"Please Don't Hurt Me Anymore"

A/N: First off-I will get back to "The Dark I Know Well," I promise. :3 I had hardcore computer problems [my hard drive died =(], and my half-finished chapter was lost on it. I haven't felt up to reconstructing it yet. I originally wrote this for Potions and Snitches, but it doesn't have enough Harry/Snape interaction, and I didn't want to be bothered editing it to include it. :3 It was in response to a challenge. James and Sirius were abusers, and now Sirius is abusing Harry. Can Snape save Harry, when he couldn't save Lily? :3

"Wake up, Harry," a voice crooned in his ear. Harry jerked awake, the world coming into view in a wash of blurred colors. His glasses were slipped onto his face and soon, he could see Sirius sitting on the edge of his bed, smiling at him.

"Hi, Sirius," he croaked. His throat felt awfully sore today. For a moment, he started to wonder why and then firmly pushed the memory aside. Remembering would not help him. Nothing happened, anyway.

"It's time for breakfast," Sirius informed him. There was a queer, greedy sort of look in his eyes that made Harry desperately wish for a bath. Azkaban changed him, Harry reminded himself, not for the first time. Don't be so selfish. You should be glad someone's willing to take you in.

Goodness knows, the Dursleys had been thrilled when Sirius had shown up. Vernon had practically thrown him out the door with all his meager belongings, mostly gathered from his years at school. He'd had a fresh crop of bruises on his back, too, from a particularly vengeful episode with the belt. Sirius had been furious, but Harry had begged him not to do anything that might revoke his pardon. He may have been officially pardoned, but it didn't mean that the Wizarding World had welcomed him back with open arms. He knew of many prominent Wizarding families who thought that Sirius had somehow bamboozled the Wizengamot. The thought was laughable, if it wasn't over such a serious subject.

Sirius patted Harry's shoulder once, leaving his skin crawling, then thankfully left. Harry dragged himself out of bed, his hair sticking up in a spiky mess that was more unruly than usual. He scratched at his arm and rummaged in his chest for something to wear downstairs. The sun peeking in through the window showed that his godfather had let him sleep in rather late. It must have been nearly eleven a.m.

Sirius hadn't started being, well, creepy towards Harry until a few weeks into the summer holidays. He started talking about James a lot more. He told Harry a few stories about what he and James had done that made Harry sick to his stomach. They'd actually slipped a 5th year Hufflepuff girl a potion that made her fall asleep and not wake up until she was kissed on the lips by the ones who gave her the potion. Of course, while she lay in a stupor, they had...Harry couldn't even think about what Sirius had said they had done, in that half-laughing tone he used when he was talking about his fondest memories of the Marauders. Harry hadn't even been able to muster a smile for that tale. It was disgusting.

When Harry had a nightmare that night, Sirius had woken him and held him while he cried. Then told Harry he was perfectly willing to spend the night in Harry's room if he thought it would help. Sniveling, Harry had agreed...and almost immediately wished he hadn't. That's when Sirius had first murmured in his ear what a lovely boy he was growing up to be. Just like James. Harry didn't know what to do. He didn't want Sirius to be arrested. He still loved him. He was sure it must have been his stint in Azkaban that had changed him like this, made him think Harry was his father. But then there were those stories...those had happened while the Marauders were still in school, hadn't they? So why...?

Harry resolutely shut those thoughts away in his mind and went down to breakfast. Little did he know a constant monitoring spell had been placed in his room, allowing Sirius to watch him any time he chose to. The spell itself was supposed to be innocuous. It was usually used by new parents to keep a closer eye on their baby when they couldn't be in the room. But of course, any spell could be twisted.

Grimmauld Place was a rather depressing house, Harry decided that afternoon, as he struggled to begin his Potions essay. Two feet of parchment on the use of honeysuckle blossoms in potions. His textbook had a paragraph. Harry decided that Snape was a sadist, and that the gloomy, well-shuttered living room of his godfather's ancestral home was the worst possible place to do work. Then again, it's not like either of them were allowed to go outside. Remus Lupin attended to their needs, Apparating in and out with groceries and supplies. Sometimes, Dumbledore came by, but his visits were infrequent. Mostly, it was just Harry and Sirius. Cooped up. Alone with each other.

