a cat eyeing fish in an aquarium.

Finally the boy tore away and hid a yawn against his hand. "Time t'sleep," he murmured at the shelves. Snape could've sworn he heard a rustle in reply from the books, a whisper of white noise from his long-dead radio, and a faint lullaby chime from the bottles.

Snape's eyelids felt heavy. At first he just put it down to the lateness of the hour, but then he felt the softest hint of magic in the back of his thoughts. It murmured drowsily to him of rest, of peace. Quickly, he stifled a yawn of his own, summoning all of his willpower to resist. "Contrary to what you might believe," he growled, "the world doesn't sleep at your command."

"Maybe it should." Potter stretched on the sofa and wrapped himself first in his "cape" then in Snape's blanket. Fortunately, it wasn't long after that until Potter slept, and his unconscious Imperius dissipated.

At least the dose worked a damn sight better than the half-botched brews they pour down patients' throats at St. Mungo's. Carefully Snape craned over the sofa and eyed the ruffled, sprawled, insensible brat. Potter had better not be a light sleeper. Blue sparks crackled in Potter's fringe with each calm breath. The corners of his cape still fluttered on a dying wind charm. Snape weighted them down by tugging his blanket over the sleeping beast, before sneaking away.

Upstairs, Snape lifted the blinds and peered outside at the abandoned street, half expecting it – and the world – to be stricken by Potter's erratic powers. The boarded-up row houses were just as empty and dark as they were before Potter showed up.

He wanted to hate Potter. Hate would make it so much easier for Snape to go through with his plan. He used to have a thousand reasons for such convenient hatred. He used to hate Potter for having Lily's eyes, green as polished malachite, as well as James Potter's black hair, perpetually tousled. He used to hate him for having all of James Potter's popularity and fame and more, all of it unearned.

Now, instead of pouting and mocking and making it easy for Snape to hate him, as he used to do at school, these days his former student smiled at him and gazed up at him as earnestly as if he expected his own nose to grow to the size of Snape's if he told Snape a lie. But Snape had one new reason to hate him, a reason that was more real than the thousand excuses that had gone before. Potter sweated magical power from every pore like a fever victim, while Snape had to hoard every scrap he could get, had to pay in his own blood for charged pieces of quartz.

Snape turned away from the window and looked through his mother's storage shelves. A cardboard box in a corner held a dusty construction of wand-blown glass tubes and milk bottles, left over from one summer's schoolboy plans to set up a potions lab in his bedroom. Despite decades of disuse, the condenser coils were much better sealed than the flashy apparatus in the window of Dervish and Banges. Wrapped in rags and tucked away in the same box lay his mother's wand.

Snape took the box downstairs.

He never did set up his lab as he'd planned. Instead he spent that summer hiding in his room, trying to block out the shouting from downstairs with Muffliato. The advantage of inventing his own spells was that they were unknown to the Ministry, and therefore untraceable. And just in case Dad decided to come upstairs and take out the usual drunken rage on him, Snape spent most of his time perfecting the wand movement and mental focus necessary for Sectumsempra.

All his life Snape had been an inventor, and even as a schoolboy he knew that true inventions didn't come from wisdom or daring or even persistence. Inspiration was born of desperation, when circumstances drove you past fatigue and despair to clutch at the last available chance.

He held his mum's wand in both hands and looked down at the worn length of wood. Every dent and scratch had been familiar to him since childhood. He drew a deep breath, and with a single convulsive movement, snapped the wand in two.

Potter slept through the sudden, broken-bone crack. He was just as broken as the wand; no longer a boy but not quite a man. Snape too was maimed, drained; more than a Squib but no longer fully a wizard. He caught a glimpse of himself in the dusty glass of his apparatus. Stringy, greasy hair, hollow cheeks dark with stubble, bloodshot eyes. All in all, he looked like he'd spent the past week slaving away in a lab without a single night of decent sleep. At least I'm still sane. Or sane enough not to go around slaying imaginary dragons. He spared a single glance at Potter's bizarre gifts. The bottled, petrified lizards looked more alive than his own reflection.

He arranged Potter's body on the sofa and spellotaped the broken handle of his mother's wand to that lax wand hand. Cored wandwood was the only magical conductor that a wizard's hand accepted, but once that connection was made, the wand core itself was more flexible. He tied the fragile piece of hair in his mum's wand core to the stained end of Potter's string, hoping that the wand would recognize his blood as kin. From Potter's hand he fed a long loop of the string through the spiralling condenser coils of his old summer project, down into the alembic which held the whole batch of Draught of Peace, a necessary calming influence. With all of Potter's wild magic flaring defensively, only potion-based techniques had a chance to control him, as the Sleeping Draught in Potter's tea had shown. As Snape threaded the string through the apparatus' tubes, patient as a spider spinning a web to kill its next meal, he told himself that It doesn't matter a damn that Potter's asleep, and has no choice in what I'm about to do. This is far more important than any petty questions of consent. It's about survival.

One way or another, it will all be over soon. The bloodied string now extended the wand core from the handle in Potter's hand into the distillation apparatus and out again. Its far end coiled in an iron cauldron full of water. Under the water, the three pieces of magically charged quartz glowed softly. All that remained was to dip his wand hand – holding the tip of his mother's broken wand – into the water, to complete the connection from Potter's overabundance of magic to his own aching lack.

He clutched the wandtip and breathed deeply, evenly, trying to calm the pounding of his heart. The transfer will begin once the wand core touches that water. For however many seconds or hours this will take, I'll be joined to Potter on a level far deeper than tea and conversation. But despite his moment of hesitation, he knew he would gamble his remaining mental defences, his sanity, his very life, on the chance that this would restore his drained magic and make him whole once more.

He dipped the broken core into the water.

At first there was nothing, then the string pulsed like a vein with the pressure of the alien magic that filled Potter to bursting. The vibrations spread rings through the water in the cauldron. The bottles with Potter's petrified lizards trembled. Snape hoped that this extended core was strong enough to hold and not blow up the entire place and them with it. How can he sleep through all this noise? Even my Sleeping Draughts aren't that strong.

Until finally the magic was there again at his fingertips, fierce and familiar and his. It was a tingle at first, then a white crackle, stronger and stronger until it overwhelmed him like a tidal wave. This is how it must feel to be struck by lightning. A blast that could stop his heart – or make it pound, send blood and adrenaline roaring through his body, bring him back to life. For the first time in a year, he wasn't trapped in the body of a Squib. He wouldn't've let go of that wand for anything.

After a while, the wood in his hand warmed beyond body heat, which meant that the magic coming down the line toward him was no longer his own. Must be fire energy, a phoenix core. Could be any of the Death Eaters'. It could even be Riddle's! I could stop the transfer now, Obliviate Potter, dump him somewhere far away. Turn my back on him and his whole sorry mess. But something – logic, he told himself – prevented him. I owe Potter for finally killing Riddle. And I repay my debts. And so he held on, preparing to share Potter's maddening burden of alien magic, bracing himself mentally just like he used to do when faced with the Dark Lord's Legilimency. I can do this. After all, Potter containing it all on his own is more likely to drive me mad than this.

But the onslaught that he'd steeled himself to endure didn't come. Instead, the flow of magical energies slowed and dwindled to nearly nothing. It was as if all the pressure of excess power from Potter's end had eased, as if the amount of magic on either side of the connection had already equalised and struck a balance. Now Snape had to reach down the string-elongated core and make an effort to deliberately draw the fire energy within range. He was braced for almost anything. What he found was... warmth. Nothing like the destructive, burning force he expected. Instead, it was tentative and soft as sunlight. Just like the sun, it kept its distance too.

I think I know whose magic that is. It must be Potter's. He stopped reaching through the core, and the gentle warmth retreated back toward Potter's end. Snape relinquished his half of the wand. It took him a surprising effort to uncurl his fingers from it, and allow the connection to fade. But he had to think.

Any force foreign to Potter would certainly leave him first, before his own magic could be felt. That means that... it was only my magic he absorbed from Riddle? It only took mine added to his to make him insanely powerful, literally. Snape bared his teeth in a brief, mirthless smirk. No wonder Riddle was a gibbering maniac at the end. He wasn't anywhere near as restrained in his thefts.

Snape frowned, deeply unsettled. But why my magic? Why not Riddle's? Potter was connected to him for years, their magics were even channelled by twin cores. I've got nothing in common with Potter, Snape snorted bitterly, except that we both miss his mother. He could've used any – maybe even all – of the Death Eaters' magics Riddle had stolen to protect his scaly hide. Out of all the power Potter could've taken, why did he settle for just mine? It can't've been compatible with his, dragon heartstring's an explosive combination with phoenix feather.

I suppose it doesn't matter now. Luckily for me, Potter held onto it all this time.

He cupped his hands and imagined he was holding a flame in the space between his palms. As he lifted his hands high he whispered "Calidus," dispelling the bitter cold that had oppressed him since the onset of winter. The warmth of the wandless charm radiated against his face, fiercer than ever before. Perhaps it was the longed-for, long-withheld rush of magic coursing full and strong through him, so much magic all of a sudden, after so long having to scrape by with so little. His vision rippled as if his charm was breathing heat haze like a real fire. The room whirled around him, flickering as if with firelight, picking out every chance smear from his hand on the walls or the shelves, in vivid, festive scarlet. He was drunk, high on magic, exalted in a way no intoxicant could hope to match, basking in the glory of power, of life, of completeness. It was incredible, amazing... too much for a man who'd been tired and hungry all winter. The pleasure overwhelmed him, mind and body. His muscles were relaxing, his very bones seemed to be melting in the blaze of bliss. Unable to give a damn anymore about such mundane tasks as standing, he sprawled in his armchair, and abruptly passed out.

"Wake up!" A hand shook Snape's shoulder. "They're coming!"

Snape startled awake, almost sliding off the armchair where he'd been slumped.

In daylight Potter's mop of hair was still messy, but it was dull without the glow. Potter looked rational and worried. There were shadows of stubble over his jaw, and shadows of sleeplessness under his eyes.

Snape felt a gooseflesh prickle of nearby magical activity and whirled to face the door. Beside him, Potter tossed his "cape" over the table, where it draped over Snape's distillation apparatus, the cauldron and crystals and halves of broken wand. Potter was obviously trying to disclaim his curtain theft and add Fashion Criminal to the list of Snape's offences. But there was no time for Snape to object, no time to react at all.

"REDUCTO!" shouted several voices in unison. The front door exploded, spraying the room with toothpick-sized shrapnel. Aurors! Five casters, more hanging back. Couldn't be arsed to try a simple Alohamora first, the bastards!

Despite the unnecessary drama of their entrance, they didn't waste time in talk. The red jet of light from a massed Stunning spell hit Potter square in the chest and sent him flying backward into a bookshelf. He didn't even twitch after that, yet it took the Aurors at least five minutes' worth of Petrificuses and Impedimentas and arguments to decide it was safe for them to approach him. Pathetic pack of cowards!

One of them jabbed his wandtip into Snape as hard as if he was trying to gouge Snape a new navel. The rest crowded around Potter's sprawled body like vultures fluttering round a carcass, in as much of a nervous flap as if they expected Potter to rise up and start the apocalypse right there in Snape's half-smashed sitting room.

As they Mobilicorpused Potter to waist height and started walking out, six of them flanking him like pallbearers round a coffin, Snape called after them through the gaping hole which was all they'd left of his front door, "What about this lot then? I can't exactly Reparo it, and the Muggles'll notice if I freeze solid in here!"

The Auror who'd occupied himself with attempting to skewer Snape turned and sneered over his shoulder, "Shut up, ya greasy crim! The cleanup crew's on the way, which is more than the likes of you deserve."

Indeed, it wasn't long before an elderly, offended looking witch stepped over the shattered threshold with an expression of utmost discomfort, as if every step she took pained her. She stared at Snape with as much joy as if he were a cockroach she'd just found in her cup of tea. "Madam Edgecombe," she announced herself in a haughty voice, "Assistant Obliviator." As she stepped over the mess of wood pieces, she held up the hem of her sensible pink robes, a fashion favoured by the new Minister for Magic, although the new arrival resembled Umbridge about as much as bowtruckle resembled a toad.

"To what do I owe the pleasure, Madam?" Snape inquired blandly.

The only answer she deigned to give was a "Hmph." Instead, she extended a hand gloved in thick dragonskin and drew a line in the dust along one shelf. "This ought to be dusted," she said sniffily, punctuating the remark with a sneeze.

"I had no idea the Aurors were speaking quite so literally," Snape replied in his blandest voice, "when they mentioned a cleanup crew."

"Tsk. Just as crude as a Muggle," she sneered, glancing out the doorframe at the mill chimney, before starting to Reparo the smashed door. "I hear some Muggles chop off the hands of criminals. We, however, are a civilized society, and we deal with our lawbreakers mercifully." She added, as casual as if discussing the weather, "So, Death Eater, what do you think of the Ministry's mercy?"

Snape's right hand clenched at his side. He stared down his nose at her, giving her the look he used to give to misbehaving students. The one that silently classified the target in the same genus as sewer scum.

The Obliviator's sneer turned to a snarl. "I think there's such a thing as being too merciful, but the Minister says we ought to give even murderers like you a chance."

Snape gritted his jaw. These days, sarcasm could cost him, so he was forced to use it sparingly.

Her eyes narrowed in their nest of wrinkles at his continuing refusal to rise to her bait. "You were lucky," she huffed, "They should have marked both your hands." She drew herself up to her unimpressive full height and declared, "They could still easily do so. That and more."

Snape's expression was stony as he intoned a flat "Yes." It was, after all, true. He had no doubt that they'd marked only one of his hands on purpose, so they could use the threat of further punishment to keep him in line. He could never allow his outrage to blind him to the fact that there were always worse things they could do to him. Especially when Snape had a nasty feeling that 'worse things' were about to happen to him, yet again.

Because all along, Madam Edgecombe had been standing right next to the low table, where Potter's glaringly red "cape" lay draped over the lumpy shapes of Snape's illegal brewing apparatus. Snape had been watching her narrowly the entire time, and she hadn't seemed to spare it so much as a glance. It was maddening. Snape's heart was pounding and even his good palm was damp, waiting for her to stop tormenting him with suspense, expecting her any moment to simper at him and ask him "What is the meaning of this?"

But instead she only gave a disdainful flick of her wand and Disapparated away as soon as she'd finished casting Reparo. The crack of Disapparation seemed to echo, but Snape realised a moment later that the second crack had come from the door. The wood had split, as if it was a wet plank that had been dried too quickly by a fire.

Alone at last, he allowed himself to gape openly at the curtain. Its scarlet was the only splash of colour in the drab room, in the whole damn house, come to that. The thing should have been absolutely impossible to overlook. But the Obliviator – and the Aurors before her – had behaved as if the garish curtain were an Invisibility Cloak. Is this how Potter managed to sneak past his guards?

Snape blinked. But if that's so, then why the hell would he leave it here, when he could've used it to escape? Could he have possibly done it to protect me? Or did he want to be caught? Why?

He remembered his own earlier words to Potter, 'Control yourself. Stop running. Go back.' and felt his face going slowly blank with shock.

Don't tell me he's finally started to do as I say!

Snape spent the next few days becoming reacquainted with his magic. Perhaps it was a lingering effect of the long, hard months scraping by on so little, but even after that initial intoxicating rush had faded, he still felt energised, more powerful than ever before. Since the Ministry had broken his wand and banned him from obtaining another, he'd have to rely on wandless magic. It was sheer luck that he'd already become so adept at it. Now, as long as he made no use of an illegal (and traceable) wand, he was reasonably safe from detection, and after the life Snape had led, to be 'reasonably safe' was a luxury.

Free at last.

He no longer had to serve the opposing wishes of two demanding masters. All he had to do now was avoid the notice of the Ministry, and that sort of subterfuge was second nature by now. He left the Calidus operating. Neither the Aurors nor the Obliviator had noticed it, probably because that particular warming charm was his own invention. It had come in useful when brewing in the dungeon chill, since it warmed only the ambient air and left liquids unaffected.

First of all, he spun a subtle web of silent alarms and anti-intruder hexes. When he finally felt a bit more secure, he turned to less important issues, like creature comforts. He repaired the cracked front door, fixed the leaks in the roof and the rising damp, and stopped the wind from whistling in through the chinks of the door- and window-frames. He cleaned the dust from his books, and the cobwebs and hardened grease from the kitchen. He even conjured a huge sunken bathtub in the middle of the sitting room floor (after charming the curtains well and truly opaque) and whiled away a blissful evening lying in steaming, soapy water, soaking the tension from his muscles and the ache from his bones.

After the spate of fixing and cleaning slowed, his long-dormant researcher's curiosity reawakened. He turned it first of all on the souvenir Potter had left him, the gaudy scarlet curtain with its dangling, jangling fringe of brass rings. Where could Potter have found such a thing? Not even the Gryffindor commons had ever run to furnishings quite that garish. Perhaps the brat had transfigured it from something else. But had he really succeeded in making it into a strange new sort of Invisibility Cloak, one which wasn't invisible to Snape, and presumably not to Potter himself?

He tested the fabric, and found it contained neither Demiguise nor Tebo hair. He peered through every one of the shiny rings, examining them for inscriptions in arcane languages, before trying them all on all his fingers. Nothing. He dropped the curtain on random objects, but it and whatever it was covering stayed visible. He watched it out of the corner of his eye, turned his back on it. Still nothing! He glared at it as if it was alive, picked it up, and ever so cautiously draped it over his shoulders before eyeing the effect in his mum's cracked mirror. Ugh! He grimaced at his reflection, but unfortunately it showed no signs of fading. The wind charm the brat had cast to make it stream heroically behind him had long since worn out. Moved by a passing fit of nostalgia, Snape tried the stalking stride that always used to billow his teaching robes to such magnificent effect. But instead of imitating a thundercloud, the cloth flapflapped as merrily as a quidditch pennant, and the curtain rings jingled like Christmas bells. Gah! Snape shrugged it off as if the violently scarlet cloth had actually burned him. Ghastly! I look like an even bigger twit than Potter did! Scowling, irritated with himself for having wasted time on the thing, he folded it and stuck it out of sight in the linen closet.

That out of the way, he turned instead to other pursuits. He spent the long, quiet evenings actually reading his books, instead of staring through them at the walls, wondering which one would crumble first when attackers finally found him, a near-Squib awaiting slaughter. He passed his days in brewing and inventing, instead of drinking to blunt the ache of powerlessness. Every day he practised his wandless abilities, honing and focusing the fierce force of his magic into new charms, new transfigurations. New curses.

The outside world hadn't changed, he still had to minimise his contact with others, he still had to watch every penny and scrounge for food. But now that he had all his magic back, his library was no longer a painful reminder of everything he'd lost, his free time was no longer a torment. Every page was a resource, every second was an opportunity. The bookshelves no longer loomed ominously and hemmed him in like the walls of a padded cell. Their stacked shelves were once more the escape ladders from his sorry lot in life to a world of invention inside his mind.

He was in the midst of a very promising series of modifications to Amortentia, when his radio belched a sudden burst of static.

"This is the WWN," an announcer intoned, "bringing the wizarding public a broadcast by the Minister for Magic."

Distracted from his brewing, Snape set the saucepan down on the stove. The radio crackled again and spoke, this time in sickeningly saccharine tones.

