A Light in the Silence, A Voice in the Dark

by Cayce Morris

Warnings: Bottom!Snape. Possible appearance of non-con; brief actual non-con. Chan (after 7th year, when Harry is almost 18). Possible disturbing fetish. Some mixing of book and movie canon. Entirely ignores the Epilogue.

I would encourage readers not to be put off by the warnings. In spite of its title, this is not a dark story.

I don't own any of this. I'm just doing it for fun. Please, no one sue me.

My deepest thanks to betas abrae, psi and swartzkatze, who worked well together even though they don't know each other. With special thanks also to Clyde Edgerton, who would probably be horrified.

Chapter 1

With dry eyes but a heavy heart, Minerva McGonagall made the last notations on her roster of the dead, a roll of parchment that was far too long. When she was finished she placed it in a sheath of white silk, tied it with a black ribbon, and tucked it into her robes. This was one parchment too important—and too personal—to entrust to an owl for delivery to the Ministry. She would not deliver it just now, however. For the moment, she sat still and tried to collect herself.

It had been the most bittersweet of days. The war had been won, it was true, but the price of victory was still being assessed.

Minerva knew she could not afford to sit idle for long. There were living children here still, and they needed care and comfort. There was a steady stream of parents and Ministry officials through the castle, documenting, collecting, rejoicing, mourning. There was work for all hands, which was a blessing, because without it she feared many—including herself—would have gone mad with grief.

It was mid-afternoon, however, and so she decided to allow herself to rest for a moment in her Headmistress' chair and drink a cup of tea. Gazing into her teacup, she reflected on the fact that she'd never wanted this chair, and that, having been forced on her by circumstances, it felt especially ill-fitting.

She looked up from her teacup and around the room at the walls on which the portraits of her predecessors circled her in a decorous—not to say, occasionally pompous—ring of honour. The most recent one was at the moment just an empty grey canvas framed by ebon wood in a stark, linear design, but according to the inscription on the small brass plate already beneath it, it would eventually hold an image of Severus Snape. She had found it on the wall, to no little surprise, when she'd inspected the office for damage the night before. The castle, evidently, had understood Snape's loyalties better than she had.

She studied the blank canvas for a long moment, pondering what she would say to Severus when he joined the others in their circle. She hoped he would be willing at least to listen to her apology, her many apologies: for not protecting him as a boy, and for misjudging and mistreating him as a man.

Potter had explained it all to her last night, choking with anger and grief as he related what he'd seen in Severus' memories. She'd known something of what those memories had to contain, but their impact on the boy had reminded her of the depth of Severus' sacrifices in a way she'd never felt before. In retrospect it had all made sense, and the whole bloody, manipulative plot had been so very true to Albus' genius that she knew Potter had interpreted the memories correctly.

Severus had been with them all along. The injustices the world—and Minerva herself—had done him, she realised, were vast and could never be remedied. Potter seemed to feel these injustices even more keenly than she did, and it was breaking him apart. That it had been necessary for things to go just as they had would never be enough for him, and she could already sense that carrying this burden might weigh him down for the rest of his life. She was determined not to let him bear it alone, but now was not the time, not yet, to deal with it. There were more immediate concerns for both of them, and she tried to turn her attention, and his, back to them.

They could start, she had decided, with the retrieval of Severus' body. She had sent Potter off with Hagrid an hour ago to see to this, thinking it would give him a concrete way to serve Severus' memory.

She looked back into her teacup and then closed her eyes, ignoring the little sting that gathered behind them. She was not a woman of tears. But who else will cry for Severus? she wondered, and that focused the sting and made it burn a little hotter. She thought about Harry and realised that he, too, might very well cry for Severus, when he lay alone at night with those memories still running through his head, and this made her sadder still.

She was sitting there, eyes closed, willing herself not to cry…it won't help him now, don't be a fool…when there was an odd popping sound to her left, rather like a large, heavy balloon being pricked with a pin.

She opened her eyes, fearing the worst—a last renegade Death Eater? a castle wall collapsing?—and saw that the frame for Severus' portrait had vanished, leaving an empty space on the wall where it had been. As she watched, astonished, the remaining portraits slid across the stones, rearranging themselves on the walls of the room to fill up that empty space, so that a moment later there was no sign that Severus' frame had ever hung there.

Minerva raised her eyebrows and stared at the wall where the frame had been. The wall gave no reply to her unspoken question, and neither did the residents of the other frames, all of whom appeared to be either asleep or elsewhere. She frowned, thinking hard, wondering what the castle knew that she did not.

She thought, and then she understood. She laughed for the first time in days and said softly, "Welcome back, Severus."

The castle, it seemed, had understood the former Headmaster all along, but in the end even it had been fooled for a little while by the temporary illusion of his death.

With a smile on her face, Minerva removed the parchment from her robes, unrolled it, and picked up a quill.

On the day the war ended, Potter had sat with Severus as he died and had said nothing.

It was Severus who uttered the last words to pass between them: "Look at me." Potter had looked at his former teacher in obvious confusion, and he had taken the memories Severus gave him with neither thanks nor curse, benediction nor insult. But Severus hadn't needed to hear Potter's voice again; all he'd wanted was to see his eyes, those eyes, one more time. He'd done so, and after letting go of his memories—they weren't much use to him anymore, after all—he had been ready to die.

Severus, like Potter, had done what was expected of him. He had stood still, had taken it like a man, as the snake struck. It had thrashed and bitten him again and again, each time knocking him closer to senselessness, slamming his body spectacularly into the glass-paned wall that should have cracked behind him, should have shattered into a million unmendable pieces, but had not.

As, apparently, neither had Severus.

Instead of shattering, he had lain there on the floor and simply…leaked. All his vital essences had begun dripping or pouring out of him: blood, magic, tears, breath, all spilling on the filthy floor beneath. What a waste, he had found himself thinking. To have everything that made Severus who he was drain out of him into one foul puddle, of no use to anyone else, was the Dark Lord's final insult. It wasn't long, however, before the sting of that insult had faded, leaving Severus feeling only empty and tired. It had been a long, exhausting fight, but now it was over, and he'd lost. There was a certain relief in accepting that loss, and now, at least, he could rest.

After the snake had slithered off on its self-satisfied way, the boy had appeared, to Severus' great surprise. They were working then quite off the page as regards the script Severus had prepared, in which he had planned other circumstances for revealing the final, horrible facts that Harry Potter needed to know. But better to miss your cue and say your lines late, he decided, than to leave them unsaid. He could not save Potter—had never, in fact, been able to save Potter from the fate Dumbledore had planned for him—but Potter at least could die with all his own business finished, so to speak, having saved the rest of the wizarding world. So Severus mustered the strength to offer up the last bits of himself, and the boy had taken all that Severus had to give him, and then Severus had closed his eyes and let it all go, let himself sink into death as one might sink into a warm bath at the end of the day. The worst was over now, he told himself. Whatever was to come could only be a relief.

Except that it was not.

He lay there unmoving—entirely unable to move—in the quiet darkness for some long, but uncertain, time. It was a surprisingly peaceful time, for he knew he would be dying soon and then the pain would all be over. Most of the pain, in fact, was already over, replaced by a cool numbness that was not unpleasant. He found that having shared his memories with Harry, even they no longer grieved him; they felt more like an old injury that had healed long ago but might still ache a bit when the weather changed.

His magic was gone as well, the last shreds of it having been spent in giving Harry his memories. He found its absence rather a relief, as though it might actually have been an irritant most of his life, but one he hadn't been aware of, like a high-pitched noise that one only notices when it blessedly disappears.

Enjoying this unexpected peace, he thought calmly about the many things he had missed out on in life—true adult friends, lovers of any permanence, children, a family to cherish. He had devoted himself to his work, which had been as satisfying as it could have been, he supposed, given that it had involved a complex triple life as despised teacher, Dumbledore's spy, and under-the-radar Death Eater. He hadn't actually hated teaching, though his students had assumed he'd hated them. He'd been a better spy than he'd ever have been a husband and father, he was sure, so perhaps in the end things hadn't worked out so badly.

He was reminiscing quite lucidly over all this, remembering a few notable moments both good and bad and not worrying about what lay ahead, when he heard shouting outside the boathouse. This was alarming, because if Death Eaters were about to swarm the place, they might choose to have a bit of unpleasant fun with their soon-to-be-dead former colleague, and that fun, Severus was sure, would involve more of the pain he'd thought to be done with.

The muffled voices moved around the boathouse, and he imagined they were searching outside it for something. Then one voice became clearer and moved inside, much closer. It was Potter, and Severus wondered why he was even surprised at this. Of course, Potter, ever the noble Gryffindor, would not leave him to die in peace. And Potter was sure to have seen Severus' memories by now, which meant he was sure to hate his former teacher more than ever. Severus didn't want to deal with that hate; he just wished the boy would go away and let him finish this off alone, in this quiet melancholy place that he was finding so comfortable.

Potter, he thought sternly at the boy, as if it would do any good, just leave me alone, won't you? Go save someone who wants to be saved.

Severus thought these words, and then there was perfect silence around him for a long moment. Even the gentle waves of the lake, which had been breaking with soft splashes against the pilings under the boathouse, seemed to hold themselves still. Severus listened to the silence and thought, no, surely just imagined that he felt something tremble and give slightly near him, as though he had pushed against a living wall of something with his mind, and it had pushed back. Then Potter was screaming, blasting Severus' eardrums with an unnecessary volume of noise.

"Hagrid!" the boy yelled, several times. Then, "I think he's alive, Hagrid! Come help me!" The air around Severus quivered with magic as gentle, protective spells flew all around him. He was rolled to his back, warmed and cushioned and sealed in a protective field within seconds of Harry reaching his side.

Severus' peaceful interlude of waiting to die—it had been the entr'acte, he decided later, between his life before and his life after—ended then, as he was hoisted gently up to be carried in Hagrid's arms like a listless doll. Act Two began immediately, as he was carried to the castle with Potter trotting along beside.

Potter burbled at him and at the ever-devoted Hagrid the whole way there, sounding delighted to be bringing him back alive. Severus found himself terrified by that very thing.

It was only when they were nearly back to the castle that a startling realisation came to him. Potter, he thought, did not die.

If Potter was alive—in defiance of both the odds and Albus Dumbledore's cold and calculating plan—then by extension Severus assumed that the Dark Lord must be dead, though this seemed somehow less miraculous than Potter's survival.

Is it possible, he wondered, that in the end I helped the boy to live?

Much later he would remember vaguely, as if it might have been a dream, that just at that moment Potter had laid a hand on his shoulder and said, "Yes, he's dead. And yes. You did."

Chapter 2

Things were different, and yet they were not, two days later.

At the farthest, most private end of the hallway of rooms that St. Mungo's had hastily converted to accommodate wounded victims of the final battle with the Dark Lord, the door to a hospital room stood ajar. The warming sun of a late spring afternoon cast long rays of light from the room's windows onto the floor of the hallway just outside. Minerva tried to appreciate the sunshine, letting it buoy her mood as she straightened her shoulders and entered the room.

Inside all was quiet and clean. In the bed with its sterile-looking white sheets Snape lay stretched out, seeming thinner, flatter, than she'd expected. His hair had been crudely cut at the jawline to keep it away from his wound. A thick white bandage was wrapped all the way around his neck, and it showed a growing patch of blood that had soaked through from the inside. His face and upper chest, framed by the V-shaped neckline of a thin cotton hospital robe, looked ashen and bloodless. His eyes were closed, but his rest looked anything but peaceful.

It was definitely Snape, but if Minerva hadn't been prepared for how awful he looked she might not have recognised him. His condition was still under investigation, but they hadn't been able to rouse him, and the Healers were making no promises.

The Minister of Magic had agreed, after a forceful argument in which he had chosen to back down before a very angry Harry Potter, to make sure that Snape had the best care available. He had even sent in his most senior medical adviser, the Chief Healing Officer for all of wizarding society, to personally oversee Snape's evaluation and the plan for his treatment. Minerva had been assured that no expense would be spared and no detail overlooked in determining the best way to keep Snape alive and, if possible, to revive him.

The news they had given her was not good. They were baffled, or so they said, as to why the great snake's bites hadn't already been fatal. On examining Snape's nearly lifeless body, they had found him so full of dark alchemy, and so emptied of his own magical resistance to it, that they had proclaimed they were afraid to administer any magical treatment at all for fear of overloading him and killing him themselves.

Minerva had received this news with skepticism, but she knew she was not qualified to debate medical issues with the Minister's CHO. She had shared her concerns immediately with Poppy Pomfrey, who was qualified, and who had said, "Well, it is a conservative approach, but I can't argue with it, at least for a start." So Minerva had given consent—as the legal representative of his most recent employer, she was the nearest thing to family that Severus had—and they had begun a program of watchful waiting. Exactly what they were waiting for Minerva wasn't sure, but the fact that Severus lived at all was miracle enough for today. Tomorrow they could worry about the rest of it.

Next to Snape's bed Harry Potter sat, or rather sprawled, in a chair. He did appear to be sleeping peacefully, though he also looked as though he'd taken the worst of a fight. At least his battered condition should be temporary.

There was no good reason for Harry to be here; there was nothing he could do for Severus beyond what the perhaps overly cautious Healers were already doing. But he had declared himself Severus' keeper for the duration, whatever that might be, and she had no desire to dissuade him. It was a way for him to work through a bit of guilt, and she rather liked the turnabout of roles; after all, Severus had always taken care of Harry, even if Harry hadn't known he was doing so. Besides, keeping Harry occupied and Severus somewhat better protected under Harry's watchful eye would alleviate at least some of the guilty responsibility she felt for both of them.

It was as she gazed at the two of them in their very different resting poses that she had a little throat-catching moment of epiphany.

They had been Albus' boys once, and she understood that now, whether she wanted them or not, they were hers.

"Good morning, Professor. It's Harry again. Time to wake up, sir." The words, as usual, were gentle and encouraging, and that made no sense at all, but Severus clutched at them with all his mental might, as a penitent might cling to a rosary or a cross hanging around his neck. The voice reminded him of another life, another world, in which he'd had strength and control over at least a few things. Now, he had nothing. He could neither move nor speak. He could not take care of his own most basic needs. He could not even dry his own tears, the tears that seeped out of him every night against his will, when he was so very, very alone.

Shortly after Potter had brought him back to Hogwarts, the snake's poison had crept into his brain and destroyed the clear-minded calm with which he'd been facing death. He had descended then into confusion and panic, and for a long time afterward Severus was sure of only one thing: that the sound of Harry Potter's voice would be there every day. Potter was the one, in fact, who dried the tears that mortified him every morning and whispered comforting words as he wiped at Severus' face, though sometimes he sounded as though he might be crying himself. "Please don't worry, Professor," he repeated every morning. "I know you're in there, and I'm not going to leave you." Then he would straighten Severus' bedding and fluff his pillow and add, almost offhandedly, "You can wake up anytime, sir. Please?"

Potter's voice was the only certainty in his life; it was his only clock and barometer as well, bringing in the day when he arrived in the morning, and leaving Severus alone with the night when he departed. Without Potter, Severus could not reliably tell night from day by himself, as the blackness behind his eyelids was complete. In a way this didn't matter so much, because he wasn't at all sure he could distinguish wakefulness from sleep either. Both states felt so hallucinatory that for a while he could tell no difference between them at all.

He heard voices around him often, but found that other than Potter's he could not at first untangle them. For some time they fused into a buzzing, chaotic sound from which he wished he could escape, because while they were present they did unpleasant things. They turned and manipulated and mauled him, and handled his body in intimate ways, sometimes doing unspeakable things that made him ashamed. At first he didn't want Potter to see these things—he's just a boy, he's a student, he's Lily's son, oh Gods, what would she think—but soon it became clear that they didn't bother Potter, and in fact he often murmured reassurances from nearby while the unpleasantness was happening. Severus didn't understand why he was being subjected to such barbaric treatment, but after a while he decided not to care anymore, as no amount of caring seemed likely to make them stop.

He began to understand that his death was no longer imminent, and with that understanding came a horror such as he'd never faced before, not even when confronting the Dark Lord. That terror had been of physical pain and death. This terror was existentially worse: that he might be shut up here in a prison literally of his own making, trapped inside his own mind with nothing but himself for company—and he knew himself to be very bad company—and no way even to communicate his needs to another person.

This, he realised, might very well be it. He understood poison-induced paralysis only too well; he knew he might be here to stay. This might be the way he would have to spend the remainder of his apparently much-longer-than-expected life.

As soon as he realised this he began to rage, as far as this was possible in his silent, motionless state. He cursed the Dark Lord, and Albus Dumbledore, and the universe as a whole, for leading him to his fate and then leaving him to it without caring a jot that this was the worst sentence they could have pronounced on a man like Severus, one who suffered even his own company only because he had no choice.

The rage got him nowhere, so eventually it subsided. He slipped then into a panicked melancholy, worrying about the many disasters that might befall an entirely paralyzed, and previously much-hated, man such as himself. There were aches and pains that could not be attended to; there was hunger and thirst that could not be assuaged; there was the danger of vengeful attackers, taking their own grief out on him as he lay there unable to defend himself. He didn't believe any of these tortures were undeserved; it was just that he didn't want to endure them. He'd been ready to die and would have much preferred that peaceful end to this potential for endless torment.

And then there was the anxiety provoked by boredom. Severus Snape was horribly bad at being bored. Over the years, he had learned to keep himself busy in order to avoid the panicked sense of rolling loose inside his own head. Now, though, he had very little with which to occupy himself. When Potter wasn't speaking to him, he had nothing to think about but the chittering inanity of the medi-witches and his own rage and loneliness. All he could do was lie in this bed between hot scratchy sheets, trapped and terrified, trying to keep from losing the remainder of his sanity while idiots chirped around him.

All he could do was lie here contemplating the miserable life that lay ahead of him, and waiting for Harry Potter to speak again.

"Good morning, sir," the unusually serious voice of Harry Potter said a few days later. "There are some things I think I'd better tell you about."

Harry had arrived before breakfast, as he did every morning. Usually he took care of whatever little tending tasks he decided Severus needed, and then settled into his bedside chair by the time breakfast smells came rolling down the hall with a medi-witch and her cart.

Today, for the first time, Harry opened a window as soon as he arrived, and Severus could tell that the full bloom of summer was imminent. The seasonal smells and sounds of London drifted up from the street below to come in through his window and assault his senses: asphalt and petrol, voices and auto horns. Fried food. A pungent curry, rather unsettling this early in the morning. A barking dog. Unexpectedly, a crowing rooster, somewhere in the distance.

Before Harry arrived, Severus had been making a serious attempt to reconstruct the timeline of his hospital stay in his head, and to connect it with that grisly day in the boathouse. He'd begun trying to put the timeline together soon after they had transferred him here from Hogwarts, in an unpleasant journey by broom-driven ambulance that he hoped never to repeat.

As soon as the idea of the timeline had occurred to him, he'd begun to count the days, marking each new one as Potter arrived in the morning with a black tick-mark on an imaginary wall that he built on one side of his mind. As his mind felt clearer day by day, he'd also attempted to work backward, starting with his first mark and estimating, based on his hazy memories, the days that had come before, all the way back to the snakebite itself. It was based on these efforts that he believed this day to be two weeks after the day he'd fallen under the snake.

"So here it is, Professor," Potter began. The sound of his words came from close to Severus' ear, and he was drawn in by their timbre, the strong, bright colours of a youthful voice. "I don't know how much you've picked up from what you've heard everyone saying around you. And the Healers tell me…"

He stopped for a moment, and Severus was sure he could hear the boy swallow hard.

"They say they don't know if you'll ever come out of this. They say they're not even sure you're really in there anymore, the real you, your…personality." He gave a short and pained-sounding laugh. "I never thought I'd be eager to face your, uh, personality again, but I am. I have to believe that you're going to come back, that you're going to wake up some day and still be Professor Snape. And that maybe," he shuffled in his chair, "you're even awake in there right now, and someday real soon you're going to open your eyes and come all the way back to us. Whenever that happens I'm certain you're going to be bloody furious if nobody even bothered to tell you what's going on. So I thought, today, that's what I'd do."

"The first thing I need to say is that I hope you're not angry with me for not telling you all these things sooner." Severus heard Potter get up from his chair and begin walking around the room. His footsteps and voice passed back and forth beyond the end of Severus' bed; their more distant sounds were not so comforting as that strong voice next to his ear had been, but he tried to pay attention nonetheless. "I know you might have been waiting, getting impatient and angry, for a while now. But you have to understand; I thought you were going to wake up right away. You'd lived through the bite, they said you hadn't suffered any other serious injuries, and I was so sure you were going to be fine and then you weren't…" The pacing footsteps stopped. "I was angry with you for a few days, when I kept expecting you to get up and start cursing me or throwing things, and then you just…didn't."

Quiet footsteps took the boy back to his chair at Severus' bedside, and with a loud creak of protest from the chair, Potter apparently flopped back into it. "So here we are. I reckon you'd like to know…it's been seventeen days since the fighting at the castle."

I've missed a few, then, Severus thought, wondering where they'd gone; he supposed he'd lost track somewhere in the period when neither sleep nor waking seemed quite real. But the boy was continuing.

"You were in the hospital wing at school for a couple of days, until we got you sorted out with the Ministry, and then they said it was okay to bring you here. Madam Pomfrey insisted that you needed special care, because that snakebite was wicked." The boy's voice went low and eager, as though he was talking technical details of some arcane hobby with a fellow fancier. "I'll bet you had guessed Nagini was a Horcrux, hadn't you? And she carried quite the nasty poison—all the Healers are still talking about it. There was a bloody lot of dark magic thrown at you all at once, Pomfrey said, too much for most people. But she said you might be tough enough to take it."

There was a deep breath from the vicinity of the bedside chair. "I was one, too. A Horcrux. Did you know that? You always seemed to know everything before everybody else."

It would have been most helpful if I had known that, Severus thought, and then he felt his arm being patted. "Anyway," Potter continued, getting back on track, "when she heard the truth about what you'd been doing—that is, for the Order—it was very hard for her, I think. For Madam Pomfrey, I mean. She was upset and said she was ashamed that she'd treated you badly for a long time. I think a lot of people felt that way. Professor McGonagall…well, she's been around quite a bit, talking to the Healers and people from the Ministry. She's the one who got things all set up for you here. She'll visit again soon, I'm sure. She says she's got a lot of apologizing she intends to do when you wake up."

Severus felt more than heard Potter lean closer to him, the boy's breath warm on his cheek. The intimacy was startling, even more so for the fact that Severus found himself welcoming it, and the way it made him feel alive just to be so close to another living body. "And I guess you'd figured it out, but I'll tell you anyway…we won, sir," the boy said. "Voldemort is gone. I don't think we could have done it if you hadn't..." a hand squeezed his arm, "…if you hadn't done everything you did. It was cruel of Dumbledore to set you up like that. But it worked, because you let it play out just as he meant it to." There was admiration in Potter's voice. "I saw it, you know. When the snake attacked you. It was brutal. I've…I've never seen anything like it. And you just stood there and took it."

Potter stayed silent for a moment then, as if remembering what he'd seen there in the boathouse. Severus didn't particularly want to remember it. He wished Potter would get on with things and tell him something else, anything else, about what had happened since. But the boy wasn't done yet. "Watching you," Potter said slowly, "I got the point about accepting what had to be. And then I understood better when I saw your memories and learned what I had to do myself. I learned by watching you, when you thought you were dying, and that's how I was able to do it. I don't know if I could have walked into that forest expecting to die if I hadn't seen you do pretty much the same thing already."

There was another long moment of quiet, with only the sound of Potter's breathing and, Severus realised, his own. He'd not thought to listen to it before, but there it was, going on about its business without him having to think about it, keeping him alive in spite of the betrayal of most of his body, which refused to take orders.

I'm still breathing, he thought. He listened to his breaths, and to Potter's. He was alive, as hard as that was for him to believe. He wondered if it was going to be worth the trouble to stay that way.

An automobile horn gave a long blast outside. Someone in the street shouted unintelligibly in response.

He felt Potter draw back from him a little, and then speak again from an arm's length away. "Like I said, you're sorted with the Ministry. I told them what happened, what had really been going on all these years. Nothing too private—the stuff with my mum, you know, I kind of left out a bit of that—but I explained what you were doing. Professor McGonagall and a lot of others backed me up, too. It took a couple of days, but the Minister decided he had no choice." Severus could hear the grin on the boy's face. "I camped in front of Kingsley's office door and told him I wasn't moving until he issued you a full pardon and got you a bed here, and all the Healers and whatnot you needed. He said he thought I'd gone mental but what could he do? If he hadn't given in I would have started telling the press things he didn't want them to hear." He laughed at that.

Severus heard the boy stand up and begin walking again. "I'm upset with him now, though," he said. "He hasn't made a public announcement about your pardon, and I think he should. I'd go park myself on his doorstep again, but I'd rather be here with you, in case you wake up." The footsteps slowed and stopped. "It's not important right now, I guess. The people who matter, understand. And it might get noisier around here if there was public knowledge of all that you did. Maybe it's better if he waits until you…um, wake up, to broadcast it."

Severus didn't care either way. He was still getting used to the idea that Potter actually wanted to be here at his bedside.

Harry's voice moved and seemed to change direction, from which Severus deduced that he had walked to the window and was now looking out of it. "Lots of people died, of course," Potter sounded unnaturally calm about this. "I don't think this is the time to go down the whole list, if that's okay with you." He paused, and seemed to turn to face Severus again. "Lucius Malfoy is in Azkaban, but Draco and his mother are all right. Remus is dead. Fred Weasley is dead. Maybe later..." He seemed to choke, and to turn away again. "I can tell you more names later. Or after you wake up. Because I know you're going to wake up, aren't you?" His footsteps came back to the bed. "I know you are. You have to."

Potter sat down in his chair again. "I know you're in there, and I'm pretty sure you're awake, or something close to it. Because I'm sure I've…um, heard you. In the boathouse. Do you remember? I'm sure you were trying to say something to me. You didn't want to be rescued." The pitch of his voice angled up. "What were you thinking? You thought you could just die, and leave me alone to wonder, to wish I'd had the chance to actually know you? You thought you could just tell me all those amazing things in your memories, and then leave me? Just like everybody else in my life has done? Not a chance, Professor. I'm not letting you get away that easily." He leaned close and the voice was intimate in Severus' ear again, making him want to shiver. "You were still alive, still you in there, in the boathouse, and you're still there now. I know, Snape."

Gentle fingers touched his face then, pushing the hair back from his forehead. The fingers slipped lower to stroke lightly along his cheekbone, and then to rest next to it, as if the hand was marking his face as its own territory. "I know you're in there, and that you're sad, or frightened, or both. I'm sure of that, because I see the tears on your face sometimes, in the morning."

No words in Severus' life should have shamed him more than these, but from Potter's mouth they carried no sting. "I think I understand," he said. "Because the tears weren't there the first few days, but then, after things calmed down a bit, they started. And I figured you'd settled down, too, and realised you might be here for a while, and it was just too much to take." The fingers stroked slowly up and down his cheek.

"Don't worry," the boy continued, his voice soft. "I don't think anyone else has seen them. I get here early every morning to make sure you've gotten through the night all right, and I always wipe them away." He seemed to realise that Severus might resent this intrusion on his privacy. "Please don't be angry, all right? Of course you're frightened, and sad, and…whatever. I know I would be." He took Severus' hand. "Just don't lose hope, okay? Because I'm not leaving. I'm not giving up on you."

Potter sat back, away from Severus. His hand slid away, and Severus was torn between feelings of relief and loss. Potter should not be touching him in the first place, and certainly not with hands so gentle and comforting. But the feeling of loss remained.

A warm breeze blew in through the open window. It was not as comforting as Potter's hands.

"So the question now is," Potter said, from his position far back in his chair, "what do we do? I mean, to help you wake up, help you come out of this? Do you know, somewhere in there, inside your head, what we're supposed to do? If you do know, I imagine you're ready to hex me now," and he laughed at that, "for being so slow and not remembering something important that you tried to teach me."

If only I did know, Severus thought.

"I suppose you might want to hex me just on principle when you wake up," Potter continued, sounding resigned. "I know you might just want to get rid of me. Well, if you'll wake up, you can do whatever you want to me. If you'll just wake up." He leaned forward in the chair again, and his words were a fierce whisper. "They think you're as good as dead, Snape. Let's prove them wrong."

Severus grasped the impossibility of this moment—that he was lying here in hospital, paralyzed and panicking, while the bloody Boy Who Lived clutched at his hand and challenged him to live again—and it was too much for his still-recovering body and vulnerable psyche to take all at once. He felt a tear creep down his cheek, and heard Harry suck in a breath as he saw it.

"Yes," Harry whispered, wiping the tear away with a finger. "I know."

The rest of the day passed as usual. There were routine visits from medi-witches doing their best to make what pathetic life he had as unpleasant as possible. There was the normal level of ruckus in the corridors, the smells of other patients' food and the sounds of other patients' visitors.

There was, as usual, the constant presence of Harry.

The challenge of Harry's words—Let's prove them wrong—remained with him all through the day. He had no idea how to meet the challenge, but at least he now knew, to his own considerable surprise, that he wasn't facing it alone.

As evening fell—Severus could feel the air growing cooler, and he was sure several hours had passed since Harry's emotional soliloquy that morning—the usual uneasiness began to grow in him. Soon Harry would have to leave for the night, and the corridor would become too quiet. Severus knew he should try to sleep during those hours, but as he had grown more accustomed to being comforted by Harry's voice and presence during the day, it had become even more difficult to stay calm without it during the night. Now, after Harry's declarations of the morning, Severus was even more unhappy to see him go.

Before long he heard Harry stand and scuff his chair against the floor, signaling that he was probably about to leave. Severus imagined himself flailing against the fear that was trying to choke him, and felt glad that Harry couldn't see the battle going on inside his head. Then Harry stepped close to the bed for a moment, and Severus felt his pillow being nudged.

"Here," Harry said. "I've got something for you to try. I've been thinking…it must be really quiet and lonely here at night, isn't it? I know I'd hate being alone all that time, with nothing to distract me. So I brought you a radio, a Muggle radio, with batteries and everything." Severus imagined his own eyebrows rising in surprise. "Yeah, I know, it sounds silly. I just thought you might like to have something to listen to. Voices, music, whatever. Just to focus your attention on."

He fiddled with something that he'd apparently tucked under the edge of the pillow, and soft music began to play. "I thought about a wizarding wireless, but I don't want to take any chances, in case it's not safe for you yet. So I thought this would be better than nothing. Let's see what we can find for you…"

There was a confusing stream of static, unsteady in quality and interrupted by snatches of music and speaking voices. It stopped on a crisp, formal-sounding male voice. "Hey, that's good," Harry said.

But Severus' brain hadn't moved past the idea of a wizarding wireless. How could such a thing be unsafe? That made no sense at all. He had survived the snake; how dangerous could a radio be?

Harry shifted beside the bed, saying, "Hmm." He made some small, final adjustment to the radio and patted the pillow one last time. "Yeah. We'll just try that for now." He put a hand on Severus' arm, as if to catch his attention.

"I, um. I just realised, you probably didn't know…" The hand on his arm gave a squeeze. "No, they're not allowing magic around you yet. Your body's been overloaded and they're afraid any magic they use to try to bring you around will make things worse. That's why you've got this." His fingers prodded at a sensitive spot on Severus' arm. "It's Muggle healing stuff, like in a regular hospital. It's how they're feeding you, keeping you going."

A whole range of bafflements resolved themselves in Severus' head. So that was why the medi-witches were in his room a dozen times a day and did such alarming things to him.

Harry hesitated for a moment. "We checked it out with Madam Pomfrey, okay? Professor…I mean, Headmistress McGonagall and I. She says it's a reasonable approach. The medi-witches don't like handling all the Muggle gear, but they're getting used to it, I guess."

He put a hand on Severus' shoulder and said, "I watch them all the time, so I'll know if they get lazy and try to use a spell. You don't have to worry about that, okay? Everything would be easier if you'd just wake up, though…" His voice rose, promising better things, if.

Then Potter was stepping away from the bed, and Severus knew he was about to leave. He felt a flash of panic, and then the calm voice started up again. The sound was low and muffled by his pillow, but Severus could hear it. He felt himself take a deep, involuntary breath, and the panic ebbed.

"I hope that helps," Harry said as he walked to the door. "When I was little, sometimes I could hear the radio when I was, er, afraid at night." Severus could hear the unspoken 'in my cupboard.' "I didn't understand much of it, but it always made me feel like I wasn't alone."

The door opened with a creak. "I'll see you in the morning, sir. You try to have a good night, all right?" Then the door closed, and Severus was alone again.

As soon as he could no longer hear Harry, his mind reached out hungrily for the sound of the radio, needing something—anything—to cling to in the darkness. He listened for a moment and realised that its voice was the first one other than Potter's that he'd been able to understand since the snakebite. Then he recognised what it was and wished he could laugh out loud, in pleasure and relief, for Harry had tuned in the voice that had calmed citizens of the Empire for decades. It was the ever-dependable BBC, a tiny bright beacon of hope in the dark silence, and just as Harry had hoped, it calmed Severus, too.

"Sorry to interrupt you, Mister Potter, but have we any progress to report today?"

Severus flinched mentally when he heard this voice, but was pleased to find that now he could understand Minerva McGonagall's words, too. Harry jerked in his chair and stopped reading—and misreading—a technical article from a potions journal. "Headmistress! Yes, he's having a good day." Severus wondered what that meant.

"Here, see?" Potter continued, as if answering him. "No bleeding today. They think it might have stopped at last."

Gentle fingers touched Severus' neck. He could hear Minerva breathing and thought she must be leaning over him to inspect his wounds. "Very good," she said, as if her approval might motivate him to continue doing well. "Anything else?"

"Er. No…but I'm sure we'll see some improvement soon."

Minerva smelled faintly of smoke and medicinal potions, Severus thought, neither of which were characteristic for her, and he wondered just how bad things were at Hogwarts these days. "Hmm," she murmured, her fingers moving over other parts of him, still gentle but not hesitating. She turned his head, patted his hair, raised his arm and felt of his shoulder muscles, making him feel rather like a piece of livestock being inspected at market. "You've spent a great deal of time here, haven't you, Harry?" she asked in an even voice.

"Every day."

"And what do you do while you're here?"

"I read to him, mostly. And just…talk. And I help the medi-witches."

"Excellent." The inspecting fingers probed his belly, though for what he had no idea. "And are they using magic in his treatments yet?"

"Not yet."

"Hmm," she said. The fingers moved back to his neck, pressing hard enough to hurt this time. Severus thought an enraged growl at her, but of course, she heard nothing. "I am reluctant to take his bandage off, but I would like to see the wound for myself," she said.

"I can take it off. I help change the bandage every day."

"Do you, now? That's fine, then, help me just slip it to the side for a moment so I can take a look."


There was uncomfortable pawing at Severus' throat for a moment. Then cool air hit the still-raw wound, and Minerva made a tsking sound against her teeth. "The bleeding does appear to have stopped, but there has been scarcely any healing."