"How's your homework coming along, Harry?" Sirius asked as he wandered into the living room. Harry desolately set his quill down, wiping his ink-stained fingers on the hem of his shirt.

"Ok," he shrugged, picking at a loose thread. He didn't want to look up. He didn't want to see that greedy look in his godfather's eyes if it was there again.

"Right," Sirius said skeptically, but apparently decided not to challenge his godson on that. "You need to finish your work, you know. There's only three weeks of summer left," he reminded the spitting image of his childhood friend. Only Lily's eyes glowing out of that pale face marked the child as something other than James' clone. Sirius felt a painful clench around his heart. He missed James. Oh, Lily had been a nice girl and all that, but Sirius wanted a chit with a bit more fire to her. After James got ahold of her, that spark dimmed. Not extinguished, not quite that, but...dimmed. Enough that Sirius actually felt a bit bored around her. It was no fun to spar with someone who didn't care anymore. James had "lent" Lily to his best friend a time or two, but Sirius had desisted after the first few sessions. He preferred a challenge.

For a moment, Sirius wondered what it would be like to have Harry's best friend, Hermione Granger, there with them, and his gut tightened. Bushy-haired know-it-all is how he privately referred to the walking textbook. But she did have a temper. He almost wished he could break her, but he knew there was no way he could get away with it. The Wizarding World still mistrusted him, still thought that he had sent the Potters to their deaths. How could he explain that he didn't give a fig about Lily, but he never would have done that to James?

"Remus will be here soon," Sirius finally said, realizing that Harry had sat there silently the whole time he was ruminating. "Is there anything you would like?"

"Nah, I'm good," Harry said. He was still picking at that loose thread. Sirius felt a spurt of annoyance and leaned down to smack the boy's hand away from his shirt.

"Stop that," Sirius chided him. "You might unravel the damn thing and then where would we be?" Fear flashed in the boy's eyes for just a moment. Sirius's mouth twisted. Afraid? Of him? He was Harry's godfather, the boy shouldn't be afraid of him.

"Come on," Sirius told him, guiding him up into a standing position. "I want to tell you more about your father."

"Ok, Sirius," Harry submitted, following his godfather down the hall into the master bedroom. Nothing good ever happened in there.

Nothing good would happen this time, either.

The last few weeks of summer passed quickly. Harry tried to tell Lupin what was going on-sure that the werewolf would at least try to help him-but Remus had fobbed him off with feeble, weak excuses. Harry quickly realized that Lupin knew what was going on. Knew and didn't care. And all the while his throat grew sorer and sorer, and his head felt like it might explode...

Dumbledore had come by just once. Sirius had had his hand on Harry's knee, inching painfully close to regions that Harry would rather die than have him touch, when the Headmaster walked in. Harry's heart gave a brief, stuttering leap of hope, praying that Dumbledore would notice something was wrong, something was happening that shouldn't be...but again, he noticed nothing. And Harry couldn't bear to try and tell him. Not after the disaster of telling Remus.

Maybe it was just what he was supposed to deal with. That must be it. He could help Sirius this way. Really, he was being awfully selfish by trying to avoid his godfather, trying to get away from his touches and whispers and the sticky stuff that always collected in the corners of his mouth and made him feel sick. Sirius needed this. Needed him. And what was he doing? Trying to avoid it with every ounce of his being. What a selfish, self-centered brat he was. It made him feel uncomfortably like he was exactly what Snape had always painted him as. Reckless. Spoilt. Self-centered. An arrogant prat.

Harry resolved to do better. He tried. He forced his mouth to smile when Sirius told him how much he looked like James...how much he tasted like James. He even managed to whisper a few faltering things back, trying to ignore the way his godfather's eyes lit up when he did, or how Sirius's hands would grow more demanding, more painful. It was all for the greater good, he fiercely told himself. And he deserved it. That he knew, burning deep inside the core of him. He deserved every last bit of it.