"Witches and wizards of Britain, I am proud to be able to share some truly joyous news." Umbridge paused, milking the moment. "I am delighted to announce," the simper in her voice was clear, "that The Boy Who Lived, The Man Who Defeated The Dark Lord, has been given a clean bill of health by St. Mungo's specialists, the foremost Healers in the Wizarding world. Harry Potter expressed his gratitude today to the staff of St. Mungo's for a standard of care unequalled by any other Wizarding institution. St. Mungo's Healers have effected a truly miraculous cure, healing the boy hero of injuries he sustained during the final confrontation of the last war." The radio smirked like a toad that had just devoured a particularly fat blowfly, "The new, modernised Auror Department has offered Mr. Potter a position, waiving the usual requirement for N.E.W.T.s in light of his defeat of the ringleader of the Death Eaters. Mr. Potter will presumably wish to complete his convalescence before he accepts the Auror Department's generous offer. After all, Wizarding Britain has undergone many revolutionary improvements during Mr. Potter's illness, and no doubt he will need to catch up on the leaps and bounds by which our society has progressed while he has been unfortunately indisposed. Still, we are willing to keep the Auror position open for as long as Mr. Potter needs. In the meantime, let me remind you, the citizens of Wizarding Britain, that you can best express your gratitude to St. Mungo's Healers for their heroic efforts in saving the life of the Boy Who Lived, by owling your generous contributions to the Heal Harry Potter Fund, care of the Ministry of Magic. Good evening, Wizarding Britain, and thank you for your attention."

Snape was still staring unseeingly in the radio's direction, long after the magical signal had faded. Well. Either he's finally convinced them, or they've finally broken him. I wonder if I'll ever find out which is the case. Probably not. If he's even halfway sane now, he'll steer well clear of me.

Somehow, that thought wasn't quite as comforting as it should've been. He scowled. I always did hate mysteries that go unsolved.

Like most unsolved mysteries, this one refused to be forgotten. The next morning, having just finished a cuppa, Snape found himself staring at the empty insides of his white mug, the twin of the one Potter had broken. They probably broke him. Snape sighed. It's not as though he was a Slytherin, practised at spinning convincing lies. He stared down at the blank ceramic, wondering whether it was the unbroken white of the padded cell, the stifling silence, or the crushing solitude that had finally proved too much for Potter. He was doing so well there too... for a while.

An anguished voice echoed in Snape's memories. 'Why can't you call me HARRY?'

Did anyone there ever do that? Give him back his name? ...Not that I should complain, he admitted reluctantly, I haven't done that either.

Something bright wriggled out from under the linen closet door. Snape startled at the movement, but immediately recognised the dancing, jangling shape. Potter's... Harry's ridiculous "cape". Apparently it had had enough of being in the closet, because when Snape banished it back there, it promptly snuck out again. Snape shrugged and decided to ignore the thing.

But it proved as hard to ignore as its owner. As soon as Snape got into bed, the curtain followed, wiggling over the blanket and wrapping itself around him in a full-body hug. Snape banished the gaudy monstrosity to a corner of the bedroom, grumbling "Try that again and next time it'll be Incendio." At least it took that hint and stayed away, more or less. Though it tended to wriggle from room to room after Snape, and wave its corner at him with a hopeful jingle of rings every time he glanced its way.

In the fading blue glow of twilight from the window, Snape sat at his ease, enjoying a book and the silence. The air was warm, soft with humidity and rich with the mineral scent of wet earth, and the cat-foot patter of the rain.

The repaired door sounded different lately, in a way that couldn't just be put down to the lack of hard frost in the air, but the knock that broke the silence was just as erratic as ever. Snape glared at the sound, but it didn't have the good sense to leave him in peace. Grumbling, he put the book back on the shelf and opened the door.

Harry stood outside.

The nitwit always used to just wander inside without really waiting for an invitation, whether he entered through Snape's door, or the nearest window, or walked straight through the wall, but not any more. This time, like any reasonable person, he waited calmly on the doorstep. He looked five years older, like a young man instead of a scatterbrained teenager. A wand holster hung from his belt, a handle of pale wood just visible within. An expensive green travelling cloak draped his shoulders in fashionable folds. He'd grown his hair to shoulder length and brushed it back behind his ears: oddly enough, just the way Snape had done when he was at school. The added length had mostly tamed the unruliness, except for one defiant curl on the crown of his head. From that stubborn strand to the tips of his stylish boots he was the picture of a well-to-do young wizard-about-town. A far cry from the batty, sparkling mess who used to turn up like a bad penny, but a surprisingly welcome sight all the same.

"Hi!" Harry smiled. In the evening mist that was just starting to form, his glasses mirrored the warm glow of Snape's candle back at him. The lenses were dry despite the rain that had slicked the brat's hair flat. For the first time in years, they had no smudges on them.

A normal man might have blinked. Might have asked what the hell Harry was doing on his doorstep. Snape just grabbed him by the arm and hauled him inside and out of the sight of potential prying eyes, shutting the door after him as quickly and as quietly as he could. Only after he'd cast extra locking and lookout charms on the door did he face his visitor once more. Reaching for the tatters of his dignity, he folded his arms and inquired, "To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr. Potter?"

"I wanted to see how you're doing," the imp grinned. "How are you?"

What kind of question is that? "Alive," Snape answered dryly, inclining his head in an ironic little nod. "And curious as to why you're darkening my doorstep."

Harry shrugged off his cloak, revealing velvet robes with a finely embroidered hem. The movement also stirred up a sharp, sweet scent that, to Snape's trained sense of smell, spoke eloquently of broomstick polish and sunwarmed leather, of windswept heights and the vast, open spaces of the outside world. Some notes of that scent were familiar – broom polish had been a constant since the brat's first year at Hogwarts – but amid the familiarity was much that was new. Perhaps it was simply that spring had come at last, and wind, sky and sun had changed with the season, changing everyone they touched in turn.

Instead of filling the silence with an immediate, rambling reply, Harry seemed content to fix Snape with a curious, searching look, and wait for more of an answer to his own question. So Snape "Hmph"ed and continued in pointedly patient tones, "As you can see, I'm getting by perfectly well. Admittedly, I'm doing better now than I was before you made your... charitable donation." he added in tones heavy with irony. "I hope you didn't come here intending to try and force me to refund it. If so," he concluded grimly, "you'd be wise to reconsider." He focused on Harry's face, watching his reactions closely.

"What refund?" Harry frowned, mystified, but his expression cleared soon enough. "Oh, y'mean your magic. Keep it!"

As if it was his to grant! The nerve!

"Actually," Harry continued, suddenly diffident, "If you really want to give something back... er, have you still got my cape?"

Snape smirked and extended an arm theatrically, "Accio Invisibility Curtain." With a heroic flapflap and a merry jingle of brass rings, the monstrosity winged its way down the stairs. Snape snagged it out of thin air and held it out. "Where's your old one? Did they 'confiscate' it with along with your taste?"

The brat pouted and reached for it. "I like this one better."

Snape recalled the possessive way Harry had wrapped it around himself before he'd even bothered with the blanket, when he was going to sleep on the sofa. "I can see why," he replied as he handed it over, not even bothering to hide his lopsided grin. "It's garish. Suits you perfectly."

Harry snatched it from his grip. "Thanks." His hands stroked the fabric as if petting a cat. "I missed it when I was on the run from the reporters."

"Ohh, the price of fame," Snape drawled. "Was it as terrible as running from the Ministry?"

"Worse! But luckily, St. Mungo's said I'm as healthy as they could make me. Even gave me my wand and my broom back. And the Order of Merlin. I didn't even remember having that when they took me in."

Snape snorted. "Fringe benefits of nonverbal Imperius."

"Nah," Harry beamed, "I'm a natural charmer. But maybe you should still keep an eye on me for Imperius tendencies."

Snape couldn't stop himself from eyerolling.

Harry grinned and went on, "Who knows, in a decade or three I might turn into a regular Dark Lord." He slicked back his hair, narrowed his eyes, and pressed his nose into a snout, the clown. His sunny grin completely ruined the impersonation.

Snape scowled. It won't do any good to encourage the brat too much. And he is the same old brat. Even now that he's somewhat sane. "I'm less suited to being your keeper than you are for dictatorship."

"Tell that to the Ministry! As soon as they got over being terrified I'd replace Voldemort, they practically fell over themselves bowing and scraping."

"Don't think I'll treat you any different, just because they changed their minds."

"Good!" Harry evidently took Snape's words as an invitation. He left his polished, new broom hovering by the bookshelves and sauntered past Snape into the kitchen. Snape remembered a scruffy scamp padding the same path barefoot, wearing a curtain and scarlet and gold long-johns. Although now, said scamp's attire was a damn sight more tasteful and his dragonhide boots left no wet footprints on Snape's floor.

Snape sighed, following. "Potter..."

"Oh good, you've got biscuits this time..." Harry pulled a half-empty packet of digestives from the cupboard. "Yes?"

Out of all the questions Snape wanted to ask, he chose the most pressing. "Why are you still here?" For a visitor, he certainly acts like he owns the place. Like he owns the world!

Harry stuck his wand in the teapot. "Aguamenti, Relashio." Smugly, he looked up, wreathed in a cloud of steam that rose from the boiling water. "At the moment, I'm here for tea."

Tea? Snape gaped, the wind and the words briefly knocked out of him. Is he a masochist or a moron or both? "I almost throttled you once," Snape protested, "and you still followed me home. I took magic from you and let the Aurors capture you, but you came right back again. Why?"

"I've still got to save you. I told you when we met in the Ministry, remember?"

"You're here to save me?"


Harry picked up the teapot and examined its red-stained handle. Then he peered at the faded smudge on the edge of the table where Snape had forgotten himself and touched it, a week ago. For all time Snape had spent cleaning up the place, he could do nothing about those. The backrest of the chair had another fresh handprint, and the crockery and cutlery were more-or-less permanently covered in red. It was impossible to use or wash them literally single-handed, and after having survived without most of his magic for far too long, Snape had got into the habit of not wasting magic on chores that were easily done without it.

"I always wondered, why did they do that to you?" Harry murmured, still looking around for smudges and stains. "Red everywhere. It's annoying, but not much of a punishment if you ask me."

Snape stiffened, thinking of the way everyone shunned him, as though he were some loathsome contagion of evil, the corrupt carrier of a deadly plague. "I could shake your hand," he grumbled. "It'd do you good to see just how the rest of the Wizarding world reacts to the brand of a murderer."

"Would you really shake my hand? If you don't mind, I don't." Harry traced the red stain on the teapot and muttered a wandless "Scourgify."

"The marks remain for weeks and are impossible to remove, by Muggle or magical means."

Harry frowned at the stain when it didn't fade. "Stubborn sods. Looks like 'This is a job for Mrs. Skower's'," He quoted the ad in an ironic singsong, even as he reached for his wand.

"Don't bother," Snape rested his good hand briefly on Harry's sleeve. "You can't spend all your time cleaning up after a criminal."

"Ever tried wearing gloves?"

Snape released Harry and drew back. His expression was shuttered as he replied. "The cursed skin is extremely sensitive to contact." He spoke in the crisp, didactic tone he used to use in class; he needed the detachment from what he was saying. "As duration of contact with anything increases, sensation intensifies, to the point of pain... and beyond." After a few uninterrupted minutes, even holding a pen or a spoon in his cursed hand was too painful. A glove would have been a fast ticket to torment, which of course was entirely by design. What would be the point of the curse if the victim could hide his shame from condemning eyes? Fortunately, the curse only stained his skin up to the wrist, then the bright blood-red faded to the pallor of normal skin from wrist to elbow. The sensitivity of his forearm was muted enough that he could tolerate his usual long sleeves.

Harry reached out. Snape permitted the touch only to his good hand, and only reluctantly. "I'll find a way to fix it," Harry said quietly, "I promise."

"Don't make a promise you can't possibly keep."

Harry was still staring down at Snape's hands. He confessed, still in that same quiet voice, "I used to watch you in class sometimes..." He sounded as though he was about to continue, but faltered into silence instead. In the quiet, Snape could hear him swallow, before he added, "I've got an idea. Trust me, OK?"

Snape drew breath to say something scathing, but found himself at a loss for words. Instead he pressed his lips together in a wincing grimace and gave a terse little nod. Something that Snape told himself was fatalism said How much worse could he make things?

That night, he saw Harry in a dream. Caped and barefoot, Harry snuck down the alley past the mill, like Red Riding Hood in a Forbidden Forest where all the trees were stone. Quietly the boy crept inside Snape's house and up the stairs. He paused in the bedroom doorway, looking down at Snape as he lay in bed, and for an endless time neither of them moved or made a sound. A thousand speculations passed through Snape's mind during that terrible waiting. Perhaps Harry's come to kill me. It'd be a relief.

But instead Harry knelt by his bedside as formally as a knight greeting his liege. He placed a dry kiss on Snape's right hand, where it dangled over the edge of the bed, away from the torment of touch. Harry's kiss brought no pain. When he raised his head from Snape's hand, redness bloomed on his lips like a rose. Then Harry curled his fingers around Snape's sensitised wrist and peeled the stain off his hand, as easily as removing a scarlet glove.

In the morning, Snape examined himself in the mirror with a critical eye. Frankly, the bloke he was looking at deserved a bloody good talking-to.

This is ridiculous. I'm even dreaming about him now! And I'm looking forward to his visits far too much. If I'm not careful, I'll be all put out if he doesn't come in for tea, or something else completely daft. Just because he made all sorts of idiotic promises, and managed not to treat me like a walking plague.

Very well, I'll use his first name more from now on, but that's all. Just because his hero obsession isn't quite so revolting when it's exerted on my behalf, it's no reason to behave like some Demented housewife. What's next, rushing out the door to welcome him home?

The next time Snape saw Harry, the brat wasn't at the door. Instead he was a tiny dot in the square of sky framed in the window. The slipstream lashed at his hair and his green travelling cloak as he flew. As Snape crossed to the window, Harry swooped down and landed in the overgrown grounds of the old mill. Company. Oh joy. Stand by to repel boarders! Snape smirked a bit as he realised he wasn't the only one who'd chosen the abandoned mill to conceal his comings and goings. As Snape watched, Harry drew his wand and cast something, releasing a cloud of silver mist into the air. It grew larger, materialising into a stag. Another wave of the wand exhaled another silver cloud. A doe. Lily's. Mine!

With that realisation, Snape was moving: out the door and down the street at a dead run. As he ran, he could see the pair of patronuses dancing around Harry and each other, striking silver sparks with their hooves. He didn't even slow down when he reached the gate at the end of the street, he just slammed it wide with his shoulder and ran through onto the grounds. Harry said something to the patronuses and they galloped purposefully away as if carrying messages. As their last shimmer faded like fog he closed the distance to Harry in a purposeful stride of his own.

Owls would do if he didn't need secrecy. Who would he send secret messages to?

But when he was finally within speaking distance, Snape didn't ask that perfectly sensible question after all. Instead, he panted "Potter! What the hell are you doing?"

"Oh, hi!" Harry looked ruffled and distraught. "I'm... I'm not doing anything!" he stammered, guilty as a child caught with his hand in the biscuit tin. Or his head in the pensieve.

"Taking my magic wasn't enough for you, you had to keep my patronus too?" The betrayal stung. "You wretched thief!"

"Maybe she wasn't yours anymore!"

Stunned, Snape let the echoes of Potter's voice off the mill walls fade into complete silence.

How long has it been since I summoned her last? Not since that day by the lake? Was it really that long?

"I didn't steal her!" Potter protested. "Look, I'd give her back to you if I could, but she's the one who stayed with me."

What if he's right? There used to be a time I held onto her presence fiercely. She was the only thing of Lily I had left. But I gave that up, didn't I? I wrapped up years of grief in silver patronus mist, my memories of her, and I bequeathed them to her son. I let her go.

So who am I to tear around in a jealous fury because she's protecting him instead of me? I didn't even notice she was gone. I was too busy trying to survive.

A sudden impulse seized Snape, a need to confirm that he still the ability to summon something. His cursed hand curled around empty air where his broken wand should be. He thought of weeping silver mist into the darkness of the Shack, and of Harry looking past it all and finally seeing not the mask or the role, but him, the way Lily once used to do. He remembered the moment that darkness overtook his vision and gave him one blessed instant of peace, before his stubborn will and his logic told him he still had to fight. He still had to live.

"Expecto Patronum!" For the first time, he knew that whatever would answer his call would not be Lily's doe.

With his cry he exhaled a plume of silver, like his half-frozen breath in the winter just past. Like the smoke from an angry dragon, it darkened and coiled, forming an immense serpent of shadow and silver. Smoky coils wrapped around him and a ghostly head rested on his shoulder in an impalpable caress before rearing protectively above him. Snape froze in startlement, his only movement the rapid rise and fall of his chest. The smoke smelled like blood in the dust of the Shack, and tasted as salt as phoenix tears.

It was terror at its most primal and absolute: the fear of death itself. A death that Snape had expected, endured, and overcome. The experience had tamed that fear with knowledge – that if he could survive this, he could survive just about anything – and had transformed it into powerful protection.

Beside him, Harry was ghostly white, his eyes wide with shock. Not again! Snape read in that stunned stare. Harry almost lunged, apparently out of sheer Save him! reflex, but jolted to a halt as his understanding caught up with his instincts. The shadowy patronus eyed Harry then undulated through the air toward him. It slung a coil briefly around Harry's shoulders, almost like a casual, passing embrace, as it floated past him to the base of the old mill. It twined around the towering chimney like climbing ivy, or like another serpent climbing the Tree of Knowledge. When it reached the very top it trailed into nothingness, like a plume of coal smoke.

Snape lowered his eyes from that last fading wisp, feeling the last traces of the fury that had spurred him there fading away with it. The memory of having survived something as powerful as that made his earlier resentment look petty.

Harry's face was still white. He looked as if he was about to grab Snape by the shoulders and shake him. "Warn me next time! Whew. Trust you to summon something scarier than a bloody dementor!"

"That was ...unexpected," Snape admitted dryly.

"Unexpected?" Harry cried, "A killer snake? Patronuses are supposed to be about happy memories!"

"I don't know about you, Potter," Snape said pointedly, "but I'm ecstatic that I survived against such odds. Besides, why can't a fear, once conquered, become a strength? Personally," he added with a sharp little smirk, "I think it's pure poetic justice that she's now serving someone she nearly killed."

Harry stared at him, still pale, but now he looked more amazed than shocked. "Only you could turn death into a patronus," he breathed, shaking his head. "You're insane, you know that?" he added with a sudden grin, "A complete nutter." Relief softened his tone. It sounded far too much like a compliment.

"That's supposed to be my line," Snape grumbled, more for form's sake than anything else. "First my magic, then my patronus and my food, now you're stealing my words right out of my mouth."

Harry snorted. "Oh well, I shouldn't be the one to talk about your weird magical symbols. Around me, boggarts turn into dementors. Supposedly it's 'cause what I'm afraid of is fear itself."

"That's no surprise. I'm all about survival and with you, it's..." he curled his lip at the Gryffindorishess of it all, "...fearlessness."

"Yeah, used to be," Harry snorted, grinning, "till I saw you cast a snake!" The damnable part wasn't even that Harry had refused to rise to the bait of that curled lip, it was that Snape couldn't bring himself to mind when Harry just teased him right back.

Snape looked away from that expression, lest his own should slip for a moment into some embarrassing lapse. The sun was starting to set and shadows were lengthening, it'd get colder soon enough. "Shall we continue in a less... atmospheric location?" He glanced ironically at the overgrown grounds, before his gaze paused on the broom still hovering forgotten to one side, "I know I don't have a hearth big enough for Flooing, but you don't have to fly all this way, unless you're flying for the sake of it. There's a large coal furnace inside the mill, I've been Flooing from there."

Harry turned to look at the mill. "I didn't know you could Floo here," he commented, as he examined the abandoned building for the first time. "Easier to get to Camden," he added in a distracted mutter under his breath.

Snape peered at Harry. "What's at Camden?"

Harry blinked. "Er, nothing. S'just a street with Muggle shops and some magical ones. Lots of Muggleborns and other people have moved there since Umbridge became Minister. It'll outgrow Hogsmeade soon. You should see it."

"What for? No doubt it'd be yet another place where wizards would stare at me and shun me, if I'm lucky and no-one's in a hexing mood."

"Oh, I bet no one at Camden" Harry pronounced 'Camden' with the same quiet reverence Snape's mum used to say 'Hogwarts' "would bat an eye at you, wizard or Muggle. You should see some of the things the Muggles there have come up with!" He headed downhill across the field, toward the gate to Spinner's End. "Coming?"