"I know."

"Surely magic could take care of it?"

"They're still afraid spells will overload him. Maybe even kill him." This seemed far too dramatic to Severus, but Potter sounded genuinely worried.

"Even now? It's been weeks!"

He imagined Potter making helpless motions. " As long as he's stable, maybe it's better not to rush things. I can't…we can't let anything happen to him, Professor. We just can't."

"Well." Minerva ran her fingers along his neck, sliding the bandage back into place. "Perhaps I'll have a talk with the Minister and his friend the CHO about whether they plan more aggressive treatment in the future." There was a distinct note of cynicism in her voice.

"Would you?" Potter asked, apparently oblivious to her tone. "The Healers who come through won't tell me anything new about what they're planning to do, or when they expect him to get better." Severus felt Harry smooth the bandage with his fingers, as if double-checking the way she had repositioned it. "I'd go see Kingsley again myself, but I don't want to leave Professor Snape alone."

"There are medi-witches tending to him all day, Harry. You mustn't think you can't leave his side."

"No, I just…" He paused, sounding uncomfortable. "I like being here. I want to keep an eye on him myself."

"All right," Minerva said in a softer voice. "I understand." Her voice moved away; she must have stepped back from the bed. "Have you seen any sort of response at all from the Professor, Harry, when you speak to him?"


"But still you feel optimistic about his recovery?"


"Please tell me why."

"Wait, don't you still believe he's going to get better?"

"I want to know what you believe," Minerva replied. "You seemed quite convinced, when first you brought him home, and given that no response from him has been forthcoming, I want to assess your present level of certainty, and the reasons for it."

"Is someone complaining about him being here? Because he deserves to be treated like a—"

"Harry." Her voice was firm. "Professor Snape will receive every bit of care he needs, and he will be recognised, in time, as a hero. You may count on me to see to those things. What I need to know is why you believe he is still capable of further recovery, when the Healers have offered little hope. I assume it has something to do with why you're here every day?"

"It does. I don't want him to be alone when he wakes up."

"That is a noble goal, but he could 'wake up,' as you say, at any time. You can't spend twenty-four hours a day in this room."

"No. But I'm here as much as they'll let me be."

"Then my question remains: why? Why, Harry? What have you seen in him that makes you believe he will return to us?" There was a long silence. Then, "Please, Harry. I need to know."

"You'll think I'm mad."


Severus heard Harry take a deep breath. "I heard him, in the boathouse. I thought he was dead, but then I heard him. Heard his thoughts."

"I see." She paused for a moment. "Did anyone else hear them?"

"No. Hagrid was there, but I don't think he heard anything."

"Have you heard any further thoughts from Professor Snape?"


"And has anyone else heard them?"


"But still, you believe."

"Yes. And I won't give up on him. I don't care how long it takes." This was ridiculous, and Severus wished he could scoff out loud at the thought that the Saviour of the Wizarding World was planning to spend eternity sitting at his bedside. Minerva, however, seemed to accept the idea.

"I suppose," she said slowly, "it was very lucky for Professor Snape that you were there to…hear his thoughts, as you say, at the proper time."

"You do believe me, then?"

"I do not disbelieve you. And I want very much for our Severus to recover." Her voice changed directions and came straight at him again. "I'm afraid I have much to atone for, and it will be ever so much more satisfying to apologize to him if he is alive, and conscious, to hear me do so."

"Yeah." Potter's voice was soft. "Me, too. And I don't think we're the only ones."

"I hope not," Minerva said. She picked up his hand. He heard soft footsteps, and then Potter was on his other side and holding his other hand. "Severus," she whispered. "You can come back to us anytime now. We're waiting."

Severus lay there, still and silent, and ached with wishing to do just that.

Chapter 3

"Good morning, Professor, it's a beautiful day out there, and I've got a new spy novel to read to you. Time to be waking up, don't you think?" Harry leaned over the bed and spoke from close to Severus' ear, adding, "I'll get you some delicious breakfast if you'll just wake up." The maddening scent of coffee, tea and toast had drifted into the room with the boy, as if confirming that he could deliver on his promise. The voice of the BBC droned in the background as it had all night, reminding him that right now, all over England, people were eating their morning meal and welcoming a normal day.

At that moment, Severus longed for nothing more than the taste and feel of food in his mouth again, and the chance to have a normal day. He continued to lie motionless, however, and after Potter had rattled around the room for a bit and made his usual morning inspection of Severus' condition—with a ritual smoothing of the bedclothes, and a gentle touch to his face that wiped away any traces of the night's loneliness—Severus heard him click the little radio off, and then drop into his bedside chair with a sigh.

Nearly three weeks, which felt well on towards an eon, had passed since the end of the war, and Potter had sat next to him every single day of them.

Severus was sure that he was experiencing full awareness now. He'd begun trying to catch himself dreaming, and had wondered how to determine if he were in some sort of poison-induced trance. For a while he thought either, or both, might be true. But after three weeks, he was sure he was experiencing conscious reality again. He could mark the passage of night and day by a number of cues now, could hear and smell and feel everything around him, and he understood what people were saying when they came into his room.

They, however, could not understand him, because he still could not speak. Neither could he open his eyes, or control the movement of any part of his body. All he could do was lie still and silent, and grow more and more furious with his state of imprisonment, which though it was not imposed by any outside authority was just as certain, and just as limiting, as would have been a cell in Azkaban.

He had to acknowledge with grudging gratitude that at least he was warm, and dry, and apparently well-fed by the distasteful Muggle methods they were using. He had heard Harry and others speak of the Healers' reasons for choosing this treatment approach, and though it galled him, he admitted that they might not be entirely misguided. Because magic was forbidden, he was subjected to humiliating bodily care procedures several times a day, but at least he was not in physical pain; there was always that to be thankful for.

Still, he remained locked and chained in the dark chambers of his own mind, a place he'd never found comfortable even in what had passed for normal in his life. He'd survived as long as he had on heat from the burning torch of his commitment to Lily, and to Dumbledore, and increasingly—though he'd have denied it had anyone asked—to Harry. Now that Potter had survived and was no longer in danger, there was nothing left to fuel him. He had no reason to live at all and had not expected to. And yet, here he was.

He was a man lost, with no idea how to find himself. He was a man afraid in ways he had never been before when faced with mere Death Eaters or Dark Lord, and with no protector anywhere near this time; there was no Dumbledore making rounds at St. Mungo's. There was no one now to help Severus, and he could not help himself.

The only distraction from his misery was the familiar voice of Harry Potter. Potter read to him every morning, and read some more or chattered drivel to him every afternoon, and at least twice every day—with special intensity just before he left each evening, as if he expected a miracle to happen overnight—he begged Severus to come back. He did these things every day, and Severus had no idea why. He had realised, however, after the first few days of terrified loneliness had passed, that sometimes he achieved a moment or two of actual calm while under the spell of Potter's voice. These were his only moments of real peace, and as soon as Potter left every evening Severus collapsed into his solitary mental torture chamber again, where he would curl up into a ball and try to hang onto his tenuous grip on the world until the familiar voice returned the next morning.

He had thought that Potter would hate him even more after learning the truth about his feelings for Lily. He wouldn't have blamed the boy at all for resenting Severus' emotional encroachment on his mother, whom he had every right to consider his private territory. He wouldn't have given Harry the memories in the first place if he'd had any idea that they both were to live through the war, and certainly not if he'd known he would end up dependent on the boy for his very sanity.

Harry radiated no hatred at all these days, however. He seemed, in fact, quite placid and determined to keep Severus calm as well. None of it made any sense, but it was all Severus had to grab onto, so he held it tight. When Harry was speaking, Severus was listening.

This day, however, proved to be different. On this day, pronounced "beautiful" by Potter already, Severus realised he could hear more than just the boy's voice.

It was mid-morning. Harry sat in his usual chair on the door side of the bed, and Miranda, one of the morning medi-witches, was engaged in her usual humourless rituals on the other side. It seemed to be taking her a long time to complete her procedures, and Severus was growing more irritated than usual, when he was sure he heard Potter speak. The boy said, Can't you just get the fuck away from him? You're not doing him any good. Come on, let him be. He'd hate this, I know he would. If he was able, he'd hex anyone who tried to touch him like that. Then he barked out a crude laugh, and Severus waited for the medi-witch to snap at him, thinking she would at least tell him to keep his opinions to himself. But she said nothing. She just kept poking and probing, and now was even humming to herself as she worked, which made her, if anything, more irritating.

Severus was astonished. How could the boy get away with making such a rude comment? Severus himself would never have let it pass, had he been able to do anything about it. What was wrong with this medi-witch?

It's not bloody fair, either…why can you touch him any way you like, and I can't?

Potter had spoken again, this time in a jarring non sequitur; touching Severus should have been the last thing he wanted. The medi-witch was, of course, handling him in appallingly personal ways, but she'd been doing this for weeks now, as Potter well knew. So what was wrong with Potter today? And why didn't the medi-witch snap back at him?

He was thinking hard about this, trying to puzzle out why the boy was saying such things and getting away with it, when his mind was flooded with vision for the first time in weeks. This wasn't just a scene he was imagining; it was being forcibly thrust in front of his eyes. There was a white room, and a white-shrouded man in a bed, and they seemed very real. It was too bright at first, but his light-deprived brain seemed to adapt, until he realised he was looking at a hospital room and that it must be his own.

An uncanny possibility occurred to him: perhaps he was seeing what Potter saw. There was the medi-witch, a tall, skeletal-looking woman with wild grey hair poking out from under her medical cap. He saw her hands doing the very thing he could feel, which was palpating his abdomen as if the sheer discomfort of it might awaken him when nothing else had. Then the vision traveled up his body, and with a shock he took in the view of his own scarred neck, and his head where it lay on the pillow.

If he could have gasped out loud, he would have done so. He would not have expected his face to look youthful or healthy, but this…he was pale as a dead maiden, and his hair had been hacked off just short enough to look even worse than it had before. And his neck, stripped now of its bandage for cleaning…there would be marks, of course, from the wounds dealt by the snake's teeth, but why were they so red and angry-looking? It had been almost three weeks, after all; shouldn't there have been at least some healing in all that time? Severus understood now Minerva's shock at seeing his neck after Potter removed his bandage.

The man that Potter—and now, Severus—was staring at still looked like a snake's chew-toy, and his overall appearance was cadaverous, with his skin sunk into his neck and cheeks, and his collarbone sharp just under the flimsy hospital robe. His closed eyes were deeply shadowed, as if they had been bruised. It struck Severus at that moment that he'd never seen his own closed eyes before, and he wondered how was he seeing any of this at all.

The field of vision shifted on its own, raking around the room so fast it made him dizzy. Severus was sure then that he must be seeing, somehow, through Potter's eyes. He hadn't tried to use Legilimency to push his way into the boy's mind, but apparently here he was. He quickly decided that no matter how he'd gotten here, he had better make the most of it, so he drank in the view and tried to memorize everything Potter was seeing, all the details in the room. There was a window, the shade half-opened so he could not quite see outside; there was a door across the room from the window, and a small, plain bureau next to the door. The walls were white, but so dingy they might as well have been grey. The door was grey, institutional-looking and thick.

Too soon, Potter's eyes moved back to track the medi-witch again as she worked Severus over. He could see the needle glinting in her hand as she connected a fresh, transparent bag of something to a small device stuck into his arm. She gave the thing in his arm a twist, and it hurt. Severus winced inside, though he knew his body made no movement.

To his astonishment, he felt another little wave of pain a second later, though it was muted. The second pain seemed almost to be an echo of sensation, softer and a bit delayed, as if it had bounced back at him from…somewhere else. It was most perplexing. What was that? he wondered, trying to work it out. And there came another bounced-back reaction, this time a muted replay of his confusion and surprise.

He stilled his thoughts and tried not to think anything at all while he listened for something more to come back at him, but there was nothing. The room, and Severus' head, were silent but for the small sounds of the medi-witch's fussing.

"You might be hurting him, you know." It was Potter's voice again, louder but sounding farther away.

"He's not feeling a thing, Mister Potter, don't you worry," said the raspy, but not unfriendly, voice of the medi-witch.

"You can't be sure of that." The boy sounded angry.

"I'm as sure of it as I can be, young man. The professor here, if he's still with us at all, he's far away. Likely dreaming sweet dreams. Remembering happier times, before he got himself bitten by that snake." Severus felt the woman give his arm a little pat, almost affectionately, and it nauseated him.

"He didn't have any happier times." Potter was definitely upset. "He had a miserable life. He died a hero, but he didn't even know it."

There was surprise in the witch's voice when she said, "A hero, was he? Haven't heard about that. You're the hero, Mister Potter, and everyone knows it. Can't understand why you're hanging about here with him, no sir, I can't. You should be out celebrating, Mister Potter, that you should."

"No one's heard that he's a hero because the Ministry doesn't want you to hear about it!" There was real fury in Potter's voice now. "But if it hadn't been for him, none of the rest of us could have done our parts. It would have been a very different war, and you'd be bowing before the Dark Lord now."

"You mustn't say such things! It's over now, and You-Know-Who is gone. Your professor paid his price, and I'm sorry, but sorry can't bring him back. All he's doing now, if you ask me, is just biding his time until he wastes away to nothing and we have to let him go. It's a sad thing, son, but sometimes that's the way it is."

"It's not going to be that way with him, do you hear me?" Severus could hear him, all right. "He's going to get better, he has to. I'm not giving up on him. I'm staying right here until he wakes up. And you—" Severus could imagine Potter shaking a finger at the woman, "—you had better be doing everything you can to help him. If you're not, I'll find somebody else who will. Do you understand me?"

Severus wished he could let his mouth hang open in astonishment. All this vehemence was for him?

"No need to threaten, Mister Potter. No need for that at all." The medi-witch seemed to be clucking to calm the boy, and she didn't sound unnerved by his outburst. "The poor man has my sympathy, you needn't worry. We'll do our best for him, you and I, all right? And we'll see what happens."

She thinks he's off his nut, Severus realised. She's trying to pacify him. And she thinks I'm a vegetable. She doesn't believe I'm ever going to come out of this state, whatever it is.

Potter was shuffling in his chair, and then sounded as if he had jumped out of it. "I am not crazy!" he shouted. "Don't patronize me, or him either!"

"Mister Potter," the woman began. She had finished her chores with Severus and began to walk across the room, towards Potter's voice. "I don't think—"

"Just go, please. If you're done torturing him for now." Potter's voice was cold. The woman made a harrumphing noise, but didn't argue any further. Severus heard her shoes stepping away with precise, measured squeaks of rubber against polished stone, and then she was gone. There came the creak of Potter's chair as he collapsed back into it.

Severus was more perplexed than ever. Such drama was unexpected, and Potter's protectiveness made no sense at all. What are you about, boy? he thought in irritation.

To his great surprise, he suddenly saw through Potter's eyes again, and those eyes were looking at him. A backwash of confusion flowed over him, and he could feel that it was Potter's confusion, at least as much as his own. You're making no sense, Potter, he thought, wishing the boy could explain to him what the hell was going on.

"I…what?" Potter's voice was very soft.

Severus' thoughts ground to a halt.

He listened to himself breathe for a few seconds, then wrapped a tight mental grip around his thoughts, holding them silent and motionless. He heard the boy sigh and move in his chair. Then he thought the words, Harry Potter? almost experimentally, wondering if it was possible that Potter could…

"Yes?" The hopefulness in the voice clutched at Severus' heart.

Potter, he thought, enunciating inside his head as clearly as he could. Can you hear me?

"I can!" Wonder matched the hopefulness. "Snape!" he whispered. "Is that you?"

Who else do you imagine it could be? He had intended to throw in some sort of contemptuous epithet there at the end—you moronic child—but found that he couldn't. Of course it's me.

"You're still…in there, then?" Harry asked, sounding worried, and as though he'd not been so confident of this basic fact as his brash declarations to the medi-witch had made him appear.

I assure you, I am very much still 'in here.'

"How do you feel? Are you in pain? Are you hot, or cold, or hungry? What do you need? What can I do to—"

Stop, Severus thought at him, overwhelmed. I am… He stopped, surprised to realise what he was. I am reasonably comfortable at the moment, aside from having had to endure the poking and prodding of that blasted witch.

There was a long pause. Severus imagined himself flexing mental muscles, to see how far he could stretch. He was startled to feel something indefinable seem to bend, to give just a little, as he pressed against it.

"That's you, isn't it?" Potter whispered. "Sort of…touching me?"

Apparently it is.

For a moment, something fragile and insubstantial seemed to reach out toward him, eager but a little afraid. Severus braced himself and reached out toward Potter again. Some immaterial essence of each of them found the other in the dimensionless space between them, and Severus felt them connect with a visceral gasp. Suddenly he was truly not alone, and his feeling of relief was stunning.

Potter's essence was grasping at his, somewhere there between them in the room, and Severus felt himself shudder as they touched. The touch was tentative, but Severus could feel a hesitant welcome behind it and had a sense of Potter's entire soul spread out before him, all shiny and eager. In their disastrous joint experiences with Occlumency and Legilimency, Potter had never opened to him like this, and Severus, desperate to escape from his mental prison, leaped through the door Potter held open for him and into the boy's mind.

He hadn't meant to invade; he was simply trying to re-enter the world through the only conduit available to him. To Harry, however, it apparently hadn't felt that way. A moment after Severus slipped his experienced mind inside the boy's, he found himself expelled as though Harry were a frightened crab, who then scuttled deeper into his shell and darted away.

Potter, wait, Severus began, thinking the words desperately, not caring that it sounded like pleading. I didn't mean to…

He stopped, trying to think this through. Was it even possible for him to speak to the boy without eventually invading his mind? And more worrisome, what was Harry right this moment able to see in Severus' mind? This last he found he didn't care so much about. It was a profound relief to break out of the isolating prison of his own head, even if it was only to escape into Potter's, and even if it meant sharing more of himself with Potter than he'd ever have been willing to before. Difficult times required drastic measures, after all.

Don't go away. He gulped down his pride. Please.

The answer was a moment in coming. "I won't go away, I promise. You just startled me. How come you haven't, er, spoken to me before, like this?"

I didn't realise that I could. He considered this, and felt like an idiot. He was an accomplished Legilimens, after all. Why hadn't he thought to try this?

Potter gave a tiny, nervous laugh. "You're not an idiot. You're probably the least idiotic person I know."

Startled, Severus tried to pull his own thoughts closer. You…could hear me, thinking that? Imagining my own idiocy?

"Um. Yeah. I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to spy on you."

I realise that. Severus' thoughts tumbled over each other as he tried to sort things out. I first heard you thinking when the medi-witch was in the room…

"Oh! Did you hear her thoughts, too?"

No. And I could not hear your thoughts before today. He remembered that it had taken several days to understand the spoken voices of others, as well, and wondered if his confusion had been an effect of the poison, one he was managing to throw off gradually.

Severus wrapped himself in a layer of Occlumency and tried to think this over without Potter hearing him. He'd never attempted to use his skills in order to communicate with another person. Legilimency was all about obtaining information against someone's will, information that couldn't be had any other way. Likewise with Occlumency; it wasn't just a privacy filter, it was a weapon, a tool for misdirection, and a defensive shield to be used in the most dangerous situations.

Perhaps, however, those skills could also be the keys to getting himself out of the prison of his own mind.

"Um, Snape?" Potter was saying in a soft, worried voice. "Are you okay?"

Severus loosened his mental cloaking, just a bit, relieved that he had been able to conceal at least some of his thoughts from the boy. I am fine, Potter. I was thinking.

"Oh." The boy didn't seem to catch the implicit without you hearing me, but that was all right with Severus. "Do you need anything?" he asked.

Beyond regaining the ability to control my muscles and getting out of this infernal place?

"I…yeah." He was silent for a moment, but Severus could feel him fretting. "How can I help you do those things?"

I don't know, Potter. He thought again, hard, and then said, We need to ascertain the possibilities and limits of this method of communication. He wondered how far Potter would go with this, and added, If you are willing, of course.

"Of course, sure I am!" He left his chair and stepped close to the bed. "I'll do whatever you need, whatever you want me to do."

Your helpfulness is noted. With some surprise, I must say. I would have assumed that after seeing the memories I gave you…

"How can you be surprised, after all you've done for me?" Even though the motion made no sound, Severus could sense that he was shaking his head. "I'm here for you, Snape. I owe you everything. You can count on me." Severus felt a hand squeeze his shoulder, and it made him feel warm and hopeful in a way he hadn't in a very long time. He realised with horror, an instant later, that Potter was feeling this, too, as though he was reading it right from Severus' thoughts; the hand on his shoulder held on tighter. Severus gave himself a hard mental shake and tried to return his mind to the business at hand; Potter let go of his shoulder, and he felt him trying to clear his own mind.

Very well, Severus thought. Help me to determine what we're working with, then. You can…hear my articulated thoughts, is that correct?

"You mean, what you think in words? Yeah, I can."

But if I think in more abstract terms, or non-verbally, can you hear, or see, that as well? He imagined a Scottish highland landscape, with cloudy skies and heather and rocky hills in the distance.

"Hmm." Harry seemed to be trying to peer at something inside his head. "Is that near Hogwarts?"

It wasn't, but it told Severus what he needed to know. You can see visual thoughts, then.

"I guess so. You were imagining a picture, right? Of a place?"

I was. What about this, now… He tried to conjure anger in his head, not specific feelings directed at an individual, as that seemed to be wrapped up in names and words, but the concept of anger. He found it difficult to do at first; then he thought of all the victims of the war, too many to count, far more than he had personally known, but all just as dead, and he found that a generalized but powerful anger rose up in him fast enough.

Potter's mind trembled; Severus could feel it, and it hurt him. "You're not angry with me anymore, are you?" the boy asked. "I tried, Professor, I did what you told me, I'm sorry I couldn't save more—"

Potter. I am not angry with you. Calm yourself, please. He waited until the trembling had stopped. I was imagining the essence of anger; it was not directed at you. You could feel it, though?

"I could." Severus heard a sniffle. "You're sure you're not angry with me anymore?"

How could I be? At the moment you appear to be my only connection to the world. That sounded too pathetic, so he added, and I am aware that you did all you could, more than anyone could have asked of you. No one has any call to be angry with you now. No one.

"I'm sorry, you know." A flood of remorse seemed to burst out of Potter. "For everything, for all the…bad blood between us, at school. I know you couldn't tell me all those things earlier. But I wish I'd known. I wish I'd been able to understand. I wouldn't have been such a…such a prick to you, really I wouldn't."

Nor I to you, I assure you, had it not been required of me by circumstances. This was very odd. Why did they seem compelled to reconcile? Was it something about the intimacy of this strange mental contact they were experiencing?

"Yeah," Potter said, sounding similarly baffled. "I think that must be it."

Must be…oh. You heard that, of course.

"I'm sorry. I couldn't help it."

I understand.

"What else do you want to know? What else should we try? I mean, to see how far this goes?"

A moment ago I used Occlumency to shield my thoughts. Let me attempt that again. He drew the mental cloak tight around his mind again, and after it felt secure, he thought in words as distinct as he could make them, Mister Potter. If you can hear me, clap your hands. There was no sound. Severus tried again. I repeat. Harry Potter, please clap your hands.

"Um. Snape?" Potter said after a few seconds. He did not clap.

Severus loosened his mental fencing, and heard himself sigh—quite involuntarily—as he did so. I asked you to clap your hands, but evidently you could not hear the request.

"I guess not. You were trying to protect your thoughts, though, weren't you?"

I was. This was a useful thing to know. It wouldn't do for Potter to be able to hear every stray thought that passed through Severus' mind.

"I wouldn't try to spy on your thoughts, I promise."

I am not suggesting that you would, Severus thought to him, realising that the boy had inadvertently just done that very thing. It requires considerable effort for me to shield them, so you may very well see and hear more than you're prepared for, regardless. He found that their disastrous Occlumency lessons seemed a distant memory, and was glad. I cannot express, he thought as clearly as he could, what a relief it is to have some contact, any contact at all, with someone outside my own mind. He paused, trying to stay calm as he revealed his own fears. It seemed better to lay them out now, rather than have the boy discover them in a moment when they'd brought Severus especially low. I had thought, Potter, that I might be trapped here in isolation, a solitary prisoner of my own mind, for years. Decades, perhaps. The prospect was ghastly.

"I understand. And you don't need to worry, all right? I'm not going to leave you all alone. I'm just not. I promise."

Gryffindors are known for making foolish promises.

He laughed. "Of course we are. And for keeping them, too."

Yes. That as well.

They chuckled together for a moment, and their mixed voices, one silent and one audible, made an odd harmonic in Severus' head. Then he asked, Potter. Can you…speak to me, silently? In your mind alone?

"I'll try." Severus could feel a small torrent of power gathering itself in Harry's mind. He waited, and then heard, as if it had been spoken inside his head, Am I doing it? The words came to him in a burst.

You are. Tell me something more.

Harry tensed again. This takes…a lot of…concentration. He paused. I'm sorry…the medi-witch was hurting you. It looked like…she was being more rough than usual.

It doesn't matter, Severus replied, distracted by the fact that in addition to hearing Potter's voice, he could see Potter's mind opening up before him again, as if it were a large room and he stood in its entryway. It was still as bright and hope-filled as it had been a short time ago on first glance, though as he looked closer, he could see that it was full of disorganized piles of things he could not identify and sheltered a few dark corners into which one would have to carry a candle. The door to the room had opened up as soon as the boy started speaking, and Severus hung there at its portal, uneasy and unwilling to step back inside. Potter, he said into the silence, I must inform you that once again, I appear to have free access to your mind at this moment. I am taking care not to step inside, but you should be aware that you are vulnerable in this way.

At once he felt Potter pull away from him. The door to the room of his mind closed, but softly, and he spoke out loud. "I don't know how to…speak to you, in my head, without letting you see it all. I'm sorry. I'd be willing…I'd let you in, if that's the best way for us to communicate. Do you want me to?"

No. I do not wish to abuse your trust. As long as you can hear me speaking in your mind, that will be sufficient. You should speak to me out loud, as you always have. Severus decided it was safer not to mention that he seemed to be experiencing little random bursts of Potter's emotions and physical sensations even when he was speaking out loud; he didn't want to make the boy self-conscious. You've been reading and chattering to me for weeks now, so I don't assume your carrying on half a conversation with me will surprise the medical staff at all.

Harry laughed. "No, I don't imagine it will." Severus heard him drag his chair closer to the bed, and there was a loud squeak as he sat back down in it. His voice came from lower then, and closer to Severus' ear. "So, we can talk now. That's brilliant. Tell me what you need, then. Anything. How can I help you?"

At this further repeat of the boy's broad and generous offer, the panic that now lived in the back of Severus' mind settled down a bit and relaxed its grip on him. Still, it didn't go away entirely, and he could see Potter staring in at it.

"That's bloody awful, Snape. Do you feel like that all the time?"

Severus realised that it was going to be very, very difficult to maintain mental communication with the boy while also keeping his other thoughts barricaded. Potter hadn't been able to do it at all, and so he had reverted to speaking aloud, but Severus didn't have a choice; he could speak no other way. Standard Occlumency methods were inadequate here, and he would have to develop new ones on his own, or else decide not to care what Potter saw.

What the fuck, he thought, too tired to try to hide it. He knows I loved his mother. He knows I never hated him. He knows Dumbledore deceived us both. What more do I know that's worth hiding?

"Um. Snape?"

Of course, you heard all of that, too.

"But I wasn't trying—"

Severus made his decision. He projected a deep sigh at the boy and then the words, I don't care, Potter. It doesn't matter anymore.

Potter was silent for a long moment. Severus could think of nothing more to say, and he had no more pride to swallow. If he wanted to escape from the prison of his own mind, even for a little while, he was going to have to let Potter into it. Potter hadn't killed or humiliated him so far, though he'd had ample opportunity. Severus decided he was just going to have to trust the boy.

Potter spoke up then, at once changing the subject and still respectfully addressing Severus' thoughts. "You're going to get better. I've always thought so, but now I'm sure of it. If your mind is still in there, then you're going to come out of this. You have to."

I wish I had your confidence.

"Here," Potter said, picking up Severus' hand. "Take some." For just a moment, he heaved open the door to his mind, and Severus felt a wave of optimism burst out of the doorway. It flowed over and around him, warm and very sure of itself, and seemed intensified by the physical contact between them.

Severus let his mind relax, just a little, into the wash of the foolish boy's hope. It was powerful and felt real, and he couldn't help but be lifted up by it. I hope you're right, Potter.

He did not put mental voice to his thought that Gryffindor or no, Potter surely wouldn't be content to sit here with him and be his pipeline to the world forever. If Severus hadn't recovered at least some physical control by the time the boy got bored with him, he'd be stuck back in his mental prison again, with no other way out in sight.

He almost didn't hear it when Potter whispered, "I'll stay here as long as you'll let me." He laughed softly. "Maybe longer."

Severus settled, exhausted, into Harry Potter's optimism, and tried to rest.

"Um, Margaret?" Margaret was one of the day-shift medi-witches. She had strong, confident fingers, which today were unusually cold. Her voice, however, was warm and soft. She wore efficient shoes with rubber soles that drubbed the floor without squeaking when she walked.

"Yes, Mister Potter?"

"Do you hear anything different today?"

Margaret! Margaret! Do pay attention, please! Severus had no idea what Margaret looked like. Harry had offered to show him—had in fact offered to let Severus look through his eyes, as it were, all the time if he wished—but after a few moments trial the previous day Severus had declined to continue, as he found it made him dizzy to follow someone else's vision as it swooped around the room. Besides, he had no desire to look at himself, which was what Harry's eyes spent a fair amount of time doing.

"Different?" Margaret said

"Yeah, that is, like voices? Besides mine?"

"Voices?" She sounded amused. "What other voices should I hear?"

"Oh, I don't know. What about noises, then? Any odd noises?"

Severus projected a very loud squelching, spluttering sound, the kind one might make against a baby's stomach.

"What sort of noises do you mean?" Severus could imagine her hands on her hips as the woman faced Potter, who was struggling to keep a straight face.

"Well, anything. Anything unusual."

There was a snort, not unfriendly, but disbelieving. "I don't hear any noises I'm not expecting to hear."

That's because you have the sensitivity of a turnip, Madam.

It was Potter's turn to snort, then.

"Is there something funny you think I should be hearing, Mister Potter?"

"I guess not. No. Sorry to bother you."

The woman laughed. It was a kind sound, though, as if she was concerned for Harry rather than condemning him. "I think you need to be getting out more, away from here, young man. Go out with some friends tonight, why don't you? We'll look after the Professor here. You needn't worry about him."

Severus held very still inside, agreeing in spite of himself, hating the fact that he needed this boy more than he'd ever needed anyone or anything before.

"I, uh, thanks, Margaret," Potter said, sounding uncomfortable. "I'm okay, though." Don't you worry. This soft, hesitant thought came fumbling toward Severus. I'm not going anywhere.

"Well. Just remember. You have to take care of yourself as well as him, all right?"

"Yes. Thanks. I'll…try."

Severus tried in vain to relax as Margaret's quiet shoes thumped out of the room and away, down the corridor and back to the outside world.

"Are you certain you can't hear anything? Anything at all?"

Minerva, I am here. In spite of appearances, I have survived. Can't you hear my voice? Severus tried again, thinking harder, trying to make the thoughts louder. Now, perhaps?

He knew that Minerva must be frowning and concentrating all her senses as she tried to pick up anything unusual around the room. He knew with equal certainty that she could not hear his thoughts any more than he could hear hers. He did, however, hear her sigh after another moment's effort.

"I'm very sorry, Mister Potter, but I do not hear anything unusual. What did you expect me to hear?"

Potter hesitated, something Severus knew he did not do often. "Are you sure you don't hear—" and Severus could feel the moment when he pushed past his hesitation and committed himself to finishing the sentence, "—Professor Snape's voice, maybe?"

Now Minerva hesitated, and as before, Severus didn't need to feel her thoughts to know that she was questioning Harry's sanity. "I do not," she said. "But you are hearing him again?"



"Yes, but a lot more clearly."

Minerva might be shaking her head now, Severus imagined; or no, he thought, considering the ridiculousness of what Potter was claiming, she was probably staring at him, trying to decide how to convince the boy that he must be over-tired and needed a respite from his new and unlikely carer role. "What do you hear him saying?" she asked.

"Um. Lots of things. I've been reading to him, and we…we talk, about what I've read. I tell him about events in the news, what's going on in the world. Just…things, you know."

"You are communicating with him? Not merely overhearing his thoughts?"

"Yeah. For a few days now."

He heard a new wariness in her voice when she spoke again. "He has spoken to you more than once, then?"

"Oh, every day."

"And yet he has given no other sign of recovering?"

"Well, no."

"Mister Potter, I don't…" She trailed off, and he could imagine her leaning back, looking thoughtful and worried. Finally she said, "Has anyone else heard him?'

"No. We don't think anyone has, at least."


"Snape and I."

Severus shot him a little growl.

"Sorry. Professor Snape. And me. I mean, I."

Potter, Severus thought in exasperation, are you trying to sound like an idiot?

"I don't sound like an idiot, I'm just explaining it to her!"

"Excuse me?" Minerva sounded bewildered.

"Sorry, he just…er, he doesn't think I'm handling this very well."

"He doesn't think? Professor Snape, you mean? Handling what, exactly?"

"Explaining to you." His voice shifted direction. "I thought we agreed this was the right way to go about it."

Well, it's not working.

"I'm doing the best I can!"

"I'm sorry, what exactly are you doing?"

Potter. She's not going to believe you. Give it up before you make things even worse.

"You're bloody paralyzed, how can I make things worse?" Potter said, too loudly.

"Mister Potter, calm yourself, please!" Severus was almost relieved when Minerva adopted her take-charge voice. "It's clear that you're tired and not quite yourself. Perhaps you should take some time off, get away for a few days. Professor Snape will wait for you. He's not going anywhere."

"No, he needs me here! He hasn't got anyone else to talk to! And he's going to wake up any day now, I'm sure of it, and if I'm not here when he does then he might—" Potter stopped speaking, and Severus got the sense of him teetering at the edge of a precipice, of a great fall not quite taken.

"He might what, Harry?" Minerva asked, and Severus wondered, too.

"He might…run off, or something."

Severus knew that if he'd been able to move, his mouth would have been hanging open in surprise at this. Leave without seeing you first, you mean?

"Yes." Potter's voice was muted just a bit, as if he had turned away.

That's what you think I'm going to do?


That's ridiculous.

"It's not. It's exactly the sort of thing you'd do."

And this…upsets you?

There was a pause, then a small, "Yeah."

Severus imagined himself taking a long, cleansing breath. We will discuss this later.

"All right. But I'm not leaving you alone."

"I really don't think the Professor would expect you to stay here indefinitely, Harry—"

"That's not the point. He needs me. And I need to be here."

You cannot possibly need to be with me, of all people.

"Well, I do, so get used to it."

What do you expect to gain from association with me, Potter?

"I don't expect anything. I just want to get to know you better."