Severus was not looking forward to the beginning of the school year. The first day had dawned foggy and cold, as if the weather had sensed the Potions professor's mood. And of course, the Potter boy would be back for his fifth year. Severus let his upper lip curl in distaste at the thought of the wretched Potter. Just like his father. Well, not just like his father, Snape's mind amended. He remembered James. James and Sirius. It had been a miracle that they weren't expelled. Particularly after what they did to Miranda Figgleby, a shy Hufflepuff girl with cat-eye glasses and masses of brown ringlets. They had brewed a Dark Arts potion and yet somehow, they were not expelled. They were let off with a month's detention. Miranda had dropped out of school. Rumor had it that either she had had a nervous breakdown and been committed to St. Mungo's or been shipped off to Beauxbatons. Severus had never followed up on her, being preoccupied with his own dismal home life and the pressures of Lucius Malfoy to commit to the Dark Lord, but he wished he had. He could only imagine how traumatized the poor girl had been.

Thank Merlin Harry Potter had never shown any tendencies toward that sort of thing, Snape thought darkly. If he had, he would have dropped a rather sharp word in the Headmaster's ear and/or dealt with the brat himself. But no. Arrogant, glory-seeking, disobedient little prat he was, he was not of that sort. He seemed to take after his mother. Lily. Severus sighed as he began his preparations for the next day's round of classes. He still regretted Lily. He had loved her. He still did, really, in some secret, small corner of his soul. And he deeply, fiercely regretted that he had not helped her. He knew what Potter was like. He tried to warn her, but she didn't want to listen. Even after the Hufflepuff girl incident. He almost suspected Lily had been under a Confundus Curse, the way she had docilely fell in line behind James Potter.

He'd seen her only once after their marriage and before Voldemort murdered her. She had had a faint purple shadow stretch halfway across her face and he had been aghast to realize it was a bruise. She had been out shopping in Diagon Alley, fussing with a small, messy-haired baby that he now knew was Harry. No one else had seemed to notice the bruise, but he had. He'd tried to reach her, but she'd Apparated from the spot, either too nervous to stay there any longer or already done with shopping. He'd never seen her again.

For a moment, he wondered if Harry was all right, being in the care of his godfather. But...no, the mutt loved the boy, he thought derisively. He wouldn't hurt him. Besides, Dumbledore would be furious if he thought the Golden Boy was being harmed. No, Potter must be fine. Severus turned back to his potions, clearing his mind with a decisive sniff.

For once, Harry was glad that his godfather was not coming to Hogwarts. Remus Lupin had been garnered for a second year at Hogwarts, werewolf confession notwithstanding. Dumbledore had made an impassioned plea on his behalf and considering the last slew of DADA professors, the Ministry had finally granted it. On condition of some rather stringent requirements surrounding the full moon. Lupin had agreed wholeheartedly to all of them. Harry knew he was still shaken from the incident in third year. He'd nearly eaten several students. The fact that the Headmaster had sent two third-years back into the forest with a forbidden time turner when a fully-grown werewolf was running around had been neatly glossed over.

He'd been afraid that his friends would notice something different about him, but Hermione and Ron had put that suspicion to rest. They were just glad to see him again. Hermione had hugged him so tightly he'd gasped when she saw him at the platform.

He was glad to be back at Hogwarts. He really was. But somehow it couldn't feel that way. Even the food just tasted like sawdust to the fifth-year. He still ate, knowing that if he didn't, he would be subjected to a stern lecture from Hermione, but it felt like it choked him. At least it wasn't salty and slimy, kind of like the gillyweed he'd eaten last year. The thought made his stomach churn. His face must have turned pale because Hermione turned to him, asking what was wrong.

"Nothing," Harry choked out, forcing another smile to his mouth. "I guess I'm just not as hungry as I thought."

"Well, all right," Hermione said, giving him a doubtful look. "Maybe you need a Stomach Soother?"

"No!" Harry blurted. His cheeks flushed. "Really, 'Mione, I'm fine. I don't want to see Madam Pomfrey my first night here, after all. It would be like...a new record," he added, with a slight grin. Hermione and Ron laughed, and Harry breathed a secret sigh of relief.