The scamp apparently thought there would be a race to his house. Snape did his best to demonstrate that, on the contrary, there would be a leisurely, civilised stroll. When he was almost at the door, something silver brushed past him and caught up with Harry. It was the doe, slender and swift, followed by the larger, imposing shape of the stag.

The doe rubbed her forehead against Harry's shoulder, the same way she'd done to Snape for so many years of bringing Snape replies from the Order. The stag stayed behind, surveying the surroundings, as if he were a real stag watching to protect his doe and fawn from predators. Harry's expression grew serious as he listened to whatever the doe was whispering in his ear.

"Are you staying for tea?" Snape asked him, faking a casual tone.

Harry winced as he stepped toward him, away from the doe which had fallen silent. "Sorry. Listen, I... I've gotta go."

"Is anything wrong?"

"No, nothing." Harry glanced at the doe. "Nothing wrong at least. Actually it's about my Auror position and... look, I've really gotta go. I'll explain later, I promise!" He moved to mount his broomstick but changed his mind, muttering "Damn, no time!" before whipping his wand from its holster with a gunslinger-practised flick and Disapparating away. The patronuses remained briefly behind after Harry had left, before they too faded away. The doe lingered alone for a moment. She bowed her graceful head to him. It felt like a fond farewell.

Snape hated farewells, even fond ones. Everyone he'd ever cared about left him alone, sooner or later. He wrenched his thoughts forcibly from his first true friend, and focused instead on what she'd left him. Thinking of Harry helped. It eased the tightness in his throat and let him give an ironically amused snort. Always racing everywhere. In a hurry to save the day yet again no doubt. He has to live up to his press somehow. For a second Snape imagined the imp in his lightning-patterned long-johns and his foolish red curtain, swooping down on his broomstick and beaming a grin that was broad and sunny and absolutely not suitable for a proper saviour. Harry the superhero. How absurd, even for him.

Still, I wonder where he's in such a rush to go? And why the secrecy? 'Auror position', he said. So he hasn't turned them down yet. Snape thought of countless Aurors he'd dealt with over the years. As far as I'm concerned most of them are barely better than the Death Eaters. He didn't want to picture Harry among them, in full Auror robes, wielding justice and hexes, and occasionally punches and kicks, according to the whims of whichever maniac was currently Minister. Perhaps Occam's Razor applies. Perhaps he has sold out to the Ministry after all.

Harry wouldn't do that. Would he? Perhaps I'm being unreasonable.


Instead of going back inside, Snape walked down the street, past his door and onward, along the row of empty houses, trudging up the hill and away from the reek of the polluted river. He kept going, taking turns and alleyways by childhood habit, until the mill chimney melted in the evening fog and the poor houses gave way to wealthier ones. Here the streets were cleaner and the windows weren't broken or boarded up. A lot of the houses were detached, with yards of their own, and even the terraced houses here had tiny, neat front lawns, and colourful flowerboxes on the window sills. Many of the drawn curtains were lit with the multicoloured flickerings of television, Muggle luxury. As he passed one house after another, he could hear the murmur of conversation, muffled snatches of music. No voices he heard were raised in drunkenness or fury. There were no thuds of fists, no crashes of breaking glass or wood.

Lucky sods. They've got plenty of warmth and light, enough to eat and someone they hurry home to.

What used to be a playground was now a square. Many summers ago it had sun-warmed swings and grass as green as Lily's eyes. Now, there was only concrete and shallow puddles outlined with drying mud. New buildings encased the square from all four sides. Their looming walls, grey pavement under darkening sky, and all the resounding emptiness in between felt like a tomb to something forgotten. He hurried on, driven by a single thought. Her house must still be there.

It was right on the corner, next to the faded street sign. A detached cottage twice as large as his own house and as clean and welcoming as his was not. He could count on the fingers of one hand the times he'd ever been invited in, but he'd spent many afternoons in its shadow, peering over the low fence and hoping for a glimpse of red hair in the window. So many afternoons, that once this house had been more of a home to him than his parents' home. Once.

A memory unfolded, one of the few he hadn't given to Harry. One summer's day before Lily's and his Hogwarts letters had arrived. The memory had been enough to trigger dozens of his patronuses over the years.

He could still almost feel the sun beating down as he sat in the front yard, watching Lily as she drew on the garden path in chalk: a stick-legged white doe sniffing at flowers, pink petunias and red-and-yellow tiger lilies, mirroring the real flowers in the front garden's beds. Lily and her sister had got distracted by a book, and their mum had traced the drawing with paints, turning the chalks into a more enduring memento. Among the few things that ever made him smile had been the memory of that drawing, and of Lily's voice reading Grimm's Fairytales tales to Petunia, "'Turn back, turn back, young maiden dear, 'tis a murderer's house you enter here.'"

The vision of that house was so clear in his mind's eye that he still expected to turn the last corner onto the sunlit street and see it, bright and cheerful and welcoming. Even if it had never really welcomed him, he'd still found a temporary escape from his real life there, in the glint of sun on red hair and the lilt of a girl's voice, "'In the white lily bloom, bonny girl, is thy tomb.'"

He rounded the corner, and his driven stride faltered to a halt. He stood there, staring at the damage.

It's all wrong! The garden path's gone and so are the flowerbeds. It's just lawn. How could they tear it all up?

They wouldn't care, whoever they are. This house isn't hers. It's someone else's now, someone who prefers grass to drawings of does and tiger lilies, painted or real. The strangers who live here wouldn't even know who Lily Evans was.

It's no use. It's just a house. Lily's home no longer exists, and neither does she. The girl I remember died because of me, and it was fitting that I never really belonged here.

What the hell am I doing? Why did I even come here?

It felt like scratching an old scar. It didn't hurt as much as it had when the wound was fresh, but even healing wounds itched and disturbed one's rest.

Though now Snape realised that this particular scar had healed over. It was sheer habit that kept him disturbing it, kept him expecting the pain, because it had been there for so long.

He'd already yielded his claim on that grief. Perhaps it was time to stop living for past joy as well. Perhaps if he did so, there might even be some new happiness someday, to take its place.

She's gone. There's nothing keeping me here now.

He turned away, not paying attention to where he went, but still he found his steps leading instinctively downhill, toward the river. Ahead, the mill chimney rose out of the evening fog, as inevitable as nightfall.

No matter which road he took seeking happiness, he always ended up at Spinner's End, alone. But now he was no longer willing to settle for solitude.

Camden, Snape mused idly as he turned the last corner onto Spinner's End. What's really going on there? It might be interesting to see what the Muggleborns are making of the place. At least I'd find out why Harry's interested in it. And what better time to do so than at nightfall, when it'll be quieter?

As he strode through the mill's grounds and entered the building itself, he remembered that he was running low on Floo powder again. If Camden's as much of a Wizarding district as Harry thought, then it'll be as good a place as any to find more powder.

Or perhaps, he admitted to himself, I'm just not in a hurry to go back to an empty house any sooner than I have to. It's not as though I'm following Harry to that place, I don't even know that's where he's gone. And in any event, I don't give a damn what the brat does with his time.

Snape had Flooed into a wide variety of fireplaces in his time, from cramped private hearths where he had to dodge cauldron-hooks, to public Ministry fireplaces (almost as big as a bus and with about as much character) all the way up to the time-smoothed granite of Hogwarts and the marble and gilt of Malfoy Manor.

But this was the very first time in his life he'd Flooed into a rubbish bin. Or actually, a recycling bin: a huge green metal skip tucked out of sight in an alley, and fortunately full of paper and cardboard rather than garbage. "Charming," he growled under his breath as he clambered over the rim and jumped down. He checked his clothing for smudges, then hmphed. I suppose it makes a change from the usual faceful of soot. He turned his back on the still-smouldering skip and strode out of the alley.

It was London, right enough, but a London such as he'd never seen, except perhaps for the fevered (and, he'd thought until a moment ago, quite unrealistic) imaginings of his teenaged self. It was a high street, that much was obvious, but though the shops were closed for the night they were still bright with signs that offered a thousand varieties of outrageousness. Building facades were adorned with fake airplanes, larger than life cats, boots, trousers; it was as shameless and bizarre as anything Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes ever managed, and then some. Cloaks and robes, satins and studded leathers like something from a Death Eater's dungeon hung on the same racks as Muggle jeans and T-shirts. Snape smirked at a palmistry sign, complete with symbols he recognised from his Divination textbook, glowing in Muggle neon. He peered into the window of a shop that ostensibly sold mobile phones and found that even that held displays of Remembralls, Foe-glasses and other enchanted gadgets, hidden behind Muggle-repelling charms.

The sound of distant voices drew his attention to a pub down the street. A steady stream of new arrivals was swelling the already busy evening crowd at – he squinted at the pub's sign – "The World's End". The name of the place drew a snort of ironic amusement. He rummaged briefly in his pockets. I've probably got enough sickles for one drink, and if the place is run by Muggles, better still, I can always just transfigure a coaster into a ten quid note. Right next to the pub entrance was the door to a nightclub, as ironically named as the pub: "The Underworld". The door was being guarded by a bouncer who looked like he had a Giant far back in his family tree. The music Snape could dimly hear coming up the stairs reminded him of his old punk records. Every time his Dad made him want to scream, he used to let the Unbreakable-charmed records do his screaming for him. Snape was surprised by a sudden urge to go inside and get a proper earful. But he reconsidered. If, as looked likely, the place was run by wizards, then transfigured Muggle pounds would get him nothing but the boot. No, he decided, best to just have a drink – I can afford that much – get a feel for the people around here, nick some Floo powder, and get home. Hopefully uninjured.

Once inside, Snape took a look around. The World's End was certainly eccentric, crammed with dusty old books, flasks and unidentifiable antiques. More importantly, a look at the clientele confirmed that it was a wizarding pub, or at least part-wizarding. There were Muggles, but they were rubbing shoulders with Muggleborns. He thought he recognised one or two he'd taught a decade or more ago, and was careful to stay out of their lines of sight. What he found fascinating was the fact that the Muggleborns clearly weren't the only ones who'd left the long-established wizarding enclaves behind, in favour of making do among the Muggles. A small pack of shaggy leather types drinking boisterously at one table all had werewolf-tawny eyes. The bartenders were a spectacularly mismatched pair, one wizened old bloke who was clearly part-Goblin, glaring at the customers as they ogled the other bartender, who was just as obviously part-Veela.

None of the Muggles seemed to notice anything terribly odd about the other inhabitants of the bar, but then Muggles paid about as much attention to things as the nitwits in his classes had done. For instance, Muggles wouldn't see anything wrong with his hand, not even if he waved it in their faces. But then, the Ministry could hardly create a curse that would break their own Statute of Secrecy.

Cautiously, he looked from face to face. The most he could do about his cursed hand was to keep it down by his side. This was what he'd really come here to find out, whether Harry was right about the people here, and how they'd react to him. He waited, on tenterhooks, poised for anything from a duel to a brawl, curses burning like bile in the back of his throat, waiting to be spat into speech.

He watched and waited, but time wore on, and apart from a few curious glances, such as might be given to any newcomer who'd arrived alone and didn't immediately order a drink, absolutely nothing happened.

Snape sagged slowly back against the wall, his knees going literally weak with relief. This was the first time he'd gone unthreatened and unharrassed among magical folk since he'd been cursed, since before then. For a while he just stood there, heart hammering in the aftermath of unused adrenalin, and basked in the happy hum of relaxed, amiable chatter. Who the hell needs drink to feel light-headed? He didn't even bother to hide the lopsided grin that snuck onto his face.

Harry was right! Snape thought as he wandered slowly around the room, Perhaps I could blend in here. Among the rebellious young folk, with their piercings and torn clothes and wild hair, Snape's own fondness for black made him just one of the crowd. Even his red hand didn't stand out that much. He smirked, amused as hell by the irony of it all. The Muggles probably think I'm just another superannuated Goth.

"Pureblood or not, I wouldn't mind going for a walk through Diagon Alley with her," he overheard as he approached the table of werewolves, "I'd even put up with the handcuffs and leash, if it meant I could show her later that there's a whole world out here, beyond the stagnant little fishbowls of Diagon and Hogsmeade. I reckon it'd be worth it to open her eyes, wouldn't you?" One of his tablemates replied "Yeah, and her legs." and the rest howled with laughter. Snape kept moving, a bit further away from the noise.

A middle-aged woman with teeth just a little too long and sharp sniffed the air and immediately turned toward Snape. "Mmm," she arched an eyebrow, still searching for the source of the scent. Snape shoved his wand hand in his pocket. He could put up with a few minutes of contact before the pain became unmanageable.

Too late. The vampire's gaze settled on that hand, and her tongue slipped out to lick unnaturally red lips. "Delicious! A drink for a drink?"

Just perfect. Snape had heard of wizards frequenting vampire haunts in Knockturn with discreet fresh cuts, to attract potential Diners. All I need tonight is to be mistaken for a would-be Donor. He shook his head at the woman and backed away.

That encounter rather put him off the idea of wasting his all-too-scarce sickles on a drink, especially now that he'd found out what he'd come here to learn. He passed by the fireplace and pocketed some Floo powder, before slipping out of the pub. The pub's hearth was too small to Floo from, presumably to discourage drunken wizards from frightening the Muggle customers. No doubt, that care for secrecy was the reason for concealing the public Floo in that recycling skip. He took a deep breath as he left the pub. The air outside seemed fresher even though it was of course still London air, perhaps because it was colder, or perhaps because the streets weren't quite as crowded and noisy. But he'd just started to breathe easier when he felt the old familiar frisson, the instinctive, icy prickle on the back of his neck that told him he was being watched.

He lowered his head a bit, using the hanging curtains of his hair to screen the direction of his gaze. With the ease of long practice he kept his head facing forward, while flicking his gaze covertly sideways, glancing at the dim reflections in shop windows. There. Someone was following him, and had apparently been doing so ever since he left the pub.

Vigilante? Or what? He turned a corner, thinking about his options as he started the walk towards the alley containing the unorthodox local equivalent of a public Floo. Avoidance would be wiser than any form of confrontation. Disapparation would have to be a last resort, as that would betray the twin, damning facts that he had not only regained his magic, he was also skilled in using it without a wand. I should've known Harry would be too optimistic about this place! So much for his idea that they wouldn't pay me any attention. Snape didn't bother to kick himself about his own obviously mistaken relief back in the pub.

Meanwhile, he did his best not to show any sign he'd noticed he had company. He made sure his brisk walk didn't speed up. He flicked his glance aside into every side street, checking to see if he could lose his stalker there. But that was the downside of being on a busy high street, the side streets were too well lit and didn't have enough sharp turns. Even the alley he passed was no good, a dead end. On the brick wall sealing it off was some freshly sprayed graffiti, its red paint still bright. D.A. RULES, O.K.! The exclamation mark spiked sharply, like a lightning bolt, like Harry's scar.

It's no good. I won't lose him without Disapparating, and I can't risk him jumping after me into my Floo fire and finding out where I live. Snape whirled without warning, abruptly facing his stalker.

His follower seemed skinny and young, which meant Snape stood a good chance in a magical or Muggle fight, provided the youth's friends didn't happen along.

"You!" Snape barked, "What do you want?" The youth walked closer, into the cone of light from the streetlamp, and lifted the hood of his sweatshirt. Hers. Her hair was as bad as Harry's impossible mane, only in her case it was deliberate, spiked with gel. A thin silver chain extended from her lower lip to her ear. He couldn't quite decide if it resembled a muzzle or a string of saliva.

"Got a quick look at a bit of your tatt back there, the one on your forearm, snake?" she babbled eagerly, "Anyway, it's really well done. Can I see it all? Maybe get a pic..." she reached in her pocket for something, but Snape lashed out first, latching onto her wrist before she had a chance to draw a wand.

"Whoa, easy!" She raised her hands, open and empty. Snape swiped his free hand – the good one – down her pockets. No wand! He blinked and concentrated, risking a nonverbal detection charm. He'd assumed his stalker had been shielding his magic, like Snape himself did habitually these days, but she wasn't shielding. She wasn't magical at all, though she certainly must have known about the Wizarding world. That much was obvious from the third eye tattooed in the middle of her forehead, or at least from the way its inked eyelid winked at him and its two-dimensional eyeball rolled. He released her at once and stepped back a bit. As a Squib, she was practically defenceless before him, or any other wizard. He watched with a twinge of something like regret as she eyed the glistening red handprint that encircled her wrist.

"Huh. Looks wet, but it's not." She rubbed at it, "And it's not coming off."

Snape sighed as the twinge intensified. "Nothing will remove it but time," he informed her heavily, "Two or three weeks' worth."

"Three weeks? From just a touch?" She looked up at him with three wide eyes, and her whole face lit up. "Wicked!" She admired the gory effect under the streetlamp, fortunately oblivious to the flash of literally gape-jawed shock which had momentarily overcome Snape. He just had time to marshal his expression into something more appropriately guarded before she smiled up at him, "You could make galleons round here, doing temp tatts."

Snape out-eyerolled the silly bint's forehead tattoo. "Don't be absurd," he grumbled, "Nobody with a scrap of sense" which obviously lets you out, "will want to be seen with a curse mark, here or anywhere else."

"Yeah?" she glared defiantly up at him, "Who'd care? The Aurors? The MLE? You think they could be arsed patrolling Camden when they've got their hands full with Diagon and Hogsmeade? And to do what? They don't care how much crime there is among Muggleborns or Squibs like me. The Ministry doesn't give a shit what happens to anyone who's not a proper pureblood. Even half-bloods get just half a vote, doesn't that tell you something? As long as us riff-raff don't make work for the Obliviators by tipping off the Muggles, the Ministry's only too happy to let us fall through the cracks, so they can go on pretending we don't exist."

Snape filed away the political diatribe for later consideration. For now, he was too busy concentrating on the most personally interesting thing she'd mentioned. Galleons. Plural. It had been far too long since Snape had been in possession of even one. For too many months, he'd been forced to calculate what every knut could get him. It was far too good an offer to refuse. Especially since even willingly wearing a curse mark, much less buying one, was illegal. This fact would give Snape's customers their own pressing personal reasons not to turn him in. The lack of such safeguards was what had stopped him from trying to sell his own potions.

"Really?" Snape drawled, pretending disbelief, disinterest. "I doubt even the tattoo parlours here would let me in the door, much less let me do temporary designs."

"That's all you know, mate. Try Evil from the Needle tomorrow, if you've got the balls." She gave him a cheeky grin. "Ask for Trish." She glanced from her stained wrist to his hand and stuck her own hand out for a shake. "That's me. Deal?"

Suspecting a trap being baited, he covertly sampled the mind behind her eyes, but he found no plans more harmful than to score one up on the other employees by spotting such a rare magical asset. Burying his own startlement with a spy's ease, he shook her hand. With his left hand. He smirked at her momentary pout, "I've already given you one free sample, that'll have to do."

Before his next visit to Camden, he'd dug out the T-shirts and jeans he'd used to wear as a teenager, and was gratified to find that not only did they still fit, but the worn, torn denim and old punk band shirts apparently hadn't gone out of fashion in the intervening decades. There was another unforeseen side-effect in re-adopting a style of clothing he'd abandoned so long ago. For the first time since his initiation as a Death Eater, he was in public with bare arms, with the Dark Mark in plain sight. What was even more bitterly ironic, in a place like Evil From The Needle, that darkest of tattoos was met not with loathing and curses, but with a simple appreciation for the artistic execution of the design. It had been inert and harmless ever since Harry had finished Voldemort, and these people were the first ones he'd met, apart from Harry himself, who took that fact as a given.

Trish had met him at the door of the place and taken him upstairs to see the proprietor. Jeff had hired him on as a guest artist happily enough after Snape sketched some elaborations over the man's own tattoos, adding flames to a phoenix and tweaking the lines on some protective runes.

Now, as Snape let his fingertips slip gently down a young witch's bare back, sketching a rearing cobra, he had to smile to himself. If only Riddle could see me now. He huffed a near-silent laugh, If only I could see the look on the bastard's scaly face.