But why?

"Because my mother thought you were worth knowing. I think I owe it to her, and to you, to get to know you a little myself."

You owe me nothing.

"How can you say that? I owe you everything!"

Then I release you from any obligation you have assumed.

"But I don't want to be released!"

"Mister Potter," Minerva said firmly. "It's clear that you've been under a great deal of strain. I think you should come with me, and try to get some rest—"

"No! I'm not leaving him."

You're a hopeless case, Potter.

"I don't care!" Severus felt the heat of the boy's glare.

"Please, Harry, I'm sure if you'd just—"


Go with her, before she drags you away.

"No one's dragging me anywhere." At that the boy sprang from his chair and stood by the bed. He picked up Severus' hand in one of his own and clasped Severus' shoulder with the other, while bowing his head and leaning over the bed. Though he couldn't see any of it, Severus could have described Potter's position from the pressure of his hands and the sound of his voice so near. He had made an intimate space between them, sealed between the points where they touched and into which Minerva was not invited. "I'm not leaving you, do you understand?" Harry said with quiet intensity. "I'm not."

No one spoke for a long moment. Severus felt the steady warmth of Harry's hands, but heard at the same time the unevenness of his breathing. Minerva was off behind him somewhere, but the boy had closed her out.

I'm not, Harry thought, an edge of desperation on his subvocal words.

I hear you, Severus thought back to him, trying not to look at the raw mind exposed to him along with those words. I believe you. And I don't want you to leave. He felt the happy surprise that bubbled out of Potter's mind at that. But you must not be foolish. She mistrusts your judgment now, and will watch you more closely as a result.

I don't care.

That is abundantly clear. I hope your obstinacy doesn't do more harm than good.

It doesn't matter. I'm not leaving you.

Severus sent a long, weary sigh to the boy. We shall see.

"She's not my teacher anymore, you know. She can't tell me what to do."

"Mister Potter, I would not attempt—"

At that moment Agnes, another medi-witch, knocked on the door. She didn't wait for a response, but rattled into the room with her usual wheeled cart loaded with the odd and sundry supplies required for practical nursing. "A good afternoon to you, Mister Snape. And Mister Potter, how are you this fine summer day, young man?" She didn't slow down for a reply to these greetings, either, instead rushing right on with, "Time for your bath, sir. We'll get you freshened up in time for a lovely dinner, yes?" The fact that Severus had not tasted a bite of actual food for weeks seemed to have escaped her notice.

She seemed to look up and notice Minerva for the first time then. "Aye, good day to you, Madam. Give the Professor here a bit of privacy, won't you?"

"Yes, of course," Minerva said, sounding relieved. "That's perfect, then, Harry, come along, let's get some fresh air and we can discuss this somewhere more—"

"Um," said Harry.

"Go along, Mister Potter, I'm sure I can manage him alone," Agnes said.

"No, I'll stay," Harry said quickly, "I always help with the bath."

"I see." The Headmistress' voice was guarded. "Well, then." Severus was surprised at how easy her attitude was to read, in spite of the fact that her mind was opaque to him. "I'll leave you to it. But, Harry?"

"Yes, Headmistress?"

"Make sure you get some rest, will you? And don't hesitate to call on me if you…experience any difficulties. Any at all."

"I will. And I won't. I mean, I won't hesitate. To call you." He squeezed Severus' fingers.

"And Harry," she said from the doorway, "know that I want the best for Severus, too. Remember that, please?"

"Yes. Thanks."

Minerva was out the door then, her steps quiet. It was the cat feet, Severus supposed. He tried to relax and tried even harder not to be embarrassed—it was a waste of energy, he'd concluded days ago—as the nurse, assisted by Potter, efficiently stripped and washed him. Potter had, indeed, been doing this all along, but now that he was hearing some of Potter's thoughts, and Potter was hearing some of…well. If dealing with Severus' naked body hadn't put him off yet, perhaps their mental contact wouldn't change anything. He could only hope.

The warm water felt good on his skin. Their hands—Agnes' sure, though cold, and Potter's hesitant but warm—were gentle. It was not so hard, he found, to forget his modesty. Soon he would feel clean and sleepy, and the lovely-if-infuriating smells of Potter's dinner would tease him with their suggestion that this was just a normal sort of life he was living, in which people had dinner together in the evening and talked over the day's events. He would try very hard, listening to Potter slurp and chew and talk to him at the same time, not to think of the sterile nourishment being fed to him through a tube.

And he would try even harder not to think ahead to the moment Potter would leave for the evening, always with a squeeze of his hand and a solemn promise to return early the next morning.

He would try most of all not to think of the cold loneliness of the night that would follow Potter's leaving, a night in which he would lie still and will himself to sleep, to dream, to escape the frightening truth that without Potter, he would be truly and inescapably alone.

There was only one small thing to look forward to in the evenings, and that was the fact that he could do his serious thinking then, without worrying about whether he was adequately shielding it from Potter. He saved most of his difficult thoughts and mental diatribes for the nighttime, so that he could wrap himself up in them without alarming the boy.

Severus dragged his attention back to the hands that were now dressing him in a soft clean robe and pyjama pants. He tried to enjoy the sensations of physical contact. Potter was telling some sort of joke, he realised, and Agnes was laughing, and their mingled voices sounded very sweet and normal. Then Potter spoke in a more serious tone.

"Agnes," he said, "I don't suppose you hear anything unusual, do you?"

Potter's voice broke through Severus' terrified flight. In desperation he headed toward it, running as fast as he could. His exhausted legs pumped, feet pounding the ground, every step feeling very, very wrong. A vague thought formed in his head, telling him that he should be flying, not running…but that was mad, wasn't it? He could no more fly than he could…he could…

He gasped for breath, pushed the thought from his mind and kept running toward the voice, hoping that Potter, his most unlikely rescuer, might save him yet again.

"Are you sure you can't hear it?" Potter sounded desperate, as if with a fear of his own. Then he calmed. "Oh, wait. There. It's gone. He's awake, I think."

"However can you tell?"

"I can…sort of, hear him. You're sure you can't? You couldn't hear him dreaming?"

Someone laughed, though not unkindly. Severus realised it was Esme, yet another of the squadron of medi-witches who rotated in and out of his room all day long, doing unpleasant things. "I'm not sure I'd want to hear a man's dreams, Mister Potter," she said. "What was he dreaming about? Or is it fit to tell me?"

"He was afraid, and running from someone. Voldemort, probably."

Esme puffed out a breath, startled. "Well, stands to reason, doesn't it? Since that's who killed him."

"Yes, but…no, I mean, he's not dead! And he wasn't one for running from things. He was very brave." Severus could feel that strange lump in Potter's throat again. "I just wish I'd known it sooner. I was such a prat to him."

I am indeed awake, Mister Potter. Do not efface yourself on my behalf.

"Sorry," Harry murmured. "It's true, though."

"What's that, are you speaking to him, then?" The witch's skepticism was audible.

"I am. Can't you hear anything at all?"

I'm certain she can no more hear me thinking than I can hear her, Potter. No more than Agnes could, or Margaret, or Minerva. Give it up.

"I don't hear anything. Could you be hearing sounds from another room, perhaps?"

See, Potter? There you are, more evidence that you are the sole unlucky recipient of the gift of my thoughts.

"I'm not unlucky. How can you say that? What if no one could hear you? What would you do? You'd be all alone, and there would be—"

"Mister Potter. Don't." Severus was startled to feel the pressure of Esme's fingers, long and thin and quite strong, as they wrapped around Potter's wrist. "Stop torturing yourself, son. I know you miss him, but pretending isn't going to bring him back."

"I'm not pretending!" Potter's anger was like a sharp stab in Severus' chest. "And I don't miss him, I never even really knew him! But he is not gone! Do you understand me? He's in there, trying to get out, trying to get control of his body, and he's lonely, and he's afraid, and all he's got is me, and I'm a bloody idiot and I can't get anyone even to listen to him!"

Severus felt the boy trembling. He heard Esme walk around the bed, and through Potter's senses he knew that the woman had taken both his hands and was tugging on them, pulling him to sit down beside her. She spoke to him in a voice both earnest and urgent, and she kept holding his hands as though that would make him stop resisting her.

"I know you're keeping your hopes up," she said, very seriously, "but eventually you're going to have to face the facts. He's bad off, your professor. The snake got the best of that fight, for sure. If he was going to wake up, you'd think he'd have done it by now, wouldn't you? What's holding him back, if he's still in there?"

Severus could feel Potter shaking his head in frantic denial, but Esme didn't let go of his hands. "No, child. He's gone, I think. Left his body for good, and we're just holding it here and keeping it from moving on with the rest of him. I'm sorry. I know it hurts. But sometimes you have to let go of a person. You have to let them die, when it's their time—"

"It is not his time!" Severus could taste the boy's anger-mixed-with-fear. "He's still in there, I tell you!"

"The Healers don't think so."

"That's not true! They're just waiting to see—"

"It is true, Mister Potter. They've told you, but you haven't been listening."

"Then I don't care what they think." Potter was almost sobbing. "They're wrong. They don't even know him."

"The most important Healers in Britain have looked at him, son. Who are you to disagree with them?"

"I'm someone who actually cares about him, that's who. He's looked after me my whole life, even when I was an utter bastard to him, and I'll be damned if I'm going to give up on him. He's in there, I'm telling you!"

"Why are you so sure of this when even the Minister's own Chief Healing Officer says otherwise?"

"Because he talks to me! And I hear him dreaming!"

I was not aware of that last until today, Potter, and I must admit it's rather disturbing.

"Look, it just started happening, all right? It took me a bit to figure it out. I was going to tell you when you woke up anyway, but it seemed an easy thing to try Esme on—"

"Please, Mister Potter. Persisting in these fantasies is only going to make it harder to let him go in the end."

"Let him—he's not going anywhere. He's right here, and he's going to be fine! Why does no one believe me?"

Because you sound like a madman.

"I am not a madman!"

Esme had let go of Potter's hands, and Severus heard her stand up. "I have to go. I have other patients to look after, and I can see you are not ready to take my advice." She walked to the door and paused. "You need to get away from here, Mister Potter. Take a little trip, maybe. Have some fun. A bit of time away from the Professor here would do wonders for you, I think. I hope you'll consider it." She was out the door then, and gone.

Potter said nothing, but Severus could feel him put his head in his hands. He let the boy get himself under control again.

"Why doesn't anyone believe me?" Harry asked after a moment. "And why can't anyone else hear you?"

I assume they don't believe you precisely because they cannot hear me. And as to why you and no one else can hear me…hmm. He considered this. You touched me, as I lay dying. You took my blood upon your hands, and my…my tears, as well?

"I did." The voice was mournful.

You touched the wounds in my neck, did you not?

"Yes. I was trying to stop the bleeding."

I know you were. It was a foolish thing to do, you realise. There was venom in the wound, mixed with the blood. A thought occurred to him. Was your own blood already on your hands?

Potter considered this. "Yeah, probably. I'd been cut up a bit, by flying stuff, glass and stone and such. There couldn't have been a lot of my blood, though."

Enough, perhaps.

"Enough for what?"

To mix with mine, and protect me.

"How could my blood protect you?"

The same way it protected you all these years, I assume.

"Because of my mother? But that's…why would it protect you?"

Why did it protect you?

"Because she…oh."

There was an awkward silence. Then, I have no definite answers to your questions, Potter, and certainly no wish to make you uncomfortable. I shared the thought only in the interests of solving the puzzle of exactly why, indeed, I am alive, and further why you and you alone have this peculiar connection to me now.

"No, it's all right. And it makes sense." There was a quick scraping sound as Potter pulled his chair closer to the bed. "The way she was in your memories…I got the feeling that she did love you. You were kind of an idiot, sometimes, around her, and she…she got started with my dad when she was angry with you. And things just went on from there. But she did care for you. A lot. She wouldn't have got so angry with you if she hadn't."

I would think you might find it disturbing even to discuss this.

"Sure I do. But there's nothing for it now. I might not be here at all if you hadn't been an arse. So it's kind of hard to resent you for it, you know?"

That's big of you.

Potter snorted. "So you think that maybe getting a little of my blood mixed in with yours was what allowed you to survive all this?"

It's possible.

"You know…I think my mum would have been pleased."

Yes. Well. Severus felt the silence swell between them as each thought his own thoughts, though those thoughts mingled a bit in the constant flow of mental energy between them that did not cease even when he was shielding his private ponderings. After a little while, he imagined the sound of clearing his throat and spoke with his thoughts again. It does not, however, explain our…unique method of communication.

"No, that's a bother." Severus could feel him scowling, puzzling over the problem. "Something to do with your memories, maybe?"

I don't see how.

"They were the last thing I was thinking about when I sort of…died, I guess."

What do you mean, when you 'sort of died, you guess'?

"Well, I kind of…went to this place. Where Dumbledore was. And he told me I could come back, if I wanted to. Which was good, because I hadn't killed Voldemort yet."

You never told me about this.

"Sorry, I didn't think it mattered. What, did you go to that place, too?"

No. But I was thinking about the memories when I was waiting, sure I was going to die. I did not see Dumbledore, however. If I had, I'm afraid my words to him would have been less than charitable.

Potter seemed to lean even closer. "He set you up, didn't he?"

Severus wished he could take a deep breath before answering. He did. I imagine he felt he had no alternative.



Potter's hand went to cover Severus', warm and protective. "Do you think your memories might have connected us somehow? When we both…er, decided not to die?"

I did not decide against death. You decided for me, as I recall.


You came searching for me. Don't you remember? You heard my thoughts, even then. I told you to let me die in peace, but irritating brat that you are and have always been, you ignored me.

"Oh! I was right about that, then?"

You were, though I wasn't attempting to communicate with you.

"Well, whatever you were doing, if you hadn't been doing it I wouldn't have known you were alive."

I'm not sure that I was still entirely alive, frankly. At any rate I wouldn't have been, not for long, if you hadn't happened by. I was prepared to die, you know. You came along and interrupted things just after I'd made peace with death. I was ready to rest and did not wish to be rescued. I was hoping to simply fall asleep and never awaken.

"I…" He stopped, radiating confusion. "But I couldn't just leave you there. Even if you'd already been dead. McGonagall had sent me to fetch your body."

Yes. Well. Merlin knows there's no standing between a Gryffindor and his duty.

"Git." There was affection in the word.

It could be, you know, he thought to Harry, letting his mental voice roll the words out as if he was speculating on some fascinating subject, that I was already unconscious, and this is all some sort of dream, my final dream, and soon I will wake up and find myself truly dead.

"Don't say that!"

Calm yourself. If it's a dream, it's a most unlikely one. I never imagined you as my rescuer.

The boy laughed. "Me, neither." Severus felt him frowning thoughtfully. "Hey. About your dreams."


"I really was going to tell you about that. That I can hear them."

Yes, I understand that.

"It's just been a couple of days, now, that I've been able to."

What, exactly, do you hear in these dreams?

"Oh, your voice, mostly. You're talking, or shouting. Sometimes you seem afraid, like you're trying to escape from something. A lot of it is just gibberish."

That is probably a blessing. I would not wish my nightmares upon anyone.

"Most of them aren't nightmares, though. Just kind of confusing dreams."

I do hope they will not disturb you, as I don't imagine I can control them.

He felt Potter waving a hand. "Don't worry about it. I'll cope." He grinned, and poked Severus' shoulder playfully. "If things get scary I'll wake you up."

Hmm. See that you do. Severus resolved to stay awake as much as possible while Potter was present.

Some of his dreams, he was quite sure, were not the sort that Harry Potter would want to share.

Chapter 4

"Snape," Potter had said, several times, before Severus fully awakened from a miserable sleep to find the boy at his bedside. "Snape," he'd kept saying in a soft but insistent voice, as if trying not to wake him at the same time that he clearly intended to do so. Severus had been glad to extricate himself from the dream as it was promising, like all the others, to only get him good and frustrated and then to go nowhere.

All the trouble seemed to start with those dreams. Severus only figured out much later that trouble had really started with Potter's voice, so young and earnest, reminding him of things he'd once wanted but now would definitely never have. It was this same irritating voice that was at the moment prodding him out of sleep and into a state of wakefulness that promised to be just as unpleasant.

"Snape," the boy had said again, unnecessarily.

Bugger off, Severus had thought at him, and as usual, he hadn't.

"Are you all right?" came the whisper back.

Is that a serious question? Severus had spit at him, silently.

"You just...it's just that you were having one of…one of those dreams again."

I know that, you idiot. It had been bad enough to realise, a few days earlier, that his body had decided it still had sexual needs after all, and that it was time for them to reassert themselves. It had been mortifying to discover that Potter was aware of his erotic dreams when in the same room while he was sleeping. But why, Severus wondered, did the boy have to keep reminding him of that fact, when there was not a bloody thing he could do about it?

There was a long silence. Then, "Are they getting worse?"

How much worse do you think they could get? Would you like to see me explode and splatter myself all over the walls, perhaps?

He knew this graceless response was uncalled for. Potter was, in fact, the only thing keeping him from losing his mind, and the boy had made no attempt to embarrass him over the content of his dreams; indeed he'd seemed to go to great lengths to avoid addressing the subject in the convoluted communication that passed between them constantly these days. But the frustration was beginning to overwhelm Severus, and it came out in nastiness to the one person who could hear him raging.

"I just wondered…does it ever, um, you know, take care of itself?"

Severus thought a snarling black cloud at the boy, with a shimmer of misunderstanding around it.

Potter quickly clarified. "I mean, do you ever have a…a wet dream?"

Severus growled, though it was not an unreasonable question, given the unreasonableness of the whole situation. You should know the answer to that. You help bathe me every day.

"Well, yes, but I usually don't…I let the medi-witch take care of that, um, part of you. I didn't think you'd want me touching you there.

Severus softened the snarl in his mental voice. It never resolves itself in that way, no. He knew Potter was only trying to help, and wondered why Gryffindors were so very bad at recognising hopeless situations.

"Oh." While the boy pondered the concept of enduring weeks of unsatisfied arousal, Severus realised, with some relief, that for now the problem had subsided, his sexual arousal having been replaced by despair.

A medi-witch came in then, to put Severus through what he had come to think of as his morning paces. She poked and patted, turned and twisted, and went through a whole routine that brought him no closer to actually moving again. But he could not tell her that, so every day it was the same. Severus thought a long sigh at the boy, who opened the door to his mind far enough, just for a moment, to speak back through it, so that the nurse could not hear: I know. Sorry. She'll be done soon, and I'll read to you then, okay? He could feel Potter smiling at him, but only inside, where the witch couldn't see it.

She left a few moments later, and they were alone again. Severus waited for Harry to restart the conversation, hoping for the promised reading but unwilling to show his neediness by asking for it.

When the boy spoke, however, he seemed not quite ready to abandon their previous conversation. "You've had an awful lot of those dreams lately."

This is supposed to be news to me?

"Um. No." A pause. "I'm just worried about you."

Severus shot scorn out in all directions. You cannot actually be worried about my sexual health, Potter. Find something else to concern yourself with, like getting the rest of my bloody body to work again.

"But I am. Worried, I mean. If it were me…God, I'd be pulling my hair out by now."

Yes, welcome to life in my particular borough of the Dark side, Potter. Perhaps you'd like to pull my hair out for me, and make things all better?

"Um." He didn't speak for a very long moment, though Severus could hear him making the odd rubbing sound of wringing his hands. "You know, I could..." There was another pause, and the sound of knuckles cracking. "I could…that is, I might…" He sighed. "I'd be willing to help you out."

Severus aimed the rudest snorting sound he could imagine at the boy. Don't be ridiculous.

"It's not ridiculous. I would."

Severus pondered the possibilities suggested by these words for a long, skeptical moment before answering. What, exactly, are you offering? He refused to let himself feel any sort of hope or excitement. Surely there was no way…

"I could touch you. If you thought that might be enough to, you know, finish things off."

Severus was speechless, but just for a moment. When he could form thoughts again he asked, Touch me precisely how?

Harry laughed, sounding very nervous. "However you want me to, I guess. But I was thinking of…you know, just…a hand job."

Severus was sure he could hear the boy blushing. I cannot believe that you would consider doing such a thing. He tried to sound huffy, hoping the eager desperation lunging up behind the huffiness didn't come through.

"It's not such a stretch." Severus sensed him thinking hard; his mental resources were being taxed and as a result, a little more than usual of what was inside his head was seeping out. Then he said something Severus had somehow not detected before at all in the boy's tangled nest of thoughts. "I'm pretty sure I'm gay, so it wouldn't be a problem for me. If you know what I mean."

Severus shut his mental gates abruptly, closing himself in, and lay there with a stunned, still mind for a moment, trying to process this revelation. The idea that Harry Potter might desire men—of which general class Severus was a member, though perhaps not a representative one—unleashed dangerous thoughts, of temptations and indulgences so forbidden he'd never dared look at them. Once he acknowledged these thoughts, he wasn't sure he could control them, and if he was not careful, Potter might see. That would never do, as it would make his dependence on the boy even more profound.

Still, he had to answer, to say something that would respect the momentousness of Potter's admission. He sat there considering all this for some time, trying to formulate an appropriate response.

"Uh, Snape?" Harry's voice was soft and concerned. "Are you all right?"

Wrapping up his deepest reactions as securely as possible, Severus opened his mental window shades again and allowed the boy to hear him thinking. I am fine, Potter. He paused, testing his control and allowing his mind to stretch out again, very slowly. Somewhat surprised, however.

The boy laughed, now sounding more sad than nervous. "You're not the only one. Ginny was right brassed off about it. Said I'd led her on, or something." He shuffled in his chair. "But I didn't mean to. I just didn't realise, until…um."

So this was a new development. When, exactly, did you realise?

"Er." He seemed to be trying very hard to contain most of what he was thinking, but it wasn't working very well, and Severus knew the answer before Harry spoke. "Just…recently, I guess."

How recently? He knew as soon as the boy's ill-contained thoughts reacted to the question.

"A few weeks ago, maybe."

Since you started playing medi-witch with me, in other words.

"I…I guess so. Yeah."

And you felt confident in assuming that I shared your sexual inclinations, and would welcome your offer of assistance? He tried to put a certain amount of disdain into the words.

"I've seen your dreams, remember? I was pretty sure, yeah." He seemed amused rather than put off by Severus' tone.

But you've seen more than that, Potter. What of my memories of your mother? How do you reconcile those with the dreams?

"How do you reconcile them?"

I do not have to, as they are both a part of me. But surely you would not be comfortable with such…ambiguity.

Severus sensed a shrug. "I don't think it matters. You loved her a long time ago, but maybe you've grown up since then, and changed your mind about…things." Warm fingers wrapped around Severus' hand. "Besides, you're more complicated than those memories alone can show. I already knew that much about you. The dreams didn't surprise me that much, to be honest. And I kind of liked them."

So Harry had sussed out the truth about Severus and was not disgusted. Indeed it appeared he might be finding it arousing, and by extension, perhaps was finding Severus himself arousing. As ridiculous as this seemed, Severus knew it wasn't impossible; a young man's first crush upon discovering his homosexuality could be sparked by any unfortunate he happened to stumble upon, without regard for sense or logic. Severus knew this for certain, having had a few irrational crushes of his own as a much younger man.

Lily's boy, he thought behind his mental cloaking, might be willing to touch me intimately, might even be actively interested in doing so. Severus was sure he'd never encountered anything more ironic in his life. The question was, would Harry be able to carry through on his offer? Because if he could do it, without mortification or too much melodrama, Severus wasn't inclined to resist for the sake of nobility. His balls ached too exquisitely for him to be noble much longer.

He thought a loud, resigned sighing sound, making sure that Harry heard the message in it. Then he waited a few seconds, trying to create an illusion of control, trying to make Harry believe, somehow, that Severus would be the one granting a boon in this odd assignation they were contemplating. Then, tell me again, if you would, he thought, imagining the words in the smoothest, silkiest voice he could project, just what you are offering to do.

There was a short pause, and Severus heard the boy's chair squeaking across the floor, drawing closer to the bed. His heart began to pound, moving independently even though most other parts of him could not. Then Harry spoke, his voice sounding nervous but determined. "I could…use my hand. To bring you off. Maybe, starting like this…" And he lowered his hand to the blankets, covering Severus' groin with gentle pressure.

Severus felt the amplification of contact between them that often occurred when they touched, and in this sensitive spot it was almost too much to bear. The hand was still for a moment, as if adjusting to this heightened intensity, then it began to rub gently up and down, along the length of his erection—which had sprung up eagerly some moments ago—from belly to thighs and back again. It was indirect and insufficient, but still the best thing Severus had felt in a very, very long time. He sent out a low groan of appreciation, and was not surprised to get back a rush of shocked arousal that the boy's mind could not fence in. You like doing that, he thought in a low purr.

"Yeah," came the shaky reply. "I guess I do." The hand stopped rubbing. "Should I maybe lock the door, or something, before I do anything more?"

An excellent idea, Severus replied, irritated that he hadn't thought of that himself. It wouldn't do for anyone to catch the boy appearing to molest him. He heard the bolt in the door throw itself, and Potter muttered a hasty all-purpose ward. His hand still rested where it had stopped stroking, and through the boy's fingers Severus felt a pleasant, low-frequency tingling as the spell fell into place, as if Harry might be singing softly, very close to his ear, in a deep bass voice.

Then Harry whispered, sounding panicked, "Oh, shit. Severus, I'm sorry."


"I just used magic."


"Did I hurt you, with that spell? Can you tell?"

Severus considered. I do not believe so. Harry's hand still pressed against him, making it difficult to think.

"Should I take off the ward?"

No. You should get back to what you were doing. If they were going to get caught soon anyway, Severus hoped he could finish first…if, he reminded himself, this was even going to work at all, given his body's recalcitrance in everything else.

"Are you sure?"

Sure enough. We're wasting time. Someone could come by at any moment.

"Um. Right." The hand was removed for an instant, then snaked up under his blankets and robe and came down on his cock again, this time separated from it by only light, soft hospital pyjama pants. The feeling was much more intimate, and he let out a long, silent sigh. Harry resumed his stroking, and it was lovely, though frustrating and titillating in equal measure because of the fabric still between them. Severus relaxed into it and let his arousal build, hoping that this would be sufficient to bring him to climax. If it wasn't, he thought, it might kill him instead.

"Do you want," Harry asked, in a soft and husky voice, "for me to, um, get your pyjamas out of the way?"

Yes. Gently, please. The petting stopped for a moment, and Severus felt fingers at his hipbones, drawing the elastic waist of his pants down. He was relieved when Harry carefully stretched the pants in front so as not to tug his erection down painfully. Then the pants were down, and there was a warm hand on his cock, and he thought he might just die right then, from the pleasure of it. Gods, he let himself moan, that feels marvelous.

"Good." There was a rustling next to him, where Severus knew there was a bedside table. "Hang on, let me get some lotion." The caressing hand was withdrawn, there was a plastic pop, and then quick rubbing sounds. The hand returned, and the feeling of it gliding slick and smooth along his hard shaft was exactly what he needed. It gripped him with perfect firmness, cupping over at the top of the stroke and then sliding down again with just the right pressure…ah, don't stop, boy, don't stop, Severus moaned before he could even think of how much it sounded like begging, and then as quick as that it was over, and he was coming ferociously, emptying himself in blissful spasms against the scratchy sheets and the boy's gentle, slippery hand.

Harry let him finish, stroking gently until the semen stopped spurting and he began to soften. Severus lay in complete contentment, able to ignore his overall misery for a moment as he basked in the glow of pleasured release. "Guess you liked that, huh?" Harry asked, obviously pleased with the results of his efforts.

Surely you don't have to ask.

"No." He chuckled. "I'm glad it worked." He removed his hand then, and left the bedside, returning a moment later with a hot, wet flannel, with which he carefully cleaned Severus before pulling his pyjamas up and tucking the blankets back around him almost primly. "Not so frustrated now, huh?"

Definitely not.

"That's good."

I agree, Severus thought to him. Perhaps this is where I should say, I hope it was good for you, too?

"Um." The answer wasn't as positive as Severus would have liked. "Sure it was."

Severus gathered all his reserves of politeness. I must…thank you. I would not have asked this of you. But I appreciate your courage in offering.

Harry laughed. "It wasn't courage, believe me. I just couldn't take any more of those dreams." Then demonstrating the courage he had just denied, he said, "And I sort of…wanted to do it, as well. Just wanted to."

Well. For whatever reason, I suppose I am in your debt. Once again. He projected a sigh of resignation.

"Let's just forget about debts, can't we? I've had enough of all that."


"Do you want me to read to you now?"

Of course. If you wish.

Harry patted his arm, and then Severus heard a newspaper rattling. "Muggle news of the day, then, shall we?"

Hours passed, and after Potter had eaten lunch and later supper—the smells of which had tormented Severus to distraction—and the medi-witch had tended the irritating tube bringing Severus his own tasteless nutrition, and they had ploughed through all the newspapers and magazines the boy had brought that day, and Severus had watched for any signs of disgust on Harry's part about their morning intimacy, but had detected nothing…finally, after all this, it was time for Harry to leave for the night.

He bustled through his own set of little evening rituals, smoothing Severus' blankets, adjusting the window to let in a bit of fresh night air, and checking for himself the various supportive tubes and devices keeping Severus strong enough to continue living for another day. An evening breeze blew in, bringing a cool, damp city smell, more industrial than natural at the moment but not unpleasant. Severus breathed it in and tried to let it relax him, as it took the edge off the heat of the summer day. When at last Harry was ready to go, he stood by the bed, and Severus could feel his hesitation.

They had not mentioned the morning's unusual activities again, and Severus felt no inclination to do so now, but he thought that Harry would be relieved to get away from him at last. It was time, as well, for Severus to rest and reorganize his mental resources, to get over the relaxed feeling of this extraordinary day and prepare for the frustration that would no doubt begin to grow again soon, in this restless, still body of his. The morning had brought sweet relief, and had bought him some time, but in the long run he was still paralyzed. His need for physical erotic contact would not be satisfied for long by a few moments' pleasure, no matter how sublime. But Potter had done his bit to help, and he deserved some time off and a bit of a reward. Get yourself out of here, Potter, Severus thought at him in an attempt at gruff good humor. Go have a drink. Get pissed, if you feel like it. You deserve it, after all you've done today.

"Yeah. Sure." The words were very soft. Severus felt a hand on his shoulder, and then a very gentle, moist touch to his forehead. It occurred to him, as the touch was removed, that the boy must have made it with his lips.

He, Severus Snape, had been kissed goodnight, and he lay there dumbfounded at the thought of it.

He was trying to round up enough words to respond when he heard Harry click on the radio under his pillow. The dependable voice started its soft monologue, and over it he heard Harry walk toward the door, where he paused. "Snape," he said. "Look. I just want you to know…I didn't mean it to be just this once. I'll do it again, anytime you like. So don't hesitate to ask, all right?"

He stood there shuffling his feet. "And there's one more thing. It doesn't quite feel right to keep calling you Snape when I've…you know."

Yes. I understand, Severus thought to him, not sure what was going on but not wanting to do anything to jeopardize the offer he'd just received. Perhaps…Severus will do, if you are comfortable with that.

"Right. And maybe you could…" Severus could feel his uncertainty, and hurried to answer the unasked question.

Yes. Harry.

Severus could feel him blushing again. He wondered what else the boy might be thinking about, in the sheltered corners of his mind that he was managing to conceal. He tried to peer into those corners without making Harry suspicious, but as he did so he could feel him drawing his mental door shut. He heard a faint scurrying behind the door, and he imagined Harry was trying to secure it with a bolt that would hold against the Legilimentic powers of his former teacher.

Severus had never been one to turn away when a door was closed in his face, and the obstacle only made him more curious about what the boy might be trying to hide. But he could not afford to antagonize his only contact with the outside world, so he throttled his curiosity and tried to project a benign disinterest.

"Good-night, Severus," Harry said back to him in a low, choked voice from the doorway. Then he left the room, closing the door softly behind him, and as the voice of the BBC rambled on about international diplomacy Severus could hear Harry running away, down the long hospital corridor and off into the night.

Chapter 5

"You know, I've read so many newspapers the last few weeks I think I'm beginning to learn a few things. Like, for example, how Parliament works. Who'd have guessed?"

Harry had read aloud for hours that day as he generally did, first the Daily Prophet, then Muggle newspapers, then witches' magazines from the medi-witch station down the hall. Sometimes there were potions books or journals, though not today. Severus found he didn't care what the boy read; he could lose himself in Harry's voice and drift away, safe in the knowledge that as long as Harry was still there, he was still anchored to reality and was not entirely alone and defenseless.

This day, however, felt a bit different.

It was the day after their first time—the first time that Harry had touched him intimately. It was a cool day as well, at least compared to the heat of the day before. There was a feeling of impending rain, as if the air was swollen with it. It made Severus restless, a frustrating mood in his current state.

It had otherwise been a normal day, insofar as normalcy was possible in their bizarre situation. Harry had done his reading as usual, though his pronunciation was sloppy and his attention seemed to be elsewhere. Severus had absorbed most of it in silence, as usual, but he felt tense with waiting for some fallout from the previous day. After lunch they had attempted a game of mental chess, though it was soon clear that they were both distracted and playing poorly, so in a petulant moment Severus upset their mutually imagined gameboard and went to sulk alone in a corner of his mind. As he did he could feel Harry hovering nearby, desperate to be allowed back in.

In the mid-afternoon hours, Severus became aware that the boy was not only distracted, he was still hiding something. He was managing to conceal the details of whatever it was, but the very act of concealment was so obvious it was almost shouting. At last he lost patience with the clumsy subterfuge and asked, What is it, Potter? Damn it, Harry. Out with it, boy, you're driving me mad with this ridiculous hide-and-seek game.

"I'm not hiding—"

Don't be an idiot. I can see perfectly well what you're doing. I have no desire to know your every thought, but if you're going to put out a sign that says, 'Hiding Something Here!' then you can't very well expect me to ignore it.

"I…I'm sorry. I just didn't know if the time was right to ask you…"

Ask me what? Stop wasting time and just ask!

"I wondered if you wanted me to…you know. Do it again."

Severus was stunned. Already? He was offering again already? That is not necessary, I assure you. I can wait for some time before it becomes—

"No, you don't have to wait. I'd be happy to, um. Take care of it. Of…of you. If you want."

Severus held himself silent, considering this offer, not wanting to appear needy or greedy. But of course he wanted it; what fool wouldn't? And the boy could disappear, or even more likely change his mind, at any time. It made perfect sense to take what he could get while it was available.

Finally he answered, enunciating the words in his mind slowly. I would not object.

He could hear immediate relief in Harry's voice as he replied, "Great! Um…shall I lock the door by hand this time?"

I suppose so.

"Brilliant." Harry was on his feet and across the room quickly. Severus heard the bolt sliding, and then Harry walking back, and his chair squeaked again.

It went faster this time. Harry slicked his hand before starting, and slid it immediately under the covers and inside Severus' pants, not bothering to touch him through cloth in prelude. It felt just as bloody marvelous as it had the day before.