That night, he remembered to put up silencing spells around his four-poster. He had an inkling that he might have nightmares, and he was not disappointed. He woke sometime in the early hours, his throat raw from screaming and whimpering, tears streaming down his face. He was glad no one could hear him. Hear his shame.

Sternly, Harry reminded himself that he must do better.

"Potions first thing? With the Slytherins? Whoever draws up the schedule must be mental!" Ron complained the next morning when they received their class schedules. Privately, Harry agreed. Whoever thought that putting the Gryffindors in with the Slytherins had to be a right dolt. Unless they wanted the Potions lab to be blown up. He looked up at the Head Table. Snape looked particularly murderous. Gulping, he stared down at his hands.

They were quite dirty, weren't they, he suddenly realized. His eyes felt drawn to them, following along the thin fingers and down to his almost equally skinny wrists. He wasn't filling out much, even with a summer of decent food. The skin looked at least halfheartedly scrubbed, but he knew better. They were filthy. Utterly filthy. He couldn't go to class like this.

Harry jumped up to his feet, surprising his two best friends.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I just have-something to do. I'll meet up with you in the dungeons, all right?" A shaky smile pinned itself in place as he grabbed his book bag and walked out of the Great Hall, trying not to hurry. He had to find a bathroom, and quickly.

Severus watched the Potter boy practically run out of the Great Hall and barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Likely the brat forgot his Potions textbook in his room. No matter. If he was late, Severus would take great pleasure in deducting points from Gryffindor. If the boy protested, he would get a detention, as well. A smile stretched Snape's mouth. Ah, Potter's first detention of the year. Could it really happen so soon?

Unfortunately, Potter did make it to class on time. Severus felt a brief, sneaking sense of disappointment and sternly regarded himself. He should not be feeling disappointment over not deducting points from the Potter brat. It was childish. Besides, Potter was sure to do something stupid and earn the loss, anyway.

They were supposed to make a Fever Reducer Draught this class period. With a wave of his wand, the instructions were lettered neatly on the blackboard. Potter was working with Weasley, and Granger was working with Brown. Good luck, Granger, Snape thought with a snort. The Brown girl was an imbecile in Potions, much more prone to daydreaming about whatever new boy had caught her fancy than actually putting any work in. Thankfully, she was not actively destructive, as the idiot Longbottom. He was almost sure to melt a cauldron for the first day of term. Snape actually almost looked forward to it.

Harry's hands were red and looked almost chafed from his repeated scrubbing in the boys' toilet before class. He frowned down at them, quickly drawing on his gloves. Maybe that would work. Or he'd make his gloves as filthy as he was. Good boy, someone whispered in his head and he felt his stomach roil with nausea.

"Do you wanna get the ingredients or me?" Ron asked carelessly beside him.

"You, please," Harry requested, willing his voice to stay calm. Ron gave him a curious look, then shrugged.

"All right," he said, trotting off to the supply closet. Harry sat down on his stool, feeling his legs begin to tremble.

"Potter!" Snape snapped in his ear. Harry nearly tumbled off his stool.

"Yes, sir?" he managed to say with minimal shakiness.

"Don't even think of letting Weasley do all the work, Potter," Snape said, his voice low and menacing. "Five points from Gryffindor." Harry's mouth fell open at the blatant unfairness, but he snapped it shut quickly, not daring to say anything. Snape's eyes gleamed with satisfaction as he turned away. Perfect. It had only been about five minutes into class, too.

Harry did put in the requisite amount of work, but Snape still failed them. Their potion looked exactly like it was supposed to, but Harry knew better than to protest. It would only resort in more points taken away and possibly a detention. Ron was red-faced with anger, the color nearly matching his hair, but he too held his tongue. Snape almost looked disappointed as the class ended.

His hands were dirty again, Harry noticed. He could practically feel them tingling with filth. Like Aunt Petunia had always told him. He was a worthless piece of filth. Now, he couldn't help but wonder if she'd been right all along.