As he drew, a wide-eyed young man waiting a turn ogled his progress. He assumed it was because the witch was moderately attractive and naked to the hips, although she was lying face down.

"That's so cool," the young man breathed, his gaze glued to Snape's fingertips even as he finished the final touches of the design. "Your hand, I mean. I want what you've got. Only all over. Imagine leaving bloody footprints!"

"No. You. Don't." Snape growled in the tones his students had known meant Imminent Doom, but the youth was an unfamiliar face – presumably another Squib – and so didn't know enough to be scared out of his few remaining wits. Snape couldn't believe anyone would be stupid enough to want his curse. He knew damn well that the same curse on the soles of his feet would be sheer crippling hell. Might as well cut them off and have done with it. Bloody little idiot! In a properly run universe, stupidity would hurt like this. As the witch got up and admired her back in a mirror, thanked him, paid, and left, he sat and waited for the throbbing in his fingertips to subside. It hadn't had time to do so before the young fool tried to poke his hand. Snape snatched it back out of reach, and bit back the hex that he'd been on the brink of casting.

"What'd you use to charm it?"

Snape gave the pest a glare fit to boil steel and snarled, "The entire Wizengamot, plus One. Fat. Pink. Toad."

It didn't wipe the awestruck look off the idiot's face, but at least it shut him up. Snape had grown very good at counting very small blessings.

In the next few weeks, the red stains of his hand on someone's skin started showing up more often in Camden. By then, Snape had put names to the faces of the regulars, had recognized them on the streets. And they'd remembered him, coming up to him to gush about others' reactions to his work, or to ask him to refresh a fading mark or add another. Ralph, the werewolf he'd overheard that first night in the World's End, had had another few dates with his pureblood princess, and was puppyishly smitten, which was an amusing sight in someone apparently made of hair, scars and scuffed leathers. The vampire Margot was a regular customer who paid lavishly for every minute of his pains, but she was the only customer who didn't want his artwork. She said that his designs would be as frustrating as hard toffee to a denture-wearer. Instead, she gently licked the steady seep of cursed blood from his skin, always under the watchful eyes and drawn wand of at least one of the tattoo parlour's wizarding employees. Wise to the wiles of vampires (and unwilling to betray the extent of his wandless abilities), Snape had insisted on the backup. Gary, the palmist from Camden Lock Market, had struck Snape as far less of a charlatan than Trelawney had done, at least until he claimed to be not only a personal friend of Harry Potter himself, but part of Harry's secret plot to blow up the Ministry with Muggle explosives.

There was no sign of Harry either in Camden or at Spinner's End, and the fact that Harry hadn't paid him a single visit for weeks left Snape with a nagging worry that he did his best to ignore. How the hell would I know for sure he's never stopped by my place? It's not as though I'm still stuck hiding there all the time. But although Harry seemed physically absent – or if he wasn't, then he and Snape kept missing each other – his name was on everyone's lips, and not as 'Potter' or 'The Boy Who Lived' or 'The Chosen One' either. Several seemed to speak of 'Harry' as casually as if he was their best mate, and he possibly was. After all, many of these half-bloods and Muggleborns had been at Hogwarts at about the same time. And neither the Ministry's overblown titles nor Hogwarts' respectful use of last names held any sway here. These were young men and women, or if they weren't then they certainly behaved like it. They were casual to a mindboggling extreme, suicidal in their attempts to clap Snape on the shoulder or even shake his hand. Hands. Snape had to make an effort to remember to keep his cursed hand out of reach.

His understanding of these people was as elusive as Harry was in this place. According to everything that was said to Snape or overheard by him, Harry kept in touch with a startling number of people. He owled, Flooed and even phoned them, but it never happened when Snape was there. Harry's owls arrived and left with every passing breeze. He seemed as pervasive as the still-warm Floo dust that marked his departure, and always, he left a lasting impression.

What precisely is he up to?

Fortunately Snape had plenty of practice dealing with questions he couldn't answer. This was just one more for him to push firmly to the back of his mind.

When Snape came home one Sunday night, tired and with his hand still throbbing from the busy weekend crowd, he found his front door adorned with a childish chalk scribble.

Just dropped by to say hi!


Instead of a signature there was a stick figure of a leaping doe, as if he would've had any doubt by now about who'd left it.

The monitoring charms he'd recently cast on his doorstep showed that Harry had raced up to it around noon, knocked, rattled the doorknob, peered in every possible window, sat on the doorstep for awhile amusing himself by transfiguring pebbles to chalk, and left about an hour later, tentatively heading back toward the mill.

After all the trouble he went through, I can't leave him without a suitable reply. And given his fondness for relaying messages via patronuses, I'm sure he won't mind a visit from mine.

He dictated the message to his patronus, 'Returned. Read. Scourgified my door. If that was a sample of your artistic skills, it's just as well you prefer pestering people over portraiture. Good evening.' He smirked and told the serpent, "And do make sure you relay it in Parseltongue first."

It was raining, one of the noisy, playful thunderstorms of April. The downpour spread a merrily bubbling layer of water over the windowpanes and the cobblestones.

Snape watched from a window as above the rooftops, a familiar broom rider braved the weather, barely dodging a strike of lightning. Silly sod! Harry swooped down for a landing at a breakneck speed.

Snape threw the door open before the windblown, wildly grinning brat had a chance to knock. "If you're back to commit more artistic atrocities on my door, at least today's rain will save me another Scourgify."

Harry leaned against the door jamb, soaked through and through. The rain dripping off the tip of his nose had done nothing to dampen his spirits. "I'd be happy to draw your portrait on the dry side of it."

Bloody cheek! Talk about being taken for granted! "Why should I let you in now?" Snape inquired, "I only did it before because I needed my magic. Remember that? The extra power you were hoarding, that wasn't yours?"

Harry smiled knowingly. "Nice try. But if you only needed me for magic, you've got it back... and you're still talking to me." Then the bugger nipped right past Snape and inside.

Before Snape could reply, the brat paused in the middle of the sitting room and shook his mane like a shaggy dog. "Oi, watch this!" Snape was still screwing up his eyes against the explosion of second-hand rain, when Harry's hair bristled and flashed with a magical burst. Snape could almost hear the electric buzz of streetlamps going out, and he certainly saw steam billowing from Harry's head as if he'd just chugged a whole phial of Pepper-Up.

Snape studied him, waiting warily for any further magical pyrotechnics. "Are you quite all right?"

Harry nodded. "I meant to do that."

Snape gave him an 'explain yourself' glower.

"It's just a wandless spell. Sort of. Hair's better than fingertips for that sort of thing, more ends. Loads of natural wandtips to bleed the magic out."

The phrase reminded Snape of his hand, perpetually sweating blood, to the point where he needed a blood replenishing potion after a busy day in the tattoo parlour.

The imp grinned as his hair settled back into its usual mess, though now dry and fluffed up with static. "Ta-da!" He spread his arms. "All better now."

"Better, indeed," Snape sniffed. "Wizards use a wand for a reason, so that unfocused idiots with leaking magic – and brains – won't lose both."

"Yeah," Harry's face turned serious. "It's damn hard to lose magic for good this way, but it is possible. I should know, that's what I did before, learned to let it out and keep it out. Every nasty, raging spark. Bloody hell, it was like reasoning with a herd of hippogriffs."

"You're telling me that your ridiculous thatch is what diffused Riddle's stolen magical energy?" And here I thought the lightning storm in his hair was an unfortunate side effect of the Gryffindor love of shiny things.

Harry shrugged. "I was willing to try anything that worked. The healers weren't helping and it got really bad. This incredibly loud noise in my head, like a crowd shouting, talking, casting spells just as I was casting spells, or even if I was just thinking about casting them. So I pushed the voices away, one by one, the only way I could. It took ages, but they were all gone, eventually."

Snape could understand that all too well. It had taken him more than two decades to even begin to let go, not of magic, but of the past. And his past had just as many voices to haunt him. "But what happens when it's all gone," he muttered under his breath. He hadn't realised at first that he'd asked himself that particular question aloud.

"I suppose I'm back to normal, whatever 'normal' is." Harry sighed. "I still don't get it. I mean, I don't feel any different. Happier maybe, and more aware of things around me, but not different. But the world's all changed, every single person. Before, if I said something they'd just stare at me or run away. Now, I talk and they nod along and agree. Even though I'm doing the exact same thing I wanted to do all along, to help them! That's all I ever wanted. But I ended up hurting them. What if there is no normal and I'm no different now and they'll get hurt around me again?"

To distract him, Snape asked "Have I changed too?"

It worked, the question made Harry look up. "No." He shook his head firmly. "Not a bit." Harry smiled softly, and all at once Snape ached to know what the hell he could have done to cause that smile, but for the first time it felt intrusive to just dip into Harry's mind and chase after the fleeting thought. Even though Harry stared up, his gaze so open, so trusting. "You're the only one who hasn't. Thanks."

Snape nodded stiffly. He didn't think he'd quite deserved the thanks. After all, a lot had changed between them. That change stormed his life, swept him up him in its whirlwind, washed him in its downpour. Once it had begun he couldn't stop it, any more than he could stop the rain.

"I'd like to know something," He gave Harry a searching stare and asked a question that refused to be silenced. "Why did you hold onto my magic all that time, when you could have let go of it? You got rid of all the others'. But you kept mine. Why mine?"

"Yours didn't bother me... much. Besides, if I did let it go," Harry said softly, "you were still out there, and you didn't deserve to be left a Squib. Not if there was still a chance. I just wish... I wish I'd realised sooner what I had to save you from."

"Rubbish," Snape grumbled, lowering his gaze from Harry's too-earnest face, unable to meet the regret in green eyes, lest Harry should see something just as painfully revealing in Snape's own eyes. "You just didn't want to lose your second patronus." Anything to defuse the moment.

He risked a quick glance up, expecting the brat to argue, but in reply Harry just gave a rueful little smile and shook his head, before going on. "Yeah, that too. It was lonely. No windows, just white padded walls. So bloody silent, even when I yelled. Maybe it was all the padding, maybe the spells, who knows. At night... well that's what I thought of it as, but how would I know? Anyway, whenever they cut the Lumos, it was pitch black, and that's when all that dark, scary stuff, everything I'd tried so hard to get rid of, rose up all around me and closed in. I needed those patronuses then, both of them, and they were... well, not someone to talk to, but still someone there. They chased the dark away." Harry chuckled bitterly. "There, now you know. I'm a selfish sod, aren't I?"


"Why not?"

Snape smiled, slow and ironic. "If you only needed me for my patronus, you've still got the patronus... and you're still talking to me."

When Snape had turned Harry's own words round on him, back in the sitting room, Harry had been flustered. Even now, after he'd sat down in the kitchen and Snape had had time to boil water and fill the teapot, find the tea leaves and mugs and biscuits, Harry still looked awed and at sea. It was a surprisingly good look on him.

"Thank you," he said suddenly, just as Snape put a steaming mug in front of him, though it couldn't've been just about the tea.

"You already thanked me."

"For the patronus, I mean. Who knows, maybe without her I'd've been off my head by now, what with all that dark magic still in me. When I think of all the bad things I could've done to others, or to you..."

Snape gave a half-bow and replied, with that pointed politeness that parodied itself, "Then thank you for not doing them."

Harry snorted into his mug. "Maybe I should've done something small, just to get even for all the times you were an utter prick in class."

"Well, small wonder if I was!" Snape grumbled, "I had to teach an obnoxious little sod with a swollen ego sorely in need of deflating."

"Oi! I was only trying to figure out what you wanted from me, and turn in your bloody pointless homework on time."

"My point exactly. Would you have dismissed McGonagall's homework as 'bloody pointless'?"

"I would've if it was!"

Snape groaned. "It's nitwits like you that make 'never teaching again' a blessing."

"Brilliant plan, if you ask me."

"You have no idea."

"Uh-huh, the pain of making us slave away over your essays every week... right, I don't!"

"Who do you think marked the drivel you turned in? The house elves? Though they should've, most of those essays would've been better used as napkins, and many of them already had the stains and spills to prove it."

"Accidents happen! Especially when you're losing sleep puzzling over the properties of some old roots or nasty pickled animal bits."

"You wouldn't have to 'puzzle' if you actually opened a book now and again, instead of using them for pillows."

"Well, if you didn't write a paragraph about every missed comma, it wouldn't've taken you so long, and you wouldn't've had so much to whinge about," the brat parried. "I've never seen so much red before or since. Did you get off on spurting it all over our essays, you kinky sod?"

Bloody cheek! I'll show you 'kinky'. Snape selected an apple from a bowl of Granny Smiths on the kitchen table. He rolled the fruit gently, deliberately, in his right hand, stroking it until its acid-green skin blushed a bright Delicious red. "If I did," he murmured at last, as he held up the apple and admired the effect, "it would've been very convenient. With you lot to mark, I would've been the most sated man in Britain."

Harry spluttered. "So I see. Should I give you and your fruit some time alone?"

"Mmm, speaking of time," Snape added slyly, "timing can be very important to enjoyment, knowing when to move, and how. In this case, as long as I keep the point of contact moving constantly, it doesn't have the chance to hurt my skin. Instead it's just ...exquisitely sensitive." He gave the apple a lopsided smirk that verged on a leer.

"Well, well," Harry's stare kept shifting from the apple back to Snape. "Who'd've thought it? The deep, dark, dirty secret of Severus Snape: he likes fondling his food."

"Why not? You don't have to eat something to enjoy it," Snape dipped his head in a sudden, juicy bite, and he closed his eyes, savouring the mouthful, "though of course that has its own pleasures."

Harry just gulped, and then covered it up by swigging the last mouthful of tea. Decisively, he set down his empty mug and used Seeker reflexes to snatch the apple out of Snape's hand. He replied to Snape's raised eyebrow with a cheeky grin, and bit into the apple with a crunch. "Wot?" he said wetly around his mouthful. "I like red, in spite of the way you used to try and make me hate it, with all your marking." His eyes were vivid, alight with mischief. Snape's breath caught at the sight.

Even after he was gone, Snape still felt the brief, tingling brush of Harry's fingers over hypersensitive skin, still saw the way Harry's impish smile lit up his whole face.

Snape spent more time wondering about motivations that weren't his own in the next few days than he did in a normal year. Generally, it was safe to assume that everyone disliked him. At least hatred was predictable. A casual exchange of banter was not. But then again, it's Harry. When did he ever do anything rational? He must've been teasing. Didn't mean a damn thing.

Snape shook his head and focused again on his customer, a shaggy bloke with a single werewolf-amber eye gleaming in a scarred face. The missing eye made Snape suspect that the name he went by was a nickname. 'Nelson' had asked Snape for a mermaid on his left thigh. Snape had just started on the outlines when he heard an excited murmur among the usual crowd of onlookers that gathered these days to watch him work. He glanced up, but the words 'Shut up or sod off!' died on his lips.

Harry stood in the doorway. As their eyes met, he smiled and waved, "Go on, s'ok."

Dammit! How'd he find me? Was he even looking for me at all? Probably not. One of his many mates must work here. But I've never seen him here before, so why now? Snape lowered his head abruptly, hiding behind the greasy curtain of his hair.

Well, what's wrong with him? Why isn't he coming over and nattering at me like he usually does? It's unlike him to stand back and gawk.

Oh, bugger him, I'll find out why he's here after I've finished this... Snape glanced at the outline his hand had carried on drawing through all his distraction. His finger must've slipped upwards and the formerly-female mermaid now had an additional... Doodle's a good word. Snape's hand froze. Heat flooded his face and forced him to keep his head lowered. He pressed his palm on the telltale patch of skin. The wider area of contact hurt, but he persevered, staining the whole tail red with hasty strokes.

"S'alright, I don't mind extras, specially if it's not permanent."

Snape didn't look up.

Nelson chuckled, the bastard.

Snape scowled down at the damn mermaid, watching every furious stroke to make sure she stayed a she. "Not. Another. Word."

The fleabag obviously didn't know what was good for him. "I know how it is," he carried on. Snape risked a glance up. Nelson winked his one eye at Harry and leered, "Sometime's a bloke's just gotta listen to the call of the wild."

Brilliant. I'm getting advice on my sex life. From a werewolf. In front of Harry. Just brilliant.

"I hoped you'd be here," Harry grinned at him as they left Evil from the Needle. So, y'want dinner or..." Harry waved cheerfully to the cafe to the right of him and the fast food place across the street, "...dinner?"

Snape nodded, clenching his jaw at the throb of his hand. It had been a long and tiring day. Nelson's tattoo alone had taken more out of him than usual. Besides the pain, he felt light-headed and thirsty, sure signs that the blood loss was beginning to take a physical toll. "I could murder a curry," he muttered.

The brat beamed. "C'mon, I know a good place."

Halfway through the meal Snape caught Harry watching him with an especially attentive stare.

"You look pale..." Harry frowned.

"Well, it's only to be expected." Snape eyed his right hand. Sometimes truth was the best smokescreen. "How was your day?" he added in attempt to shift the focus of conversation away from himself.

"Bloody frustrating till now."

"Oh?" Snape already had some barbed replies ready, but before he could say any of them, Harry groaned and rested his forehead on his folded arms.

"Why is it so damn hard to make people listen? It's like talking to a wall. Two walls! How the hell do I explain to them that even though they may think they understood what I said just fine, what they thought I said wasn't what I meant, when they aren't hearing me right in the first place! You know how it is, right?" Harry looked up hopefully.

Snape blinked and gave up on translating that to normal English. By the sound of it, I'm not the only one who's had a draining day.

"You'd think just talking to people would be easy," Harry went on, "but no. Try proving to an Auror that a vampire isn't out for blood, and then try proving the same to the vampire!"

"Why were you with an Auror and a vampire in the first place? It sounds like a bad joke, 'An Auror and a vampire walk into a bar...'" I don't know which'd suck the life out of Harry faster, a vampire or a job as a Ministry poster boy.

"It wasn't a joke, and it definitely wasn't by choice, I swear. Had to. No one else was there to keep an eye on them," Harry mumbled. "It's frustrating, the whole thing is. The peacemaking, the bargains. The entire Wizarding world, but most of all the Ministry. The Muggleborns and half-bloods've got only half a vote, but there are so many more of them they could still outvote the purebloods, if only they weren't afraid to rock the Ministry's boat. It's their world too! Just because Umbridge is doing everything in her power to make it otherwise, doesn't mean the rest of the Wizarding world should go along."

Just what sort of deals is he making, and who with? "You're a half-blood, but as far as the Ministry's concerned, your vote's worth much more than a half."

"Yeah, but everyone else thinks so as well, and they're expecting me to fix everything, including fixing Umbridge, but I can't! I don't have a bloody clue how."

Their discussion was interrupted when the cheque was brought. As Harry paid, Snape lounged back in his chair, sipping his drink. The air was warm and heavy with the scents of wine, beer and above all, the many spices from the food. He drew a deep breath, released it in a sated sigh.

Beyond the restaurant's window, the last light of sunset burned low. Against the darkening street outside, Snape caught a glimpse of their reflections in the windowpane. What an odd couple they were. Harry, his tamed-back mane long enough to just touch his shoulders, and Snape himself, greasy hair straggling down between gaunt shoulderblades, jaw dark with stubble. Harry's robes were of expensive fabric styled subtly in attempt to resemble a flowing Muggle overcoat. Snape didn't have to try to look the part, his work clothes were genuinely Muggle, from his studded belt and torn pipestem jeans, velvet-soft after years of wear, to his scuffed bovver boots. Harry's tie wasn't the expected garish scarlet-and-gold stripe but a solid deep red, like apples or blood. Snape's threadbare T-shirt clung to his angular chest, and its faded print declared his fondness for Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Harry's preoccupied look added years to his face. Snape watched him, hiding a smirk behind the rim of his glass. You're running yourself ragged, I should know the signs. You need to wind down before you fall down.

When the waiter had gone, Snape leaned over and suggested with a smirk, "You can always don your cape, swoop down, and save the day."

"Yeah right, I wish it was that easy." Harry snorted with a cynicism that made Snape proud.