That's…very good. Yes, Potter. Harry. Like that. He tried to keep his mental voice under control, more suave silkiness and less groaning.

"Good, yeah," Harry replied, his breaths coming faster from the slight exertion. "I want it to be good for you." He sounded so earnest that his words unknotted Severus' inhibitions. He lost the battle with his voice and sent a deep, soft moan straight into Harry's head. A burst of heat and a responding audible moan came right back at him, so real and so delicious that he exploded, coming rapturously into the warm hand and welcoming mind holding onto him.

A few moments of post-orgasmic stupor later, Severus felt himself being tenderly cleaned and resettled, so it would look as if nothing unusual had happened. He roused himself back to attention and mentally looked around. Harry sat by the bed again and was holding his hand, and he couldn't miss the scent of the boy's thoughts as they wafted through the room, still heated.

Those thoughts were also, Severus realised in a rush of received sensation, quite unsatisfied.

He came wide awake and became aware, in awkward detail, that Harry's whole mental presence was edged with arousal. He knew it must have lingered through this day and the previous one as well, ignited by his own pleasure and then ignored, as Harry had gone about unselfishly taking care of Severus' other needs through all those long hours. And though Severus knew himself not to be a generous or sympathetic man, it was uncomfortable for him to be witness to such discomfort—discomfort in fact caused by him—without being able to do a thing to ease it.

He mentally cleared his throat to get the boy's attention. Please know, he thought at Harry, that I would assist you, would return the favour, so to speak, if I were able. It pains me to see you suffer for the kindness you do me.

"I…no, it's all right…I mean, would you? Really?" Eagerness overcame embarrassment quickly enough, Severus saw.

I would.

"That's…nice of you. Nice to know, I mean." Then he went silent again, frustration still radiating from him, along with a curious, tender warmth.

They sat that way for some moments. Severus explored the feelings he was sensing from Harry, and put his own thoughts together. He had little expertise in satisfying sex partners, as most of his encounters had been of the every-man-for-himself variety, but…perhaps he was not completely without resources here. He considered what he might have to offer.

It is possible…there may be a way, Potter. Harry. That is, I might be able to, ah, provide you with a certain type of, shall we say, assistance.

"What do you mean?"

I think… Severus paused, gathering his thoughts about him. He wasn't sure how this would work, but it was worth a try. Touch me again for a moment, just to strengthen our connection. No, not there, he added as Harry's hand went to his groin, that's not necessary for this, and I'm done for now anyway. Just my arm will do. Harry moved his hand.

Now. Severus slowed and smoothed his mental voice. I'm going to show you, Harry, what I would do, to you, for you, with you…if I could move freely. He concentrated on conjuring the most vivid mental image he could, of himself standing next to the boy. When he'd got it solid in his mind, it began to move.

Harry, he whispered, showing the boy how he'd lean down, if he could, to breathe the word into his ear. Then his mental avatar leaned back to look into Harry's eyes, asking permission for things not specified, and he could feel Harry granting him anything he wanted. His image chuckled, low and sensual, and he felt Harry throbbing with arousal in the chair next to him.

It was working splendidly. Severus was pleased, and fascinated.

He directed his avatar's hands to undo Harry's jeans and push them down, demonstrating how he would take his cock and balls into confident, experienced hands. He had to guess at what Harry's exposed genitals would look like, and he tried to be generous, giving the boy a bit more physical maturity and somewhat larger sexual equipment than Severus imagined he actually possessed. There was a little gasp from Harry when Severus' imaginings were exposed. Then there was a snicker, and Severus hoped he hadn't made a mistake.

"Do you really think I look like that?"

Don't you? Severus shot back.

"Er." Severus could feel the boy's mind struggling with something, but for once he was keeping it well hidden. "I'm afraid you'd be disappointed by the real thing."

I doubt that.

"Yeah. Well."

There was a long silence. At last Severus said, Has my portrayal of you been offensive? I assure you, I meant no—

"No, no." There was another snicker. "It's just kind of funny, that's all. That you would imagine me…um, so large." Another laugh, pitched higher. "Gods, if only."

You do realise that absolute physical size is not particularly important, as a determinant of one's success as a lover.

"Yeah. That's what they say." He sounded unconvinced, and Severus could see that a different approach would be necessary.

Harry, he thought softly, and switched scenes in his mind. He flicked the lights down on the first scenario he'd been running, and showed the boy instead an image of the two of them, fully clothed, sitting together. The Harry in this picture looked discouraged, and the Severus next to him leaned over, appearing awkward but determined, and kissed him gently on the lips.

"Oh," the real Harry next to him whispered, leaning a little closer to the bed.

Satisfied that he was on the right track, Severus made his image put an arm around avatar-Harry's shoulders and pull him close. What they say, this Severus whispered to the young man under his arm, is quite true. He leaned down one more time and delivered a soft and somewhat longer kiss.

The real Harry sitting next to the bed exhaled slowly and squeezed Severus' hand. "Okay," he murmured. "Thanks."

Excellent, Severus said. Shall we continue from here, then? He felt Harry nodding, and went on.

His mental camera drew back just a bit to watch as his still-seated avatar gently maneuvered Harry into his lap, Harry's back to his chest. He kissed the boy's neck and felt the real Harry twitch. Finally he reached down to open the imaginary jeans again, this time pulling out the sensitive bits inside without dropping any clothing, so that there was plenty of flesh for him to touch but Harry wouldn't feel completely exposed. Harry, he thought in a breathy voice, touch yourself, while I show you what I would do, hmm?

Harry let go of his hand and moved to free his desperate cock from the restraint of his real clothing. Severus' image growled against his ear in approval while beginning a steady stroking of the imagined organ in his hands. It felt dry at first, but of course, that was no problem; Severus imagined oil on his hands, and the stroking grew smooth. Harry moaned next to him in response. Can you feel what I'm imagining? Severus asked.

"Yes! Oh, that's good…" Severus could hear Harry's hand moving on himself in real space.

It's the least I can do, don't you think? he whispered hotly, then slid both oily, imaginary hands back and under, to squeeze the boy's lovely firm balls and rub behind them. At that Harry made a strangled hissing sound, the chair creaked, and Severus knew he had succeeded at his task. He held onto the boy in his head, kissing up and down his neck while imagining him gasping for breath, and let him ride as far as the climax would carry him.

Some moments later, Severus was roused from a restful torpor by more loud creaking from the chair next to his bed, and then he heard footsteps as Harry walked toward the loo. He returned a moment later, smelling of soap and giving off a distinct feeling of satiety.

Severus lay silent, waiting for him to speak first. He was reasonably sure the boy had found his efforts acceptable enough to consider repeating in the future, but wanted to hear Harry confirm this. It would, he thought, be humiliating to have one's fantasies declared subpar, or too noxious even to be shared.

Harry sat back down in his chair, and to Severus' surprise squeezed his hand. "Thanks," he said, his voice soft and sounding very young. "That was brilliant."

And to think, he replied, trying not to sound smug, you'd not have had it if you'd kept trying to hide the truth from me.

"I know, I'm sorry. But still, I just can't…I mean, I never thought…"


"I can't believe it was you. That you just…did that for me."

Severus found it a bit difficult to believe himself. I'm glad the experience was satisfactory.

"Yeah, more than satisfactory. It was fantastic." He leaned over and kissed Severus' cheek.

Well, Severus thought back to him, startled by the kiss. I did not find it objectionable either.

Harry laughed, and Severus was caught in a tide of warm feelings flowing from him. He hadn't expected any of this from Harry; he hadn't thought there would need to be kisses, or any sort of affection, even a romantic mood, in whatever this was between them. He found it was very comfortable, however, to lie here and be bathed in the boy's appreciation. He imagined it might be something one could get used to.

Wanting to participate a little in creating the pleasant atmosphere between them, Severus projected a sort of fuzzy-edged thought along those lines. He felt Harry embrace the thought, and then…cut off the flow of his own thoughts abruptly. He sat completely silent for a moment, using the silence to exert control, which Severus hated. His comfortable satisfaction evaporated and he waited, wondering what Harry would do next.

Then Harry flung open a mental door and for just a moment let Severus see, with painful clarity, the full extent of what he'd been concealing in the most secret crevices of his mind. It was his blossoming attraction to Severus, which Severus had assumed to be simply a gay teenager's first infatuation. It burst through the open door with such heat that he knew he'd vastly underestimated the boy's capacity for feeling, and for foolishness.

What Harry had been hiding was not just a teen's idealized romantic feelings. It was full-blown desire, desire for him, for the man he'd once hated but now apparently idolized and very much wanted, in both emotional and starkly erotic ways. It was a deep longing, though naive and untutored, unsure of how to satisfy itself. It was far more than mere physical attraction; it was leagues beyond the simple recognition of sexual orientation.

Harry had fallen in love.

Severus felt his mind go blank in automatic self-defense, trying not to throw off any perceptible reaction to what he had seen. It was too much. It made no sense.

It was…intoxicating.

It was also probably, Severus realised, at least partly his own fault. After all, he'd been the one to show Harry those soft, silly kisses. He wondered what had come over him.

He had no idea what to say to Harry, but it seemed that something was required, if only to remind the lovesick boy of the reality of their situation. Potter, he began, trying to keep his projected voice crisp and business-like. No. I mean, Harry. The boy squeezed his hand again, and then kissed it. Bloody hell, Severus thought, careful to keep it to himself.

Harry, he thought firmly. You must remember…this is only…that is, it's not necessary for you to—

"I know," Harry whispered to him, sounding contrite. Severus could feel him dragging his mental door shut again, though against some sort of internal resistance. The door, it appeared, did not want to close. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't quite mean for you to see that."

Please. I may not be able to see, but I'm not blind, Potter. You let me in deliberately. You wanted me to know.

"I didn't…no. I couldn't help it."

Severus snorted at him. If that were true, then may I point out that it would be further proof of the value of Occlumency, a discipline at which you are still incompetent.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, sounding so pathetic that Severus regretted his harsh words.

Well. He tried to create a sensation of huffiness, of holding himself outside the swarm of Harry's emotions. As long as you recognise that your feelings are inherently unreasonable.

"I know."

Don't misunderstand. I simply do not wish for you to be hurt, which you inevitably will be if you expect too much from this, this…situation, in which we find ourselves. It was a very strange situation, after all, he reminded himself, so perhaps it had been easy for Harry to read too much into things. Remember why this is happening in the first place, he thought, why I am here, and why you are here. There is no reason for you to become…emotionally involved.

Harry was still radiating misery, and Severus found himself almost pleading, If that's not enough, remember who I am, after all is said and done. You cannot…it makes no sense. You must not allow yourself to become confused about this.

"I know, Severus. I'll…I'll be more careful."

An uneasy silence settled over the room, and into Severus' mind. He waited a few moments, hoping Harry would calm himself and get back to their routine. Then he asked, Perhaps you could read again? It struck him as he did that Harry would probably oblige him in anything he might request.

"Of course." He rattled the bedside table, and Severus could hear books being sorted. "A new potions book, how about that? I just got it last night."

You were supposed to be out getting pissed last night.

Harry laughed, though it was quick and forced-sounding. "Yeah. I just popped into Flourish and Blotts for a bit before I went to the pub." He rattled pages for a moment, then began to read. Severus was sure the boy would be bored to death—the book's title was History of the Use of Herbals in the Treatment of Insectile Infestations—but he kept at it, and Severus soon found himself lulled into pleasant, mindless calm again. He followed the words with most of his mind, but allowed another small part to enjoy simple awareness of the body sitting next to his. He could smell Potter, and feel the electricity of his presence. He could also sense the boy's careful, though surreptitious, tending of the lock on the door to his mind.

It began to rain, and the tension in the atmosphere slowly dissipated. The sound of the rain hitting the street below was muted and indistinct by the time it carried up to Severus' window, but it was soothing just the same.

Later, while the rain fell harder for a time, Harry stopped reading and reached a hand out to stroke through the ragged hair that lay on the pillow. The hand then picked up Severus' larger one and settled, grasping it, on the bed between them. Then he began to read again, as if he'd only paused for a breath.

They stayed that way, hands and minds guardedly intertwined, for the rest of the afternoon.

It was after dark that night when Severus was alone in his room again. Potter had finally left, seeming relaxed and happy again. Severus, too, was not displeased; the repeated sexual release seemed to have made a dent in the backlog of stress that had been building up inside him, and he felt more calm than he had in weeks—or years, maybe. Indeed, he almost felt happy himself.

And why shouldn't he? Against all odds, he seemed to have acquired a lover, someone who was willing to satisfy him frequently enough to do some good. There were worse things that could happen. Harry's inexplicable attraction to him even meant that he need not feel beholden to the boy for sexual favours; he could reciprocate, pay for them in kind, in a coin of real value to Harry. The boy's feelings for him might be bizarre, and he had felt obliged to discourage them, but for the moment, at least, they allowed Severus to feel he had regained a notch or two of control in this strange relationship.

And that, he found, made all the difference.

"I'm eighteen today, Severus."

I congratulate you on surviving to that profoundly advanced age.

"Git," he said, but he laughed.

I'm quite serious. You were not meant to survive, and yet you did.

"You know you're most of the reason I survived, don't you?"

That's quite ridiculous. Severus couldn't, however, keep a certain pride out of his mental voice. He had succeeded in helping the boy, after all, though he could not forget the many others he had not been able to save. I'm afraid my busy social schedule has left me no time to shop for a birthday gift. You'll have to forgive me.

Harry dragged his chair the last few inches toward Severus, so that he could lean onto the bed with his elbows. Severus knew this was his favourite position these days, as it allowed him to administer caresses wherever he wanted without stretching, and even to rest his head on Severus' stomach occasionally, as if pretending they were lounging on a sofa together. There is something I really want, he said slowly and silently, thinking the words, that only you can give me.

Tell me what this gift is, this thing that you desire, Severus projected, so that I may purchase it the next time I'm out and about. He hoped this was an occasion on which the thought would count.

"It's a simple thing, but you can't buy it." Harry's fingers slipped between his, linking their hands together, and his words slipped back into thoughts, passed privately between them. Just show me something else you'd like for us to do.

"You have the best fantasies…"

The words were soft but desperate, and came from close by the bed. Since you are a major part of them these days, Severus thought, your judgment is hardly objective. Still, it was pleasing to know that he had an appreciative audience.

Severus was building a new fantasy, concentrating on forming moving images in his head. The two figures he imagined were both naked, and their bodies were carefully detailed to look similar in age rather than twenty years different as they were in life; he hoped Potter wouldn't even notice this little enhancement, caught up as he seemed to be in the carnal content of the whole thing.

The Harry and Severus in his mind were standing in a thigh-deep pool of steaming water, its level just high enough to lap at the warm, relaxed testicles of both men, but not so high as to obscure the sight of them. As Harry watched—and Severus could feel his focused gaze—the imaginary Severus moved behind his imaginary Harry, skin sliding against skin, and embraced him from the back so that the real Harry could see his hands moving in the front. The figure bent over Harry's shoulder to bite softly at his neck, hands slipping from nipples to cock and finally settling with one hand stroking each.

In that position the pair took small steps, guided by the taller Severus, until they were under a sheeting waterfall that fell from a rocky ledge above. "Oh," breathed the real Harry, leaning over the bed. His arm stretched across Severus' chest, and he laid his head down on the edge of the pillow, as if that might bring him closer to the image.

Would you like to touch yourself now? Severus asked in his darkest voice, knowing the answer. Discreetly, remember.

"Yes…please…don't stop!" Harry begged as he began to rub himself through his trousers. Severus directed the image of himself to begin stroking the sturdy cock of the Harry he held, until his beautiful vision of Harry climaxed in a brief stream that shot into the waterfall and was washed away. "That's so hot," hissed the real Harry, and Severus heard a zipper being drawn, and then a groan, as Harry came for real with a hot pulse of liquid that struck Severus' arm.

Tsk, tsk, Mister Potter, Severus scolded mildly. What happened to discretion?

"Fuck, sorry," the boy said, "I just…I'll clean that up."

Never mind, Severus thought back to him. Watch this first…and he showed Harry a very clear picture of himself, the Severus standing in the warm water, with a generous dribble of spunk suddenly appearing from nowhere on his arm. The warm-water Severus raised his head and gave the real Harry who was watching a naughty smile, then lifted his forearm to his mouth and carefully licked the white liquid away.

The real Harry next to Severus' hospital bed groaned again and dropped his head back down on the edge of Severus' pillow. "You're going to kill me," he whispered in mock agony.

Oh, no, Harry, Severus replied, I assure you, that is not my plan.

"Talk to me, please," the boy said, and it sounded a lot like begging to Severus. "Make your voice all sexy, you know, the way you do."

My voice is sexy, is it? It wasn't that Severus was unaware that some people thought this of him; he just hadn't pegged Potter as one who would. Tell me, did you think it so when you were in class with me?

The sharp heat that filled the Harry-space next to him gave up the answer. So you did, then.

"Yeah. But I didn't understand it."

Severus thought him a laugh, though it was an uncritical one. What's to understand?

"Mostly your voice just made me angry. You were always yelling at me, but there was more to it than that."

And you realise now why I had to—

He sensed the boy cutting him off, mentally waving it all away with a hand, as if all their past enmity was so much smoke, obscuring the reality of now. "Yes. I know you had to do all the things you did. It's good that I didn't understand what your voice did to me back then. I think knowing that would have confused the hell out of me."

No doubt. Severus shifted smoothly into the exact voice he knew the boy wanted. We're safely past all that now, I assume. He felt Harry's arousal perk up again at the sound of it.

"Yeah. We're past it." Harry leaned closer, so that his cheek rested against Severus' chest. "Talk to me, won't you? Tell me something you'd like to do. Anything." Severus could feel him settling in.

Don't get too comfortable there, remember. You must be ready to sit up and look innocent at an instant's notice.

"I am, I promise." He took Severus' hand in his own and began rubbing the palm with his thumb. "Please?"

Very well, Mister Potter. Severus projected a clearing of his throat, a significant readying for the telling of a story. He anchored himself into his "sexy" voice, and began to talk, to teach, and to tease.

Were I able, Mister Potter, he began, I would begin to have my way with you by undressing you, very slowly. I would take my time, starting at your shirt collar, undoing your buttons, working my way down…

Harry closed his eyes, sighed, and listened, and inside his mind he watched…while at the same time Severus, gazing from his own mind through the safe, warm channel between them, watched Harry.

Chapter 6

Potter was snoring.

"I'm sure he's in there, Headmistress. Always is, all day long, you know. Goes in with a pile of newspapers and books every morning. Just sits and reads out loud, and talks, and talks some more; I'm sure that poor man would never get any rest at all, if he was awake to hear it."

The medi-witch's voice was both scolding and sympathetic. Severus heard the sharp clicking sounds of a woman's shoes, very near, and another voice that he knew all too well.

"Yes, I'll find him, thanks." The familiar voice was just outside his door. "Mister Potter?" he heard, and there was a quick double rap on the door, which Severus did not remember Potter closing. Then the door squeaked as it was pushed open, and Severus knew Minerva McGonagall was peering in through the doorway. "Ah," she said, apparently seeing that Harry was in fact in the room. Then came another, "Ah," whispered this time, and Severus knew she was now seeing all of Harry, who was asleep, slumped over the bed with his head propped against Severus' middle.

He was warm and sweaty under his hospital robe where Harry had been leaning against him for an hour or so, and he could smell the sweet and musky mix of man-boy scents wafting up from around his belly. Nothing improper had gone on between them this morning, nothing at all, though Severus had been nursing hopes that something might this afternoon. Potter had been reading to him, as usual, and in the midst of a beastly boring journal article comparing arithmancy with Muggle graphology, he had grown drowsy and begged off finishing the article in favour of taking a nap. He'd been sitting next to the bed, naturally, and had put down the journal and leaned on the bed to doze, in the process touching Severus' side with his temple and cheek. There hadn't been anything remotely sexual about it, though Severus was intensely aware of the touch.

Now, as he imagined Minerva surveying the scene, Harry still lay with his head pressed against Severus' side in an unmistakably intimate way. The medi-witches were accustomed to seeing Harry fussing over him and would have thought nothing of the boy's odd position. Minerva McGonagall, however, was not, and would not. This, Severus thought in sudden panic at the picture their little tableau presented, does not look good.

He was therefore quite surprised when what she said, very gently, was this: "Harry. And Severus, oh, my dear Severus. What are we going to do with the two of you?" There were no curses, no hexes, no calling for the authorities, just a quiet expression of worry that seemed to include himself as well as the boy.

Then Harry stretched against him, and the luxurious warmth shifted away, leaving Severus' body feeling damp and chilled. Harry, as he sat up, seemed to know this, and he pulled the blankets up to Severus' chest and tucked them closer around him. He turned to McGonagall then with, as Severus could hear from his voice, a smile on his face.

"Headmistress! It's nice to see you." There was an audible yawn. "Um. Can I get you a chair?" He still sounds half asleep, Severus thought, what does she think…

"So good to see you, too, Harry. And thank you, yes, I do believe I'll sit with you and Severus for a bit, if I may." There was considerable noise as Potter apparently stepped into the hall and returned with another chair, which scraped on the floor as Minerva settled herself into it. Potter's chair, Severus noted, was still very close to the bed, placing Potter between himself and Minerva.

"So. How is our patient doing today?" the Headmistress asked.

"About the same, I think," Harry answered, in a voice that sounded less regretful than Severus might have expected. Of course, these days 'the same' indicated the continuance of their bizarre, but rather satisfying, sexual liaison. At least, it had proven quite satisfying to Severus; he wondered for the first time just how it ranked for Potter.

"That's too bad." He could hear sadness but also caution in her voice. She was testing Potter, he was sure, to see if he'd given up what she thought were fantasies. "And are they budging at all on the no-magic rule?"

"No. It's still too soon."

There was a moment of quiet, and Severus tried to sense the flavors in the air between them. Why was Potter so patient with the prohibition against magic? Was Minerva going to follow his lead and resign herself to it as well? What had happened to the urgency and skepticism he'd sensed in her before?

What, Severus wondered, had happened to his own?

"I'm sorry, dear," Minerva said at last. "I know you had high hopes Professor Snape would recover."

"Oh, I haven't given up hoping," the boy answered in a cheerful voice. "He's in there." There was a hand on Severus' arm. "I'm more sure of it than ever."

Be discreet, Severus hissed silently. She already thinks you're delusional.

We need to make her understand, came the stubborn reply.

"And why is that, Mister Potter?" McGonagall's voice carried easily over the silent words that passed between the two men.

Yes, why is that, Mister Potter? Explain to me why you want to focus her attention on our present…unusual relationship.

"Because…wait." Potter was shaking his head in confusion. Then he seemed to abandon the idea of silently thinking to Severus while continuing to speak out loud to Minerva. "No. Because she might be able to help you, that's why."

"Who needs my help?" Minerva asked. "You? Or Professor Snape?"

"Yes, Severus—I mean, Professor Snape may need your help."

How can she help me? She's no Healer.

"She can put all the authority of Hogwarts behind you."

As if that will accomplish anything.

"That's not fair. She pushed as hard as I did to get you straight with the Ministry. She's on your side, and you might need her someday."

Further demonstrating to her that you're losing your mind will do me no good.

"No. This is important, Severus. She needs to understand about you because she's the one who…she can look after you if…" Harry picked up Severus' hand from the bed, "...if I'm ever not around."

"Potter, what are you talking about?"

So that's it. Severus tried to think past the panic that rose in him. Already planning your exit, then. Perhaps you'd best go now, and take her with you. I don't need you, either one.

"Just stop that, all right? I've told you I'm not leaving. Why can't you trust me?"

Because trust has worked ever so well for me in the past, as you know.

"Trust you? Of course I trust you, Harry, it's just that you're not making—"

"Look, I know you haven't been able to trust anyone. That's why we have to convince her, so that you can trust her!"

How can you convince her when she can't even hear what I'm saying?

"Convince me of what?"

Potter turned to McGonagall and shouted at her, "That he's alive, and his mind is all there, and he's trapped and frightened that he's going to be stuck there forever and I care about him, and if I should ever get sick or be hit by a lorry or whatever I don't want him left all alone!"

The room buzzed with many layers of silence for a long moment.

I can't bear to think about you being left all alone.

A hand came to rest on Severus' cheek, its fingertips reaching into his hair.

Every night, it's so hard to leave you, because it hurts to think of you here all night with no one who understands. What if I was gone for longer than overnight, a lot longer? And what if you were hurting? What if you needed something?

You're doing more than anyone could ask of you already, Potter. I don't expect you to sacrifice your entire—

Stop. Just…stop. I don't want to take any chances on this, all right? I don't want you ever to be without someone to look after you. Even someone who can't hear you. Because someone who knows you're in there, and is at least trying to figure out what you need, is better than no one at all.

Severus tried to ignore the tenderness in the boy's words. He kept his own mental voice light as he asked, Have you a new reason for fearing your own demise? Are you stalking other Dark Lords? Have you taken up nighttime Quidditch, or some other dangerous hobby I don't know about?

Severus could feel the boy's smile. "No dangerous hobbies. Just you."

"Dangerous hobbies!" Minerva seemed to have passed her limit. "That's enough, Mister Potter. You will explain yourself now, please, if you want my help as you claim to."

"I'm talking to him, just as I told you the last time you were here," Harry said. "He can hear us, and he speaks to me, into my mind. Why is that so surprising? He's a master Legilimens and Occlumens."

"Why is he not speaking to me, then?"

"He's trying, believe me. Severus, do it now. See if you can get through. Headmistress, really listen, listen hard." Severus felt Potter turning toward Minerva, and he tried once more to speak so that she would hear him.

As much as you know it pains me to corroborate anything Potter says, Minerva, I'm afraid in this case he is telling you the absolute truth. I am indeed 'in here,' as he so inelegantly puts it, and he and I do seem able to carry on rather unusual sorts of…conversations, you might call them, these days. Severus thought a long, put-upon sigh, just for good measure.

The boy laughed at that, but Minerva said, "So speak to me, Severus. I promise you I am listening."

The laugh was cut short. "You didn't hear him just now? Not at all?"

"I heard nothing."

"Think something, then, without speaking. See if he can hear you." With a soft touch to Severus' shoulder, he said silently, See through my eyes, Severus. I know it makes you dizzy, but just for a minute. Watch her thinking, and see if you can hear it.

Severus tried. He slipped into Potter's head as discreetly as he could, trying not to stare at the gaudy and obvious thoughts draped about—quite a few of which he could tell, even without looking, were centered with great sentimentality on him—until his consciousness lay where it had a good view out through those eyes, those lovely eyes, that the boy had gotten from Lily.

Severus saw Minerva then for the first time since he'd flown away from her, with great drama, to avoid having to kill someone or other he'd sworn to protect. She looked to have aged several very hard years over these few months, and he thought with a flash of sadness that losing Dumbledore might have been as hard on her as it had been on him. She was frowning in concentration and looking at him, not at his consciousness where it sat behind Potter's eyes but at his still body on the bed, and he knew she was trying to send her thoughts to him. But he heard nothing.

Minerva, he thought to her, making the sound of the words crisp. I am here. You can believe what the boy says, not that it will make a whit of difference, but he is determined, and as I have learned it is sometimes better to acquiesce to whatever he wishes to do.

Potter laughed again, and Severus could feel the boy's fingertips resting on his arm, as if they wanted to grip him tight but weren't sure that would be allowed.

She doesn't hear me at all, Severus said in a whisper to Harry. So I may speak to you as I will. Those hands of yours may not touch me the way you want to now, but this afternoon I will expect them to pleasure me. He phrased the words almost as a command and felt a little ripple of lust bouncing back to him.

Oh, I'll pleasure you this afternoon, came the silent words, which had a breathless sound, though no breath was behind them. I'll do whatever you want me to do. The fingers were sliding up and down Severus' arm now, still not daring to embrace but not able to keep away. Severus felt a recklessness take him over, and he sent Harry a picture of the two of them naked in this very bed, with Minerva watching, a shocked expression on her face—

"Potter!" The Headmistress' voice was sharp. Potter's hands were snatched away with a sharp stab of guilt that Severus, from where he still rested inside the boy's head, could feel in his very guts. "What is going on here?"

"You couldn't hear her thoughts at all?" Harry asked.

I'm sorry, but no. Severus drew back mentally, ashamed of himself for his teasing.

"He can't hear what you're thinking," Harry reported to Minerva. "But he's there. You've just got to believe me."

"Harry. I know this is important to you, but—"

"Wait," Harry said, urgency in his voice. "I know what we can do. Let me ask him something for you, something only he would know."

Severus imagined Minerva raising an eyebrow. "Very well." She was quiet for a moment, and then said, "You may ask him what I wrote on his very first essay, when he was a first year student in my class."

Severus could feel Harry turning to him. "Okay, Severus," he said. "What did she write?"

Severus knew it must have been important if she remembered it, but unfortunately he did not. Have her ask something else, Potter. I don't recall.

"Er," Harry said. "He doesn't remember."

"No?" She sounded disappointed. "Ask him, then, what the Hat said when he was Sorted. It recited to him in rhyme, as I recall, and out loud. It caused quite a stir."

This Severus did remember. It told me, he said, that I would do as well in Ravenclaw as Slytherin. He did not repeat the Hat's ridiculous rhyme, and he had no intention of revealing to Potter that the Hat had also offered Gryffindor as an alternative and had laughed as if this was quite a funny joke. He discovered that he didn't care nearly as much as Potter did about whether Minerva believed they were speaking.

"He says," Potter announced, "that the Hat told him he could also be in Ravenclaw." Severus felt him beaming.

"And?" Minerva said.

"And what?"

"What else did the Hat say?"

"Well, nothing else." He turned to Severus. "Was there?"

No. There was nothing else.

He could feel Potter's frown. "There wasn't anything."

"Harry," Minerva said gently, "there was."

"But…but he says…" Severus could feel Harry turn back to him, could feel the dismay in his face without having to see it. "Well, all right. Ask him something else."

"Harry." Her voice was very soft, as if she didn't want to frighten Potter off. "When did you begin calling the Professor 'Severus'?"

"What? Oh, um, a few days ago, I guess."

"May I ask why?"

Careful, Potter.

"I'm being careful, all right? And how come you just happened to forgot so many things, huh?" He turned toward Minerva. "It's no big deal. I've spent so much time here, and I talk to him all day long, and it got kind of tiring to keep saying 'Professor,' and—"

You're rambling. Just stop. Potter fell silent, and during the awkward pause that followed Severus kept his own silence as well, not wanting to encourage Potter to speak to him again and muddle things further.

He was sure Minerva was giving the boy a worried, calculating look. Then she made a polite little cough, he heard a chair shift, and she spoke, more gently than he'd expected. "Harry, dear, it's horribly dry in here. Do you think there might be a cup of tea anywhere nearby?"

"Yes, there's a tea-cart down the hall. I'll just go and get you some, shall I? I'll be right back." Potter squeezed his arm, and then Severus heard him dart from the room, no doubt happy to escape for a few moments from the all-seeing eye of his Headmistress. Severus felt himself sliding out of Harry's mind, left behind as the boy dashed away.

Then to his great surprise, Minerva spoke—to him. "Severus," she began, and then coughed again. "Severus Snape." She had his attention, though of course she couldn't see this; in a moment she continued speaking, her voice soft but urgent. "I don't know if you can hear me or not. I don't know if you are awake, or aware, or whatever else Harry may imagine. And I certainly don't pretend to understand what is happening between the two of you." She paused, and coughed yet again. "Severus. He is not a child anymore, and he is not foolish. I know he must have a reason for the very…ah, odd way he is behaving. And I will not question his actions, nor would I question yours. You both have suffered a great deal, and you both are entitled to seek some comfort wherever you can find it."

Severus thought that this was far more tolerance than he deserved, but she continued: "If you can hear me, Severus, I ask only two things of you. First, come back to us, however long it takes. The wizarding world needs to thank you properly. And second..." her voice took on a definite edge, "...do not hurt that boy. Do not. Make no mistake about this, Severus. You must not." She cleared her throat, and he thought that for her, that had been quite an emotional outburst. Sure enough, when she spoke again, her voice was milder. "Be kind to him, Severus. Whatever happens. That is all I ask."

She sighed. "Wait…perhaps there is one more thing, my friend. I am sorry you've forgotten—if you have forgotten—what I wrote on that long-ago essay. I rather intended it to be an offering of support, as I thought you might have a more difficult first year ahead of you than most. Apparently I wasn't clear enough, and that may have been the first of many mistakes I made with you." She touched his arm. "What I wrote was this: 'Mister Snape, Slytherin's gain is Gryffindor's loss.' And I still would say the same."

Then Harry was back, and from the smell of it he was carrying mugs of dreadful hospital tea. "Oh, thank you, Harry," Minerva said, her voice normal, giving no hint of the drama of their one-sided conversation. Severus was still trying to absorb everything she'd said to him while he heard them make determined sipping noises, as if the tea was too hot to drink but offered a much-needed distraction. Neither one spoke for several moments.

"So, Headmistress," Potter began, and Severus could feel that he was about to launch another assault on her disbelief.

No, Potter, he thought. She spoke to me while you were out, and she is not as skeptical as you imagine. If you push her further at this moment she may ask you questions you do not want to answer. Change the subject.

"Um," said Harry. "How are repairs coming along at the castle?"

She must have blinked at that rapid shift, Severus thought, but he didn't care. "We're on schedule to begin school in September," she said. "Considerable work yet to be done, of course, and there's rock and rubble everywhere, but I believe we'll be ready. We could still use your help, though."

He could hear her smiling, as she tried to take Harry away from him. I need you more than she does, he thought. And I can offer you things in return that she cannot. Even more true, though he did not point this out, was the fact that Potter could give him things that Minerva never would. It was Potter he needed, and no one else. Whether anyone else believed he was speaking made no difference.

Harry smiled and shook his head, both of which Severus could feel, and said, "Sorry, Headmistress. I think Professor Snape needs my help right now, too."

"Well. I'm sure Severus…ah, would appreciate your dedication." Her voice was gently mocking, but she did not contradict him.

Harry continued, his voice serious. "He does. And everything's all right. I know what I'm doing."

"Do you, now?" She sounded doubtful.

"Yes. You'll see," he insisted. "Please don't worry about me." He touched Severus' arm. "About us."

She sighed, but said, "All right, Harry. Just promise you'll call on me if you need help. Will you do that?"

"Of course." Severus felt the smile that had returned to the boy's face.

"And keep me informed as to how he's doing, please?"

"Yes. I will." Severus could hear them put down their mugs, stand up, and walk to the door.

When McGonagall spoke again, her voice was soft and chiding. "You do realise that fighting the Dark Lord might have been an easier task than whatever it is you are attempting here, Harry."

Harry laughed. "Um...yes. I do realise that." Severus was indignant at this ridiculous notion, and at the laugh. "But I have to try." Severus felt him making a shrugging motion, as if he was helpless to resist a task, or a challenge, set before him. Me, he thought.