The semester progressed. Harry's odd behavior went virtually unnoticed. He hid his hands as much as he could, and no one really saw how abraded they were getting. His knuckles had even bled a time or two, but he'd ignored it. Hermione gave him a few odd looks, like she wanted to speak with him, but he pulled his hands up into his sleeves and worked harder on his pretense. A smiling, happy boy. That's what he should be. Instead of a selfish, ungrateful little brat. Couldn't even give Sirius, his godfather, his savior, what he needed. He deserved worse than this.

His arms started feeling dirty and he washed them, too, burying his arms up to his elbows in soapsuds. At night, he remained diligent in putting up his silencing spells, adding another spell that kept his bed curtains tightly shut. In the privacy of this enclosure, he would light his wand and stare at his hands, examining the reddened, raw flesh for evidence that he was clean. He never found it.

Harry started having problems eating. Now everything tasted thick and salty to him, like phlegm. He forced as much food down as he could, but he knew he was losing weight. And still, no one noticed. No one except Hermione, with her prying eyes and concerned expression. Harry started avoiding her. Her, and the Weasley twins. Ron might be completely oblivious, but they also took to giving him odd glances and piling his plate with more food. He hated it.

He still managed all right in his classes, but his grades had started to slip. The only one who really cared was Snape, who seemed to delight in giving him scores of Dreadful and Troll. The malicious smirk on the greasy git's face when he handed an essay back grated on Harry's nerves. Any other professor, he thought, might actually have been concerned at a student's slipping grades. Not so the Potions Master. At least when it came to The Boy Who Lived.

But he still managed. Until the day when Dumbledore pulled him aside after breakfast.

"I have a surprise for you, my boy," the Headmaster said, his eyes twinkling.

"What, Professor?" Harry asked, trying to sound excited.

"Your godfather has come for a visit!" Dumbledore beamed. Harry immediately felt sick, his throat closing up until he felt like he couldn't breathe.

"Harry?"

He looked up and realized Dumbledore was looking at him with concern.

"Wow, that's great, sir!" Harry managed to say with appropriate tones of excitement. Inside, he felt like he might throw up. His hands immediately began to itch with the need to wash, and he felt a compulsive need to lick his lips.

"He's in my office," Dumbledore twinkled, leading the petrified boy to his office. His password this year was "Cockroach Cluster," which did not help Harry's upset stomach.

"Harry!" Sirius smiled, striding forward to envelop his godson in a hug. Harry was pressed against the man's stomach and could tell that something else had come up, so to speak. He swallowed hard, the sour taste of bile rising in his mouth.

"I just had to see you, Harry," Sirius beamed, motioning for Harry to sit next to him. Dumbledore "thoughtfully" left them alone, although Fawkes remained on his perch. "I'm going stir-crazy in that house. I've started redecorating, though. Getting some of the Dark artefacts out." A shadow passed over Sirius's face. Harry wondered what exactly was in the Blacks' ancestral home. He knew there were certain rooms he was never supposed to go into, but Sirius had never elaborated on why.

"Tell me about your classes, Harry," Sirius finally said, his hand resting familiarly on the boy's shoulder. Harry found himself numbly reciting the things he had learned. He felt like he was watching himself talk to his godfather. Watching Sirius's hand slide down his back, resting just above the start of his trousers. That greedy look was back.

Help me, Harry mentally pleaded. He felt like he was drowning. Fawkes didn't even look over at him, something the boy felt acutely, like a strange, sharp blow. Like he knew. And not only condoned it, accepted it as right and proper.

"Listen, Harry," Sirius looked around. "You know what you could do for Snuffles right now?"

Harry's eyes widened and he cringed back. Now? Here? In the Headmaster's office? What was his godfather thinking?

Of course, he realized with a sort of dull resignation. Sirius had been without for several months. Obviously, he could not go without what he needed any longer, and Christmas break was almost a month away.

He watched his filthy, traitorous hands reach toward Sirius's trousers, and went away inside his head. He couldn't watch what they were doing. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

Severus was seething. The Potter brat had skipped class. Oh, the Headmaster had assured him it was because he had a visitor. He knew who it was. That mutt of a godfather. No other student got special treatment like that. Why should The Boy Who Lived to Torment Him? Oh, right, he was special.