Harry fidgeted, drumming his fingers against the tabletop. He kept glancing at Snape's bare arms, from the forearm marked with Riddle's symbol to the other, where red faded to pale from wrist to elbow. Then he glanced at his own hands, bare of marks. Snape reached out and stilled Harry's nervous drumming with his good hand. "C'mon," he said, on impulse.


"The Underworld." Snape nodded toward the door as he stood. Sod it, I've got the money for it now! Since he'd started working in Camden, Snape kept an eye on the calendars of the local venues, and tonight a Muggle band was playing old-school punk rock.

"Never been there." Harry grinned and bounded to his feet. "All right."

Snape downed the last of his drink, for courage, and headed out. This'll either be fine, or it'll be a right balls-up. I'll find out which soon enough. He thought of the other Harry in his colourful mismatched clothes and cape. Chances are it'll be fine. Nothing down there should be stranger than what Harry's already seen and done.

It'd been years for Snape, decades, but in a heady roar it all came back as fresh as yesterday. The warm darkness, the raised voices on all sides, and beneath everything the deep thudthudthud of the beat, the sound of all the songs he thought he'd forgotten.

The room was too dark to see well, but Harry must've been the only one wearing wizard robes. Here, the style didn't so much run as sprint to leather, denim, and tattooed skin, some of it Snape's work. Snape stopped fretting about smudging someone with a red stain and let himself grin widely in the darkness. His fingers curved into anticipatory claws. He wanted to run them through Harry's slicked-back hair. He wanted to remove Harry's tie and open his collar and dishevel this world-weary man back to his former irrepressible self, and then share with him the energy, the collective breath and heartbeat of the crowd.

He couldn't remember ever wanting anything so personal, but then no one'd ever come with him to a concert. For the first time since he was fifteen, Snape had both something he loved, and someone he wanted to share it with.

"Nothing better'n a good concert," Snape declared. It must've been drink that brought out the unselfconscious, youthful fervour in his voice.

Harry gave him an astonished glance. "You sound like you've been to a few."

Hell yeah! "Used to do roadie stuff over summers, so I could get in for free," Snape found himself saying, as casual as one of Harry's smiles. "Bloke even mistook me for Iggy Pop once."

"What?" Harry yelled in the sudden roar of the crowd as the main act came on. He gestured at his ears, mouthing, 'Can't hear you.'

Just as well he didn't! Snape shook off his moment of mortification. In the crush of bodies that surged toward the stage, Snape was already pressed up close to Harry. It was hardly an effort to tilt his head so his lips brushed Harry's ear. "Better?"

Harry nodded, but the wince in his expression didn't relax. He looked edgy, uncomfortable, hemmed in by so many people. He turned to face the stage, stood on his tiptoes and squinted, trying to see over the bobbing heads and past the lights. When he turned back to Snape, the tension in his face had been joined by bemusement. "What's this?"


"Yeah right!"

"They are! As old as you are, or more. You look like you never heard anything like this."

"Oi, I've heard plenty!"


"At the Yule ball, we had the Weird Sisters."

"Nothing worth hearing, then." When would the poor sod get the chance? He was always watched, to make sure he didn't stray outside the protection of his Muggle house. He could hardly skive off to concerts, because unlike me, someone actually gave a shit where he went, or whether he'd ever come back. And later on, I bet, just like most of us half-bloods, he's tried so long and hard to become part of the Wizarding world, he's forgotten all about the Muggle one.

"This is, um, nice." Harry tried again, "Like wizard rock, a bit."

Wizard rock? Wizards wouldn't know punk from hinkypunk or rock from stone. "Take it from an old punk," Snape bared crooked teeth in a feral grin, "wizard rock is arse! They just copy what Muggles do, only decades later. Now this is rock!"

Judging by Harry's wide-eyed, astonished stare, Snape had underestimated how different he'd sound without his faux-pureblood mask. Harry began to say something, but the next number drowned him out with a high-pitched howl of guitars and vocals.

"Give it a chance. Listen," Snape stepped behind Harry and slid an arm around his shoulder, steadying them against the jostles of the jumping, moving crowd.

Harry leaned back, releasing all the weary tension in his shoulders for the first time that day. He closed his eyes, let his head fall against Snape's shoulder and sighed, exhaling what sounded like weeks' worth worry in a single breath. And then there was only the beat and their bodies responding to its pulsing strength, the throb of it resonating in their lungs, and their hearts racing to the measured thud that reverberated through every muscle, every bone.

London calling to the faraway towns

Now war is declared – and battle come down

Snape grinned sharply and held tighter, in gut-twisting anticipation of what was yet to come. He wanted Harry to experience this, to understand it. To feel this Muggle spell catching them up in its weave.

London calling to the underworld

Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls

Harry startled at those words and craned to see better, all his attention on the stage. All of Snape's attention was on Harry, his wide eyes and his wild grin, the heat of his body, his heartbeat under Snape's hand quickening to the rhythm of the drums. The crowd around them blurred into dim irrelevance, just part of the pounding in their ears, the heated pulse, the shared song whose words Snape knew by heart. "London is drowning and I..." Snape threw back his head and yelled his defiance, "I live by the river!"

He didn't notice at first in the rush of the sound that Harry clutched at him, both hands on his arm, fingers digging in hard amid all the breathless excitement. Harry was no longer rigid or uncertain. He moved with the music, as instinctive as if he'd heard it back in '79 with Snape, and had been a fan ever since. Now they moved as one in the shared resonance of sound and beat, of their magic and heat. It was the best way of all to find out that Harry finally understood.

I never felt so much alike... the final lines rang out over the crowded room, echoing in Snape's thoughts long after the song ended.

"Wow," Harry panted, "See what you mean!" A spotlight's beam touched the top of his hair, and Snape couldn't resist, he reached up and scruffled it until it had escaped from its former style, wild as ever. The spotlight kindled the strands into a halo – lit with electricity instead of glowing with excess magic – and Harry beamed up at Snape with an abandon that had nothing to do with magical mania and everything with the sheer bliss of the moment. Gone was the well-groomed, weary, worried wizard. Harry was young again, as energised and caught up in the music as Snape had been when he saw his first live band.

From that moment Harry relaxed in the crowd, anonymous, safe from pressure and expectation. For the rest of the show he was moving and cheering and grinning, part of the place. Good. Snape had hoped the shielding darkness and the beat and the shared enjoyment would help. He couldn't think of anything less like the white, silent solitude, the dissecting scrutiny, of Harry's imprisonment in St. Mungo's.

Snape lay on his stomach on the sitting room sofa. Harry sprawled on the floor in his shirtsleeves, using his expensive robe as extra padding over the threadbare rug. After the club had closed, they'd Flooed home sweaty and elated. Snape had dug up a bottle of gin, which they passed back and forth. He'd also dug up his hoard of old records, and now he was flipping through them, handing them down to Harry as he went, the Buzzcocks, the Clash, the Damned, the Jam, the Misfits, and more. He slid one out of its sleeve and pressed it against the table. Instead of a turntable, he cast a hover charm tweaked for rotation; instead of a needle, a modified piercing charm; instead of speakers, a Sonorus targeted for their ears.

Guitars wailed into life and Snape was just stretching out on his back to listen, when Harry's next comment jolted him out of his happy reverie.

"Your hair's cool spiked!"

Spiked? What? Oh no! Snape sat up fast enough to make his head spin.

But by that time Harry had already got a good look at the snapshot that had fallen out of a record sleeve. He turned to show it to Snape. His younger self, a year or two younger than Harry was now, stood frozen in a black and white photo. Despite the faded shot, his unmarked forearm and hand stood out clearly.

I was such a stupid sod. He scowled at himself, then tried the scowl out on Harry. It didn't change Harry's teasing grin, any more than it'd changed the expression on the Muggle photograph.

How can I grab it off him without tearing it? Maybe after I Obliviate the cheeky bugger. Huh, how'd I go from a wine over dinner and beers at the concert, to letting him find blackmail material? I'm out of practice at drinking since I got magic back. "If you breathe a word of this to anyone..." he glared.

"Oh c'mon," Harry laughed, "who'd believe me if I told them?"


"Unless I show them..." the brat had the nerve to suggest.

"Over your dead body." Just because I've gone back to jeans and T-shirts, does not mean I'm letting anyone else see me in hair gel! Snape bit his lip before the twist of his mouth turned into something closer to a pout.

"Oh well, you still look cool now, spikes or no." Harry's irrepressible mop didn't need gel to form tufts, and from this angle Harry had two devilish horns. "Hang about..." The light of an idea came on in Harry's face, and he put the albums aside and jumped to his feet. "You kept all those records, and that photo." He added, all in one breath, "Bet you've still got the shirt!" and bolted up the stairs.

Snape sprang up and pounded after him, yelling "I've hexed my trunk!" Little sod wouldn't dare...

"It's open," Harry singsonged from his room.

"Touch anything and you'll regret..." Snape turned the corner and his next words were a yelp of instinctive outrage, "My shirt!" The urge to wince at his own outcry was almost overwhelming, but he resisted, trying to salvage the wreckage of his dignity. "That," he informed Harry loftily, "is a collector's item. Tear it and I'll take it out on your hide."

The mane of hair and then the glasses popped up from the T-shirt's collar. Harry put his arms through and smoothed the shirt out over his chest, squinting at the design there. "What's 'Iggy'?"

"Iggy Pop, lead singer of 'The Stooges'." Snape ran a finger across the cotton hugging the brat's chest – hmm, at least he's not so starved anymore – where inch-high letters spelled out the band's name. "Don't you know anything?"

Harry glanced down at the shirt and back at Snape. "Iggy, eh?" and with that he smirked and spread his arms, "If you want him so much, come and take him."

Snape smiled savagely. "You're begging for it."

"Y'know, Ron had a crush on Viktor Krum once," Harry said matter-of-factly.


"He had that exact same look on his face."

That's it! "Accio my shirt!"

"Ah-ah-ah." Harry folded his arms. "You don't wanna tear it, remember?"

Bastard! "Right, I don't." He drew a deep breath as if summoning his energies for another wandless spell, then lunged in and strummed the fingertips of his left hand down Harry's ribs. He could block Rictusempra, but he can't make himself numb.

"Oi! Not..." the brat spluttered through a chuckle poorly disguised as a cough, "Not fair!"

"Oh boo hoo," Ribs, yeah. Neck? On the hunt for more weak spots, Snape leaned toward Harry's ear. Tempting. Into it, he breathed, "Who'll save you from the big bad Death Eater?"

"Iggy?" the scamp managed through all the snorting and chuckling.

"Cheek." He snaked his good hand around to give Harry a sound smack on one arse cheek. "Guess again!"

"Again? OK. Iggy and the Stooges," He pulled a bit at the T-shirt, "They'll protect me."

"We'll see about that." Snape yanked the T-shirt up. It was a bit tricky to do one-handed, but he managed well enough, by pinning the wiggling, laughing brat against the edge of the bed and using his height to his advantage.

Then Harry twisted out of his grasp, pushed him down instead, and sat on him. He was heavier than Snape had expected, all wiry muscle and youthful persistence.

Snape ran his fingertips down Harry's side and the brat toppled over, his crowing cry of "I win!" cut short. Snape held onto him as they rolled. He was already so dizzy that another disorienting turn didn't make much difference. He finally managed to pull the T-shirt up to Harry's armpits, but then got distracted testing exactly how sensitive those ribs were. He didn't get far.

"Mmm, bed, good idea." Harry grinned approvingly and stretched out under him, captured his good arm and curled himself around it.

It was oddly delightful, the way he relaxed at once into Snape's touch, instantly trusting, as though nothing Snape did or said could make him tense up again.

Snape had wanted this closeness – wanted Harry in his arms, and more – ever since those teasing grins, since the bounce of his body moving to the rhythm. Since Harry muttered "Phew, m'all sweaty," at the door and chucked his robes at Snape, since he yanked his tie off and opened his collar and rolled up his sleeves. Since the Underworld's rock high had caught them both in its primal beat and in each other.

Harry had Snape's good arm pinned under his body and it'd take a struggle to shift him. Snape reached out with his cursed hand, but no matter how often he'd done it in the tattoo parlour to paying customers, he couldn't quite bring himself to touch Harry and deliberately stain his skin with the mark of his curse.

That was when he first heard Harry's steady breathing change to a quiet snore.


He craned up as far as he could and looked at the sprawled brat. His own red hand hung in midair just an inch away from Harry's skin. Oversensitive fingertips tingled with the heat and proximity before he lifted the hand away. Instead he wordlessly summoned Harry's glasses, and directed the spell to set them down on the bedside table. Then he flopped over onto his back, his head thudding onto his pillow and his right arm dangling off the edge of the bed as usual.

"Bugger!" Or not.

Snape woke to the distant sound of 'Fiction Romance'. Fuck, I left the Buzzcocks playing all night!

As he rolled out of bed and ran downstairs his senses – magical and mundane – were feverishly alert, checking the security charms for any trace of strangers in the area. Nothing. At least so far. I just hope the limits on the Sonorus held and nobody else heard. If the Ministry finds out about this, I'm fucked. Harry won't fool them for long, all the bastards'd have to do is ask him to recast the same set of charms.

He set the fingertips of his good hand gently on the record's label, stilling it and cancelling the charms. The sudden silence hissed in his ears as he slid the record carefully back in its sleeve, then slid the sleeve back into the stack and gathered it up, stashing the lot back in the cupboard with his brewing apparatus.

Now remained the pleasant part of the cleanup duty, waking the sleeping brat and stripping him of Snape's stolen T-shirt.

While he was downstairs, Harry had sprawled out diagonally across the bed, taking up the entire space. As Snape glared down at him, Harry mumbled and dug his nose further into the pillow. In the middle of Harry's chest, right over the shirt's printing, was a smudged red handprint. Snape moved instinctively to clap his hand over his face, but stopped himself just in time, scowling at the red palm with extreme annoyance. Dammit! I know better. I've been sleeping on my back for ages now, without staining things as I slept. ...well, not with blood, anyway. Did I leave any more marks on him? He stepped closer and leaned over Harry to peer at him. No. Just as well.

He finished his scrutiny of Harry's body by glancing again at his face, and found his relieved smile met by an instinctive, sleepy grin.

"Mornin'!" Then the grin clouded over, and Harry added, "Urk. Why'd you let a graphorn kick me in the head and then crap in my mouth?"

Snape smirked. "Funny you should say that." Amazing how easily the old classroom voice comes back. "Care to make a wild guess at the main ingredient in hangover potion?"

If he remembers so little of his classes as to believe that, it means all the more hangover potion for me. Or I might be merciful, purely because I don't feel like spending the day nursing or cleaning.

The hangover potion (sans graphorn-excrement) worked well; in Harry's case, rather too well.

"The ice age is coming 'n sun zooming in... engines stop running... tada-da-da-da... nuclear error..."

I am going to regret ever expanding his horizons. "Must you?" Snape growled. There's not enough hangover potion in the world to take away the pain of listening to that.

"...but I have no fear!" Harry broke off singing and beamed at him. "Do what?"

"Impersonate a fwooper with a sore throat." Although, I suppose it could be worse, it could be a fwooper with a sore throat singing Weird Sisters.

"Well how should it be sung? Remind me." The brat sidled over to Snape and moved his hips just so.

Snape caught a glimpse of skin between the flaps of his unbuttoned shirt. He definitely gets off on teasing me, the sadistic sod!

Harry made a show of sliding between Snape and the counter to perch on the kitchen chair. "Mmm. I should spend the night here more often. Missed that."

What? Oh, he means those visits. The spontaneous invasions of a delirious disaster. Snape arched a brow. "Well I miss getting a decent night's sleep."

"Phff. You could do with a bit more excitement. And danger, and–"

"Tea?" Snape interrupted, steaming mug in his hand.

"Yeah, tea too. Gimme."

"Get your own, you bloody menace."

"Oi, who are you calling–"

Harry was interrupted by a crackle of static from the radio, followed by the inevitable announcer's voice, "This is the WWN, with an address from the Minister for Magic."

Moving as one, they hurried into the sitting room.

"Witches and wizards of Britain. Today, I am delighted to announce that Harry Potter has accepted the position graciously offered him by the Aurors. To express his gratitude to the Aurors and the Ministry, the Chosen One insisted on giving an official acceptance speech. The speech will take place at ten A.M. tomorrow in the Ministry Atrium. Naturally, the speech will be broadcast in full on the WWN, and published in a special pictorial edition of the Evening Prophet. In the meantime, you, the citizens of Wizarding Britain may best celebrate Mr. Potter's induction into the Aurors by owling your generous contributions to the Rehabilitate Criminal Half-Bloods Fund, care of the Ministry of Magic. Have a wonderful morning."

The radio went dead. A horrible silence followed.

"Tell me she's lying."

Harry looked down, too focused on buttoning his shirt.


"It's mostly... sort of... It's not how it sounds!"

"Then just how should it sound? Because I don't see much room for interpretation."

"Well, they've offered me the position, and now I can do a lot of good, influence a lot of people. They'll listen to me. I've met my unit already, I've even been on a few practice runs with them. They're not bad. Friendly. I could learn a lot from them."

'Practice runs', eh? So that's what last night was? Practice for going undercover? Mingling with the masses? I suppose I should feel flattered, obviously he thought he 'could learn a lot' from me too! Snape's heart began to pound with fury. It took an effort to keep most of it from his face and voice. "Have you got any idea how many sadistic bastards you're siding with?"

"They're not all like that. Some are good people."

"Good? You gullible prick!" In his mind's eye he saw Harry, his wand in an Auror's Quik-Draw holster, his eyes blank, his spirit broken by the Ministry. A posterboy for Auror recruitment drives. A Ministry puppet. Snape forced his fingers to straighten from the fists they'd instinctively formed. And I was fool enough to help him unwind from the chore of plotting his next career advancement!

"I know what I'm doing!"

There was a draught from the corner of the room, and then a Jack Russell terrier patronus was capering at Harry's feet, barely reaching his knees with every bounce. His tail wagged furiously as he tried to jump up to Harry's face to lick it.

Harry stared dully at the patronus. "Fuck. I'm late."

"By all means," Snape waved the front door open with a parody of an usher's obsequious bow, "Don't let me keep you from composing your acceptance speech."

"I'll be back as soon as I can." Harry wrapped himself in his stylish robes, instantly assuming his well-dressed persona, the same one Snape had foolishly thought he needed a break from yesterday.

"Don't bother lying. I doubt your Ministry minders will understand any further slumming with red-handed criminals." He waved the cursed hand in ironic farewell.

Harry glared, barely containing a growl, and stormed out.

Snape slammed the door behind him.

Snape spent the day cleaning up. He refused to think of it as licking his wounds. He'd seen his mum do this often enough, and in this very house: escape from thought into sheer mindless drudgery. He washed the breakfast things first, including Potter's unused mug, and set them on the draining board to dry. He rinsed out the empty phials of Hangover Potion and put them in a test tube rack, to await refilling. He double-checked that the records were undamaged after last night, then re-stacked and re-hid the lot of them, as far out of sight as possible. Only then did he trudge upstairs and into his bedroom.

He stared at the empty, disordered bed, then bent to pick up a T-shirt from the rumpled cover. For a long moment, he gazed at the red handprint, and slowly his good hand closed into a fist and his cursed hand rose, fingers curved into claws, ready to tear. But they did not do so. In mid-move that hand sank back to his side, and he laid the shirt out flat on the bed, folded it painstakingly with his good hand alone, and tucked it into his trunk. He re-set the locking charms Potter had broken, and as the last light of sunset retreated from the room, he layered newer and more convoluted locks over the old.

The knock on the bedroom window startled Snape out of the mindless state he'd spent most of the day achieving. In the twilit gap between the curtains was the silhouette of a broom rider.

Snape threw the curtains open. Harry was floating right outside the cobwebbed windowframe, his hand poised to knock again.

Snape told him to "Sod off!", using his cursed hand to add the usual gesture, just in case the twat couldn't hear him through the glass. He reached to yank the curtains shut, but before he could manage it with his one good hand, Harry jumped from the broom to the windowsill.