"Ah, Harry." Minerva laughed, too, and then from Harry's reaction he knew she had hugged him at the door—awkwardly, Severus was sure, as it was an unaccustomed gesture for her. "Stay in touch."

"I will. Thanks for coming by."

Minerva's heels clicked down the corridor, becoming fainter at each step. Severus heard Harry walk back to the bedside chair and sit down. The boy's fingers stroked his hair, running through it and arranging it on the pillow. He felt Harry lean down and press his face into the hair and breathe deeply, as if he was trying to relax. "Don't worry, Severus," he said in a whisper. "I don't know why you got so weird about that, but it's all right. We'll convince her eventually, and I'm not going anywhere. Everything's going to be fine. You'll see."

Severus realised that his body, though motionless, was taut with worry. It was maddening how that body could be stimulated by emotions quite outside his control, while he could do nothing conscious with it at all. Convincing her that we're communicating won't help me move again, he thought to Potter. And if she could hear my thoughts, or yours, she might see something of what we're doing together, and that would be disastrous.

"You're really upset, aren't you?"

I am not. He tried to stifle his growing discomfort. I'm merely…tired.

"Sure." Potter's fingers stroked down both sides of his neck and came to rest on his shoulders, where they began to squeeze gently. "You won't mind if I do this, then?"

I suppose not. He wanted to groan in appreciation, and he wanted to stretch. He longed to twist and flex his back under Harry's hands, and then to turn and face him, and sweep the boy into his arms. He wished for the strength to kiss him properly, and to wrap him up in a strong embrace and keep him from the rest of a world that might question his devotion. He wanted nothing more than this, but he could not have it.

All he could have was this time with Harry, however brief, in which Harry was protecting him instead of the other way around. This was all he could have, and even this much was his only until Harry grew tired of him and went away.

Don't be silly, said Harry's voice, whispering silently to him. Short, strong fingers reached around to rub the back of his neck, and the boy asked, Why would I leave you, when you're my lover now?

Severus tried not to think of an answer.

Chapter 7

Good morning, Severus, came the tender, silent greeting, spoken by Harry's mind even as his lips were occupied with other tasks.

Severus struggled to rise to consciousness, fighting against sleep that had been restless and broken by sour dreams of flight, and capture, and madness. He felt captured still, controlled by someone else's physical strength, but he stopped struggling as shock took over, and he realised how he was being held captive.

You've gone mad, Severus managed to send to the boy, though it was difficult to concentrate on thinking in words. Harry giggled, out loud but with his mouth obviously full. The giggle teased Severus' cock but did not reassure him. I didn't ask for this, boy. What were you thinking? Besides, it's too early. They'll be round at any moment to check up on me, and then they'll—

"They'll find you still looking just as asleep as ever, and me sitting in my chair reading," Potter said in a low voice. Severus could feel warm breath on his cool wet cock as the boy spoke next to it. "Don't worry. This will be quick." He slipped his mouth down over Severus again like a silky, warm sleeve and went back to his task.

Still appalled—though it was becoming more difficult to remember why—Severus pushed back mentally, not quite able to order Harry to stop, but determined not to submit to his control either. He had never asked the boy to do this. He had no idea why he'd taken it into his head to try such a thing. Potter was doing a commendable job, however, for one who presumably had never done this before. Severus felt himself sliding down the slope toward orgasm, and though the pleasure of it was real enough, so were his panic and anger at being set on the slope without his explicit consent. Not to mention the terrible risk they were taking at this busy time of the morning.

So he used the only weapon he had. He made up a forceful little demonstration in his head, depicting himself jerking and struggling, and sent a moving picture of this simulacrum Severus straight to Potter. The brat just moaned and bounced his head faster, his lips sliding up and down on Severus' rigid prick relentlessly, offering no chance of escape.

In the end it was quick, just as Potter had said it would be. No more than a long moment after that prediction, Severus spent himself strong and hot into Potter's mouth. Held captive by both Potter and his uncooperative body, he'd had no more choice in it than he'd had in promising to watch over the bloody boy all those years ago.

He would have liked to seethe and steam afterwards, to rant at Potter for requiring this on-demand sexual performance of him, to protest the fool's presumptuousness in assuming that he would want this thrust upon him while he slept, not to mention his stupidity at engaging in this dangerous act when anyone could walk in…but he found that his capacity for outrage had evaporated sometime during those sublime seconds before orgasm when all the world seemed right. He'd pumped his insides clean of semen and fury and everything else and was left with an empty calm. So he lay there, slowly recovering himself, as Potter licked and wiped him clean.

Idiot child, he thought in a soft grumble at the boy. He was too dazed to put anything more scathing together just at that moment. Instead, he told himself that he would wait and not attempt to scold until the boy had straightened things up and put him back in order.

"I've wanted to do that for a long time," Harry said in a dreamy voice. "To wake you up like that." He was fixing Severus' clothing now, smoothing the pants and running his fingers under their waistband in a way that suggested he might not consider their encounter over. "Did you like it?"

Yes. The thought came out before he could stop it. No! You should not have done that.

"Why not?"

Because at this hour of the morning a medi-witch could walk in at any moment!

"They were all busy down the hall, Severus, I checked. And I knew it would be fast." He sounded far too pleased with himself.

You should not have counted on them remaining there. Besides, in the past we have always waited until afternoon to engage in anything of this sort. There is much less activity in the corridor after lunch. Surely you agree that our subterfuge is easier then, and safer.

"Well, yeah, but—"

If you wanted to do something like this, why couldn't you just wait until then? And tell me what you wanted first?

"I know, I know, you're right. But I didn't want to wait. And when I came in this morning you were still asleep, and I had thought so much about doing that, and it was so easy to just slip under the covers and—"

The unfairness of this was too much. Blast it, boy, if your impatience and irresponsibility get us caught, then where will either of us be?

"I'm sorry, Severus. I shouldn't have done it. But I thought—"

No, you didn't think! You waltzed in here this morning and just took me, that's what you did, and you put us both at risk. And for what—to fulfill some fantasy of yours?

Severus didn't know where his rage was coming from, but it was churning him up inside and had to get out. You wouldn't have tried such a thing if I were a whole man, now would you? Well, I don't care how much I need you, Potter. I won't have you treating me like some kind of sex toy, do you understand? I'll not have it.

He realised that had he been ranting aloud he'd have required a breath by now, and that such tiny enforced breaks were what had always allowed him time to think. So he stopped for a few breaths, feeling each one swell his chest, conscious of the utter limpness of his now-replete cock, and realising that he had just unloaded a very large ballast of hatefulness onto the only person who was making his life worth clinging to.

Harry seemed ready to capitulate without any further fight. "I…I'm sorry, Severus," came the soft words from beside the bed. "I didn't mean to upset you. I just wanted…" There was a sound very like a sob. "I'm sorry. Please don't be angry with me." At that he leaned over the bed and took Severus in his arms, raising his shoulders up from the bed and holding him tight.

But now…don't you see, this is what… And then Severus stopped, no longer certain of what he was so angry about. The maddening boy of half an hour ago had usurped the last little bit of control Severus had and used him unfairly, but this boy, contrite and sniffling, would never have done so, would never have taken advantage of him. Potter, I simply want you to understand, he tried to say, but Harry interrupted.

"I'm sorry," he repeated. "I thought it would be good for you."

Of course it was good, you idiot. I've told you I liked it. But the fact remains that your timing was bad, and you should have confirmed with me that I was ready for such activity before starting in. The boy was still clutching his upper body, holding him in an upward tilt. Put me down, please.

"I'm really, really sorry," Harry said yet again, lowering Severus to the bed immediately. "I just wanted to try it."

I can't imagine why.

"What, don't you like doing it?"

That's not the point, Severus huffed at him. In fact he did like performing fellatio, but for a long time had also been horrified at the feeling of submissiveness that seemed an inextricable part of the whole thing. Still worse was the fact that he had been aroused by the feeling of submitting, even while it repulsed him.

"But isn't it something men…um, usually do for each other?"

Neither is that the point at this moment, Potter. We are not in a typical situation here.

"No, I guess not," Harry replied, sounding forlorn. "I won't do it again, then."

He was radiating such sadness now that Severus didn't know what to say. You needn't make any long-term promises, he projected, still gruff but a little more gentle than before. If you liked it. But we must be more careful in the future.

"I did like it, Severus, I did!" Harry had let go of him, but now he took up one of Severus' hands and held it tight. "And we'll be more careful. I promise."

Well. Perhaps we can revisit the idea, at a later time. And under more secure conditions.

"Whatever you want. Just don't be angry with me, okay?"

Severus gave a disgusted snort. You do remember who I am, don't you? And that we were constantly angry with one another for years? And that everyone in the wizarding world but you is no doubt still angry with me for one thing or another, and I at most of them? Anger is one of the few weapons I have left, Potter. Do you intend to disarm me completely?

Harry had the nerve to chuckle. "Never. You can be angry at anyone else you like." He rubbed his fingers over Severus' knuckles, and then kissed them. "Just remember that I'm on your side now, all right? For good. No matter what." He kissed the fingers again, holding his lips in place for a long, sweet instant before putting the hand down on the bed. "Can we start the day over, do you think?"

A splendid idea.

"Good." His voice became businesslike and cheerful. "So what shall we do today, Professor Snape? Read the Times, perhaps?"

Acceptable. He still could feel, shifting around the edges of their joined consciousness, the boy's unsatisfied arousal. That would just have to wait, he decided. He could not reward the morning's foolishness with pleasure. Not yet, at least.

Harry, seeming more relieved than frustrated now that they were back on an even keel, gave his hand a final pat, and then rattled newspaper pages for a moment. "Are you in the mood for news of Parliament, do you think?"

Severus imagined a bored little coughing sound. Please. Are you trying to put me back to sleep?

Harry laughed. "No political news, then. Sport, maybe? Football scores?"

Merlin save me.

"All right, then. Tell me what you do want to hear."

Severus thought for a moment. I think, he said, that I should like to hear something from the 'Travel' section. Take me away from this place for a little while, Mister Potter.

"You've got it." There was more rustling, and then Harry settled down to read. "Let's see. How about this: 'Bristol couple sell all possessions to take round-the-world cruise'…wait, let's see what that's about. 'Husband has three months to live,' it says. Hmm. Maybe not. What do you think?"

Sounds fascinatingly morbid. Do continue.

"Whatever you say." Harry sat back in his chair, making it creak in a now-familiar way that Severus found calming.

Feeling content at last, and wishing he could sigh to show it, he settled in to listen.

It was after Harry's dinner that evening that Severus decided to relent. It wouldn't be fair, he thought, to send the boy home with a whole day's sexual need still unmet.

Harry, he sent in a whisper to the boy, after the dinner hour was over. Harry had just returned his own tray to the dining cart in the hall and was busying himself around the room, adjusting the window blinds and tidying. When he heard Severus' summons, though, he quickly moved to the bedside.

"Yes, I'm here," he said. "What do you need?"

I am in need of nothing at the moment. This was technically true, as he'd received his usual intravenous slop for dinner. It hadn't been satisfying, but he wasn't hungry. I don't believe you can say the same, however.

"Me? No, I'm all right."

Nonsense. You've been putting your libido on hold most of the day.

Potter could have blushed for England at that moment; he didn't even have the presence of mind to try to hide the heat in his cheeks, and Severus could feel it. "Really, I'm fine. I don't want you to—"

Mister Potter. Nobility does not become you, and you are not required to suffer endlessly in silence because of a simple error in judgment this morning. I would not be averse to helping you attend to your current needs.

"Oh." Harry's voice was breathy. "I'd like that, but I didn't think you'd—"

Let me take care of you, Severus said, interrupting the boy again, and with a new sort of confidence. I believe I know even better what you will enjoy, now.

"What do you want me to do?" He had sunk into his chair and put his elbows on the bed.

Just watch, if you would. He focused his mind, trying to clear it of everything else and then to draw up a beginning to the fantasy he had planned for Potter. He set the scene with the boy standing next to a bed, while the imaginary Severus stood before him, drawing him into a tender kiss.

Harry took a sharp breath. We're just getting started, now, Severus chided him. Don't get worked up too fast.

"Right," the boy whispered shakily. "Not too fast. I'm good, go ahead."

Very well. Severus concentrated on the simulation of himself, looking into imaginary-Harry's eyes and holding him close. I know now what you want, he had his simulation murmur. And I will give it to you. His double gave the boy one last deep kiss on the mouth, then slid and kissed his way down the slender body until he was kneeling in front of him, mouthing the boy's groin.

The image of Harry groaned and dropped to sit on the edge of the bed. Imaginary Severus didn't answer, but just undid the boy's trousers and tugged them down—very quickly and smoothly, as is possible only in imaginary love scenes—and then, wasting no time on soulful contemplation of the lovely sight before him, he ducked his head and sucked Harry's cock into his mouth.

"God, Severus," came the hoarse voice from beside him, panting as it spoke. "I thought you didn't like doing this sort of thing."

I never said that, Severus replied in silken tones. I quite disliked engaging in unnecessary risk-taking for it. But I assure you, I enjoy it as much as the next man, and if I were able I would do it for you in a heartbeat.

"Huh," was all the reply the boy could manage.

Relax, now, and let me finish what I've started. He felt Harry take his hand and squeeze it, and took that for assent.

The rest was easy. He worked on the details of the moving image he was showing the boy—his own knees on the ground, one hand grasping a hip, the other tweaking a nipple over and over, his own face with eyes closed and a look of concentration as he worked the boy's lovely cock in and out with a steady rhythm. His tongue, though not visible, was very much a part of the fantasy, and he made sure Harry knew he was using it thoroughly on every surface of the tender organ he'd drawn deep into his mouth.

Harry became so aroused, and so quickly, that Severus was sure any last little fillip of fantasy he chose to deliver would be sufficient to bring him off. Still, something routine wouldn't do—he wanted this encounter to be one the boy would remember, like a special gift Severus had given him. So he focused in tighter and shared with Harry how his own orgasm had felt that morning, with all its complicated layers of violation and submission, and underlying trust, and pleasure in spite of anger. He showed all of that to Harry's mind, and let Harry's body take care of itself.

The orgasm came swiftly, as Severus had thought it would. He didn't even have a chance to tell the real Harry to touch himself before the boy burst out of Severus' erotic grip and came in his still-zipped jeans. He exploded, and then he leaned onto the bed, breathing hard. "Damn, Severus," he said.

I trust that met your expectations. Severus couldn't quite keep the smug satisfaction out of his imagined voice.

"Yeah, I'd say so." The raggedness in his real voice made Severus want to preen. "That was bloody brilliant. You were bloody brilliant."

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Harry took a few more deep breaths and then spoke again, with more composure. "All that stuff…that's a part of it, for you?"

What 'stuff,' in particular?

"The…giving in part. Giving someone else control. That you sort of like, and sort of don't like."

Yes. That is part of it, for me.

"I didn't realise how complicated it could be. I'm really sorry, Severus. If I'd understood I wouldn't have done it without asking."

I know. We don't need to speak of it again. I trust that you will be more cautious in the future.

"I will. I promise."

They sat then in a post-coital quiet for a few moments, with Harry leaning onto the bed and Severus wishing with all his heart that he could pull the boy into his arms and have this moment with him properly. All he could do was imagine it, and show the image to Harry. Harry sent him back a smile and said lazily, "Who ever knew?"

Who ever knew what?

"That you're such a romantic."

I assure you, I am not.

"No one would believe that, if they'd seen what you just showed me."

No one would believe you, if you told them I'd shown it to you. In fact, Severus continued, no one believes I'm communicating with you at all. So I don't imagine my reputation is in any danger.

Harry had nothing to say to that.

Chapter 8

Harry, for once, went silent in response to Severus' suggestion.

It stretched into a very long silence, in which Harry neither spoke nor leaked little droplets of thought that Severus could catch and taste, to help him guess at what the boy was hiding. It was the kind of silence with which Severus had been far too familiar weeks ago, before he and Harry had begun their strange hybrid communication.

It was the kind of silence that echoed, and made the darkness all around him seem even darker. Severus strained against the darkness, listening, watching, but there was nothing. Evidently Harry had learned a few things about shielding his own thoughts after all, these past weeks.

Severus waited, as it was all he could do.

A few weeks—surprisingly contented weeks—had passed since their first intimacy. It had changed their routine somewhat, in small ways. Now Harry often fondled Severus' hand while he read, and nearly every day one or the other of them raised the question of what sort of sexual diversion they might try next, and when it might be safe to try it. Indeed it occurred to Severus, as he sat there waiting for Harry to say something, that they were talking much more about sex these days than about the possibility of his recovery. On this particular morning, it had been Severus who ventured an erotic suggestion, and Harry, for once, seemed to be balking.

Severus had never felt comfortable revealing his most intimate desires to anyone before. Then again, he'd never had a lover like Harry before, either. In fact, he'd never before had a steady lover of any kind, one who kept showing up in spite of his regular bouts of ill temper. He was beginning to worry that he had just pushed away what was now sure to be the only one he would ever have.

Finally Harry spoke. "Um. So, Snape. Is that really what you want?"

Severus thought a snorting sound. What, I'm no longer Severus? I have now disgusted you to the point that we must revert to surnames? He tried to put a veneer of nonchalance over his words, preparing to withdraw his suggestion without hesitation if Harry was as revolted as Severus suspected he might be.

"No, no! It's not that." The boy made a muted scratching sound, and Severus knew he was scrubbing a hand over his hair as he tried to think. He imagined he'd lost his chance for sure now, as Harry was at his best when acting impulsively, not when thinking. "It's not that I wouldn't want to. I'm just afraid…"

Of what?

"Of hurting you."

Severus made another snort. More than I have already been hurt, you mean.

"I—yeah." Severus let him consider the unreasonableness of this fear, and waited. It wasn't long. "Couldn't I really…injure you? If I didn't do it right?" The words were very soft, and told Severus that Harry might be afraid of other things as well.

You could not injure me. I am not a virgin, Potter.

"Yeah, but I am."

That does not seem relevant, if you'll pardon my insensitivity. He ignored the boy's obvious embarrassment, as it hardly seemed relevant, either.

"I wouldn't know what I was doing. I could do it wrong, and not even know."

I would let you know.

It was Harry's turn to snort. "I'm sure you would. But I'd be doing it…all the motions, that is, on my own. Wouldn't I have to be kind of rough? To make it work?"

Severus hesitated. You would need to prepare me. He paused longer, to let this sink in. I would of course instruct you on how to do so.

There was another, more amused, snort. "Yeah. Of course you would." He paused again, but finally said, "You really want this? You need it?"

Severus drew up all his dignity and tried to project it. Obviously, I will survive without it. He waited to say more, not wanting to give in, but also not wanting to make this a prolonged battle.

"Do all, uh, gay men do this?"

Most do. Not all, however. I quite understand if the idea holds no appeal for you.

"Oh, it does hold some appeal." Harry's voice was soft and husky. "I just never imagined it with you." He swallowed audibly. "I never thought you'd let me do it. And I don't want to do it wrong."

He heard Harry sigh. This might be good or bad; it could signal acquiescence, or preparation on the boy's part to change the subject. Severus waited. It was, as before, all he could do.

After a moment, he heard steps, and the familiar sound of the door locking. He allowed himself to become more hopeful.

Soon he felt the bedclothes—crisp, hospital-regulation, scratchy as always—moving around him, and then Harry's arm sliding up underneath them. His hand came to rest on Severus' belly, then slid to the side and slowly worked its way up under his hospital robe. It began to caress him, starting with innocent stroking at his waist but working its way toward his genitals. Severus felt himself trembling in anticipation. Finally, when he knew he must be hard even though Harry hadn't touched his cock yet, the boy spoke the words he had waited to hear.

"Show me what you want. And just relax, okay? We'll make this work."

Severus had thought his trembling was invisible to Harry, but if Harry thought he needed to relax, perhaps it was not. He'd told the boy he wanted this; he just didn't want him to know how much. They had spoken of Severus' desire for physical submission, but still…he'd never allowed anyone to see the real depth of his neediness before. He wasn't sure he wanted even Harry to truly understand it, now or perhaps ever. It was a hunger Severus knew he had to feed, but not one he wanted Harry to be able to use against him.

He stretched his mental grip as far as he could, covering and muffling his arousal. When he thought he had things under control, he reached out to the boy now rubbing him gently, and opened a window through which to show him what would be required. Harry stroked a little lower with his hand, and Severus felt his control waver. This might, he realised, be more difficult than he'd thought.

Perhaps, he suggested, willing his projected voice not to shake, we should take this a bit more slowly. It might be helpful if I demonstrate the entire process first, before you attempt anything physical.

"Oh. Yeah, that's a good idea." Harry quickly removed his hand and sat back. He smoothed the blankets and added, "But, Severus, don't worry. I want to do this."

Very well. Severus paused, still struggling to master himself. He told himself that he had to stay in control, for Harry's sake. He felt the boy settle in his mind, felt his attention lock onto the little mental stage where Severus was about to create a show for him. You may unlock the door, I think, he said, trying to hide his tension under a light tone of voice. We'll not attempt to do anything outside of our imaginations just yet.

"Oh. Okay." Harry sounded a little disappointed, but he unlocked the door and sat back down. Severus felt relieved.

Very good, Severus said, feeling calmer already. First, he continued, you will need to remove encumbrances. He showed Harry the lowering of pyjama bottoms and folding aside of blankets. It felt very odd to be projecting an image of himself half-naked while not yet trying to arouse the boy, but Severus didn't know any other way to teach what had to be taught.

Then you must turn me on my side. I believe that position will give you the best…access. This step seemed simple, but Severus wasn't sure how easy it would be to turn him over, given that Harry was smaller and Severus didn't know how his muscles would behave when he was moved in such a way. They seemed to be limp rather than rigid, so he illustrated the movements Harry would have to perform based on that. Slide your arms under me, do you see? And roll me, just so—he moved the figure in his mind, trying not to mentally wince at the helpless flopping of his limbs that seemed inevitable—until I'm in a stable configuration.

Harry had rested one hand on Severus' side as he watched. Next you will need to lubricate your fingers, Severus continued, trying to ignore the warmth of the hand. The bedside lotion should do. He showed careful rubbing of lotion onto all four fingers of one hand. Then, stand behind me, and… Words failed him for a moment, and he simply visualized for Harry the sliding of a finger between his hips, and then insertion of that finger into the tight opening of his arse. He felt Harry tense. Are you all right? he asked.

"Yeah. I'm fine," Harry said, though it sounded like a lie.

Severus had an awkward thought. Are you concerned about…cleanliness?

"Er." From the way Harry mentally drew back from him, Severus guessed that if he hadn't been before, he was now. "Should I be?"

I do not believe so. Under normal circumstances, it would be customary to use a cleansing spell, but as I haven't had real food in weeks…

"Oh! That's okay, then. I mean, if you think it's okay?"

Yes, I do. He hoped that would be reassurance enough. Do you have any other concerns?

"Not really. It just looks kind of weird."

It is understandable if you find watching this uncomfortable at first.

"It's not a problem." Harry patted him reassuringly. "It's really…um, hot. I just hadn't quite got around to thinking this far into things yet."

You do realise, I hope, how appreciative I am of your willingness even to consider this.

"I know you appreciate it. It's just lucky I've decided I'm the right sort of man for the job, eh? If I hadn't, you know, figured out I was gay, I don't know if I'd have been able to do any of this."

I assure you, I would have had no interest in allowing a straight man to stick his cock into me.

Harry burst out laughing and said, "I don't suppose you would have." He picked up Severus' hand and pressed a gentle kiss to the back of it. "Go on. Show me what comes next."

Severus continued, forming images in his mind with care to every detail, just as he'd been doing every day with Harry over the past fortnight. This time, of course, the images were intended to instruct and to prepare Harry to pleasure Severus, rather than for Harry's own stimulation. Severus tried harder than ever to make his mental pictures clear and unambiguous, so that Harry would feel that he knew just what to do. It was a bizarre process, and Severus felt rather as though he was compiling an illustrated sex manual with himself and Harry as models; still, if the result was as satisfying to him as Harry's other assistance had been, all the trouble would have been worth it.

"Will that wiggling around really stretch you enough?" Harry asked, sounding worried, as he watched his imaginary double flex his fingers inside Severus.

Unless you are of significantly different bodily proportions than I'm imagining, it should be sufficient.

There was a pause as Harry processed this, and then he laughed, sounding nervous. "Um. No. I'm not so big. It just seems…like it would have to hurt."

A small amount of pain is unavoidable, but you needn't worry; I am accustomed to it.

"So you…you've done this a lot, then?"

I've done it enough to know full well what to expect. Severus projected an unpleasant, not quite humorous snort. Would you rather take a virgin? I'm sorry I cannot supply you with that particular experience, but I've no doubt you can find a willing subject on your own.

"No, no. I just wondered, that's all."

Of course. Severus allowed himself a small smile inside, an expression that he did not allow Harry to see. So Harry was interested in knowing how many lovers he had had. It wouldn't be in Severus' interest to reveal just how few there had been, not when jealousy in the boy could, after all, be a useful thing. When he spoke again into Harry's mind, however, he only said, What I am showing you should be sufficient, if you take your time.

"I will, don't worry. Go on. Show me what comes next."

Severus drew in his focus to a sharp point and directed it at the picture in his head. He carefully coordinated the movements of Harry's mental avatar, making the figure remove its own trousers and climb up on the bed behind him. It won't be necessary for you to remove any clothing, but I thought if I showed you the scene in this way you could better see what was required.

Harry gave a nervous little chuckle as his imaginary double undressed. "I still hope you're not going to be disappointed."

I will not be. Please, Harry. Trust me on this.

"If you say so." Severus could feel him studying the scene in his head. "I don't quite get how I'm going to…er, get it in there. Are you sure this will work?"

Quite. It's done all the time by complete idiots; I'm certain you can master it. Harry's laugh at that was genuine, and Severus relaxed a bit and turned his mental camera back to the instructional stage set.

The two of them, now both naked from the waist down, were lying together, Severus' back to Harry's front. This next is the most difficult part, he projected in a classroom sort of voice. But once you have achieved penetration, I can promise you it will be a pleasant experience. He felt Harry stroke his palm with one finger and wondered if the boy was even aware he was doing so.

You may facilitate things, at this stage, by lifting my upper leg and bending it at the knee…he made the figures onstage act out this step…allowing you more room to maneuver. He showed Harry scooting himself into position, aiming the now somewhat less heroically proportioned cock of his imagination at the tender target of Severus' arse. For this next step…you must place yourself in the proper position. It will require some experimentation, but you may take as long as you need; I can wait. When you think you've got things lined up properly, you simply push…he directed the image of Harry to grasp the hip of the Severus in front of him as he began to seek penetration…and keep pushing, slowly but firmly. There will be resistance, but you must persevere. Do you understand?

"Yes." Severus could feel the boy's rapt attention. He showed his imaginary Harry pushing with dogged determination, pulling back on his Severus at the same time, until with a grunt he shoved past the tight ring of muscle guarding the entrance. He stilled then, waiting, allowing the muscle to relax.

You will need to allow me a moment at this stage, so that my body can adjust to you. Then begin pushing farther in, slowly at first, until you are completely sheathed. Harry was clutching his hand as he watched. It will feel good, I promise you. You may have to exercise a great deal of control, in order not to climax immediately yourself. If that happens, however, don't be concerned. I will quite understand.

There was a very small, wavering laugh. "You weren't always such an understanding teacher."

Ah, but it is in my best interests to be so in this case. In the potions laboratory the situation was very different. I had to ensure that you students did not harm yourselves, or each other.

"Yeah. We were a lot of idiots sometimes, weren't we?"

You were, Severus replied in surprise, but no more than any other class. Of course there was more riding on your shoulders than on those of any other student. That made it necessary for me to be unusually demanding of you. He was suddenly full of unexpected remorse, sad that he'd had to be so hard on Potter, who was now being so generous with him.

"Well, this kind of makes up for it."

I am glad, Severus said, rather shocked, that you see it that way. He shifted his attention back to the joined bodies he was showing to Harry. Let us continue, shall we? He felt Harry's mental gaze snap back. Good. Now, once my muscles have relaxed to allow you fully inside, you may begin to move, at your pleasure. I would advise starting slowly, but you may do as you wish. He showed the figure of Harry beginning to move, sliding back and forth behind his Severus, pumping in and out with ease. He tried to imagine the expressions and sounds from Harry that would accompany full-throttle intercourse, and concentrated on making the little show as vivid as he could, for Harry's benefit.

"Fuck, Severus," Harry whispered from beside him, clutching his hand. "That looks like it would feel good."

I am confident that it will.

"Is there anything else you…um…need to show me?"

Severus sent out a soft chuckle. You enjoy watching this?

"Well, yeah. I mean, don't you?"

Experiencing it will be far better.

"But is this…all there is? I was expecting something more complicated."

There are more elaborate moves and positions you may attempt, eventually. It is possible to stimulate specific areas in the…receiving partner. I wouldn't expect such finesse your first time, however.

"Oh. Well, thanks." He cleared his throat. "So…when do you want to do this? Right now?"

Are you serious?

"Why not?"

What's the time?

"Um, gone half eleven."

They will be making noon rounds soon.

"You can wait longer, then?"

I've done nothing but wait for weeks now. I don't imagine a bit longer will hurt me. He sensed a half-hearted challenge to that inside the boy's head. We must wait, Harry. The risk of being caught is simply—what? he asked, annoyed that Harry didn't seem to be paying attention.

"I was just wondering something."

Severus sighed. A rare and frightening event, indeed. What, pray tell, were you wondering?

"Well." He cleared his throat. "What would they think we were doing, if they caught us?

What do you imagine they would think?

"Er, maybe that we'd been lovers before?"

Severus barked a harsh laugh into the silence. No one would believe that.

"Okay, probably not. So maybe it would convince them that you'd been talking to me, just like I've been telling them, because there's no other reason I'd ever be having sex with you."

No other reason, unless you were a sexual deviant.

"Who, me?"

Yes, you. They would assume you were molesting me, you idiot. They would declare the Chosen One to be exhibiting a previously unsuspected paraphilia.

"I…" Severus thought he could hear the boy swallow, hard. "An unsuspected what?"

Paraphilia. An abnormal sexual obsession. In this case involving sexual intercourse with an apparently unconscious patient. Which, in case you weren't aware, would be considered criminal sexual behavior.

"Oh." He cleared his throat. "Would they really think that?"

Is it still true that no one believes you are actually communicating with me?

"Yes. I mean, no. Nobody believes me. I don't talk about it anymore."

Then, yes. Severus didn't want to say his next words, but knew he owed them to Harry. I would completely understand if this knowledge deters you from wanting to engage in this bizarre exercise with me.

"No." Harry gripped his hand hard for an instant. "We just have to be careful. But we'll make it work. I promised you."

I would not hold you to such a promise if you felt it too dangerous.

Harry laughed. "Dangerous? After the war? Come on, Snape, what's a little criminal sexual behavior between friends?"

Very well, then, Severus replied, relieved. We must determine what time of day would be safest.

"How about right after lunch?" Harry asked, sounding hopeful.

I can't believe you're so eager now.

"Well, it's not like I've ever had real sex before, you know. Now that I see how it'll work, of course I'm eager. So when?"

Severus thought for a bit. Until now he'd never even imagined this might be possible. What they'd done so far had been spontaneous and quick, more like the casual sex that might occur between strangers in an almost-public place, though Potter certainly didn't seem to feel casual about it. To really have sex, though, with both of them technically in the bed, and with it being Potter's first time, no less…it seemed that something more planned, more conducive to intimacy, might be required. Nighttime was more suited to this sort of thing than was the stark brightness of a hospital room by day, Severus thought. There was more room in the darkness for mystery and romance, which seemed to be what Potter wanted.

He couldn't quite believe he was thinking these thoughts. Mystery and romance, indeed.

"What was that?"

Nothing. But what would you say to the idea of attempting this at night?

"You mean I should stay the night with you?"

No, unless you fancy hiding in a closet for several hours. I thought you might come back. In the middle of the night, that is.

"After visiting hours? When they've locked up for the night?"


"Oh." He seemed to think this over. "I don't think the hospital wards will let me Apparate to your room."

You have your invisibility cloak, I assume.


You have evaded more diligent guards than these medi-witches before, have you not?

"Yeah." He giggled. "Like you."

Exactly. And there is far less activity here at night than during the day. No one comes by to check on me for hours at a time. And since they allow no magical protections on this room, that will work in your favour.

"What time, then?"

Midnight, perhaps? But be prepared to abandon the plan and retreat if things get sticky.

Harry snickered. "I thought we were planning to get things sticky."

Very amusing.

Harry kissed his cheek. "Midnight, then. I'll be here." He took up Severus' hand again and stroked it.

Read for a bit, why don't you, so things will look normal when they come in for rounds.

"Sure." Harry settled back in his chair, tucked Severus' limp hand into his lap, and started in on a newspaper article.

Severus lay there, still as ever, feeling the wonder of it all. His hand was pressed against Harry's warm body. Harry was reading in a low voice, the sound of it a soothing bit of normalcy. Pleasant, if frustrating, luncheon smells were beginning to drift down the corridors from the hospital kitchen.

They were going to have sex that very night.

"Severus, it's me," Harry whispered from just inside the door. "Shall I lock up?"

Severus smothered his surprise. He'd been listening for the boy's entrance but hadn't heard him make a sound. The invisibility cloak, of course, made no difference at all to him.

By all means. If you're still sure about this, that is.

"Oh, I'm sure," he answered softly. Severus heard him close the door and turn the lock very slowly. "All set." He remained standing by the door, though, his nervousness so palpable that Severus was sure anyone could have felt it, even without any mental contact.

If it is too stressful for you to attempt this, I would understand—

"No, no. I want to do it." His own firm words seemed to jar the boy from the spot where he'd been rooted. He came to stand by the bed and took Severus' hand. "Don't worry."

Severus could not keep himself from worrying, as it seemed his whole evening had given him cause. The medi-witches had taken an eternity to complete their final rounds. From the indistinct sounds he could hear, it seemed that every single patient on the long ward hallway had some niggling little problem that needed attention. No one was dying—he was sure the sounds coming from the rooms and corridor would have been different for that—but everyone had seemed to need something.

At last the medical staff were done with their tending, and most of them seemed to have left. If tonight had followed usual practice—as Severus understood it, from listening to the banter and whinging that had gone on around him for weeks now, with no one suspecting he was alert and remembering every word—the minimal overnight crew would have retreated behind their great, barricading counter to relax, eat a late dinner, and gossip.

Did you see the lot of them down the hall, then?

"Yeah. Just two behind the desk tonight. They've got take-away and a little telly hidden under the counter. I don't think they'll bother us." Severus could feel him grinning.

Excellent. He tried to relax his voice into the deepest, most seductive thought-timbre he could project. Are you ready, then?

"More than." Harry leaned down and gave Severus a quick kiss on the cheek. "You?"

I think you can see the answer to that for yourself.

Harry placed a hand gently on Severus' groin. "I guess you are," he whispered. "But Severus…"


"I was wondering. I used that locking spell the other night and it didn't seem to hurt you…do you think it would be too risky to use a silencing charm? I'm a little afraid I might make too much noise."