So when Snape bumped into the boy just before lunch, he knew exactly who he wanted to take his vitriol out on.

"Potter!" Snape hissed. The boy blinked owlishly up at him. "Watch where you're going! Ten points from Gryffindor!"

"Sorry, sir," Potter mumbled dully. Startled, Snape took a second look at him. His face was dead white, and the shadows under his eyes stood out in stark contrast, like he hadn't slept properly in days. He was trembling, too.

"Is...something the matter, Potter?" Snape asked cautiously and a bit awkwardly.

"No, sir," Potter said. Snape could see the struggle on the boy's face, the attempt to appear more normal. "I just...I've missed Sirius, I guess, sir. That's all."

Potter turned and walked quickly off. Snape frowned. There was something about the boy's appearance. He looked almost shell-shocked. Had the mutt had bad news for him then? But what would produce that reaction?

For what seemed like no reason at all, Miranda Figgleby's face rose in Severus's mind's eye. Do people really change, Severus? she seemed to ask him. And Harry looks so much like James...

Nonsense, Snape scowled at himself. Black loved the brat. He wouldn't hurt him. The notion was preposterous.

Like James loved Lily, Severus? Miranda taunted him. Do you really think that's the kind of love Harry needs?

Potter, he said in his mind. Potter. Not Harry.

And yet the thought would not leave. He watched the brat surreptitiously throughout lunch and at dinner, too. He still looked shell-shocked, although he had made an effort to clean up and reduce his pallor. The Granger girl was staring at the boy throughout both meals, obviously concerned.

Potter barely ate anything either meal.

Harry felt sick every day now. The things that had transpired in Dumbledore's office felt burned into his mind, making him retch almost every day. He felt weak and ashamed of himself, yet he could not stop it. His hands bled every day, and his lips were constantly chapped. Hermione started dropping not-too-subtle hints that he could talk to her about "anything, Harry, and I do mean anything." He knew better. She wouldn't understand. It was what Sirius needed. He was so selfish to react this way, he knew it, but he felt powerless to stop it.

Only sleight-of-hand, once used to steal food and now used to banish it, kept Hermione and the Weasley twins from noticing that he was barely picking at his meals. He grew thinner, wearing several layers of clothes to pad out his appearance. His nightmares left his throat feeling shredded. He wished that he could sleep one night through, just one, but that would require going to Pomfrey, and he knew he couldn't.

He knew Snape kept several vials of Dreamless Sleep in his storeroom, but he wasn't nearly desperate enough to steal from Snape. Not yet, anyway. He had a feeling that it might be the last thing he ever did.

Snape had been keeping an eye on Harry for weeks. It was the day before Christmas vacation when things finally came to a head.

Harry had been feeling sick all day, but chalked it up to his "normal" feelings. He didn't realize that he hadn't been eating enough until he fainted on top of the table at dinner.

Hermione gasped, stumbling to her feet as she reached for her friend. To her surprise, Snape was there first, his cloak billowing around him as he levitated the boy up with a gentleness that surprised her.

"Foolish brat," she heard Snape murmur. Hermione couldn't help but agree with the sentiment. She'd tried to get Harry to open up, tried to get him to eat, but he refused. And he wouldn't go to Madam Pomfrey. Now he was going there, whether he liked it or not, and Hermione found herself following the Potions professor out the door, leaving a shocked silence in the Great Hall.

Harry woke up fifteen minutes later, feeling awfully tired and ill. His stomach cramped unbearably for a moment and he gasped, tears squeezing out his eyes. The room he was in was blurry, as his glasses had been taken off, but he could see well enough to know that he was in the Hospital Wing. Oh no, he thought, dread icing his thoughts. Oh no, oh no, oh no...

"So the Golden Boy awakens," a sneering voice said beside him. Snape. Harry jerked, looking wildly around, his heart pounding.