His fingers scrabbled at the sill, barely holding on, and his cheek mashed inelegantly against the glass. His broom zoomed away without its rider. Even through the layer of grimy glass, Snape could see his puppy dog stare.

Oh for fuck's sake! Snape wrenched the window open and snarled, "Mobilicorpus! Now hurry up and get your worthless arse inside before someone sees you, you utter pillock!" He seized Harry by the shoulder and gave a damn good heave.

Harry lifted his head from the floor where he'd landed, and rubbed his jaw. "Ow!" Then one of those beaming grins lit up his face. "Hi!"

Snape glowered down, not thawed a bit by the sunny expression. "What do you want?"

"I..." Harry glanced down but then his gaze was back focused on Snape, clear as ever. "I'm sorry, for um, before."

"For what?" Snape asked in a clipped, brittle voice. "Selling out? Whoring yourself to the Ministry? Kissing that pink bitch's bloated arse?"

"What? How can you even think... Argh!" By way of reply, Harry stripped off his flying glove and thrust his hand in front of Snape's face. "Read that!"

Snape jerked back, expecting a thrown punch. When none came, he slitted his eyes and peered distrustfully at the back of Harry's hand. The scarring was faded but legible. "Blood quill?" he spat.

Harry nodded. "Hers. Detention, fifth year."

"'I must not tell lies'?" Snape repeated. He couldn't believe his eyes.

Harry's hand flexed a bit, in his grip. "Words to live by, wouldn't you say?"

"Sadistic and grossly incompetent. If the stupid cow had a clue about the Dark Arts, she could've had you write 'I must obey Dolores Umbridge', and used that to enslave you."

"Yeah, well, I'm not her slave." Harry replied flatly, "I'm a spy."

A spy? Does he even know what the word means? "What's your mission?" Snape fired back, instantly brisk and businesslike, "Sabotage? Assassination?" He paused to eye Harry up and down, pointedly assessing his new robes, just as stylish as the last ones, "Coup d'etat?"

"Coupwhat?" Harry blinked. "Um, mostly I talk to people. And talk them into talking to each other."

"That's not spying," Snape cried, "that's politics!" Why does he always make me want to cover my face in red handprints?

"Well, that was difficult enough!" Harry growled. "And I never said I was a good spy!"

'So glad it's over.' Snape caught the last thought in Harry's glare so clearly it seemed almost audible. "What's 'over'?" he scowled.

"Oi," Harry's eyes went wide, he shook his head, as if trying to shake off the eye contact between them. "Get out of my mind!"

Bloody hell, if this is his idea of Occlumency, I'd hate to see his spying. Can this get any worse? "If you don't want me in there, you shouldn't leave yourself so wide open. Now, what's 'over'?"

"Er. I'm sort of unemployed. Starting today. Unless, of course, I decide to be the Ministry's 'Posterboy Potter' overnight."

Snape sighed loudly. "Sit down." He waved one hand at the bed, the only place in the room to sit. "And tell me exactly what you're trying to do."

Harry sat down on the side that less than a day ago he'd claimed as his own by curling up and snoring in Snape's pillow. Now, he gave a slight, nostalgic smile as he ran his hand over the covers. "Well, at first I was looking for anyone in the Ministry who'd help us out: the Camden resistance that is, and everyone else who wasn't about to settle for half a vote, or less. I just wanted enough time to find more people, and I did, more than I ever thought I'd find. Only Umbridge kept bothering me about the Auror position, so I set a date for the interview, told her I'd give her an answer then." Harry smirked, an expression oddly similar to one Snape had often seen in his own mirror. "She got a bit too optimistic announcing it."

Snape replied to the smirk with a grumbled, "How hard would it have been to tell me this morning instead of now? Or yesterday? Or even before that?"

"I didn't think." Harry winced and carried on, breathless. "I really was late! McGonagall said if I was late for a meeting one more time, she'd transfigure my broomstick into a toothpick, and she wasn't talking about my Firebolt. If Ron hadn't sent his patronus after me, she would've!"

Memories of a hundred Order meetings rushed back, and Snape grimaced in involuntary sympathy.

"Bloody meetings last forever!" Harry pouted. "You wouldn't believe how many times I sat in one of those – or worse, Ministry gatherings – and wanted to be here." Harry glanced meaningfully from the bed to Snape, "Right here. With you."

Snape looked away from that gaze, reluctant to see the truth, or otherwise, that lay behind it. On his side of the bed – When did I give up partial ownership of it? – his trunk sat warded in the corner. Something Harry said this morning kept echoing in his mind. 'Practice run.' Secret missions and not selling out to the Ministry are all well and good, but why the hell would he need me around? Except maybe... Oh hell, we're sitting on my bed, of course he's getting ideas! Snape jumped to his feet. "Something else you just hadn't got round to telling me till now?" he bit out. "Well unluckily for you, not everyone in the world's willing to bend over at your whim."

"Good!" Harry said quietly. "I Imperiused enough people when I was sick. I knew it was wrong and I tried not to, but I never caught myself in time. But you... you almost never went along with what I wanted."

"I'm only human." Snape gave him a wryly fond look. "And you're not easy to say no to." You're too damn irresistible.

He'd meant it as a compliment, unspoken and safely deniable, but Harry's face fell and his gaze dropped away from Snape's. "I remember." His voice was very small. "One day I wanted in, for tea, and you let me in. I was so afraid then that it'd never really stopped, and the only reason you kept letting me in further was just because I made you, that once."

Snape's mouth set in a determined line, and he reached out with one fingertip, touching Harry gently under the chin and coaxing his head up. "Imperius or not," he told Harry firmly, "if I truly wanted to see you gone, I'd've chucked you the hell out! In case you haven't noticed, I didn't." He sighed. "Riddle gave me plenty of practice at subverting Imperius. Dumbledore preferred... emotional manipulation." Harsh, but true. "Now that they're both gone, I'm not about to accept a third master."

The silence stretched to a siren-scream intensity. The effort to both maintain eye contact and avoid Legilimency was almost unbearable. It took all of Snape's resolve to stay still and impassive as Harry stood, closing the distance between them to mere inches.

"I don't ever want to own you." That green gaze shifted from his eyes to his mouth, and he thought Harry would continue what that gaze implied and kiss him, but Harry just breathed in, slow and deep, and sighed, "I just want you."

There was no need of Legilimency, the wordless chant of 'Severus...' 'So much...' 'Let me...', was so clear in Harry's expression it was practically audible. The sight stirred to the surface all the wild, vulnerable dreams of Severus' youth. He'd abandoned them all years ago, along with punk rock concerts and sleeveless shirts, but now it seemed that, just like the stashed-away records, those dreams had needed only an enchantment to be heard, loud and clear and compelling as ever, making his heart leap and making him want to dance along with them.

Harry was so close Severus could taste him in the air. A breath away, the scent of him was intoxicating. Severus' skin tingled, as if Harry's magic was striking invisible sparks from his own. "Why?" The shock of the mere idea – that anyone could possibly want him, let alone someone as young and desirable as Harry – made Severus' pulse race.

"Why what?" Harry breathed, and it would've been so easy to lean forward and kiss that maddening mouth.

Why me? "Why do you insist on doing your damnedest to drive me out of my mind?"

"You should talk! You're driving me wild."

Severus' good hand closed over Harry's scarred one. "Don't lie." Not about this. Please! Without warning, his resolve broke, and he reached inward on a wave of silent Legilimency, searching, desperate for many things, the truth above all.

"I'm not lying." Harry didn't look away or blink, and there it all was, clear as day, shining in his eyes. I want you. It's killing me.

It can't be true. Severus stared. It's got to be a trick. Any moment now it'll all turn into one big joke. But the seconds dragged on, and Harry's thoughts were still an open book. Harry felt no need to justify anything to himself, no need for reasons, or logic. His desires simply were, and they were pure, absolute, and true.

Severus' lips parted in a soundless gasp, his whole body tensed. In sheer bewildered disbelief at this utter impossibility he drew breath to ask Why? again, but at last it was beginning to sink in that he had no more unanswered questions. He heard a strangled sound, part 'ohgod', part hopeless moan, but surely it couldn't've come from him. He yanked Harry in so hard their chests collided and kissed him, frantic, devouring, desperate. Ohh yes! After all the sunny smiles Severus had pretended didn't move him, finally he had Harry's mouth, warm and supple on his. Harry's scent filled his lungs, Harry's unruly hair brushed him, soft as fur, and Harry held him – him! A pariah, a plague, a curse – because Harry chose to, clinging stubbornly in a shared fever of need. Harry's kiss was as urgent as Severus' own, as wanting as he was wanted. Incredible. It made Severus' head spin, but he began to accept that it was real. At last he had everything. Harry.

Severus wrapped his left arm around Harry and held on with his good hand as if he was hanging onto the edge of a cliff. His cursed hand clenched in an aching fist behind his back, as it always did when he risked staining something precious.

Harry wasn't one for playing safe. Wiry and writhing, he climbed Severus like a tree, and like a felled tree they toppled sideways, landing on the bed with a crash and a bounce.

They rolled and grabbed until Harry's elegant robes were inelegantly stripped, and Severus – too impatient to wrestle with fastenings singlehanded – banished his clothes without caring where they landed. Severus knelt at the foot of the bed, forgetting even to be self-conscious about his scarred and skinny body, he was so absorbed in the tempting sight before him. Harry sprawled on the bed, tousled and flushed, naked except for his shirt. He smiled, and let his thighs fall deliberately apart. Severus edged closer, drawn instinctively into that gap. Framed by the tails of his shirt, Harry's cock jutted. Its urgent red was all the fiercer by contrast with the white fabric.

Severus reached... and smirked as instead of touching Harry, he closed his fingers on the lowermost button. He savoured every teasing second of unbuttoning his way up the shirtfront as Harry wrestled with the cuffs. Severus peeled the thin cotton away singlehanded, moving with the slow reverence of a man unveiling a classical sculpture, unwrapping a priceless gift.

"Your hands. Want 'em all over." Harry arched up, half welcoming, half pleading. Even his eyes were transformed, his pupils wide and dark, his gaze intent. "Mark me."

"You're a fool," Severus breathed, drawn too close to those parted lips.

"I know. Touch me!"

It must've been the glare or the trust or the need in those eyes... Severus' right hand paused in midair. His fingers fluttered, irresolute, as he looked for a place where the stain would do the least harm. The back of his neck beneath all the hair, his inner thigh. No. There. Harry's lips, already kissed into a fierce rich red.

Harry breathed humid warmth against Severus' thumb and the contact of his cursed skin to Harry's mouth brought no pain but so much sensation. The hollow dip of the corner where a smile usually hid continued into the uneven ridge of dry lower lip. Then those lips parted, revealing the tip of an impudent tongue between, and for a blessed second the moisture and the heat were almost too much to bear but impossible not to crave. After so long of choosing pain or nothing, Severus held his breath in wonder and stroked his fingertip along Harry's lip, painting his mouth as red as an apple's skin.

As he withdrew, something stinging encircled his wrist and then his entire palm burned. Severus stared at Harry's hand, which was clasping his wrist and pressing his cursed hand flat against Harry's own shoulder. The physical sting was a distant second to the emotional shock. Harry's eyes widened with realisation, and he let go.

"Sorry! I forgot it'd hurt–"

"It's nothing." Oh fuck. What has he done? As Severus pulled his hand away, an imprint of his hand blazed against Harry's skin, the long spidery fingers and narrow palm all distinct in bright blood red. It's not nothing and it'll never be nothing, for as long as the curse exists. He sighed, forcing himself to remember that The damage is done, and it's something he wanted.

"Are you sure?"

I should be asking him that. The handprint had an uneven edge where Harry's fingertips had got in the way. Ever the perfectionist, Severus brushed his knuckle across it to complete the shape. "Yes." Mesmerising, Harry's stare burned just as his skin did at a mere touch.

What am I doing marking him? They'll see!

Harry leaned up and kissed that thought away. His carelessness was so contagious.

Severus had always welcomed the slow fading of scarlet smudges on his crockery or walls, but the print of his hand on Harry's skin was the first stain that he didn't want to see gone. Instead, he wanted more. Severus drew two fingers across Harry's cheek in a slow caress, following the line of Harry's cheekbone, marking his face with two stripes of war paint. His hand shook and slipped leaving another shamelessly bright smudge, like a tear-track on the side of Harry's nose.

So what if he can't be seen until the marks fade? It'll mean he'll stay here, with me, for weeks! In my house, in my bed. If it takes curse marks to keep him here, I don't care! His mouth curved in an ironic smirk. High time something good came out of that curse. He drank in the sight of Harry, tousled and flushed, basked in his body heat and the sound of his panting breaths. Someone like him doesn't belong in my bed, but I'll keep him for as long as I can, and the marks are a good excuse. How will his body look, touched all over, like he asked? A patchwork of new handprints over old, till my skin looks white against his? How will my cursed hand look, rubbing blood-red into his cock? A hungry, anticipatory smile stretched itself across his face as he imagined it. Gives a whole new meaning to being caught red-handed.

He'd drawn tattoos using his fingertips and nails like pens to execute a prearranged design, but those were business transactions with strangers, under the eyes of spectators and in the light of day. His customers were fellow outcasts with nothing to lose, already beyond the pale of wizarding society. Or else they weren't about to risk exposing his designs to respectable eyes.

This was different. The marks on Harry's face couldn't be hidden. The moment anyone saw them, the news'd be all over the Prophet, all over wizarding Britain. They had no plan or design, they were just the impulse of passion, the instinct to reach out, the raw need to hold, fingerprinted onto Harry's skin. They were the most personal marks of himself that he'd ever left on another human being.

Severus had little practice with personal contact, but that wasn't about to stop him now. Not when the elusive freedom to give into his impulse was right here, within reach. Severus brushed Harry's tousled fringe out of his eyes, shivering at the feel of silken strands. He slid both hands down Harry's chest, following the contours of slim young muscles. For once he ignored the stains and the pain. Instead he focused on pleasure shocking and new, Harry's taut skin pouring sensation into his cursed hand.

Harry grinned, the mad sod. Severus lingered, circling a nipple in scarlet, tracing a line down the trail of hair leading to Harry's cock, until that grin melted into a gasping cry. Severus couldn't help himself. He reached out with his good hand to brush his fingers across Harry's parted lips. Harry caught Severus' hand, and pressed his lips to the knuckles, just as tender and purposeful as if the sallow skin of Severus' left hand was leaving a mark of its own.

"Turn around," Severus growled, and at Harry's curious glance he added, "I'm not finished with you." When will I ever be?

"Good! Neither'm I."

"Brat." What first? Ribs, neck, crook of his elbow? Severus stroked up Harry's side firmly, aiming for previously learned sensitive spots. Harry's lithe back arched into his touch. It wasn't a massage, not a proper one anyway, just Severus' good hand kneading Harry's shoulders and neck, in all the places his own stubborn body held onto decades-old tension. Harry sprawled on the bed, just like this morning, though Severus didn't think Harry'd been restraining himself from humping the sheets last time.

Severus ran one hand down Harry's spine, and as he reached the hollow of his back Harry lifted his arse, pressing backward in a physical plea. He fired a leer over one shoulder and hitched his hips again.

Does he realise what he's asking for? Either way, it was an offer Severus wasn't about to refuse, though he was almost out of lube. He had just enough wits left not to give into Harry's impulsive recklessness. Not now. Next time, he promised himself. When we're both prepared, thoroughly, in his case. I'm not going to hurt him. He smiled suddenly, loving the fact there'd be a next time. Loving Harry. Plenty of other ways...

"Budge over, brat, the bed's not big enough for me to sleep down here."

"M'comfy," Harry whinged, but it was for form's sake, he moved obligingly enough as Severus shifted up the bed. Severus thanked him with a slow kiss. Harry sighed blissfully and sucked the taste of himself from Severus' tongue.

When Severus pulled back, Harry stretched and rolled onto his side. In the middle of Harry's back Severus found another of his marks. When he'd propped himself on Harry's back, he'd left a handprint. The smudged scarlet was the shape of a single wing, or perhaps the side-on silhouette of a phoenix in flight. Drowsily, he traced the outline with his good hand.

Harry shivered a bit. "Oi, that tickles too. What're you doing?"

"Admiring my masterpiece."

"Yeah?" Harry rolled to face him, smiling at him from under a thatch of bedhead. "Lemme see." He conjured a hand-mirror and Leviosa-ed it until he could see his own back. "Wow." He continued to change the mirror's angle, using it to peer curiously at all the marks Severus had left. At last, he dismissed the mirror and gave Severus a hinting grin. "Y'know, artists always sign their work."

"Really?" Severus drawled. He snaked an arm around Harry and gave his arse a slow squeeze, leaving a red handprint spanning the cheek. "There. Always said you were a right handful."

"And you call me a brat!" Harry laughed.

"That's because you are," Severus explained. "Now shut up and go to sleep, brat."

He gathered Harry closer, wrapped his good arm around him, and settled down. Summoned, the covers slid over them. Severus hummed appreciation and closed his eyes. This felt like the first time in his life he'd ever been truly warm. He lay basking in the unique glow of another person by his side, sharing his bed. Throughout the long cold winter just past, and all the winters before it, he'd never really imagined he might someday feel so good.

In the morning, the prints of his hand still glowed crimson on Harry's skin, impossible to miss. They weren't lovebites that would show faintly above the collar, but a screaming advertisement of how Harry had spent his night. And who he'd spent it with. That doesn't matter. I can indulge myself, just this once, because I'm not letting him out of this house until every stain has well and truly faded.

Just as Severus considered getting up, the brat stretched, yawned, and threw his arm and leg around Severus, weighting him down. Sleep-warm. Stubborn. Speckled red on golden skin, like a Gryffindor lion still young enough for spotted fur.

Silly sod, Severus thought fondly and adjusted the pillow below Harry's head, tucked the covers around him, stroked a strand of hair away from his eyes.

"C'mere," Harry murmured, ruining all of Severus' careful adjustments of the pillow and the covers and wrapping himself tighter around Severus.

They slept.

Severus woke up alone. Beside him, his trunk had been flung open. Everything seemed untouched, apart from the T-shirt with his handprint, which was missing. Harry... Severus put on a forbidding scowl, expecting the brat to bounce in wearing the T-shirt any second.

Then he noticed the note and his chest froze with dread.


WWN at 10AM. Umbridge deserves an 'acceptance speech'. Back soon. (I'm sorry.)


The clock showed 9:56. Fuck! Even if I Apparate right to the Ministry's doorstep it'd take me longer than that to get in past the bureaucracy. And the bastards would just arrest me for unauthorised use of magic. He stomped downstairs and pulled the dead batteries out of the radio, recharged them with a charm and replaced them. He turned the radio on. Nothing. He picked the radio up and shook it. "WORK you miserable piece of shite!" he roared. Apparently his fury got its attention, since it crackled to life. His hands shook as he set it back on the bookshelf.

"This is the WWN, and the time is ten o'clock. We are broadcasting live from the Atrium at the Ministry of Magic, which is jam-packed with a standing-room only crowd, come to see the first public address since the end of the war by the Chosen One, Mr. Harry Potter. Looking around the Atrium, as far as I can tell Mr. Potter has not yet arrived. Security is tight around the podium by the Fountain of Magical Brethren, where the Minister for Magic will now say a few words."

"Witches and wizards of Britain. Today we welcome Mr. Harry Potter back to public life. Our thoughts have been with him during his lengthy convalescence after the climactic battle of the last war, but with today's speech he will confirm his readiness to return to the role fate has chosen him to fulfil: role model to the Wizarding world. I know the Aurors look forward to being able to count him as one of their number, and I am sure he will perform his duties as a Ministry employee admirably. He..."

Umbridge's voice faltered to a halt and Severus could hear a murmur from the crowd. The announcer broke in with, "Mr. Potter's head has just appeared beside the Minister. Apparently he's wearing his Invisibility Cloak. Well that's certainly caught even the Minister by surprise. No doubt about it, Harry Potter knows how to make an entrance!"