Not the strong silent type, eh?

"Um, not exactly. I mean, I don't know how I'll react, to…you know. The real thing."

Understandable. Go ahead, but use only one, and a simple one. You don't want to leave any distinctive magical trace.

"You don't think it will hurt you?"

It seems unlikely at this point.

"You know I'd never forgive myself if I did you any harm.

Relax, Potter. I'm more than willing to take the chance, if it will reduce your inhibitions.

"Um. Okay, then." Harry muttered the required incantation in a low voice, then waited a few seconds. "Feel all right?"

Hard enough to pound nails, but otherwise, yes.

He snickered. "We're all set, then." He took Severus' hands. "Run through the first bits with me in your head again, to get me started?"

Of course. Severus replayed the moving images he'd created earlier. Relax, Harry.

"I'm trying."

We'll take this one step at a time. There's nothing to be nervous about. Take a deep breath…now draw down the covers…yes, that's it. He tried to make his mental voice silky and heavy with the promise of pleasure, and he felt Harry's mind quiver in response. You can see from the state of my body, I trust, that you have my complete attention?

"Uh. Yeah." Harry chuckled through his obvious nervousness. "That's…nice." He ran a hand from Severus' waist down over his already-eager prick, then along the inside of one thigh. "Should I take your pants off now?" he asked.

Very good. Ah, he thought in a whisper, and then the pants were down and he continued, that's even better.

Harry's hand circled his hard length and began making gentle strokes, his breathing quickening. Don't get distracted, now, Severus chided. You need to position me.

"Right." Harry seemed to catch himself, and he stopped his caresses. He put one hand under Severus' shoulder and one under his hip, then made a lift-and-roll motion. "Hey, that was easy. I thought you'd be heavier."

I've been immobile for weeks. I'm sure I've lost at least a stone.

"Probably." He slid his hands appraisingly over Severus' shoulders and back. "You do feel pretty skinny. But I don't know what you felt like before." He chuckled. "I sure never thought about feeling you up before."

And a good thing you didn't. I'd have given you a month of very unpleasant detentions if I'd caught a hint of such thoughts. Harry laughed, sounding a bit more relaxed. Very good. Now slick your fingers, please.

He did this, then without coaching moved a hand into position, sliding down Severus' arse and between his hips. The fingers hesitated only a little as they touched the depths of the crease between them, then slipped lower until they rubbed at the opening that so eagerly awaited the imposition of Harry's firm young body.

That's it. Harder, yes, don't be afraid. You can't possibly hurt me with one finger.

"Like that?" he asked, probing a little.

Yes. Inside. Do it, now. Severus felt a wave of heat pass through him; it was arousal from the touch of another man, and the nearness of the penetration he craved. Don't be tentative. I want this, Harry.

"Okay," Harry whispered. One arm snaked under Severus' neck and hugged him tighter, while the index finger of the boy's exploring hand pushed into his dark, welcoming depths.

Severus groaned. Deeper, go deeper. Harry obeyed, sliding his slick finger farther in. All the way. The pressure was light, and he was not filled enough, but it still felt wonderful. Add—he could not restrain a grunt—add another finger, Harry.

He could sense the boy's hesitation, but the finger was added. Yes. Bloody brilliant. Now one more.

"Are you sure?"

I'm damned sure, boy. Do it! Severus just managed to maintain his composure enough to keep his coaching voice. When the third finger was added, however, he gave it up and just let the moan pour out of him. Still, there was more he wanted, and he tried stay focused enough to get it. Crook your fingers. Yes, turn your wrist…toward the front, hmm, you've got it, that's the way. Now, in and out. Stroke me there, in and out, yes, uhh… He lost his voice for a moment as pleasure flooded him. Oh, yes, that's it. You've got it. Oh, gods…

It was too good. He stopped trying to make words, instead attempting to regain control over himself, if not the situation. Wait. Stop. Yes, I said stop. Remove your hand.

"What—why? Am I doing something wrong?" He withdrew the hand.

No. Severus could hear his own rapid breathing, and he tried to calm himself. Too right, he thought, his mental voice gasping just as his real voice would have. He hadn't counted on the boy finding the pleasure spot so quickly, or rubbing it so surely. If you keep doing that, I'll come. I want you inside me first.

"Yeah. All right." Harry hugged Severus from behind with both arms, cautious but reassuring. "Tell me what to do, then."

Reinsert two fingers, please, and use them to stretch me, as I showed you. It shouldn't take much. He felt the full sensation of two fingers entering him, and when they began flexing—stretch apart, back together, stretch apart again—the fullness increased. It took only a moment for Severus to feel his muscles relax, and for the deep aching need inside him to return in full force.

Get into the bed now, Harry, he instructed, his mental voice rough. He felt the loss of both the boy's hands for a few seconds, and heard him unfastening and quickly dropping his jeans, and kicking off his shoes. Then there was warmth behind him, pressure against his back and thighs and an arm under his neck and lips against his shoulder…and then a hand under his knee raised and bent his leg, and something warm and hard pressed against his arse. Yes, get it in. Just push, I'm in no mood for fiddling. You will not hurt me. Just do it, Harry. Please. The last came out in a heavy grunt, as he felt the boy's cock pressing hard against him. Did you…lubricate it? he just remembered to ask.

"Uh, no. Wait a second—" The cockhead was removed, and Severus struggled to keep from whimpering. Harry wiggled behind him, and then that perfect cock was back, and the boy's hand was firm on Severus' hip, and he could feel Harry pushing, probably as hard as he dared, to gain entrance. "You'll tell me if it hurts—"

Yes, fuck, I'll tell you. Severus hung on mentally as he felt Harry try to manage the sensations of forcing himself inside another man for the first time. He heard the boy go through a whole catalogue of reactions—it's so brutal, surely Severus doesn't really want this, god it's so tight, holy shit I'm going to hurt him, oh it's bloody marvelous, uhh, uhh, uhh… And then he was in, and with a gasp they were locked together arse to groin as the boy sank deep inside him. Severus felt himself sliding toward the edge of sanity and knew he was close to giving himself up to the glorious madness of orgasm.

"Severus." The words were sobbed against the back of his neck. "Oh, gods. I didn't know it would feel like this."

It's good, yes? I told you. Severus grunted out the words, trying to scramble away from the edge toward which he knew he was slipping ever faster.

"Yeah. It's good." Harry shifted behind him, adjusting the way his arms were wrapped around Severus, holding tight as if he might never let him go. "Should I…move now?"

Fuck, yes. Move. Do whatever you want.

And Harry moved. Severus had to credit him, later, with having a more developed technique than he'd expected, making him sure the boy must have been having sex with someone, somewhere, in the time before he began hanging about St. Mungo's watching over the sorry arse of a miserable former Death Eater who didn't deserve him. But whatever, or however, Harry seemed to know something of what he was doing, and he began thrusting purposefully. After a moment, Severus could feel him wriggling a little, feeling about, as if seeking a target with his cock, and then the boy found it, and Severus almost expected to hear himself scream out loud as Harry touched him just there again and again. He had needed this, needed it so much after six weeks in the bloody miserable darkness with no way to take care of his own needs and only Harry to connect him to the real world.

Harry had found his stride and was moving smoothly in and out of Severus' arse, hard as a greased stone. He reached a still-slippery hand around to Severus' front and began pulling his cock in time with the thrusts. "Is it good, Sev?" the boy asked, panting. "Is this enough?" His voice, even through the heavy exertion of his efforts, was full of concern, and the ridiculous generosity of it pushed Severus over the edge. The bottom of the world fell out from beneath him. Potter hissed, this time a long and very serpentine sound, behind him. Behind his closed eyelids, the darkness was lit up for one bright golden moment, and then black rushed back in and his consciousness collapsed into it.

Several quiet moments passed after that, in which Severus lay listening to his breathing slow and feeling Harry pulsing inside him. He could feel sweat connecting them, wetness between their thighs and lower bodies, damp clinging cloth between their chests and shoulders. Usually this part of sex was embarrassing to him, making him imagine that his own body's response must be unpleasant to whatever unfortunate he had managed to coax into bed with him. But now, so deprived of real sensations as he'd been, it was different. The damp pooling between them felt so real, so much a part of life, and so much a reminder of how it felt to be alive, that he reveled in it. He welcomed the smell and the stickiness and Potter's wiry arms clinging to him, and all the rest of it, every last tiny physical bit of this, the last moves after the checkmate, the very finish of the endgame of sex.

Potter was clinging to him rather tightly, he realised then. He felt hair sticking to his back, and hands beginning to rub his chest. Then a chin poked his shoulder and warm lips kissed his neck, and he knew the boy was back to himself again.

"That was incredible," Harry whispered. "Thank you."

You are most welcome, Severus replied, thinking it quite ridiculous that Potter was thanking him, instead of the other way around. I'm glad it was enjoyable for you.

"I had never thought it all the way through, you know. The whole thing, the cock-in-the-arse thing. I mean, that a man could…could want that, want it done to him. And enjoy it."

Severus allowed himself a soft snort. You hadn't considered it, even when you realised you were attracted to men?

"Um, yeah. I mean no, not even then."

This whole thing, the possibility of being gay, is truly a new development for you?

"It is. Though to be honest," he said, and Severus could feel how hard he was thinking, "maybe there were some clues. Before, I mean. If I'd been looking for them. But mostly it's been about you, about getting to know you." He laughed, as if still releasing tension. "And I never would have thought that you'd—" He stopped short.

Never would have thought that I'd what?


Severus sent forth the sound of a long-suffering sigh. Just say it.

"I didn't think that you, of all people, would ever let anyone do that to you."

I see.

"Not that it's bad that you did, or anything." It was entertaining to listen to the boy back-pedaling, and Severus decided he'd let it go on for a bit, to see how far Harry would extend himself. "And obviously," he was saying, "if one man wants to, er, do the fucking, the other one has to…ah…take it, I suppose. Right?"

Obviously. It was pleasant to sound out the word in his head with the same drawling disrespect he'd so long used in speaking out loud.

"And if two men are going to have sex, well, that's required, isn't it? I mean, there's no choice. Someone has to…take it up the bum. Don't they?"

There are many, many possibilities, Harry.

He felt Harry deflate. "I guess I'll have to take your word for it."

Feeling less sure, now, that it's what you want after all?

"I…" Severus could feel him reaching around, hunting the right words, or word. "No." It came out quietly, and the arms around Severus tightened as he said it. "Not at all."

What if I were to ask to fuck you, the next time?

"Ask to…but how?"

Was that a new note of anxiety in the young voice? Severus chuckled to himself, then sent words to Harry. There are ways. He marshaled his intellectual muscles to form a new image in his mind. In it the two of them were positioned differently, this time with Severus on his back and Harry sliding on his straining cock, pushing himself up and down like a child on a jumping ball. He made sure to imagine a rapturous expression on Harry's face.

"What—whoa. Does that actually work?"

I assure you, it does, if the gentleman on top has strong thigh muscles. As I assume…he lowered his mental voice to a soft purr…a Quidditch player such as yourself would have.

There was another uncertain giggle. "Is that what you want? Next time, I mean?" The voice was definitely nervous.

Not necessarily, Severus thought, trying to hide the little spike of anticipation he felt at the thought that there might, in fact, be a next time. I generally prefer the configuration that we just used. But a certain amount of variety is always welcome in such things. Don't you agree?

"Sure. I guess." Harry's cock had slipped out behind Severus, and the boy gingerly separated their stuck-together bodies. "Let me get you put back together here, all right?"

Yes, please, Severus replied. He waited while Harry rearranged him in the bed, then fetched a wet cloth again and gave him an intimate sponging down. It was warm and relaxing, and Severus was sure he would sleep well this night, though he wished they dared use another spell for internal cleansing.

He was just about to explain this sort of spell to Potter when there was the distinct sound of a wheeled cart being rolled along, far down the hallway.

Severus felt his relaxed mood snap. Can you hide yourself? he asked Harry, making his mental voice sharp with urgency.

"Yes, hang on!" He thought he could hear Potter wrestling with clothing, and then scooting his trainers across the floor as he shoved his feet into them. "I'm opening the door just a bit," the boy said in a tense whisper. Severus could hear him murmuring, undoing the silencing spell, and then the doorknob turned very slowly and quietly. The door opened partway, on nearly silent hinges. He heard Potter slip into a corner of the room and, he hoped, cover himself with the invisibility cloak.

The sound of the cart drew closer. He could hear Potter's breathing. Take a deep breath, Harry, he advised.

He felt Harry smiling at him. The cart passed by their door, rolling with painful slowness but not stopping. Harry took another deep breath. Then he sent Severus an image of himself holding Severus' hand, and squeezing it reassuringly.

Thank you, Severus thought to him. He imagined himself standing tall next to Harry, then leaning down to press a gentle kiss to his lips. Sending that image along with his words, he thought, that was extraordinary.

They stayed like that for a while, listening as the cart trundled farther away down the hall, and needing nothing more than the mental touch between them as protection from the world outside.

Chapter 9

"I brought you something," Harry said the next morning. He picked Severus' limp hand up from the bed and pressed something cool and smooth against his fingers. The hour was early, St. Mungo's was bustling with its usual morning noise and activity, and he had just stepped into Severus' room. "It's salve," he said. "For healing." With no further warning, he kissed Severus on the lips, the touch warm and lingering.

Severus had been lying awake for some time. He wanted to ask obvious questions about the salve—You brought healing salve to a potions master? Really, Potter?—but the presumptuous intimacy of the kiss pushed those aside for the moment. That was foolish, he thought sharply to the boy instead. Did you even close the door?

"I'll close it now."

There are a great many medi-witches prowling up and down the corridor at this hour, Severus tried to huff into the boy's mind as he heard the door closing. The voices in the hall were muted, but did not disappear. They could pop in through that door at any moment, and even if it's closed, that would only alert them to the fact that—"

"Shhh," Harry replied, and kissed Severus' mouth again, as if that would silence him, as if his mouth had anything to do with the way he spoke to Harry now. "Everything will be all right. I just wanted to say good morning."

You've said good morning every day for these last many weeks without finding it necessary to kiss me and chance being caught at it. Except, he remembered, for that one foolish wake-up call that he'd reacted to so badly; he decided it was probably best not to bring that up. I don't see why that has to change.

"I thought everything had changed." A little tangle of hurt and wounded pride knotted up inside the boy, one that Severus could feel for himself as a curious burning lump in his throat. He could feel, too, when Harry tried to swallow it and pull himself together. "Sorry," he said. "Of course nothing has to change."

Harry gave Severus's hand a hasty pat and bustled about the room, organizing things, Severus supposed, for the day ahead. He heard the window blind rattle as its cord was pulled, presumably letting in light that Severus couldn't see. The boy made fiddling sounds around the equipment standing at the bedside, and then he shook out the bedclothes a little, lifting and then smoothing them on top of Severus, who wished he could snort in exasperation.


"It's all right. I was being stupid." The words sounded brave, and false. "Just forget about it."

I might have been a bit harsh—

"It's all right, I said. Harsh is what you do."

And attempting to rescue those who are past saving is what you do. I am well aware that I have asked a great deal of you. It would be supremely ungrateful of me—not to mention foolish, he added to himself—to treat you unkindly. I was simply concerned that we must not be caught…inappropriately engaged. Do you understand?

"I do." Harry fidgeted noisily, sitting down at last in the chair next to the bed. "What about the salve?"

Yes. About the salve. Why on earth would you bring me salve, and where, pray tell, did you get it? Don't tell me you prepared it yourself.

He laughed. "No. It's from the chemist. I thought you might need it."

You brought me salve from a Muggle chemist?

"Well, yeah. I wasn't sure if magical salve would hurt you. Plus it seemed safer than going to a wizarding shop where I might be recognised."

How impressively cautious of you. But why did you believe I needed salve?

"Well, aren't you kind of…sore?"

Sore, as in physically experiencing pain?

"Yeah. After yesterday."

Severus was in some discomfort, of course, but he'd tried to keep it private, behind his own mental wards. From intimate abrasions, you mean.

"Right, that's what I meant." He laughed again. "So, are you?"

Apparently his mental wards were working. Not enough for you to be concerned.

"But I am concerned. I didn't want to hurt you, remember?"

I've suffered no actual harm, I assure you.

"But you hadn't done, er, what we did, in a long time, had you?"

No. Severus tried to sound huffy. Not that it's any of your business.

Harry ignored the attitude. "Look, I'm not an idiot. It had to hurt, at least a little. And you could get those abrasions, like you said."

Potter, I've told you I'm fine. Let the matter drop. The boy's solicitous manner was beginning to make Severus nervous.

"No. I can't. Because, well…if you're hurting there's no way I'm going to be willing to do that again." Severus was adjusting himself to this disappointment, which he'd known all along was inevitable, when the boy continued. "And I want to do that again," he said firmly.

I see. Severus kept his mental voice steady, and cloaked the warm feeling that shot through him as he heard the words.

"So, when do you want to?"

When do I want to what, exactly?

"Git. Have sex, of course." Harry chuckled and picked up Severus' hand again. He seemed to clutch it with both of his own. "It was really good." There was a pause. "I thought." Another pause. "Didn't you? It seemed as though you liked it…" His voice trailed off and that little knot of worry returned.

As I assured you yesterday, it was indeed…good. There was no need to let the boy stew too much. He'd be more cooperative if he felt appreciated.

"So…when do you think we can do it again?"

The warm feeling spread further. Again, eh?

"Yeah. And soon, maybe. I mean, I'll do it whenever you want, but…I'd like to do it soon. If we could."

The heat swelling in Severus' chest intensified, and pulsed with possibility. Little droplets of thought were seeping out under the door of the boy's mind, a door he was clearly trying to hold closed…Harry was imagining them in bed together…he was devising new ways to position Severus to make penetration easier…he was seeing himself kissing Severus, petting Severus, taking care of Severus…but always with himself in the controlling role, though the Severus of his fantasies was moving and responding as the real Severus could not.

So Harry, it seemed, was indeed gay, even if very newly so, and moreover he was so suited to being the dominant bed-partner that Severus didn't wonder that he'd never given a thought to being a "bottom." Still he was young and inexperienced, and a partner who could instruct him while also physically submitting to him was just what he needed, though he'd not have been able to articulate that need.

Severus felt sure now the boy would keep coming back for this, for sex with a man he could imagine he was having his way with, with whom he could be dominant in a way that might never be possible with any other man, in any more conventional sexual situation. Harry was a fish on the line now—but no, Severus thought, the image of a vicious hook destroying that soft, gentle mouth was all wrong. The boy was more like a lovely wild bird he'd attracted to his feeder. As long as Severus kept putting out seed, Harry would return, at least as long as the seed was tasty enough. But it wouldn't do, he decided, to glut the boy all at once. Perhaps he should dole out his treats slowly, even make Harry feel he had to earn them.

At last he answered Harry's question. I think, he projected in a calculating tone, that I should take a bit of time to heal before we attempt penetration again.

"Of course. Do you want the salve, then? Would it help?"

Severus considered this. He was sore, though the discomfort was worth it as a reminder of the pleasure received in exchange. Intimate irritations that got no looking after could turn nasty, however, so perhaps using a bit of Potter's salve was a good idea. I don't imagine it would do any harm, he thought to Harry, though I would prefer my own preparation.

"I'm sure you would. But I haven't got any of that, so will this do?"

I suppose it will have to.

"Can I put it on you, then?"

The boy would take any excuse to touch him right now, Severus realised, and he saw how to leverage his control with this small revelation. I think not just at the moment. The corridors are too busy, and the chance of discovery too great.

"But you're hurting." He hesitated, and then added, "I can feel it, you know. The pain."

Perhaps his mental wards weren't all that he'd hoped, then. It's not so bad that I can't tolerate it a bit longer. Perhaps you could apply the salve as part of our usual afternoon entertainment.

Potter laughed, then kissed Severus' hand. "All right, this afternoon, then," he said. He laid the hand on the bed and sat back in his chair. "Do you want me to read to you now?"

I wouldn't object.

The boy began to read the Daily Prophet, and the sound of his voice would have seemed quite ordinary to anyone listening to him. To Severus, however, who could feel the threads of sexual tension—eagerness, apprehension, excitement, and more—laced together underneath his words, the voice was taut with promise, its every word more confirmation that the boy would stay for a while yet, that Severus was not to be left alone and powerless for the time being.

They were also going to have sex again. Not today, but soon.

Inside Severus' mind, behind carefully drawn curtains that would keep his thoughts from Harry until the proper moment, he considered the afternoon ahead. He imagined Harry touching him, first locking the door and drawing down his pants, and then slowly rubbing salve over the tender orifice he'd penetrated the day before. With a little coaching, Severus thought, he could probably get the boy to stimulate him quite satisfactorily in the process. The idea was so invigorating that even though he could not actually smile, he imagined himself smiling and sighing with contentment afterwards. Feeling generous, he sent this little image on the waves of his thoughts out to Harry, who, when he seemed to catch it, paused for a beat in his reading, made a pleased little clucking sound, and squeezed Severus' hand.

No, they would not have sex that day. Somewhat to his surprise, however, Severus found this shared anticipation, and shared preparation, almost as pleasant.

"Tonight, maybe?" Harry's voice was soft and close, and his breath tickled Severus' neck.

It was the next day.

Severus loaded his words with regret, and with a longing meant to equal what was radiating off of the boy in soft, hot waves. He concentrated hard, controlling his thoughts and enhancing them, filling the air between himself and Harry with imagined perceptions of the smell of their mingled sweat, as if they had just made love with mutual athletic fervor right here in his hospital bed. Not quite yet, Harry, he said in his silent voice. Soon.

Harry sighed. "Okay," he said, then more softly, "You're driving me mad, you know."

I know, Severus replied, trying very hard not to sound happy. The waves of Harry's desire warmed him, and he thought, but kept to himself, a sigh of pleasure.

"What do you think?" Harry asked, immediately on arriving in the morning, another day later. "Do you feel like you're healed enough now?" the boy asked. He was making no attempt to hide either his eagerness or his arousal, though it was only eight in the morning.

Perhaps, Severus allowed, though he had no intention of being persuaded to swing to the affirmative yet. One more day, or perhaps two, he calculated, would give the proper balance of delay and gratification.

Harry made a frustrated noise, but then he sat down by the bed and began to read. Severus relaxed into the sound of his voice and let himself be teased by the little flashes of desire that escaped the boy's head.

"You do realize I'm having trouble concentrating on anything else, right?"

Three days had passed.

Anything else but what, Mister Potter?

"You know what!"

I'm sure I have no idea. Perhaps you should tell me?

Harry growled, but it wasn't a very frightening sound. "You're bloody irritating sometimes. Did anyone ever tell you that?"

Severus sent out a laugh. Just tell me what you want, Harry. He paused, savouring the sensation of being desired. I want to hear you say it.

"Oh. All right." Harry leaned over the bed. "You like hearing me talk about having sex with you?"

Very much. But keep your voice down.

"I will." Harry stroked Severus' arm. "I want to have sex with you again. As soon as you'll let me. I mean," he whispered, "not too soon. I don't want to hurt you. But as soon as you're ready, yeah. I want to." He lifted Severus' hand and kissed it quickly. "I want to fuck you again. Is that what you want to hear?"

I think you can tell— His mind froze, locked onto a sound it had just heard…a sound that shouldn't be there.

Potter, listen. They sat in dead silence for a moment. There was a sound in the hallway.

"Want me to check it out?"


Harry stood and walked silently to the door. Severus heard the hinges squeak slightly, then Harry was back at his side. "No one's there now, but there's a medi-witch just down the hall, walking away. She might have been outside the door a second ago."

Who was it?

"Margaret, maybe. Can't tell for sure."

No one else is near?

"No." He sat down again. "If she was worried about something she would have come in to check. Besides, I wasn't doing anything. I think it's all right."

Hmm. I hope so.

"Don't think about it, okay? Think about when we're going to have sex again."

Severus decided he'd had enough of waiting. Perhaps…tomorrow, Harry. He hoped impatience wasn't making him foolish. Yes. I think tomorrow.

Chapter 10

"Did you ever imagine me doing this to you? Before, I mean," Harry whispered, panting a bit already, "when I was at school?"

Potter asked this question while propped on his left elbow behind Severus, the fingers of his left hand playing with his former teacher's hair while those of his right stroked the lean flesh of the man's right buttock. He had just climbed into the narrow bed, but Severus could feel how hard the boy was already. He'd clearly had a long, frustrating day waiting for this, and Severus didn't imagine the whole little tryst would take very long.

I most certainly did not, he answered. And as I believe I've told you before, I would have had you doing detentions for weeks—with Mister Filch, I might add—if I'd had any suspicions that you were imagining such things.

"You'd not punish me now, though, would you?" Harry slid both arms around him and hugged, enclosing Severus from behind in an awkward embrace. He had untied the neck of Severus' hospital gown so that he could slip it forward and off of one arm, and Severus could feel Harry's bare chest against his back. Their bodies now were suffocatingly close in the small bed, and Severus felt lips mouthing his neck, and hands sliding over his chest, fingering his erect nipples. "You feel so good, Severus. Your hair is so soft…mmm." The boy's attempt to articulate what he was enjoying deteriorated into a blissful hum.

Harry, Severus began, trying to keep things focused. It would be safer to do this quickly, and not waste time with petting and flirtatious talk. He wondered how Harry had become so confident with such things, practically overnight. Sex will do that, he thought, careful to keep the thought cloaked and hidden. Give a teenager sex once and he's ruined.

Harry's hand skittered down his flank and then sideways to his cock, wrapping around it and stroking it experimentally a few times. Then the hand danced away, too soon, and slid even lower, squeezing the tender sac between his legs just firmly enough to make Severus want very much to groan out loud.

The boy seemed intent on engaging in foreplay, but none of this had been scripted or directed by Severus. "Do you want me to touch you inside now?" Harry whispered, his breath hot in Severus' ear. "Like I did with the salve?"

I…Harry. Yes. But you needn't… The situation was beginning to fluster Severus. It wasn't necessary for the boy to cuddle or coax him. Of course it felt good, but he couldn't let Harry see that.

The problem was that feeling this good made Severus feel less in control. He'd thought Harry would do as he was instructed and no more, as he had the first time. The process had been…efficient. This, now, felt like something else, and Severus needed to wrest control back from Harry before it became something overwhelming. But how to take control back without upsetting the boy?

Mister Potter, he began, hoping the use of the surname would jar Harry out of his friskiness. He put a breath of laughter into the projected sound of his voice, however, so that it might seem more like teasing than scolding; it wouldn't do to sound too serious. Might I remind you that better things await, if you can just stay focused long enough to get to them?

It didn't work. Harry giggled into his ear and then pinched one nipple, his other hand stroking through the wiry hair at Severus' groin. "This is good too, though. I like touching you," he whispered. "Don't you like it?"

I do, Severus said, trying not to let a moan escape with his thoughts. But what I will enjoy even more is for you to be inside me. Soon, Potter. I can't endure much of this sexual play. He retreated again behind his rigid mental shield, so that he could think privately for a moment. Great Merlin, he asked himself, what sort of monster have I created?

At last he felt fingers probing in the cleft of his arse. That's more like it, he thought with a growl, and Harry laughed. Slick fingers found their target and began their assault, concentrated and gentle and devastating. In no time at all he was ready to beg, but he managed to make it sound more like a command. Now, Potter. You've done enough. Get your cock in me before we get caught at this.

That seemed a sober enough warning to make the boy move. "Uh, yeah," he grunted, shifting his body and sliding into Severus with one startling, smooth thrust. "Oh, God." He moaned, and then lay still, fully embedded.

Severus lay waiting for him to move, and after a few long, tight seconds, he did. Severus was doubly glad of Harry's careful salve applications then, when the sharp burn of penetration became the smouldering friction of repeated thrusts, of a rigid cock shoving itself through his tender channel. He'd counted the soreness of their first time as due to the years of celibacy he'd endured; this time, however, he wondered if he was simply getting old. Then Potter managed to angle himself just right and all the pain disappeared in a wave of pleasure.

Ughh… He thought a sound that was rather less controlled than he'd intended. That's it. More, Harry. The boy positioned and braced himself to deliver that perfect stroke again and again, and Severus felt himself losing all control, though it had been only a moment since Harry had entered him. How the fuck, Potter…things shouldn't go this quickly for someone my age, he thought, not bothering to hide it. You shouldn't be able to—

Harry's mouth was at his ear, kissing him and breathing hard. "Shh," he whispered. "Don't worry. This is all for you. Want to make it good for you, love." With that he reached around and took Severus' cock in his already-slicked hand, and just as he had the first time, pulled on it in time with his strokes.

Love? Severus thought in surprise, as the taut edges of his mind grew rough and ragged. People said the word all the time, of course, as a casual endearment, but Potter didn't. Severus had seen what the boy was feeling, but he hadn't expected to hear it out loud.

Something in Potter's mind swelled up and held him tighter, held him as if this was forever, as if he would be safe in these arms no matter what, even if he could never move again. Yes, love, Harry thought to Severus, apparently not caring that he was at the same time opening up to him the entirety of his head, which was filled with romantic nonsense. Of course, love.

The sentiment was so powerful that for an instant Severus forgot his intention to control things, and as a result, he didn't. He was swept away by a great flood of an orgasm, and he went over the riverbank of his mind hard, flailing mentally, and reaching out to the boy in his mind as he fell. Harry, he wailed in the silent voice that was all he could throw out between them, come with me...

He felt Harry reach out through his mental door to grab his hand, and he pulled the boy with him into his own mind, deeper than he'd ever allowed Harry to penetrate before. Then Severus dropped, and let the waves of pleasure take him. They flowed through him to Harry, who hung on as his body kept thrusting and stroking and finally carried them both into ecstasy.

It was some time later that Severus realised Harry was still in bed with him, and had pulled the bedclothes up around them, enveloping them together in a cozy nest. The boy was snugged up close against his back and sounded as though he might be asleep.

Potter. There was no response, so Severus tried to think at him more loudly, realising the risk inherent in having Harry sound asleep in his bed—not to mention, at least half naked. Harry. There was a soft gurgle behind him. Wake up. We haven't time for a nap, not like this.

"Mrmph," came the sleepy, mumbled response. Then there was a wet kiss to Severus' shoulder, and the mumbling voice found words. "That was brilliant."

It was. But we mustn't linger in this compromising position.

"Um." He could feel Harry stretching, and their skin, where it touched, separating into two damp and sticky bodies. "I…I had no idea."

No idea of what? Severus asked, feeling nervous. Had he been asleep, too? How much time had passed? It seemed unwise to delay cleaning up and getting Harry safely out of here.

"What you felt. What it felt like, to have me inside you."

You knew that I enjoyed it. That was clear the first time, wasn't it?

"Yes, but I didn't know it would feel like that."

Well, now you know, Severus told him, not sure himself why he'd decided, there at the last minute, to drag the boy with him and share those lovely but very private sensations. He'd not planned to do so, but it had seemed the natural thing, at the time. I must insist you get up.

"Yeah, okay," the boy said. He gave the back of Severus' neck one more kiss, then disentangled them and slid from the bed.

Severus relaxed as Harry rolled him onto his back again, then fetched a warm cloth and a towel to clean him up. The boy sponge-bathed him tenderly, with a confident touch. He refastened Severus' clothing and straightened his bedclothes, then turned to his own tidying.

Severus thought Harry had just gotten his shirt back on—he wasn't quite sure why it had been necessary to take it off, but hadn't wanted to think anything critical right at the moment he'd felt all that warm skin against his own—when the doorknob rattled, hard. There was a muffled but surprised-sounding noise on the other side of the door, then loud knocking and a man's voice. "Who's in there? Open this door at once!"

Potter hissed. "Fuck," he said, "it's Len." Severus could hear him hopping, his belt buckle jangling, and hoped the silencing charm Harry had used still held.

Severus caught him with a thrust from his mind. Get under the cloak, now. And make sure you haven't left clothing lying about.

"Yeah, I know what to do, all right?"

Potter. Stop, and be still. Severus waited. The knocking started again, but Severus ignored it. The door is locked, remember, and they will not use magic to open it if they can help it. You must calm yourself, so that you can hide quietly. Then you can unlock the door.

His words worked. He could feel Harry struggling with himself, but then his breathing evened out and his mental presence relaxed a little. That's good. Get under the cloak now, then unlock the door and open it, just a little, very slowly. Then don't move.

"Severus, I know." He heard Harry twisting the lock, and then the door being opened.

Len, an older medi-wizard—he was one of the evening shift staff, who were by and large more taciturn than the daytime ones, and who subjected Severus to fewer ostensibly therapeutic procedures—had stomped into the room. He sensed that the man's usual quiet forbearance was about to be abandoned. "What the—"

Len stood still for a long moment, muttering to himself. He stepped to the bedside and began poking Severus in all sorts of places Severus wished he wouldn't. Then he heard the man running his fingers along all the wires and tubes connecting him to the Muggle machines. That investigation didn't worry Severus, but the possibility that Len might very well smell sex on him did.

After a moment's investigation, Len huffed out a breath and seemed to give up. He had stepped to the door and Severus was thanking the merciful gods for numbing the man's nose when he stopped and said, "Hmm." He took a few steps and made some motions that Severus could hear but not see, then made another sound of puzzlement.

What is he doing? Severus projected to Harry.

He's found the flannel I washed you with. I dropped it on the floor.

Bloody hell.

Yeah. Sorry.

Len made more indecipherable noises.

Now what?

He's just hanging it up by the sink. I don't think he suspects anything.

We'd better hope not.

I'm sorry, Severus.

I know.

At last Len seemed satisfied and left the room. Severus felt himself trembling with relief. Harry, he said, get out of here.

"I will," Harry whispered, stepping to the bedside and taking his hand.

Don't be an idiot. Are you still under the cloak, even?

"I am, don't worry." He rested his hand on Severus' chest. "You're shaking. I'm sorry."

Just leave, before he comes back to inspect me more closely.

"It'll be all right."

Not if he returns while you're still here. Go, Potter. Now. I mean it.

"Okay." Harry's lips touched his briefly. "I'll see you in the morning, then." Severus heard him step to the door. "That was fantastic, by the way."

Then he was gone.

There was no more sleep for Severus that night. He could not toss and turn in his wakefulness, but he could pace over and over through the evening's close call in his memory, and with every mental step the disaster they'd barely avoided became clearer.

That this was a warning, he had no doubt. The next time, or the one after that, the medi-witch or wizard would not hesitate to use magic to open the door, or Potter would leave some more obvious clue lying about, or the smell of sweat and semen would be overpowering. Then trouble would begin to rain down on them, and it wouldn't end until Potter was removed permanently from his bedside chair, leaving Severus alone for good. Alone, that is, with his misery and terror and boredom and sexual frustration, none of which would ever be relieved again.

Severus berated himself—lying there in complete silence, as in his haste to leave Harry had forgotten to turn the radio on—over and over. Why, he raged at himself, hadn't he been satisfied with the more easily concealed manual treats the boy had been providing him with? Why hadn't that been enough? Why had he been greedy, conceiving a desire to push the boy farther and farther, to test his willingness to give Severus anything he asked for?