"Here, Potter," Snape drawled, placing the boy's glasses in his hand. Harry fumbled his glasses on with a relief that was almost palpable as the world sprang into clarity around him.

"Would you like to explain why you haven't been eating, Potter?" Snape inquired. There was nothing but a mild contempt in his voice. Harry cringed, fumbling with the edge of the blanket. His face burned.

"I don't know what you're talking about, sir," he tried to deny, but Snape snorted before he could finish.

"Of course you don't," Snape said, sarcasm like a fine edge. "Of course there is no explanation possibly why the Boy Who Lived barely eats enough to keep a sparrow alive. Nothing at all. Perhaps we ought to call your godfather in, maybe he could get some answers out of you."

"No!" Harry said frantically, scrabbling to get out of bed. Snape pushed him back in, sticking him there with a charm. He struggled against the spell, tears coming to his eyes. "No, please, sir, you can't call him, please, you...you can't!"

"And why can't I?" Snape inquired icily. "He is your legal guardian, is he not? This is a matter of health, Potter. Your health."

"No, I'm fine, I'll-I'll eat, all right?" Harry exclaimed. "Just don't call Sirius in, please, he doesn't need to worry about me..."

"You are oddly-distressed about this, Potter," Snape mused, almost to himself. He gave no warning of his intentions until his wand was pointed between Harry's eyes and he had incanted "Legilimens!"

Within five minutes, Snape had seen all that he needed to see, and the knowledge made him sick. He withdrew as carefully as he could from the boy's mind. Potter was sitting up rigidly in his bed, his mouth frozen in a silent scream. His eyes looked tortured.

"How could you?" Potter asked him quietly, his voice as wrenchingly sad as Snape had ever heard. "He needs it, don't you understand? Azkaban changed him...he misses James...I know I look like him, I know what he needs."

"No, you don't, Potter," Snape replied. His voice had softened, but only a bit. He wished he could take some time to compose himself, but knew there was none. Not for this task. "He's a man, Potter. A grown man. And you are a child. Yes, I know you persist in thinking otherwise, but fifteen years old is a child. You are not your father. And he knows that. Regardless of his experiences in Azkaban, Black knows what he is doing is wrong. Believe me." His thoughts went to Miranda again, remembering her tear-streaked face as she told her friends what had happened. He'd been hiding in the shadows from Potter's gang, but heard her tale. He'd been horrified at what they'd done. And deeply, profoundly angry at their lack of punishment. Dumbledore had as good as said that she didn't matter.

"You don't understand!" the boy said again, hiccuping, trying to make him understand. "It's not so bad, I mean...it could be worse, you know?" He flushed and looked down for a moment. "And he does need it. He loves me. You saw that, didn't you?"

"I saw you throwing up almost every day after he visited you this term," Snape said baldly. "I saw you scrubbing your hands raw because you had to touch what no child should ever touch. I see you wasting away into a shadow of your former self because of what this man has done to you. He is sick, and he belongs in Azkaban."

"No, he doesn't!" Potter's mouth had fallen open in utter shock. Tears slicked his cheeks. "That's what caused it in the first place!"

"No, it didn't, Potter," Snape found himself saying wearily. "Sirius was like that in school. He and...well...your father." He briefly explained what had happened to Miranda Figgleby. He was startled to see a shock of recognition in Potter's eyes. Sirius had actually told him what the Marauders had done. Like it was a good thing. Something to be crowed about. Sick bastard, Snape found himself thinking with a vicious vindictiveness that told him that not only did he want the mutt thrown in Azkaban, he would be quite happy to...hasten along his demise. He still didn't like the Potter brat. But Harry never deserved that sort of filth. No one deserved that.

"It ends now, Harry," Severus said, surprising even himself with the use of Potter's first name. But he felt it was necessary at this point. "Black will never touch you again."

Harry looked up at him with wounded eyes, brimming over with fresh tears.

"Do you promise, sir?" he asked, trembling. Scarcely believing his actions, Severus reached over and placed a hand on Harry's shoulder.

"Yes, I do," he said softly. "Even if I must become your guardian myself."

He knew he would keep that promise, no matter what it took. And he did.