"Mister Potter," fluted Umbridge, "so good to, er, see you. Would you feel more comfortable without your, um... cape?"

"Yeah, I think I might." Severus could hear the smile in Harry's voice. He could even hear the tell-tale jingle of curtain rings and a swoosh of fabric. The next moment there was a ripple of gasps and murmurs of surprise from the crowd, and the announcer said hurriedly, "Harry Potter is covered in curse marks! Cursed blood traces on his face, his neck, his arms, a handprint on his... what's he wearing? A G-shirt? Some Muggle thing. Yes, Harry Potter is covered in the marks of the Ministry's new Red Hand curse, unless I'm mistaken..."

"Good heavens!" gasped Umbridge, her Sonorus-amplified voice ringing over the restless murmurs of the crowd, "I'm simply outraged! Please accept my sincere condolences on this disgusting attack."

"But it wasn't a..."

"Rest assured, since the assailant was clearly a red-handed criminal, he will be very easy to track down..."

Harry must have applied a non-verbal Sonorus of his own, because his next words rang clearly, overriding Umbridge. "I wasn't attacked!" Silence. "Actually, if anyone did any attacking, I sort of tackled him first." He added in a purr, "After that, it was aaall mutual."

A nervous cough broke through the static and then the announcer said "The Minister has cast... some sort of detection charm on Mr. Potter. Fiery letters are rising out of the curse marks..."

"I promise you, Mr. Potter," Umbridge cried over the gasps from the crowd, "that we will arrest... the convicted criminal DE-SST19600109! And bring him to justice for laying a finger on you!"

"Ohh fuck!" Severus groaned. I am so fucking dead!

And then, Harry laughed. Severus blinked, and even in the midst of his own fear he found himself smiling just a bit at the sound, and hoping that Harry was laughing right in the bitch's face. "Oh, Severus laid more than a finger on me," the purr was still clear in Harry's voice, and the imp added, "Much more... er, bigger. It was more like a foot really, if you know what I mean. Yeahhh..." and Harry gave a sigh that was pure aural sex, "While we're making public statements, I want to thank Severus Snape for the best night of my life!"

If I live through this, the brat will find out what my foot feels like as it meets his arse, and it certainly wouldn't be the foot he so boldly advertised to the entire Wizarding world! Severus let his forehead thud against the nearest bookshelf, but the sound was well and truly drowned out by the whistles and cheers with which the crowd greeted Harry's confession.

Severus didn't stay around to listen further. He bolted up the stairs and started to ransack his trunk, packing only the essentials. There was no way in hell he was going to just sit around in case the Aurors came calling. As he worked, the broadcast continued. He couldn't help listening, even as most of his attention was absorbed in preparing for a hasty departure.

Rita Skeeter's voice was the next to be heard. From the sound of it, she was shouting from the audience, "Mr. Potter, you mean to say you voluntarily slept with Severus Snape?"

"Oh it was voluntary all right." Harry assured her, "Not that we did much sleeping..." A wave of collective laughter rolled through the crowd, followed by cheers and then applause.

"Let it be known that as the former Headmistress..." Umbridge tried to seize the crowd's attention again through her fading Sonorus, "...former Headmistress of Hogwarts I'm outraged that this monster was allowed to molest our precious children..."

"Children?" Harry overrode her, "Who said anything about children? Do I look like a child to you?" The wolf-whistles and appreciative shouts drowned out whatever Umbridge might have said in reply. "So, er, about this job." The crowd quieted as Harry continued. "The Ministry wants me to join the Aurors. Why? Who are the Aurors? They're the ones you wish were there when you're afraid. Are you afraid now? Who of? Half-bloods? Muggleborns? Squibs? People avoid what scares them, and while you've been trying to get on with your lives, anyone less than 'pure' has been given half a vote, though really it's none; has been kicked out of housing and jobs and forced out of our world, out to live with the Muggles. Out of sight, out of mind, is that it? Only we all know it's not. If you've got people who used to be schoolmates, neighbours, friends, relatives, do you really forget all about them just because you don't talk anymore? And believe me it's worse on the other side, where you're labelled a 'creature' and called by a number instead of a name..." Harry's voice turned ragged, faltered briefly, then he went on, quiet and grim, "If you've ever wondered about all this, wondered why it's all gone so wrong, remembered Kingsley Shacklebolt and missed the days when Aurors protected us against Voldemort, not against ourselves, well, one more Auror won't fix that for you."

Harry gave a breathless, bitter little laugh, and added, "Anyway, I don't think I'm really Auror material. For starters, I couldn't drag Severus in for questioning without shagging him right in the holding cell, or having him shag me! Not terribly 'role model'-ish of me, eh?" Amusement rippled through the crowd. "So, I reckon I'll just find some sort of job in Muggle London instead. My friends are all there already, since most of them aren't 'proper wizards' according to the Ministry. Doesn't matter to me, they're still great friends."

Bloody hell, Harry, Severus winced distractedly as he came back downstairs with a laden pack, heading for the kitchen and his remaining stocks of potions, You've just made yourself a public enemy of the Ministry. If your ridiculous luck doesn't hold, you'll be the next one chucked through the Veil after me.

It was with a hideous sense of inevitability that at that very moment, Severus realised it was all going to hell. Air pressure popped his ears as a ward against Apparation and portkeys slammed down over the house, and he heard the crackle of Apparations outside, too many for counting, fast as firecrackers. His right hand flicked in the combat reflex that would've dropped his long-broken wand from his sleeve into his palm, even as his left hand snatched up the carving knife from the sink. He dropped the pack and flattened himself against the wall beside the back door. I'll have to fight my way outside the ward without magic. If they find out I've got magic back, I'll lose the element of surprise, and my only chance of escape.

This time, both the front and back doors disintegrated in Reducto blasts. Not again, you unimaginative pricks! He jumped the first Auror through the door, hooked an arm round his neck and spun him round as a shield blocking the doorway, jabbed the knifepoint between his ribs – just deep enough to draw blood, for now – and barked "Drop it!" As the wand clattered to the floor he shoved the Auror outside, moving with him, keeping the stranglehold and the knife on the man. If they just stay shocked long enough...

Distantly from the sitting room, Harry's voice rose, unexpected and surreal. The broadcast was still playing. "One more thing. Severus Snape is NOT a criminal! Dumbledore forced him 'cause we needed someone to spy on Voldemort. I've got proof, and I can show it to the Wizengamot or anyone else who gives a damn about whether a war hero's been wrongly convicted!"

Not that Harry's testimony slowed down the Aurors crowded outside. The last thing Severus heard before their massed curses clubbed him to the dirt, was Harry's impish tones, "Oh yeah, and if you want to donate to a real cause, send your owls to Unemployment Relief For Muggleborns and Squibs, care of Hermione Granger. Don't worry, she's honest, unlike some." First the meaning, then the voice faded. Severus' last thought was Ironic. Story of my li...

Severus woke in a Ministry holding cell. He was seated in a plain wooden chair, his forearms on its armrests, but when he tried to turn his head and look around himself, he found he couldn't move. Someone – or several someones, judging by the strength of the effect – had cast Petrificus Totalus on him.

He hadn't been expecting such bodily restraint. It wasn't needed when using Cruciatus. No-one could even stand under that curse, much less attack the caster.

He heard footsteps, circling him from behind, then Umbridge came to a halt standing before him. Her fussily-ornamented wand was clutched in one pudgy fist, and in her other hand she held something that drew Severus' gaze like a magnet, and made his mouth go dry with dread.

A glove.

A plain glove, too large for her stubby fingers. Its white fabric glowed softly, ominously in the gloom.

She cast a Levitating charm, and the glove floated like a dismembered ghost toward Severus. It hovered before his cursed hand, its wristhole gaping emptily, before it swallowed his fingers and engulfed him past the wrist.

It was the finest silk satin. It had even been turned inside out so that the seams were on the outside and the shiny side of the satin faced in.

It felt cool and exquisite as it slid over his cursed skin.

It took seconds before it started to hurt.

It took minutes before he started to sweat, more before he started to pant, more still to snarl, and finally to swear.

It took an hour before he started to scream, and by then the glove was dripping from every fingertip.

His body was helpless to evade the agony that racked it, but his mind had always been stronger than his flesh. As he screamed, he retreated deep within himself, hiding from harrowing, humiliating pain, safe in the heart of a maze of memories. Of Harry invading his house and his life, of his unselfconscious smiles. Of simple whispered words, "You're very heroic, Severus."

Severus' face heated. If he didn't know better he would've thought it was an actual blush, though afterwards he convinced himself it was shock, at the accolade or at hearing the way Potter whispered his name. "Later. I'll watch your back, brat." He felt as if somehow he'd made a true promise then, and bound himself to keep it. A promise to something that hadn't even been specified, with a flare of Potter's uncontrollable magic wrapping around them both, like the tendrils of an Unbreakable Vow.

It had been two days, perhaps three. Severus had no way of knowing how many, stuck in a windowless cell with his only lapses in consciousness being torture-triggered blackouts rather than natural sleep.

Not that there was any point in counting the passage of time. However long his imprisonment lasted, it wouldn't end well. He didn't expect even the mockery of a trial that he'd received last time. Since Umbridge, the Ministry has become more adept at making people disappear. No one will ever know what happened to me, not even Harry. And they'll make damn sure I don't know what happened to Harry either. Severus' one remaining hope was that Harry had escaped his fate.

As the glove went on again he groaned weakly, gasping out hoarse, thready cries past a tongue as dry as a boot's. Since he'd been captured he hadn't been given a drop to swallow, unless of course he counted his own blood and bile. The disorientation from thirst, sleeplessness, torment was getting worse. He knew he wouldn't last another day. Then amid the dizzying agony and the pound of blood in his ears, he dimly heard Umbridge say, "Oh well, once we're done here we can start on Potter. He'll be more cooperative than a hardened criminal like this."

Potter. HARRY! No NO not HIM!

There was no conscious decision, there was no time. Just a split-second flash of pure reflex, as vital as his heartbeat. The instinctive need to be where Harry was and save him. All Severus' carefully-concealed magic rose up in one impulsive instant, in a Disapparation so powerful it could've flung him to the ends of the earth.

The cell shook as though a bomb had gone off, but the only other thing that happened was that Severus splinched himself limb from limb. In wizarding jails anti-Apparation wards were as basic as bars.

Before he blacked out he saw his own dismembered torso, the eerily bloodless stumps of his arms and legs. I hope the damage is fatal. Like all Severus' other hopes, it was futile. He certainly wasn't the first prisoner who'd splinched himself trying to escape.

Fool! Severus berated himself as he regained consciousness, before he'd even bothered to crack open crusted eyes. Gave myself away! Who the hell did I think I was? The Hero Saving The Day? Well, I'm well and truly fucked now. I bet every bastard in the Ministry knows I'm not a Squib after that subtle little display. He bared his teeth in a bitter grimace, and peered through slitted eyelids.

Either he was dead after all and this was the lowest circle of Hell, or that smug pink blur leaning over him was Umbridge. He snarled and leapt at her to rip out her flabby throat with his bare hands and teeth. Or at least, he tried to, but all he managed was a rustle of bedding and a tightening of the magical ropes restraining his all-too-solidly reattached limbs. "Ah, ah, ah!" Umbridge wagged a stubby pink-nailed finger, "You should rest," she chided in faux-sweet tones. "After all, you're our newest ...celebrity!" She straightened up and simpered down at him from her full, unimpressive height. "As the Death Eater responsible for Imperiusing poor Mr. Potter into saying those appalling things, the very public spectacle of your execution will be just what Wizarding Britain needs to restore faith in the efficiency of Ministry justice, and the effectiveness of Ministry protection against half-bloods and other evildoers."

"Shove your speech!" Severus hissed. He was pleased to find that they must have corrected his dehydration when they reattached his limbs. For the first time in far too long, he had enough saliva to spit, and the perfect target in range.

Her shriek of disgust was music to his ears. He lay back, smiling viciously, knowing that there was little more they could do to him now, and that soon, probably tomorrow, it would all be over. If they want to parade Harry around as the Victim to my Villain, then he's probably alive, and they'll prefer to keep him that way. It's the best I can hope for.

The Ministry of Magic

Invites ALL PURE CITIZENS of Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade

and Wizarding Britain to SEE JUSTICE PREVAIL at the



Caster of the IMPERIUS CURSE






at Sunset on Saturday, the First of May, 1999

at the Open-Air Theatre

in the Inner Circle of Regents Park, LONDON.

Sometime later – perhaps hours, perhaps a day – a couple of guards burst into his cell, wands already out and firing. This is it, they've come to get me, Severus realised with a more than physical pang as the Stunners struck. He came to, standing, with a jolt of sickening disorientation that suggested he'd just been portkeyed. He stumbled, dizzy, registering only open air before he tried another Disapparation, but anti-Apparation wards ripped him back out of it and flung him to the ground. At least this time he didn't splinch, though he landed like a sack of potatoes. His arms weren't much help in breaking his fall, since they'd been tied in front of him with magical ropes. Severus blinked in dazed surprise at the ground in front of his face. Grass! He rolled over with a grunt of effort, clumsy in a long black Condemned robe, ironically similar to his old teaching robes. At last someone decided they'd seen him struggle enough, and Mobilicorpused him back to his feet.

Not just grass. A park. Severus stared around himself, as bleary as only a convict torn from a windowless cell can be. He was standing in the circular floor of an amphitheatre, a tiny valley round and regular as a grass-walled bowl set into the earth. Though the stage was low enough that the rays of the setting sun couldn't reach him, he still turned toward it, absorbing the warmth of the spring afternoon. Trees fringed the amphitheatre's edge, silhouetted against the sky, and the sides facing and flanking the grassy stage were lined with arcs of seats. The seats were filling fast, as new arrivals Apparated in, the lucky bastards. They've gone to a lot of trouble with security, even tuned the wards for me alone. They'll have Muggle-repelling charms as well. Can't have the riff-raff crashing the party. By the style of clothing, Severus realised that the crowd – already large and growing every minute – was entirely Wizarding. Their numbers explained why he was here. No building in the Wizarding world, not even Hogwarts' Great Hall or the Ministry's Atrium could house such a throng. Already the murmur of many voices filled the warm, still air with anticipatory tension.

As if they're all theatregoers, here to see a play. Which, of course, they are. A grand farce of Justice, with me as the Melodrama Villain. A glorified Punch and Judy show. Severus sneered inwardly. At least I've got the nose to play Punch. He refused to give the gawkers the satisfaction of any reaction at all, so he put on his best stoneface – the one that used to win staring contests with Hogwarts' gargoyles – and stood like a statue, waiting for the show to start.

Umbridge Apparated onto the stage with an insufferably smug little smirk, every gloating bit directed toward Severus, before she stepped up onto a temporary dais, tall enough even for a squat little toad like her to be seen by the crowd. "Hem-hem," she glared at a knot of harassed Ministry workers off to one side of the stage. They raised the stage-wide Sonorus until her next "Hem-hem!" was so amplified it echoed faintly from the walls of the amphitheatre.

Crap lot of roadies you lot are! Call that a sound check? Severus sneered at the Ministry flunkies. Still, not as though that bitch is what I'd call a class act. Oh well, he sighed as Umbridge began to blather at the audience, the show must go on.

"Witches and wizards of Britain, as Minister for Magic I welcome you all here this afternoon to bear witness to the swift and sure working of Ministry justice. You see before you," she gestured theatrically with one stubby arm, "a criminal of the Darkest kind, an habitual and unrepentant user of Unforgiveable Curses. Having seen enough death in the last war, we chose not to execute this Death Eater, even though he murdered Albus Dumbledore with a Killing Curse. In the goodness of our hearts, we of the Ministry believed that even a monster, a half-blood like this could be driven, through the just and due condemnation of society, to repent his vile deeds. ...And how did he repay our mercy?" she shrieked. "He used another Unforgiveable Curse! He used the Imperius Curse to turn poor Harry Potter into some..." Umbridge's tirade faltered for the first time. She was flushed and her pink-lipsticked mouth worked like a beached fish's for a moment before she gasped out, "...some disgusting catamite! He stained the Chosen One's body, his virtue and his honour before all of Wizarding Britain!"

There was an uneasy ripple of movement, a low and indecipherable murmur from the crowd, but Severus had no attention to spare for them. He was too busy imagining in grisly detail how a true Death Eater would've dealt with that cow. If anyone's shaming Harry's honour it's you, you hypocritical bitch!

"But the Ministry's justice will no longer be merciful!" Umbridge squalled. "We condemn this murderer, this enslaver, to stare into the face of the Death he has too long evaded! We condemn him to walk into the Death that he so richly deserves!" She looked at the front row of seats, filled with older witches and wizards in distinctive purple robes. "I ask the Wizengamot to summon the method of execution before you now." She looked past the Wizengamot to the general audience, "As loyal citizens of Wizarding Britain, you have nothing to fear! The Ministry of Magic has vast magical resources at its command, of which this artefact is only one. Yet the Ministry only ever uses them to protect and safeguard you from evil such as this Dark wizard." As she was speaking, the Wizengamot had drawn their wands. They cast, as one, and she turned and gestured at the stage behind them, shrieking, "Behold! The gateway to the abyss! Death's Door!"

The hair lifted on the back of Severus' neck and, unwillingly, he turned and looked behind him.

At the back of the flat stage area, the walls of the amphitheatre rose too steeply for seats, so for a moment Severus saw nothing there but grassy slopes. Then, with a thunderclap crack, the massed spells of the Wizengamot Apparated something in. At first, the new arrival seemed quite anti-climactic: just a pointed archway of ancient, weathered stone, standing without a wall to support it, as incongruous as a bit of leftover stage scenery from some play. There was even a hint of amusement in the first puzzled comments from the crowd. But slowly, surely, every last voice trailed away, until over all that multitude a terrible silence fell.

What mattered was not the arch itself, though the weathering and cracks in its stones were as familiar to Severus as his own lines and scars. It was what was within the arch. Or, what wasn't within it. Beyond it. Though Severus had seen the arch many times, never before had he seen it un-Veiled.

The crowd had fallen as still and silent as the grave. Yet they were seeing it only from a great distance, only at an angle. They could only see the fragments his body didn't conceal, draped as he was in the long black shroud of the Condemned man's robes.

Severus was standing directly in front of it, facing straight into its yawning, empty maw. One stride would bring him to its brink. Two would take him through, into, away, down. An icy wind began to blow, not pouring out of the arch but rushing past him into it, as if the arch was a mouth gaping to swallow him whole. The draperies that swathed him began to ripple like the missing Veil, drawn inward. He was distantly aware of heavy, greasy hanks of hair, twisting in midair like Medusa's serpents, drawn forward to hood his face.

Umbridge watched him as avidly as a vulture. The void beyond the arch was fascinating enough that he preferred it to Umbridge's smug face and the gawking stares of the crowd, so he stayed facing it, but he stood firm as the minutes passed, and made no move toward it. Severus had decades of experience at going on living when all he'd wanted to do was die. Now that he'd had a taste of what it felt like to have something, someone to live for, there was no way in hell he was going to give up of his own accord.

Umbridge spat something under her breath, too low to be heard. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the stabbing movement of her wand. A vague blankness fell over him like a cloud of cloying perfume. Imperius! Shock at the sheer gall of the woman – casting the very Unforgiveable she'd falsely condemned him for – paralysed his will just long enough for her to force him into taking one step closer to the arch. His toes were almost at the edge of the chasm it contained. His long, unwashed mane floated inward past the arch, borne on the vast, suctioning breath of that chasm as it yawned for him, more empty than any dementor, a void aching to swallow him whole.

Fury flared in him, burning away her Imperius as though it had never been cast. After throwing off Harry's impulsive, intense attacks, breaking Umbridge's curse was pathetically easy. Again he paused at the brink, steadfast and still, leaving his back turned to her, taunting her mutely with his contemptuous defiance.