Why, he ranted at the universe, had he been given a taste of a young man's ardour for the first time in years, only to have to give it up again so soon?

Why, he shouted impotently into the silence, hadn't he seen before that everything they were doing, every tawdry little touch and selfish satisfaction, took them one step closer to the day when they would be caught, caught at something, no matter how careful they were?

Why, he begged to understand, had Harry felt it necessary to call him love?

The next morning was cool and quiet, and Harry arrived at his usual time. He opened the window at once to let in fresh air, and it felt to Severus like a storm had just passed through, and the atmosphere was licking its wounds and straightening its wind-blown hair.

Harry didn't touch him, but instead settled in his chair after fixing the window and doing his usual little inspections. His soft, "Good morning," seemed normal enough.

They sat in silence for a while as Severus tried to decide on the best way to inform Harry that they would not be repeating the previous night's activities.

"What's going on in there?" Harry asked, after a little while had passed and the silence took on more weight. "You're giving off sort of a melancholy thing."

Am I?

"Yeah. No words, just a feeling." Harry shifted to sit on the edge of the bed and took Severus' hand. "That was close, last night. Did it throw you off your stride? Er, so to speak?"


"I'm sorry I dropped the flannel. It won't happen again."

That's not the issue.

"Well, then, we'll just be more careful all around. Don't worry, we'll figure out—"

No, Severus said, we will not.

For a moment Potter said nothing. Then, "We won't?"

We cannot risk it.

"But don't you want—"

Of course I do. But I am unwilling to take such a chance again.

"But I thought—" He stopped speaking, but couldn't stop the avalanche of confused feelings that roared past his silence, easy enough for Severus to read.

It was good, Harry. Very good. Don't imagine there was any problem with the sex itself.

"It just wasn't…good enough?"

Don't pretend insecurity. I said there was no problem.

"I'm not pretending! I mean, I know I don't have much experience, but I'd keep learning, if you'd just—"

Stop. Don't make this any more difficult than it already is.

Potter sniffed. "So what are you saying?"

That we must not risk being caught.

"So…we can't have sex?"

No. We can't have any of it.

"Nothing? I can't even…touch you?"

If we persist in this madness, we will be caught eventually. It is inevitable.

"But won't you…those dreams. Won't you be miserable again?"

I am still miserable, Harry.

"But…never? You won't let me ever?"


"How can you…condemn yourself to that, when I could help you?"

The alternative, if we are caught, is worse.

"Worse than being frustrated again? Forever?"

Severus wondered how the boy could be so oblivious. Do you imagine they will let you continue to sit there by my bed every day if they catch you molesting me?

"But I'm not molesting you!"

Of course you're not. But you will be unable to prove that, and you will be removed. Permanently, unless I'm very much mistaken. And then I will be entirely alone.

There was a long pause. "Oh."


"Do you really think so?"

I do.

A shorter pause. "Okay. I guess I get it.

Severus projected a sigh. Thank you.

"Yeah." Harry shuffled in his chair. "Severus?"


"Just so you know…I was going to thank you. For letting me, um. For wanting what you want. For letting me be the one to give it to you." He took Severus' hand. "It was brilliant." He coughed. "Can I still touch you, a little bit? Hold your hand sometimes?"

We'll see.

"Could I maybe…kiss you now and then?"

That would be unwise. He clamped down hard on the thought that small occasional tastes of Harry might be more frustrating than no Harry at all.

"Okay. If you say so." Harry's voice was a ragged whisper. "I'll really miss that, though."

Harry, Severus said, not wanting to plead but needing for the boy to truly understand, you've said it yourself, to Minerva. If they take you away I will have no voice in the outside world at all, and no existence outside my own mind. I cannot face that.

For a moment the boy said nothing. Then he squeezed Severus' fingers, lifted them and pressed them to his chest in a tiny embrace. "I understand," he said at last. He touched his lips to the fingers, and then laid them carefully on the bed.

He took his hand away and sat back, and exhaled a shaky breath.

An unintended consequence struck Severus. What if, he wondered, Harry had come to see sex as reasonable compensation for wasting his days here? What if his Gryffindor nobility wasn't quite enough motivation after all? What if he decided sooner rather than later that he wasn't so interested in staying around if Severus wouldn't let sex be part of the arrangement between them anymore?

Severus wondered if he'd come to take Harry for granted already, and why he'd forgotten how important it had seemed at first to be able to repay him with sex, in return for all his caretaking efforts. Would he lose Harry even sooner if he failed to keep the boy's interest in that way?

Harry made a little worried-sounding humming noise. "You must be awfully upset," he said. "You're letting a lot of stuff get out of your head." Severus dropped the portcullises of his mind with a loud bang. "No, wait," Harry said, "you don't have to do that. I do understand. And I'm not going anywhere, okay? I promised you that."

It has given me pause to realise that I am changing the terms of our…relationship, from those that applied when you made your promises.

"Don't go all barrister on me, Severus. I promised, and that stands. No matter what."


"Ha. Aren't you glad?"

For once…I suppose I am. Mentally trembling with relief, Severus found he didn't know what else to say.

Harry grew tired early that evening, and their conversation lapsed soon after dinner. It wasn't much longer before he had leaned onto the bed and was half-curled against Severus. This didn't seem strictly appropriate given their new policy of restraint, but Severus supposed the medi-witches had seen him resting like this before, so he let the boy stay there for a time, until he began to sense disorganized, dreamy thoughts spilling out of his head and knew he was falling asleep. Harry, he projected softly, you're done in. You should go home and get some rest.

"Home. Yeah," the boy said, not sitting up. "Rather stay with you."

Severus knew Harry had moved into the Black ancestral home. He knew, further, that said home was large enough, and well-haunted enough, that Harry might be finding it uncomfortable.

You'll be back in the morning, Severus reminded him, reassuring himself as well.

"That's not enough."

It will have to do. Until the morning you must do your best to rest.

"Okay, Severus. Sure." Harry sat up, but Severus could feel his unsteadiness. There were loose, sleepy thoughts still rubbing at the corners of Harry's mind, like shutters not quite nailed tight. They were making the boy uncomfortable, but he was managing to hide their details from Severus.

I'm serious, Potter. You'll be far less entertaining tomorrow if you don't get some rest.

"I will, all right?" Potter stood, but then leaned over the bed. "You're a right pain sometimes, did you know that?" he whispered, from very close to Severus' ear.

Yes. It's one small thing I take comfort in, Mister Potter.

"Harry. You still forget to call me Harry."

Harry, then. Go home, Harry.

"Wish I could take you with me."

There was a long silence. I'm sorry, was all Severus felt he could safely say.

He wanted to add, I wish I could go with you…if I were whole again I would take you far away from here…if only… He kept those thoughts buttoned up tight, however, knowing it wouldn't help to share them with Harry.

"I know," Harry said, and then, suggesting Severus might have missed a button or two, "and I'd go wherever you wanted." Severus could both hear and feel him step away from the bed, but then he changed his mind. "Wait. Before I go, please, I just want…"

Severus felt the bed tilt as Harry moved close again and leaned heavily on it. He was about to speak, ready to ask what the silly child was up to now, when he felt a hand on his neck and lips pressing against his own. Of course he could not move in response, and of course he could not speak out loud, but he might have sputtered inside, might have blasted the boy with silent communication for defying him and taking this unnecessary risk, with the medi-witches just down the hall and their evening rounds likely to begin at any moment.

He found he could neither sputter nor blast. He could not resist or complain. All he could do was feel his breathing catch and shudder all on its own, and close his eyes mentally just as they were closed physically, and let Harry kiss him. The boy's lips worked over his, not invading, asking no more of him than he was able to give. His hands worked Severus just so, one maneuvering his jaw, and the other now resting light but warm on his groin, with blankets between them that didn't seem to deaden the sensation of the touch at all.

It was, somehow, a kiss that felt mutual, because Harry handled him exactly right and moved as though Severus was responding to him.

Why are you doing this? I thought we agreed…Severus projected to him, trying to hide both his dismay and his pleasure at the boy's bravado. He couldn't allow Harry to see the streak of passion within him that still wanted, had always wanted, to be maneuvered and controlled in exactly this way.

I'm kissing you, Harry answered, throwing wide the window into his mind and letting Severus see it all. Because I want you to know how I feel about you, and that all your worrying and scolding won't change that.

But the medi-witches, Harry…I told you we mustn't…you haven't even closed the door… It was difficult to complete a thought.

They're all down the hall having tea now. You don't have to worry.

How do you—uh—know that? Harry's fingers were holding Severus' mouth open while his tongue explored inside.

They always are, this time of an evening. Harry had removed his tongue, but his lips kept moving in a maddening caress against Severus' as he thought these words in a whisper.

The boy drew back for a moment, his breaths warm in Severus' face, and both hands now on his cheeks. "I want you to know how I feel about you," he said again, this time aloud. "Do you?"

I believe I do. Severus felt his thought-voice shaking. But you're mad.

"I know," he said, with a smile Severus could hear. Then he lowered his mouth to Severus' again, and placed his hand, with an easy familiarity, on his former teacher's most private body parts.

Potter…he tried to growl into the boy's presumptuous, perplexing mind, but it was difficult to make the thought-words come out clearly while his lips were once again engaged. When the hand began to rub him, his attempted growl collapsed into a whimper. Potter… He sounded like a lover begging, and he knew it. Potter evidently knew it too, because he groaned against Severus' lips, making things worse, and better.

Severus, I know you want me, and I want you so much, Harry thought, and then he was leaning onto the bed, and Severus felt one of the boy's hands stroking his groin, while the other slipped under his neck. I can't bear it…please don't say we won't ever… Severus felt his prick harden and his thighs tremble as Harry petted them, kissing him the whole time, and he struggled to think…something was wrong, there was danger…

It was at that moment of utter, abandoned distraction that the door opened, an unsuspecting medi-witch walked in, and Severus and Harry's private world went arse-end-up.

Chapter 11

"Oh," was all the startled medi-witch said at first, in a tone that suggested her training had not prepared her for this.

Potter, of course, went at once into full-bore Gryffindor mode and tried to talk them out of trouble. "Er," the brave boy said, with what Severus knew must be a charming smile and blush. "Sorry to be in your way. I didn't hear you coming." He smoothed down Severus' hair with a casual stroke of the hand that was pretending it had not been touching his genitals a moment before.

"Mister Potter," the medi-witch whispered, sounding as if she'd never even imagined two men kissing before. It was that very young one, Severus thought. From her voice he had guessed she couldn't be much older than Potter. Perhaps he really could sweet-talk her into ignoring what she'd just seen.

"Good evening," Potter said, with a little oomph at the end that made Severus sure the boy had heard his thought. "Your name is Marcie, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," the young witch answered, then, "You oughtn't be doing that, Mister Potter."

"Doing what?" Potter asked. "Oh, this?" His hand was stroking Severus' hair again, the touch protective rather than passionate. "This is nothing." Severus could feel the wattage behind the smile he turned on the young woman, and wished he could laugh, though he wished far more that this whole scene weren't happening.

"No, Mister Potter," she insisted, with more spine behind her voice than Severus would have guessed she possessed. "What you were doing before. You can't...you can't do that to a patient, sir. A patient like him." She seemed to think hard for an instant. "It's, it's...inappropriate."

Potter laughed. "Inappropriate? Oh, I don't think so. We've known each other for years, and we're pretty close."

An interesting way to describe our relationship.

Shhh, trust me.

Do I have a choice?

"That...that doesn't matter, sir. I don't think he would want you to touch him like that."

"There's nothing wrong with me saying goodnight to him, is there?" Potter asked.

"You can't say good-night that way, sir."

"What way?" The boy was an idiot, Severus decided. Fearless, but an idiot.

"The way you were doing. When I came in. You were...you were touching him, Mister Potter, where you oughtn't." The girl's voice was strong, and she seemed determined to stand up to Potter. "And you were kissing him."

"I was just saying good-night, like I told you."

"You were kissing him, sir, and touching him. And he's a patient, he can't look after himself, and you can't just go kissing him because you want—" and she paused here, as if wondering how Harry could possibly want this, "—because you want to."

"I'm sure he doesn't mind."

"There's no way to know what he does or doesn't mind."

"But I do know, Marcie. He's told me."

The young medi-witch was silent for a long moment, and for a few seconds of it Severus could see her through Harry's eyes. She looked very young, as he'd thought, and was staring at Harry with a frown. She would have liked to believe him, Severus realised; it would have made everything much simpler. But she was so young and still idealistic, and she'd been trained to protect her patients above all else, and this whole scene just felt wrong to her. Severus didn't need to read her mind to know these things; they were clear on her unlined, innocent face. Potter wasn't going to get away with it.

"He hasn't either," the young medi-witch said. "He's not spoken a word."

"Yes, he has, Marcie," Potter insisted. "It's just that no one but me can hear him."

Severus wanted to shake him. What are you doing?

I'm just telling the truth.

Truth that no one believes?

Severus, it'll be all right. I'll just have to make them understand.

You've been trying to do that for weeks now without success.

I can do it, I know I can. Trust me, okay?

"That...that makes no sense, sir."

"Maybe not, but it's true." Severus could feel Potter shrug.

"It's not. And you oughtn't have been kissing him, and you know it."

"No, actually, I think it was just what I should have been doing." There was an audible smirk behind the words.

Is this some kind of game for you now, Potter?

"Of course not. You worry too much." Potter's voice was gentle, and he picked up Severus' hand as he spoke the words out loud.

"Worry about what?" Marcie asked.

Now you've really confused her. Brilliant strategy.

"I just told her the truth, Severus."

And you have assured that she's never going to believe you.

"Don't try to distract me, Mister Potter. You're just play-acting, and it's not funny."

Potter laughed. "No, it is funny, Marcie, because if you could hear him speak he'd tell you I distract him, too. But these days he doesn't mind."

Severus thought a loud snort at the boy. Rather presumptuous, aren't you? Perhaps I'd tell her I couldn't wait to be shut of you, and I wish she'd just take you away.

"No," he answered softly, "you wouldn't." He bent to kiss Severus' forehead.

You do realise you've chosen the most dangerous path you could possibly take here, don't you?

"I don't think I really had a choice."

Of course you had a choice. You could have lied, and told her she was mistaken in what she saw.

"But she wasn't."

That's not the point, Potter, the point is not to get you in trouble, not to give them reason to keep you away from—

"I know." Severus felt his hand being squeezed tighter. "But I can handle it."

You don't understand. This is serious. You're going to have to be careful, and whatever happens, you must—

"Stop." A hand was on his cheek, turning his face so that his closed eyes were aimed at Harry. "Do you trust me?"

"Mister Potter," the young witch interrupted, "I don't know what you think you're doing, but it's not—"

"Hush, Marcie. Severus, do you trust me?"

Severus felt the boy's breath on his nose; he had leaned over the bed, very close. I trust you, he thought in a whisper. But I fear—

Then there were lips on his again, and Harry was kissing him as if there were not a scandalized medi-witch in the room, as if Severus could return the kiss, as if he were a normal hospital patient, a normal man even, whose lover had missed him. It went on for some time, with no protest from Marcie, and Severus wondered if she just might believe that Potter knew what he was doing after all.

Then Harry drew away and stood up straight again, and must have looked around the room to gauge the reaction of their little audience. "Oh. She's gone," he said, as if the fact surprised him.

Severus' faint hopes collapsed. To fetch reinforcements, no doubt.

"I suppose." He sat down on the edge of the bed, holding both of Severus' hands. "I'm sorry. I was kind of winging it there."

Yes, I could see that.

"It just seemed like the best way to go, now that we have been seen. Don't you think so?"

Does it matter?

"Of course it matters."

You didn't bother to ask what I thought before you displayed our...relationship openly before her.

"I had to act fast."

You usually do.

"Severus, she saw us. There was no going back." He squeezed Severus' hands tighter. "And it'll be better this way, once I explain everything to them. We won't have to hide then. You'll see."

Severus allowed a long moment to pass, closing his mind up tight so that Harry could not see him wondering what those words might mean. Not have to hide? What was Harry imagining?

Of course he would give in and go along with what Harry was doing. There was no choice, though he didn't want to seem quite that agreeable; it wouldn't do to set such a precedent. Not, of course, that they had any real future to contemplate, in which a precedent might matter. Finally he spoke into Harry's mind. So you see, at least, that I was correct. We were destined to be caught, eventually.

There were lips on his face then, kissing gently all over it, and a hand stroking his hair. He hadn't seen either coming as he'd been holding himself so tightly shut. "Please trust me," the boy asked him again. "I won't leave you alone, and I won't give up on you." A tender kiss dropped on his lips, one that only gave itself to him, and asked for nothing in return. "No matter what happens."

I do trust you. Severus imagined sighing against the kiss. Idiot.

There were footsteps in the hall. Harry turned to face the door, but remained sitting on the bed, holding both of Severus' hands, his body a blockade protecting Severus from whatever danger might enter the room. "Hold on tight, love," Harry murmured. At that he opened his eyes to Severus' mind, sharing his view.

Young Marcie returned, her mouth set in a thin line. She was followed by two large men who were dressed in green hospital orderly robes but were built like rugby players. They carried their wands in visible leather holsters that hung over one shoulder with straps across their chests.

This was not what Severus had expected. Trouble, yes. That Harry would be removed from his room, yes. But armed goons, for one scrawny teenager? Of course, he was the scrawny teenager who had defeated the Dark Lord; perhaps that explained it.

"Hello, gentlemen," Potter said politely. He did not let go of Severus' hands.

"Good evening, Mister Potter," one of the burly wizards said. They had stopped just inside the door and stood there, looking stolid.

Everything was quiet for a moment, and the room held a sense of illusory calm. The other orderly crossed his arms over his barrel chest, and spoke. "Had a bit of a problem here, have we, sir?"

Potter's voice was all surprised innocence. "Problem? No, not at all." He tightened his grip on Severus' hands, and Severus could feel him smiling.

"Ah, yes," the orderly said. "So I see." Still looking through Harry's eyes, Severus watched him put his hands behind his back and slide one foot to the side, widening his stance. "Look here, Mister Potter. We don't want any trouble, but we have to ask you to come with us."

"I was about to go home for the evening."

"That's good then, sir, if you could just come along with us first, we'll get this straightened out."

"There's nothing to straighten out."

"I'm afraid that's for our captain to decide."

"And who is your captain?"

"Director of Security for St. Mungo's, sir, Captain Herbert Wallace."

Severus could feel Harry thinking hard. "Yes," he said slowly, "perhaps speaking with him is what I should do."

"So glad you see it that way, sir."

Harry stood then, and turned to face Severus, and an instant later Severus lost his window through the boy's eyes. "Well, good-night then, love," he said, and from his moving voice and the tensing of his hands Severus knew he was leaning down for another kiss.

Potter, don't be a fool.

"Hold on, there, Mister Potter," one of the burly men said. "We can't let you do that, I'm afraid."

Harry must have turned his face toward the man, but it stayed near to Severus' as he spoke. "Can't let me do what?"

"Um, that, sir. You can't kiss that fellow. Not in that particular way."

"Why not? Have you got something against blokes kissing blokes?"

"Well, no, sir," the man answered, sounding uncomfortable. "But you can't kiss someone who's not, well...not able to agree to let you do it."

"Oh, he agrees to it, all right." He turned his face back to Severus and ran a hand through his hair. "I'll go take care of this with Captain Wallace, all right? Then I'll be back in the morning, just like always. You'll be all right overnight?"

Why are you antagonizing them needlessly?

"I'm just doing what's right. Trust me, remember?"

"I'm afraid that's not right at all, sir. You need to step away from the bed and come with us now."

I hope you know what you're doing, Potter.

"You always forget to call me Harry," he said softly, leaning ever closer so that their noses brushed.

Harry. Take care of yourself. Don't let this get out of control.

"Don't make me use force, sir. I'd hate to see anyone get hurt over this."

"I won't." Severus could feel the warmth of him coming closer as he leaned in for one last kiss. Then the movement stopped, and for an instant Severus yearned for the lips that had not quite reached his.

"Hey," Harry said, much louder. "There's no need for that. I'm not—"

A powerful wordless spell shot through the air, and before Severus had even realised what it was, Harry had dropped across the bed, rigid and silent. Little eddies of magic swirled all around the room, and Severus was sure he could feel and even see every one of them, as if his body craved them and was greedily sucking their energy right out of the air. They made his skin tingle, and filled him with memories of magical power, and of the simple power of physical movement.

Potter, however, was not moving. Harry? he asked silently, reaching out, trying to touch the boy's mind.

Severus? came the reply in a small, stiff voice.

Severus mentally bit back the hail of curses he wanted to let fly. Harry, you idiot, he began, you shouldn't have pushed them so—

It's all right, I've just been Petrified.

Now look where you've got yourself. Severus tried to hide his fear. Don't fight it, you'll only bind yourself tighter.

Don't worry, it doesn't hurt. I'm sure they won't keep me like this for long.

Don't resist them, and do not get yourself in more trouble, Potter, do you hear me? Harry?

I'll get this sorted out, and then I'll be back as soon as I can.

That, Severus knew, might not be for a very long time indeed. Just take care of yourself. I'll be fine, he lied. I'm not going anywhere.

The burly men gathered up Harry's body without a word. With Marcie they left the room, and slammed the door shut.

Harry's mental voice, murmuring reassurances, carried back to Severus' mind for a moment as the boy was hauled down the long hospital corridor. Soon, though, it grew too faint for him to make out the words, and then faded to nothing.

The hospital room was silent then, and Severus found himself alone once more.

Chapter 12

Potter was in serious trouble, of that much Severus was sure. Of that much, that is, and the fact that they meant to take him away for good.

Severus had only a short, miserable time to contemplate this in solitude, however, before a small army of Healers and their minions entered the room. Within an hour of Potter's involuntary exit, they descended on Severus and examined him with a thoroughness that put to shame all the pinches and pokes and intimate prodding he'd undergone so far. The no-spell-zone rule that had been placed on his room was flicked away without comment, and he felt the energizing touch of magic zinging through the air, finding and analyzing every clue available to tell them just what had gone on in this room over the last weeks.

He knew what they'd find, of course. Potter had washed him carefully each time it had been necessary, but hadn't magically disposed of the evidence, so it was easy to find on the damp flannel hanging in the loo, the soiled pyjamas in the clothes hamper, and the less-than-pristine sheets on the bed. Sex left rather a lot of traces of itself, Severus reflected, if one was searching for them. Odd, it was, how invisible those same traces had been when the Healers weren't thinking to look for them. Sex one didn't want to know about could apparently be ignored just as easily.

They—meaning the Healers and Ministry representatives unlucky enough to have drawn the duty of investigating criminal sexual conduct charges against Harry Potter, the Boy Who Saved Us All—never bothered to tell Severus what they had found, of course. They, just as Potter had known and despaired of remedying, did not believe him to be conscious and capable even of understanding, much less consenting to, the fondling they had witnessed. So he was forced to piece together an understanding from what his visitors said to each other, as they all the while assumed he was hearing none of it.

He combined bits of overheard conversations in his mind, and concluded they knew right away that Potter had sodomized him. This was confirmed when his investigative guests began treating him with extra care and deference, as if he were very fragile or volatile. What they feared, he learned as they discussed their findings, was some sort of legal action should he ever come back into himself and remember being violated.

When at last he understood what they were afraid of, he wished more than ever that he could laugh out loud. As if he would resort to a lawsuit to get even. As if he wouldn't have command of much more effective magical means of redress if he ever got control of his body again. Their lack of imagination was appalling.

The greatest benefit of overhearing their conversations, however, was that he learned that the wizarding community as a whole was giving him far more credit than he'd expected—not to mention the benefit of what must still be considerable doubt, from some quarters—for his decades of secret service to, indirectly, the Ministry. Potter had said there had been no official Ministry pronouncements in recognition of his sacrifices, and Severus gathered that this was because the Minister himself was not one of his most ardent supporters. Still, if the respectful words of these Healers were any indication, it was clear that the ordinary men and women of the Ministry of Magic considered Severus both a hero and still powerful enough to inspire fear.

At any rate, from the moment Potter was dragged away and Severus' team of personal investigators entered the scene, his sense of time was derailed, and he had no way to put it back on track. He knew it must have been early evening when they arrived, as Harry had been about to leave for the night. Most nights he would have fallen asleep soon after, but on this one he was kept awake by the noise and intimate examinations of the team. By the time they left in the small hours of the morning, he was so disturbed that he couldn't sleep at all. As a result he passed the remainder of the night in anxious confusion, with no idea when anything might relieve it, even the maddening twitters of the medi-witches who would arrive in the morning. He had not even his usual BBC voices to keep him company, as Potter had been in no position to turn the radio on while he was being hauled out of the room.

The next day and night, more or less, passed in the same suspenseful condition. He had a great many investigative visitors, and most of them seemed determined to violate his privacy in grotesquely inventive ways. These constant interruptions made it harder for him to tell day from night, because they followed no pattern. He tried to track the hours of the day by the regular visits of the medi-witches, and by the food odors that floated into his room at known times, but without Potter there to draw the witches into conversation or to bring his own food with its maddening odors all the way into the room, nothing was certain.

His thoughts were focused more on Potter, anyway, than on marking the hours. He tried to imagine what they would have done with the boy. Would what he'd done be considered so serious a crime? Would they call it rape? The Healers must have determined by now that Severus had suffered no real physical damage. And they imagined Severus' mind to be vacant, so they couldn't blame Potter for inflicting some sort of emotional trauma on him, could they? Besides…Potter, traumatizing him? How laughable was that?

And what would they ultimately do with the boy? If he kept fighting them…if he continued to argue stubbornly that he'd been speaking with Severus telepathically, that they were mutually consenting lovers…that way, Severus realised, recognising with despair that it was the way Potter-the-lovestruck-Gryffindor was sure to go, lay the greatest risks. If they decided Potter was dangerously unbalanced they might feel justified or even required to keep him confined, and perhaps even insist on treating him for some presumptive psychological disorder. Of course Potter would battle them over this, and it might go on and on, with the idiot boy condemning himself to further trouble every time he opened his mouth.

It struck him, sometime during that second night after Harry had been removed, that he trusted absolutely that Harry would return to him, if and when he was able. That meant that as long as Harry had not returned, he had to assume the boy was still in trouble, perhaps confined somewhere, or at least with his freedom severely restricted.

He began to worry more about just how much trouble Harry might be in, and how long they might keep him, wherever it was, and if that was indeed what they were doing.

As he worried, he began to brood, remembering all the things Harry ought to be out doing with his life right now: celebrating with his friends, planning for a career, pursuing further education, chasing girls…well, boys, perhaps, but that made no difference. Harry had a life to live, and Severus was in agony thinking of that life, all that potential for happiness, slipping away just because the idiot child had been foolish and generous with a bitter, aging man whose life had effectively been over long before that terrible snake bite.

How could I have let this happen? he asked himself over and over. Why did I not send him away, instead of letting him waste weeks and months with me? How could I not see that this would be the ruin of him, when I knew we would be caught eventually? And the questions always ended with, How could I have been such a bloody fool?

Of course, he knew the answer: Harry was all he had. Without Harry's presence every day at his bedside, he would have gone mad by now. Not that he hadn't lost some part of his sanity anyway, of course—as evidenced by the very fact that he was involved in a romantic affair with a student—but he would have been miserable, utterly wretched, without Harry.

Instead, his misery had simply been postponed. He'd had a few weeks that should have been unbearable but had instead been, at least at times, almost content. Not happy, not everything he'd ever wanted from life, no; but to his surprise he had enjoyed all he'd had with Harry. At certain moments he had even forgotten, briefly, that there was anything wrong. Now it had all caught up with him, and with Harry, too. Harry would pay an exorbitant price, including perhaps bearing a lifelong stigma for illicit association with Severus, who would, in an ironic twist, be cast as the innocent victim.

I deserve to be castigated for involving him in this sordid business, Severus thought in despair, but he does not. He should not be the one to pay for what we did together. But what am I to do about it?

He struggled with this question through the long, silent night, wondering if it even had an answer.

The next day, Healers returned to buzz around him, speaking in low, serious voices. They poked everywhere, sometimes with hard, cold fingers but often, now that the prohibition against magical treatment had apparently been tossed aside, with diagnostic and healing spells that he recognised.

He felt their charms and incantations flowing through him, warming him inside in a way he'd not been warm in months. They tickled him, coaxed him, and made him wonder if some magic might still lie dormant within him, not all drained out following the snake bite after all, and now just waiting for an opportunity to bloom again.

On the evening of his third day without Harry, he lay silently in his bed, just as he had for weeks.

But on that evening, for the first time since he'd fallen to the snake, he felt a very familiar part of himself begin to awaken and stretch itself out, palpating the world around him with soft, exploring tendrils. The little fingerlings of his power traced over everything they could reach. They extended rootlets everywhere they passed, beginning to anchor him again in both real and magical space, where his body was meant to move and manipulate and be master, once again, of what he touched.

His magic. It was still there, still his, not destroyed by the snake after all, and it was beginning to revive.

Chapter 13

"I know where he is; don't trouble yourself." Minerva's voice, confident and businesslike, came from just outside Severus' hospital room. It jolted Severus wide awake from the restless dozing he'd been falling in and out of for most of the afternoon.

"Good afternoon, Severus," Minerva continued as she entered the room. Severus heard her walk to the bed, where she remained standing. He felt her touch him gently, as if making sure he wasn't feigning sleep. She laid a hand on his cheek, smoothed his hair, and squeezed his shoulder. He wondered if she was giving him a chance to confess something.

"Well, well," she said at last. "Such a mess we've got to untangle now. And you're no help at all." She took up his hand, then, and squeezed it harder than he'd expected.

She sighed, and placed his hand back on the bed. He heard her robe and skirts rustle as she sat down in the bedside chair—Potter's chair—and, he imagined, clasped her hands in her lap. "You're not going to say anything, are you?"

He lay silent, almost amused.

"No, I thought not. But I had to ask. Harry seems so sure, and it's so unlike him, to be taken by such a fancy…" She stopped, and sighed again, sounding pained. "All right, that's enough of that. I won't be expecting you to answer me, then. But I promised Harry that I would speak with you, that I would tell you what is happening, and I will keep my word. If he is correct, and you are indeed hearing and understanding me, then I trust you will be glad for the information. If you are not conscious inside that stubborn head of yours, then Merlin have mercy on me in my foolishness."

He imagined her shaking her head. "I am an old woman, Severus, and I have seen so much disappointment and betrayal in my life that I'm afraid I have little belief left in the power of the softer emotions. Trust, say. Or devotion. Or, dare I say it, love. But when that boy told me…"

Her voice broke a little, but she caught herself. "He told me first about you, you know, and the memories you showed him. I'd thought that I understood you, after all these years. But I didn't realise…" She stopped, and gave a single, loud sniff. "All that time, Severus. If you'd only felt able to confide in someone…there were those among us who would have been sympathetic, my boy. My lonely, lonely boy. I know you thought you couldn't trust anyone, but I wish that hadn't been so. And I wish that I had tried harder to understand."

He heard a quiet sound of cloth being shaken, and then she gave a muffled sniff, which he thought must be into a handkerchief. The chair rattled. "That's done with, of course," she continued, her voice firmer. "But now we have a new problem, don't we? And certainly not one I ever expected." The cloth was shaken out again. "I am taking for granted the assumption that you did not use inappropriate means to lure him to you, Severus. And I am sure you made him no grandiose promises, given—I'm sorry, Severus, but I must be frank here—given your current state. But Severus, whatever you did, or didn't do, he is besotted. He is convinced that he's in love with you, and that you return his feelings." She huffed in exasperation. "How did that even happen? Oh, I know you can't tell me—" and the chair scraped on the floor, after which her footsteps started pacing the room, "—and I don't even believe you're hearing any of this, so I might as well be lecturing an empty bed, but really, Severus, if you were thinking at all, what were you thinking?"

The pacing continued, and her voice traveled all around the room. "So now I've got very serious worries about Mister Potter, and new worries about you. They've examined you carefully, Severus, and the things they've told me…well. What Harry has done…my goodness." Severus hadn't heard her run on in agitation like this for ages; it was almost entertaining. "And if you're aware of anything that's happened...well, it's probably best if you're not. Of course I want you to recover, but perhaps it would be better if you could recover without having to think about all this. Unless, of course…" The voice stopped moving. "Unless Harry is telling the truth, and you do know what he's been doing, and you did want him to do it. Which is too much to believe."

He heard her take several deep breaths from across the room, and then she walked slowly back to the chair and sat in it again. "So you see. I am worried about you, my friend, because it appears that you have been taken advantage of in a most outrageous way. But I am also worried about Mister Potter, because while he should be celebrating our triumph over the Dark Lord, instead his life is falling apart. What he evidently has done to you is sufficient for the Ministry to press criminal charges against him, Severus, though I'm trying to persuade them not to do so. I'm attempting to get him declared incompetent due to battle stress, or perhaps temporary insanity, but he's fighting me on that, and I don't know what will happen in the end. And even if I can get him off, keep him out of real trouble…he will not be allowed to see you here again, Severus, and that's what is devastating him. He keeps telling me that he promised to return to you, and that you need him and he doesn't want to live without you, and it just makes no sense to me, Severus, but he won't give it up."

The boy is a damned fool, Severus reminded himself, trying to ignore the way his throat had tightened up. If only you knew, he thought, glad she could not hear him, how this is devastating me, as well.

She picked up his hand again and held it for a while in silence, as if offering consolation, though whether it was in sympathy for the loss of Potter's companionship or in apology for the wrongs Potter had done him, Severus wasn't sure. After a bit she said, "So that's how things stand, Severus. I have no idea what's going on in either of your heads, and honestly, I wish I could just step back and let the two of you solve your own problems, but I'm afraid I cannot, because I feel a certain degree of responsibility for causing them."

Though he was not privy to her thoughts, it wasn't hard to tell that she was tense with guilt over this. He could hear her tapping her fingers on the arm of her chair. "I thought initially that it would be good for Harry to look after you, and good for you to have him around and on your side," she said. "And then the way he was with you that last time I was here…och, Severus, why didn't I ask more questions then? Why didn't I stop whatever he was doing? Maybe it would have been too late to protect you, but at least I might have kept him from being caught at it, and prevented all this scandal. If I could go back and handle things differently, I would. But now…well, we can't turn back time."

She had begun squeezing his hand hard. "I promise I will see this through, my friend. I will do the best I can for both you and Harry, but I'm afraid I don't know how this will all turn out." She made a choked sound. "I am sorry, Severus, and I hope whenever you and I meet again, here or on the Other Side, that you will forgive me for allowing harm to come to you. Please, if you can understand me at all, understand that."

She said nothing more, but sat holding his hand for some time. Then she stood and left the room, and he was alone once again.

It was nearly evening when Minerva left. Severus could ascertain this from the smells that drifted into his room in small, tantalizing mouthfuls as the medi-witches pushed dinner carts to and fro, feeding the patients who were able to eat. Tonight's evening meal featured roast beef, he was sure, and some sort of potatoes, and they were surrounded by a cloud of fresh baked bread smells. He felt his stomach begging for them and wished it would ask for something more realistic.