Umbridge abruptly jumped down from the dais and stumped toward Severus, pudgy hands raised, palms out, determined to shove him in personally if no other method would do. She'd almost reached him, when he turned around and strode forward, away from that dreadful suctioning pull. The black hair that streamed behind him now was tipped at the ends with the stark, deathly white of old age. His movement made her pause in her rush to judgement and execution. She peered up into his face and faltered to a complete halt.

"I looked into the abyss." Severus' voice was slow and deep, as devoid of human intonation as the tolling of a funereal bell. "The abyss looked into me." He bared jagged teeth in a ghastly smile and rumbled "We called it a draw."

Umbridge let out a piercing scream and raised her wand to blast Severus through the Arch. All at once, the terrible stillness, silence, suspense that had held sway over the crowd was shattered. A gale rushed over their heads and knocked Umbridge clean off her feet. She bounced like a large pink ball, and rolled to a stop, out cold. The crowd exploded into chaos.

Then Harry's head appeared, floating in midair by Umbridge, and their cries of dismay became cries of surprise. A moment later, the rest of Harry appeared, his skin still streaked and dappled with the traces of Severus' curse. He shook off his cape – a bright red one, fringed with brass rings – and jumped down from his hovering broom. He ran to Severus and crashed into him in a fierce tackle. It took a moment to become apparent that it was actually a reunion, not an attack. The arms Harry had flung round Severus weren't a wrestling hold but an intense bearhug. When Severus tried to lift the loop of his bound arms over Harry's head, Harry scowled at the ropes and they vanished in a flash of white light. Severus smiled and stroked Harry's windblown hair with his good hand. Harry tightened his hug until Severus' ribs flexed, then leaned in and breathed, "Hi!" Severus felt a twitch of muscle against his cheek that must've been Harry's smile.

Severus gave a smile of his own and whispered "What took you so long?" into Harry's ear as he nuzzled into the hair tickling his cheek.

Harry muttered, "Couldn't Apparate here." He clutched Severus' head, undeterred by grease and sweat, and then they were kissing like it was the last kiss they'd ever share.

Uproar rose around them, fuelled by an influx of new spectators who'd arrived just after Harry. They didn't Apparate in, instead they walked into the amphitheatre in a steady stream from the north-east. Perhaps the walk had delayed them. They were a much more motley lot, too. Proper Wizarding robes were nowhere to be seen, but just about every other look was, from hair and leathers to denim and studs to lace and lurex. The first of these arrivals cheered and whistled when Harry tackled Severus. Their mood was infectious, spreading among the younger witches and wizards who were already seated.

Harry turned to face the crowd. The knot of Ministry workers fussing round Umbridge scowled at him, and Severus recognised Assistant Obliviator Edgecombe's reedy voice, "Aurors! He assaulted the Minister! Arrest him!" The Aurors glanced significantly at each other, and conspicuously made themselves busy persuading the crowd to resume their seats. There weren't enough seats for the newcomers, but they seemed happy to stand.

"I was just trying to stop her from committing murder!" Harry cried. "Because it would've been murder! Severus is NOT a criminal!" Over surprised comments from the more properly-dressed witches and wizards Harry shouted, "He NEVER Imperiused me!"

In the first row Madam Edgecombe sneered, "Is that you or him talking?"

Harry's stare hardened, and Severus knew, in a way that had never quite sunk in before, that this was the wizard who'd destroyed the Dark Lord. Harry's voice rose clearly, resounding from the walls of the amphitheatre. "Does anyone here really believe he" he waved an arm at Severus, filthy and scrawny from his imprisonment, "can Imperius me? Without a wand or a word?" He paused a moment. "When I could throw off a Death Eater's Imperius as a schoolboy?" Another pause, filled with rising murmurs, "When I beat Voldemort himself in single combat?"

A roar of approval and cheers erupted from the crowd, and a cry of "HELL NO!" came from a particularly scruffy and hairy pack of new arrivals.

"Severus Snape," Harry rested a hand on Severus' shoulder, fingers moving in unconscious reassurance on the angle of bone, "is a war hero! Without him I never would've won against Voldemort! He was our spy in Voldemort's inner circle. He protected Hogwarts against the Carrows. And what he did for Dumbledore wasn't murder, it was euthanasia. On his orders. I've got proof," Harry turned that jade-hard stare on the Wizengamot, who were muttering among themselves. "and I'll show you, anytime!" He lifted his head and cried to the crowd, challenge and promise both, "You'll see! Severus Snape doesn't deserve execution! He deserves the Order of Merlin, First Class! But what did he get? He got his wand broken. And then he got this!" Harry took Severus' forearm and lifted his wand hand high. The blood glistened in the light of the setting sun, lurid and unnatural. "He got cursed! Umbridge cursed him! She wanted to make him bleed, to make him suffer, to make him ashamed for the rest of his life, but he's got nothing to be ashamed of!" The crowd was on its feet again, except for the elderly Wizengamot members, and they were quite pointedly doing nothing to hinder Harry. The cries of outrage from the crowd were a rising storm as Harry shouted, "She tortured him because she hated him! But you know what's stronger than hate? We are! Right?"

"RIGHT!" roared the multitude, surging forward as one. The Aurors made no attempt to stop them, they simply joined the forefront of the wave of movement that broke through the crowd like a tsunami. That many thousands of witches and wizards, all gathered in the one place, all focused on one goal, were an incalculable magical force. The very air rippled like the breath from a blast furnace, surrounding Severus in a white haze as the crowd reached him, hands outstretched, but not to seize, tear and beat: just to make contact in the briefest of touches, to take the stain of his curse on themselves, to share his mark. Amid the shimmering haze of concentrated magical intent, the curse began to spread outward ever faster. Instead of just staining skin, touching Severus transmitted the curse, so those who took it from him could share it among others, and they among others in turn. Streaks and fingerprints dappled more and more smiling faces, like warpaint in a battle against dictatorship. Those who'd arrived on foot began throwing off shirts and scarves, proudly baring tattoos in the same glistening red. Everywhere, red hands were clasped in blood-brotherhood, a forest of them waving wildly in triumph, lifting one-fingered salutes to bureaucracy.

"Go on, Granddad. It doesn't hurt." Trish's tattooed third eye winked at Severus as she offered her freshly-stained hand to a little bald man in Wizengamot purple.

"Tastes luscious too," someone purred over Trish's shoulder, before lifting a hood, revealing a suspiciously well-preserved middle-aged woman with very red lips.

"Oi, that's my granddad! Fangs off, Margot!"

But the elderly wizard waggled bushy white eyebrows and beamed "Well hel-lo there, beautiful!" He took Margot's hand, in his hand that Trish had just stained red, and kissed it with a relishing smack.

Margot blinked at this enthusiasm and stumbled back a step, disguising it as a curtsey, before she rallied enough to drawl, "Pleasure to meet you!" She admired her own newly-stained hand for a moment, before licking her fingers lingeringly, moaning in epicurean delight.

Behind them, Severus glimpsed a girl in a ridiculously expensive fwooper feather fringed dress, dragging Ralph away from his pack and over to the seats. "You simply must meet Mumsy and Daddums, Ralphie!" she chirped, bouncing in more ways than one. It was hard to tell behind all that beard and all those scars, but poor Ralph seemed to be blushing even redder than the two hairy handprints on the tightly stretched fabric over her bum.

And so the curse spread from person to person, passed on by choice instead of by condemnation, a mark of solidarity and celebration instead of shame. Red bloomed like blood in water, spreading to the farthest reaches the crowd, until, just like blood in a flowing torrent, the stain began to fade. It grew paler and weaker the further it spread, the more it was shared, until in all that countless multitude, every inch of skin was completely clear of stain and free of curse.

Even Harry's face. Even Severus' hand.

Severus slid his fingertips tenderly over Harry's skin, wondering at the glorious absence of pain as his palm cupped Harry's cheekbone. Harry turned into the touch and gave his fingertip a soft, playful nip.

Harry looked at the crowd and waved his hands to try and get their attention, but there were plenty of other waving hands. Everyone was already celebrating. Still, Harry's delight was too huge to be contained, so he snatched off his red cape and waved it overhead like a flag, with a wild chime of curtain rings. "WE'VE DONE IT!" he crowed, "WE WON!" As the cries and cheers reached fever pitch, he flung the cape high into the air, like a child throwing his cap in the air in the Great Hall after his House had won the cup.

Perhaps it was Harry's clarion cry, perhaps the resulting thunder of jubilation from the crowd, perhaps even the alarm-bell jingle of brass rings. Something awoke Umbridge at that moment. She sat up, blinking, brushing off the fluttering of Madam Edgecombe and the others, and gaped up at what must have been her ultimate nightmare. Severus Snape, not only still alive, but free of a curse that had been designed to be permanent. And with him was Harry Potter, who'd not only broken in past the anti-Apparation ward, but who was basking in the adulation of most of Wizarding Britain and apparently in the midst of a coup.

Perhaps her next action was pure panic at the prospect of taking a fraction of the punishment she'd dished out to others. Perhaps it was a coldly calculated strategy to retain power. Whatever her reason, she raised her wand in a shaking hand, pointed it squarely at Harry and Severus, and screamed "AVADA..."

Severus and Harry whirled, but they were too late to do anything other than watch as the wand pointed at them began to glow green. As a blur of red came down. As Harry's rather ridiculous cape fell over Umbridge, cutting off her Killing Curse mid-squawk.

The cape landed squarely on Umbridge. She was so short that it covered her completely, leaving not even a finger or wandtip visible.

With a belated shock, Severus realised that, no matter how short Umbridge was, the cape shouldn't have landed so flat.

A stunned silence spread outward from the stage, until the celebrations had paused, and everyone was craning to see what was going on.

Madam Edgecombe scurried up to the cape, dithered for a moment, too scared to touch it or even Leviosa it, then summoned a twig from one of the trees fringing the amphitheatre and used that to lift up the edge. Brass rings tinkled incongruously in the silence as she lowered her head to peer under it. "Hem-hem. Madam Umbridge?" she quavered. She straightened, lifting the cape higher, revealing the completely empty, conspicuously Umbridge-free patch of grass the cape had covered.

Harry strode up and scuffed the ground with his toe, then stomped, then jumped up and down on it, just in case it felt like giving way. Nothing. He scooped the curtain off the end of the twig, peered into it, gripped it firmly and gave it a damn good flapping, as if he expected to shake Umbridge out of it like a stray bit of fluff. Still nothing. "Whoa," Harry muttered, scratching his head and unconsciously voicing the thoughts of the entire crowd, "Where'd she go?"

Severus had a good feeling about this. "Where exactly did you get that cape of yours?" he inquired slowly.

"Er..." Unexpectedly, Harry blushed. Severus decided it was a good look on him. Harry gave him a sheepish grin and pointed behind them, at the arch.

I don't know whether to harangue you or hug you! It was a real effort to stay deadpan. "You thought that turning the Veil into a... a Gryffindor-coloured shower curtain, would be a good idea, why?"

"Well, I got out of the restraints this one time and I wandered into the Department of Mysteries and saw the arch, and I thought if I took the Veil off it, if people could see what was inside," Harry explained earnestly, "then the arch would stop making people disappear!" He sighed and added, "Mind you, I was burning off Bellatrix' magic at the time, and she was as mad as a sack of Jarveys. And it looks like the Veil, um, the Curtain, still makes people disappear." Harry winced. "In different ways. Dunno why. Or where."

"Butbutbut," Madam Edgecombe spluttered, torn between blustering and pleading, "What are we going to do? The Minister's gone! How are we going to get her back?"

"Er, maybe she'll turn up like Montague did that time." Harry shrugged.

"But if she doesn't," Trish's grandfather stroked his chin with a no-longer-red hand, "we'll just have to see what happens then." He fixed Harry with an assessing look, that might possibly have ended in a tiny wink.

Trish, sitting nearby, beamed and yelled "Harry Potter for Minister!" Some of her fellow Camdenizens started to chant "Har-ry! Har-ry!" and the chant grew, spreading further through the crowd.

Severus sidled up to Harry and muttered, too low for the stage-wide Sonorus to pick up, "I knew they'd offer you the Minister's job."

Harry snorted and replied in the same undertone, "If I took them up on it, I'd have to be a complete loony."

They exchanged a look, then spoke in unison. Harry said "Again." and Severus said "Still." A surprised beat, then they burst out laughing.

Harry faced the crowd, but as he spoke he slipped one arm around Severus' waist, as natural as instinct. "The Unspeakables are welcome to search the, er, curtain for Madam Umbridge..." Severus glanced aside at the scarlet cloth, almost fluorescent against the green grass, and damned if the folds of fabric didn't form a winking face. "...but if she doesn't return from wherever she's gone, then of course we'll have elections, just as usual." Severus caught relieved nods and more speculative looks from the Wizengamot and the senior Aurors. Maybe the elections will be 'as usual', but I wonder if the result will be? He glanced sideways at Harry. What's ever 'as usual' with him around? And with that, Severus smiled, and let his own hand – his right hand, no longer his cursed hand, soon to be again his wand hand – come to rest, with blissful casualness, on Harry's shoulder.

A little later, the celebrating crowd had spread out over the grass of the park, and unshrunk hampers, and settled into one party or many, under the stars of May and a glorious moon just a day past full. The anti-Apparation ward had been taken down and the Ministry workers were partying as hard as anyone. A particularly large group close to the stage turned out to be Aurors, or so Severus gathered when he saw Dawlish stand up and give a solemn toast "To Kingsley." Bottles and hipflasks were raised all round, "To Kingsley." "Kingsley." "Good bloke." "Bloody waste." "Wish he could've been here." "Would've wanted to see her get hers." Then someone else in the large group stood up. Severus was startled to see Nelson's shaggy bulk. The werewolf raised a bottle and called out a formal response to Dawlish's toast "To Kingsley and Harry!" This toast was greeted with cheers and more toasts "Kingsley'n'Harry!" "Order o' th'Phoenix!" "Harry'n'Kingsley!" "Here's to 'em!" Now that Severus was looking more closely, he could see that the party was a mixture of Aurors, MLE personnel, the werewolf pack, and a lot of other people he recognised from Camden. Gary the Palmist was sitting to one side of the group, holding a knot of Aurors spellbound with his dramatic retelling of the Gunpowder Plot.

Severus nudged Harry and nodded at the group. "Looks like all that time you spent talking to people was worthwhile after all."

Harry beamed at Severus. "Yeah. I should've had more faith in them." He smiled fondly at the rambunctious crew. "Let's leave them get to know each other better, in peace."

Harry had summoned his broom, and he and Severus were just about to Disapparate for a more private celebration of their own, when with a near-noiseless flutter of wings, an owl landed on Severus' shoulder. It was the same deceptively downy bird that had delivered the Ministry letter, and it still had an obnoxiously pink bow around its neck. Severus knew now who that colour reminded him of, and it didn't endear the bird to him.

Harry, however, was an appalling judge of character. Just look at how much he likes me. "Isn't she a cutie?" he cooed at the owl, who politely hooted back.

"You don't know it's a she." You just miss Hedwig.

"You don't know she isn't," Harry parried. "Anyway, why else would she have a pink ribbon on?"

"Perhaps the presumably late, definitely unlamented owner of the bird liked the colour."

"Oh well, at least she likes you."

"It's just pretending, fickle little sod. Shoo!" Severus twitched his shoulder irritably, but the owl just hung on tighter. At least this time it wasn't gripping as hard with its talons as Severus knew it could. But he still wasn't willing to let bygones be bygones, not just yet. He turned his head, going beak-to-beak with the stubborn bird on his shoulder. "What makes you think I want an owl?" he asked it sternly. "I don't need you to send messages. Unlike the Death Eaters, I can do this! Expecto Patronum!"

He exhaled a silvery serpent, but even that didn't scare the owl off. It just scuttled away from the patronus and hid itself behind his head, huddling under the greasy curtain of his hair.

He banished the patronus and found himself reaching up to the quivering ball of fluff as it sidled back onto his shoulder. He wasn't decided, though, until the owl rubbed its downy head against his no-longer-cursed fingertip. "Oh very well," Severus grumbled at it, "I suppose it's not as though your previous owner will want you now. But this has got to go." He untied the ribbon from round the owl's neck – receiving a coo and a grateful nibble – and Incendioed the bit of ghastly pinkness on the spot.

"I think," Harry declared as they wrapped their arms around each other, preparing for a nice close Side-along, "we'll call her Fluffy."

We. Severus could hardly hold back his smile and concentrate on the riposte of "'Fluffy'? Do I look like Hagrid to you?" Severus smirked in a return-of-fire way and added, "If it's fluff you want to commemorate, what about 'Hermione'?"

"Who?" said the owl.

Severus didn't know you could laugh while Disapparating.

But then, he learned quite a few things that night. They both did.

The Misfits were playing, at proper toe-tapping, roof-rattling volume. Dolly was standing on the centre of the record and enjoying the spin as it played, bobbing her head and hooting along with the beat. Severus finished making himself a cuppa and poked his head through the kitchen doorway. "Dolores! Get off that! It's a collector's item, not a bloody funfair ride!" Just then, the key in the door turned and it swung open. Dolly fluffed her feathers happily and cooed a welcome.

"Harry, what...?"

Harry, covered in soot and trailing smoke, raced past him into the kitchen. Severus followed. Harry grabbed Severus' mug of tea, tipped the tea down the sink, and released something into the mug that he'd been holding in his fist. With a grin he beckoned Severus closer.

Inside the mug was a baby Welsh Green shrunken to the size of a lizard. When Severus looked up, a question in his eyes, Harry beamed and thrust the mug into his hand. "For you. Oh, watch out, he coughs up flames like hairballs."

Severus stared down at the tragic absence of tea, and at the dragon, circling inside his ceramic nest and breathing glittering puffs. "Just what I need, more waifs and strays turning up and demanding a home." Severus looked up from the mug and its tenant to Harry, "For your information, I take my tea with lemon, not dragon."

"Sarcastic sod," Harry smirked. "I know."

Severus glanced down at the dragon, then returned the smirk to Harry. With interest.

Speaking of which... In his head, Severus began estimating the market price for miniature dragon scales and wondering how fast the creature would shed them, and whether they'd be worth more as novelties or used in potions. Although the foolish, impossible part of him – probably the bit responsible for the grin lurking at the corner of his mouth – told him to let go of practicalities and worries about singed books, and just enjoy the moment for once.

"I'll make a deal with you," he informed Harry. "From now on, you don't have to Reducio every dragon in sight, and I won't feel a need to verbally Crucio you."

Harry's smile sparked in his eyes before it curved his lips. "Ha! Verbal tickling's more like it." He nodded as his grin grew brighter. "Deal!"

When he took Severus' hand and shook it, there was no blood staining Harry's skin and no oversensitive burn in Severus' flesh, just a warm, firm handshake. There were no hidden clauses, just Harry lifting their joined hands and placing a kiss like a seal on the back of Severus'. It was just what it appeared to be. A promise, made to keep. Like Harry.

Severus pulled Harry close, and ruffled his unruly, still-smouldering hair.

The Welsh Green snorted at this display of sentimentality, and promptly filled the kitchen with sparkling smoke.


"Uh-oh. Yes?"

"This is why a dragon is an outdoor pet."

"He'd be brilliant at barbecues!"

"I'd much rather dine indoors tonight."

"What do you want to have?"

"Take a wild guess."

"Maybe I will. Hmm. Me?"

"You said it, I didn't."

"But you were thinking it!"

"Prove it."

"I know you were! You get this look... yeah. That one."


"I'm right, aren't I? I am right! Ha!"


"Told you, didn't I? Um... Mmm... WhatwasIsaying?"

"Much too much."

He'll wrap you in his arms, tell you that you've been a good boy,

he'll rekindle all the dreams it took you a lifetime to destroy,

he'll reach deep into the hole, heal your shrinking soul,

but there won't be a single thing that you can do,

he's a god, he's a man, he's a ghost, he's a guru.

They're a-whispering his name through this disappearing land,

but hidden in his coat is a red right hand.