After the dinner carts had all rolled away, Severus lay hungry and fretful, not at all in a mood to sleep. He tried to organize his thoughts, hoping that would bring some relief.

Minerva had confirmed that Potter was in serious trouble. It was ridiculous, that Potter was to be condemned for loving him when until recently even hating him would have required more charity than most of wizarding society possessed, but there it was. If only Potter would recant his story; if only he would decide to admit that he'd been muddled by exhaustion or grief or whatever, that he'd made a grave mistake, perhaps they would let him off…but if the idiotic boy insisted on proclaiming that he and Severus were lovers, equal and consenting partners in debauchery, he would surely be judged not only insane, but a fool.

The fact was, Potter had no way to prove that Severus had welcomed his attentions. There were no witnesses to speak for him, and there was no evidence of any kind to corroborate his outrageous claim. The only one who might have acquitted him was Severus himself, had Severus been able—and willing—to give testimony about a relationship that, even if consensual, bordered on deviance in several dimensions.

His inner voice gave a nasty chuckle at the thought that he was the only person who could acquit Harry Potter.

Then he stopped laughing, and repeated that thought very clearly to himself again: I am the only one who can acquit Harry Potter. When he heard those words in his head the second time, it was obvious what he had to do.

He had to recover, and then he had to rescue Harry.

As the hospital corridors grew quiet that night, Severus began to work. He had a goal now—even though it was not a new one, as he'd been looking after Potter for nearly two decades—and that made his isolation feel less suffocating. He had things to do.

First he thought hard for a bit, considering alternatives and making plans, but before long the itch to actually be doing something took over, and he began to explore.

What he would start with, he had decided, was experimenting by pushing all his remaining sensory powers to their limits. He'd never put any faith in clairvoyance, but he still had his hearing, smell, taste, and even touch, within the bounds of his immobility. He had also been able to leap from his paralyzed body into Potter's head. Who knew what else might be possible? So he tried to stretch his mind beyond his hospital room, hoping to sense something else, anything, that might be useful in his quest for recovery. He pushed all his senses out, filling the lonely room, feeling the space. He already knew where the walls were, and the window and door, as he'd seen them through Potter's eyes. He pressed his consciousness against them, and willed them out of his way.

Then he unfurled his senses farther, very cautiously, outside his room. He reached up and down the long hospital corridor, and he could hear Healers at work in several rooms. He could not see the corridor, exactly, but found that he didn't need to, because there were always sounds and—he could feel them thrumming around him—palpable reverberations of magic.

In one room, not too far away as he reckoned it, he heard a spell being cast. A little pulse ran through him, as if he were in the path of the ripples that spread around a stone dropped into a pond. The sensation was titillating; he felt drawn to the edge of something, and he struggled to keep his balance so as not to go over.

Another spell was cast, and another. Then he felt a different Healer, farther down the hall, casting a different, stronger sort of spell, with a very different wand; it was like tasting water from a different spring. Little wavelets from spells up and down the hall were flowing over and past him. It was almost...arousing. He felt the nerves in his belly and thighs singing, as if in response to the stroking of a lover.

He wondered how he could have missed this before. Apparently Potter's presence had kept him a bit distracted.

An enormously powerful spell spilled down the hall from a nearby room. As it flooded over and past him, Severus felt his control wash away along with it. It felt almost like the climax of some sort of bizarre orgy. He lay there shuddering, feeling his body take deep breaths on its own inscrutable initiative and wishing Harry were here to experience this with him.

Harry, he thought, and a terrible longing rose up and mingled with all his fears for the boy. He thought about Harry's hands on him, and Harry's mouth; he remembered how they had felt and wished he could see what it had looked like, when Harry pleasured him. It struck him then how little he had appreciated the power of eyesight when he'd had it. For all those years, he could have found excuses to look at the boy for hours and justified the habit under pretense of spying or guarding or some other convenient nonsense.

He sighed and felt the longing swell further. Only I can be Harry's vindication, he thought. Somehow, I have to tell them the truth.

A small, unhelpful part of his brain began asking questions. And then what? it demanded. What if you do manage to recover? Yes, perhaps then you can save Harry from himself, for all the good it will do you. Are you deluded enough to imagine that he would still want to be with you then?

He answered his own questions sternly. Of course I don't imagine he would want me, if I weren't an invalid he could control. He pushed back sensuous memories of that control. All I intend to do is tell them the truth, absolve him of guilt, and then push him away so he can get on with his life.

And what truth, the persistent corner of his brain asked, what truth, exactly, would you tell them, if you could?

With a start he realised that he wasn't certain. What version of the truth would be palatable to the rest of the wizarding world? Could they ever accept the idea that Harry had wanted Severus for his lover, or would they prefer to believe that their hero had gone temporarily mad?

With a chill Severus realised that perhaps even he wasn't sure which story was correct.

What if Harry really had gone mad? The stress of battle, a near-death experience, the shock of discovering that a hated, suspect teacher had once loved his mother...taken all together, it might have been too much for him. He might have completely fallen apart when no one was looking.

Perhaps all that had happened between them the past few weeks were simply Harry's efforts to put the shattered bits of himself back together into something he could live with. No, Severus thought, uncomfortable with this version of the truth. He showed me deliberately that he was in love with me. But what if loving Severus was just the cobbled-up missing piece that made all the broken fragments appear to fit together again?

Severus kept thinking, and his thoughts kept getting darker. What if Harry, in some trauma-induced delusion, only imagined himself to be in love? Was that different, somehow, from the real thing?

Severus wanted to wrap his arms around his head to keep his own madness from spilling out. What if neither of them had any grasp on reality anymore?

Severus fought through his confusion to imagine what reality might have been for Harry, if he hadn't gotten into trouble with a damaged Death Eater. He thought about Harry as an adult, living away from Hogwarts and on his own. It wasn't hard to picture him a little older, and in a different setting, away from school, one where he belonged: a real home, with a young wife, or even a young husband—though perhaps it was not yet too late for Harry to reconcile with the Weasley girl?—and a small child or two. Severus was surprised to find that thinking of this scenario made him happy, even though he was not a part of it. Harry surely wanted a family. He would be happy in a cozy domestic setting. Severus could never have this charming family life, no matter how much he might once have wanted it, but Harry could. All Severus had to do was get Harry out of trouble, and away from this bloody hospital room, and away from him, a lost man locked inside himself. Getting Harry free of this was all that mattered.

Harry may not be lost, not yet. Even if the war damaged him…he's young yet, he could heal and still have a full, normal life. He could still have all the things I was denied, Severus told himself. The simple joy of this idea overcame his confusion, and he smiled at the thought.

He smiled, and he sighed.

He smiled and he sighed again, and then understanding hit him.

He really had smiled and sighed. His muscles had moved on his conscious command.

He tried more: could he flex his fingers? Open his eyes? Speak? He found he could not.


But he could smile, and he could sigh. On smaller things worlds had been built. Or so, at least, he tried to tell himself. He felt magic shooting and sprinkling all around him, and he felt himself growing stronger.

Severus lay silent and alone, but no longer hopeless, for the rest of that day. When the medi-witches came to tend him, he remained as stone-faced as ever and let them have their way with him.

When they were gone, however, his lips curled into an unaccustomed smile, and inside his mind he continued to plan, for he had a job to do.

By the next morning, Severus could stretch out his fingers, and then contract them into a loose fist. He could flex his ankles, though he was certain they were not strong enough to hold him. And he could open his eyes—not very wide, it was true, but enough to see his hospital room through matted eyelashes. He had expected the moment of regaining his vision to be a momentous and exciting one, but the room around him was so visually sterile and unappealing that he was almost glad to close his eyes again.

He recommitted himself to his goal: just as Harry had rescued him, Severus would have to rescue Harry. He didn't care what the rest of the world would think of him after he'd accomplished this goal; he'd never cared about that anyway. Without Harry's efforts, Severus' own life would have been lost, and perhaps it should have been, he still couldn't help thinking. If the life he salvaged after setting Harry's straight was a bleak one, so be it. It had never been otherwise.

Beyond the simple requirement of saving Harry—from the law, from the hospital, from himself if necessary—Severus had no detailed plan. He was counting on working that out after he'd become mobile and vocal again, and had returned to the world. He could ascertain then what Harry needed. He could provide whatever confirmation or attribution would help.

He would tell them, in short, whatever they wanted to hear.

As soon as Harry was safely out of trouble, Severus would remove himself from the situation and allow the boy to travel the path his life was meant to take. As for Severus and his own life after that, he would adapt.

Severus mentally shook his head to clear it and reminded himself to stay focused. He had to become whatever saving Harry required him to be, and for that, he first had to be master of his own body again.

All throughout that day, and the next, and the next, he stretched. He flexed. He concentrated. And starting slowly but ever faster, he regained control. One muscle at a time, alone and in secret when no one else was in his room—for he had no intention of revealing himself before he was fully in control again—he moved.

Chapter 14

Severus calculated that it had been ten days since he'd last heard Harry's voice.

Each of those long, lonely days had increased his worries, but they were not without their savour, as well. His secret exercise program had been working, and Severus woke on this remarkable morning to the certainty that today, if he wanted, he could get out of bed. It might hurt, he might need assistance, and it would not be graceful, but he knew he could manage it.

All that remained was to pick the perfect moment to act, and he evaluated every medi-witch who entered his room now for suitability to serve as the audience for his grand reveal. If he chose well, he would emerge as master of himself again, and in a position to help Harry. If he chose or executed his choice poorly, he would appear helpless and vulnerable, and that would do Harry no good. Fortunately Slytherins were nothing if not opportunists, good at biding their time, willing to be patient and calculating to improve their chances of success.

Severus was lying in wait for the perfect moment to announce himself when Margaret, the medi-witch of the day, entered his room for some routine unpleasantness. He had always thought Margaret sounded rather sympathetic to both himself and Harry, and he had been pleased to hear her voice arrive that morning. When she returned in the afternoon, however, she brought a much younger witch with her, someone whose voice Severus hadn't heard before. From the sound of that voice she seemed even younger than Potter, and the touch of her small, cold hands was tentative.

It became clear that the younger woman was receiving some sort of practical training from her senior colleague. Severus supposed he made a perfect practice patient, one insensible and non-reactive no matter how clumsy a carer's movements.

They started in on him after a short discussion of the tasks to be accomplished: bathing, adjustment of the various non-magical medical devices attached to him, and administration of his sterile nutritious serum. Severus tried to ignore them. To distract himself, he began factoring the young witch's presence into his plans, calculating whether she would be a favourable or unfavourable candidate to witness his revelation. She, on some signal from her trainer, began removing his clothing in preparation for a sponge bath. This was obviously something she had not done many times before, for she giggled nervously when she drew the soft pants down over his legs, her fingertips brushing the front of his uninterested cock.

"Don't," the older medi-witch said.

"Sorry, Ma'am, didn't mean to touch him there." Severus could well believe this was true.

"That's not what I meant." The older witch sounded impatient. "You'll have to touch him to care for him. But don't laugh."

"Begging your pardon," the younger one replied quickly. "It's just that...well, he..." She stopped, and the older witch stilled on the other side of him.

"He what, Miss?" Severus was surprised by the cool tone of Margaret's voice.

"I was just thinking...I'm sorry, Ma'am, but he doesn't...I mean, who'd have thought he was the type?"

"What type?"

"The type what would have someone mooning over him, like Mister Potter." She slipped the rear-fastening hospital gown forward from his shoulders, leaving his chest bare.

He felt more naked than usual.

"Everyone falls in love eventually, and there's never any telling with whom, until it happens," Margaret said. "It's Mister Potter's misfortune to have fallen in love with one who cannot love him back."

"Hmph." The younger woman did not seem swayed by this romantic idea. "It's not so very loving of him, to do the things he did."

"No," Margaret agreed, "but perhaps under other circumstances, it might have been."

"Still." The young witch stretched out and savoured the word, until it was full of reproach and a smug superiority that made Severus want to growl at her. "Imagine doing such things to a man near dead." She gave a little sniff. She was wiping him down with a warm cloth now, her small hands more effective at the task than he'd expected. The cloth left damp streaks all over his body, making him feel a chill. He wished he could pull up the blankets.

"That will do, Miss." The woman could put a surprising snap into her voice, Severus thought. "It's not our job to judge Mister Potter. We are responsible for the proper care of this patient, nothing more. And the fact is that we shirked our duties while Harry was here and let him take care of far too many things, and now we've got to pick up the slack again. So you'd best get used to touching Mister Snape in every way necessary, because we're going to be doing it for some time to come."

The young witch refused to be cowed. "Just so long as we don't have to touch him that way," she said.

"See that you don't shy away from him, thinking about what you don't want to do," Margaret said. "It's not good for patients to feel that their carers don't want to touch them. Makes them anxious." As she said this she ran her fingers along his arm very lightly, and Severus was sure he could feel gooseflesh rising there.

"Gracious, Ma'am, do you think he even knows that we're here?"

"We cannot be sure."

"So do you think he might have known when Mister Potter was...was using him?" She puffed out a little breath in exaggerated horror at the idea. "The poor man."

Severus was half considering revealing himself then and there, if only so he could roll his eyes and correct the little twit's misapprehensions, but then Margaret spoke again. "We cannot judge them at all, Frances, and you'd best remember that. It's hard to understand anything that happens in private between two people, and what's gone on between these two, I think, is more complicated than your average." She took her hands away and stepped back from the bed. "Aren't you finished with that flannel yet? It's bound to be cold by now."

Frances scuffled around with the wet cloth by his waist a bit, and then said, "All done, Ma'am."

"Good. Change his bandage next, if you would. Then you can check the settings on that infernal machine, and hang up the new IV bag."

Severus was contemplating the still-improbable fact of his being kept alive by Muggle intravenous feeding when Frances removed the gauze from his neck. She gasped. "Look! It's…it's a miracle!"

"Hmm." Margaret felt his neck wounds with sure but gentle fingers. "My, my. All healed," she murmured. "Just since we last changed the dressing. I wonder what caused it, all so sudden?"

"They must be using healing spells on him now, don't you think?"

"Perhaps. It's certain these Muggle ointments haven't done a thing." Her hands pulled away. "I wonder…"

"What? What is it?" Frances sounded eager, as if speculation about Severus' condition might be a valuable bit of gossip.

"Perhaps he's actually getting better."

"But they said he'd never—"

"Perhaps they were wrong."

There was a heavy silence for a few long seconds, during which Severus wondered if they were onto him. Even he hadn't known that the bite marks on his neck were healing, as he hadn't thought to feel under the bandage to check. He supposed that as long as they'd kept his neck covered up, it had been conveniently easy to ignore the fact that the 'no magic' rule wasn't really working.

A new worry surfaced in his mind. If Margaret had guessed that he was recovering, she might be looking for other signs that he was awake and aware. He thought it might be rather awkward to explain why he'd been play-acting if he was caught at it.

He had almost decided to go ahead and reveal himself when Margaret leaned over him. "Well, no matter," she said in a brisk, businesslike voice. "Let's get some clean clothing on, shall we, Mister Snape? Don't want you to catch a cold, now."

Severus wondered if his state of undress had abruptly seemed indecent to her, as soon as she started to imagine that he might be aware of it. With some relief—as he thought he might sacrifice some gravitas by proclaiming himself recovered while in the nude—he put his plans on hold again and relaxed into the gentle routine of being dressed. Margaret slipped off the pants that had been gathered around his bare ankles, then fitted new ones over his feet and drew them up, skimming over his legs.

Her hands felt warmer than Frances' and moved with sureness against his skin. She expertly avoided any intimate contact, yet there was something disconcerting about her touch. It was so gentle he couldn't be sure when her fingers were on him and when they were not, but they seemed to be quite comfortable with the lean, hairy flesh of his thighs, and in no great hurry to move along.

"Do you think Mister Potter will ever be allowed to see him again?" the younger woman asked. She had moved to the corner of the room where the machines stood, chugging along with quiet little Muggle motors.

"It's not for me to say." Margaret's voice was prim, taking no responsibility. She had moved up his body and was tugging a fresh hospital gown behind his shoulders so it would stay in place. Then her fingers stroked his face, turning it back and forth as if for inspection. "Did you forget to do his face, Frances?"

"Oh! Sorry, I did. Want me to do it now?"

"No, I will." There was the sound of water splashing in a basin, and then a warm, wet flannel was placed against his cheek. It began cleaning him, rubbing off salt and sweat and leaving his face feeling cool and clean. Fingers behind the cloth wriggled up beyond his hairline and around his ears, under his chin and down his neck. Severus felt like a kitten enduring a thorough, affectionate licking by its mother. Frances' bathing had made Severus feel more like a dog being washed, by someone who knew the job had to be done but was uncomfortable with the sorts of dirt the dog might be carrying around.

"There you go, Mister Snape," Margaret said as she finished. "I'm sure that feels a bit better, and you look quite dapper now." Frances giggled again at that. "Is there a problem?" Margaret asked.

"No! It's just funny to hear you talk to him like that."

"Like what?"

"Like—oh, you know what I mean! Like he cares what he looks like. Like he looks good, even."

"He does look good, for someone who has been confined to bed for weeks."

Frances snorted. "I mean no disrespect, Ma'am, but I'm not sure he's ever looked good. My sister was his student, and I saw him once when I was with her, in Diagon Alley. A regular fright, he was, and I don't think any sponge bath is going to change that."

There was a tense silence. Then, "I need a word with you, if you please, Miss," Margaret said. "Outside. Now."

Severus waited, intrigued. The two stepped outside his room and closed the door, and he could hear raised voices. Margaret's voice was lower, Frances' more shrill, and he could distinguish them through the closed door, but he could not make out the words. From the rising volume of the sounds they made, however, he gathered they were having an argument. Perhaps they'll forget all about me and go away, he thought. They had been at it for some time before he thought to wonder why Margaret had felt it necessary to take their argument out into the hall.

When at last the two witches returned, the tension between them had changed, but not disappeared. "Bed linens, if you please, Miss," Margaret said in a stern tone.

"Yes, Ma'am," Frances said, more subdued than before. "May I levitate him for that now, do you think? Since they've been using all those special spells to…er, examine him?"

"You may not. Here, I'll help you." The two of them untucked his bedsheet and rolled him into it, and then lifted him, entrapped, onto a portable cot that served as a sort of holding pen for him. It was a procedure he despised, as it made him feel like an animal being weighed before slaughter.

As they worked, Frances asked, "Why won't they let us care for him by magic now? Surely the spells we use wouldn't do him any more harm."

Margaret sniffed. "It's not for us to decide, Miss. If the Healers and the Ministry inspectors are using magic, that's their business, and it's between them and the Minister."

"Have they made any decision yet about Mister Potter?"

"They're still hearing testimony, I believe. I imagine they'd much rather find some reason to drop the whole matter than have to discipline him."

"Why don't they just let him go? Can't they do that, with him being a hero and all?"

"There were witnesses. And St. Mungo's reputation is on the line, too. We don't want it said that we allowed such things to go on under our noses."

"But he wasn't hurt, you said so yourself."

"Not physically, no, but they say it might have done terrible things to his mind."

Severus restrained a burst of laughter.

"Do you think…is there a possibility he'll ever really get better?"

"I wish I knew that, Miss, I wish I knew. I hope with all my heart that he will, but it seems more unlikely with every day that passes."

"I don't think he's going to, myself."

"And why not?"

Frances shrugged. "Because if he does the Ministry will have to figure out what to do with him. And now, with all this, and Mister Potter involved and all…it's easier for everyone if he just stays asleep. Or whatever he is."

Margaret laughed a little at that, and then they rolled him back to the newly made bed. She put her hands on his shoulder and knee to steady him, and he had to concentrate to avoid a ticklish reaction to the touch. He allowed himself to breathe a very cautious sigh of relief when he finally lay still on the bed again.

"Very good, sir," Margaret said to him when he was settled. "Time for your dinner, and then we'll leave you to rest." He caught a hint of a snort, quickly stifled, from Frances. "Would you feed him, Miss?"

"Of course, Ma'am." She sounded anything but eager.

"He's due for a new cannula today as well, you know."


"You've had all the Muggle training for it?"

"I have. Last week."

"You're comfortable putting it in?"

"I am." Severus was anything but comfortable, aware that the procedure would require the insertion of a new needle into a different spot on his arm.

"Mind you don't hurt him, now."

"No, Ma'am. Of course not."

Frances' small hands were on his arm then, fumbling near the sensitive spot where the old line protruded. There was a long sliding tingle as something cool was drawn down the length of the arm, then a very cold scrubbing at the touchy spot, which felt even colder after the scrubbing stopped. It was an alcohol rub, he knew; he'd accepted this long ago, deciding that if they were going to use Muggle technology on him it was probably just as well they used all the Muggle precautions as well.

Next came a sharp pinch, then a few seconds of worse pain, deeper in his arm. Frances swore softly, in language quite unexpected from a proper young lady. There was a tug on his arm, and the cold fingers, needles, tubes, and everything else dropped away. Frances swore again.

"There's no call for such language," Margaret said.

"It's not working," Frances replied. "I'm going to have to try the other arm."

"Well, do it, then, but don't scald his ears while you're at it."

Severus heard more grumbling, but it was soft. Frances moved around the bed to his right side and began mauling his other arm, poking at it and giving it the same cold wipe she'd given the first one. Then she pulled away for an instant, and he braced himself for another pinch.

The needle plunged in deep this time, delivering a small flare of Cruciatus-like pain that swelled like a fireball around his elbow. Caught by surprise—for he hadn't thought she would be incompetent enough to hurt him that badly—Severus jerked away from her and gave an undignified yelp. As he pulled away the needle in his arm twisted, making it hurt even more, and the yelp deepened into a groan. Frances shrieked and let go of his arm. There was the sound of glass breaking as something hit the floor. Then the room went dead silent.

Well, that's done it, Severus thought, and resigned himself. I'd better make the most of their shock while it lasts. He opened his eyes and looked around the room, swiveling his head slowly. The two women were staring at him, Frances' young face white as if turned on some horror and Margaret's older one pink, as if she were embarrassed to be caught looking at him.

"Get those bloody needles away from me," he croaked. His voice was raw, with none of its usual satiny smoothness. "I shan't be needing them anymore."

It hadn't been his finest moment. Though Severus would have claimed not to care about such things, he had always had a sense of the dramatic, and he managed his entrances and exits for maximum effect. This one, however, this re-entry into the pageant of life, felt heavy on slapstick and low on finesse, which was not the way he had hoped to pull it off.

An hour later, however, Harry was on his way. That counted for something.

Severus sat waiting, propped on pillows, trying to look haughty or, failing that, at least vertical. The blind on his window was drawn all the way up so he could look out and see the late-summer sunset from his bed. He was hungry, but had been promised real food in a few hours, "...as long as you remain stable," Margaret had assured him. He supposed she'd meant he mustn't collapse or explode. He didn't know if the promise was also contingent on good behavior, which, as he grew hungrier, would become more difficult to maintain. Still, things were improving.

There had been complete confusion for a while. Time had seemed to suspend itself in the room, and Severus had tried to use the frozen moment to intimidate his erstwhile tormentors, wanting to assert his control over the situation as far as he could before they'd had a chance to reorganize themselves and take it back from him.

To his surprise, young Frances reacted with matter-of-fact aplomb to his awakening, and began efficiently gathering up the instruments of torture she'd been using to poke holes in him. Margaret, meanwhile, was fussing over him, patting and clucking and looking as though she might cry, which unnerved Severus. "What is wrong with you?" he rasped at her. "I thought you wanted me to recover."

"I just didn't expect it to happen all at once like that." She squared her shoulders then, and tugged at her white medi-witch's robe to straighten it, her poise returning. "You gave me a shock."

"Well, get over your shock and help me. I want to sit up."

"I don't know if that's such a good—ah, no," she said as Severus began trying to lever himself up on his elbows. "Perhaps you shouldn't rush things…"

"I want to sit up. Now." He stretched out his arms, as if reaching for hands that he expected to be there, waiting to pull him up.

"Well, I suppose we could...just slow down, please." She turned to Frances and said, "Some help here!"

The two women stood on either side of Severus and slipped their arms under his shoulders. With some effort—and not too much help from Severus, who found he was even weaker than he'd thought—they raised his upper body from the bed. Margaret let him lean on her while Frances gathered all the pillows she could find and arranged them behind him. At last he was laid back against this improvised settee, not quite sitting but at least raised up a little, so that he could look all the way around the room with his own eyes for the first time.

It was a sterile and cheerless place, just as he'd thought. Of course, when I was seeing it through Potter's eyes, the fool was usually looking at…wait, Potter's eyes, he thought with a start. "I need to speak to someone about Potter. Harry Potter. Right away. You will bring someone in authority at once." He waited a beat, then added a snarling, "Please," as a sort of insurance.

The two medi-witches looked at each other, then both back at him, and then at each other again. Neither spoke.

"Did I not make myself clear?" There was still no answer. "This concerns Mister Potter. Harry Potter, the bloody hero—perhaps you've heard of him? I must speak with someone about him, and I must do it now. This is a matter of utmost urgency." Before he can get himself into even more trouble, he thought.

Margaret rallied first. "Let's take things one step at a time, shall we? Go get a Healer, Frances. I don't care who. And tell them to hurry."

Frances ran, seeming grateful to escape. Severus, however, was not satisfied. "Damn it all, aren't you listening? I don't need a Healer, I've bloody well healed myself, no thanks to all this Muggle nonsense you've been using. I need to speak to someone in charge."

Ignoring him, Margaret asked in a determined voice, "Do you want a drink of water? That's usually the first thing patients ask for."

He realised that he did want water. Speaking aloud had been hell on his throat already. He scowled, but nodded at her.

She poured him a drink from a glass pitcher on a table near the door. He tried to take the glass from her, but his hand was too weak and shaky to bring it to his mouth. She made a little tut-tut sound and took the glass from him, then held it against his dry lips and let him suck down a few swallows. His fury fizzled into frustration.

"There, that's better," she said. "I imagine your throat is sore, hmm?"

"It is—no, that's not important, I must speak to—"

"Shhh," she whispered, and to his surprise she put her finger against his still-parched lips. He looked up at her and she smiled as she removed the finger. "What you must do is relax. You've been…away from things, you know, for a long time, and it will take a while to get back on your feet." With a subtle slide she moved to sit next to him on the bed. "Let's just talk a bit, shall we?"

He raised an eyebrow and shrank back from her into his pillows.

"First of all, do you know," she asked, "just how long you've been in hospital?"

Severus felt a flash of panic, wondering if this might be a trap. If he said the wrong thing, would it make matters worse for Potter? He decided on a stance of cooperative ignorance and said, "Far too long," with a growl.

"Yes, almost three months it's been," she replied. "Quite a long time, indeed. But of course, Mister Potter has been here with you, all along." She gave him an appraising look. "Did you know that?" He glared at her, but she continued in the same reasonable tone. "We didn't think you were aware, to be honest, but as you seem so concerned about him..."

Severus tried to turn up the hostility in his expression, but she stared right back as if testing him. "I ask you this for a reason, Mister Snape. There were some things that happened, while you were...not quite with us. Some things that are going to cause you some difficulty. Do you have any idea at all what I'm talking about?"

"How could I possibly when you've not spoken a word of sense yet?" he said with a sneer, but inside he was panicking, wondering what she wanted.

"Some things happened…with Mister Potter." She looked him hard in the eye. "He has been devoted to you, you know. He was here every day."

Severus felt heat rising up his neck. "Potter is a sentimental fool."

"Ah, sentimental, I agree," she said, smiling. "But not a fool."

"His foolishness is none of your concern."

"It became my concern, sir, when I saw how he behaved around you."


"You're my patient. I paid attention to how your visitors treated you. And Harry…" She lowered her head, just for a moment, then looked back up at him. "I understand he was once your student, but if you'll pardon my saying so, he did not treat you as a student would treat a teacher."

"I do not wish to discuss this with you."

"You need to discuss it with me, and we don't have much time. When the authorities arrive I won't be able to speak plainly anymore."

"I don't care what you—"

"You need to know," she repeated firmly. "That is," she said, cocking her head, "if you do want to help him."

"I'm sure Mister Potter can take care of himself," he said stiffly.

"Then why are you in such a hurry to speak to someone about him?"

"I must…" he began, but stopped. This was getting too complicated. He'd thought his double-agent days of concealing his true allegiance were over, but obviously they were not. "I wish to avoid any misunderstandings," he said.

"You do know, then," she said, and looked into his eyes with a clear gaze.

"Know what?"

"You know what Harry did."

"What Potter did," he said, with a snort to hide his dismay. "Potter has done many things. Many idiotic things."

"These were some very surprising things."

"The boy has appallingly poor judgment."

"That may be. But I think that perhaps the things he did were more complicated than they appeared."

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said in a whisper.

"Please know, Mister Snape, that I don't think ill of either of you. I'm rather on your side, in fact."

"I will not listen to any further…insinuations."

"That's too bad, because I could help you. That is, if you're sincerely worried about Harry."

He wondered what she would do with the truth, his truth, if he were to share it with her. Would she help him, and Harry as well, or would use any confession against him?

He hedged, afraid to trust her. "Should I be worried about Harry?" he asked, hoping the roughness of his voice would obscure the worry that was already there.

"He's in a bit of a tight spot, yes."

If she had help to offer, he decided he could not afford to refuse it. "What tight spot, precisely, is he in?"

She stared at him for a long moment. "He's in trouble, sir. For molesting you. For assaulting you. Sexually." Her eyes burned into his.

"That is a very serious charge," he said, trying to keep his voice calm and level.

"It is, but forgive me for saying…you don't seem too surprised by it."

"Few things about Potter surprise me anymore."

They looked at one another, and then Margaret looked at the door. "We don't have much time," she repeated.

"Why do you care about any of this?"

"Because I think the things he did...were not what they looked like." She looked, for an instant, like she might be about to cry again. "Because I think he was doing what you wanted him to do."

"And if he was?"

"Then he shouldn't be punished for it, should he?"

"Certainly not." His voice was a hoarse whisper.

"So do you have a plan?" she asked. "For helping him, I mean?"

"I was working on a plan when your incompetent assistant tried to assassinate me with that needle."

There came the sound of light, running footsteps from far down the hall. Severus stared at the door as the footsteps tapped closer and closer, and then Frances burst into the room. "She's here!" the girl said in a high, strained voice. "They're coming!"

"She?" Severus and Margaret asked almost in unison. They looked at each other, and Severus said, "Who is coming?"

"Your Headmistress! And Captain Wallace!" She paused to take a gasping breath. "They were in his office."

"What about Healers?" Margaret asked, impatient.

"There weren't any around, I'm sorry, I saw the Captain first and your Headmistress was there and I told them you were up and they—"

"Why was Minerva with him?" Severus demanded.

"I don't know, but they were having a horrible row," the young woman said, beginning to catch her breath. "Oh, and Harry's coming too."

Severus lurched upright, his head spinning. "Harry is coming here? Now?" He looked at Margaret, who looked back, as surprised as he was.

"Yes, they sent for him straightaway when I told them you were awake. They'll come, all of them, as soon as he arrives."

Struggling feebly against the lumpy mattress beneath him, Severus tried and failed to push himself to a more dignified sitting position. "Help me sit up properly, you bloody fools," he snarled. They took his arms and hauled him up to sit a little taller, and he smoothed down the rumpled hospital gown that covered his chest. A bizarre new worry occurred to him, and he added, "Don't just stand there. Get me a toothbrush. And a comb."

Five minutes of hasty grooming and tidying followed, during which Severus found himself accepting Margaret as an ally, in part because she insisted on fussing over him and it was easier just to let her, and in part because he realised he needed the help. She worked on the worst sins of his wayward, ragged hair while he scrubbed the remnants of three months' enforced mouldering off of his teeth. Potter had been idiot enough to kiss his mouth during that time, he knew, but that had been his own choice, and if he hadn't liked the taste, it would have been his problem to deal with. Not that he'd ever seemed to find kissing Severus unpleasant.

And not that Severus had any plans to kiss Potter now. He only wanted to be ready for whatever happened, and to look, as much as possible, like a man who was able to manage for himself, not like one who could be victimized by a—well, he was practically a child, wasn't he?—by a child such as Potter.

He had been arranged on his bed in such a way that he looked to be sitting up independently, though in fact he was not strong enough to do so. He held a book on his lap, one Potter had left there days ago, half read. Margaret was loitering by the now-silent medical equipment in one corner of the room, pretending to make adjustments. Frances was pacing near the open door, periodically making little scouting runs into the hallway to check for approaching visitors. Severus pretended to read, wondering at this remarkable sense of being in league with the medi-witches who had tormented him for so long.

Far down the corridor, a metal door opened with a squeal, and then banged shut. "Shhh," whispered Frances, unnecessarily. Very soft footsteps approached, a tangle of them, sounding miles away. Frances tiptoed back to the door—Severus rolled his eyes at her pointless stealth—and angled herself in the doorway so she could peer out without revealing much of herself. "They're almost here," she said very softly, and then looked at Severus. "Harry, too."

"It's about bloody time," Severus muttered.

The flurry of footsteps came closer. Frances ducked back from the door and busied herself rearranging the few small items on the bureau near the door—the pitcher, an extra water glass, a luridly colourful magazine. Frances fussed with the machinery, tubes and needles that were no longer connected to Severus. Severus posed with his book, and waited.

A light set of footsteps sped up and reached the room first, and Harry's head poked around the door frame. "Severus?" he said softly. Margaret let out a sigh. Frances knocked over the glass on the bureau. Severus looked up, very slowly, from his book.

Harry took a small step into the room. He was patchily unshaven and wore institutional-looking clothing, soft and shapeless, in a medicinal shade of beige. Severus took one horrified look at him and wondered again whether either of them could claim any contact with reality anymore. Still, whether the boy was insane or not, he was what Severus had most wanted to see, all these months, and he was glad to be allowed to stare.

"Severus?" he said again, just as Severus' eyes rose to meet his. "It's true," he said, sounding as if he hadn't believed it could be. "You're back."

Severus gave a small, formal tilt of his head in acknowledgment. "I am, indeed." His eyes remained fixed on Harry.

The boy didn't move from the doorway for a long, stretched-out moment, and his eyes were full of questions. At last he took one uncertain step closer, his hands tight fists at his sides. He closed his eyes then, as if to escape the questions, and Severus could feel the tension inside him, not through the mental link they'd spoken through before but by simple human empathy.

He could see Harry holding himself back, and knew he had to help him do so. Perhaps Harry was trying to distance himself, if belatedly, from the criminal intimacy they had shared. This was what Severus had hoped he would do, and he wondered why it hurt so much to see him do it.

Harry's eyes opened. Severus tried to adopt a stern look, and felt the look fail. To avoid making things worse, he closed his own eyes and waited for whatever Harry was going to do.

"Oh, Severus," Harry said in a choking voice. "Don't." With that he crossed the room and was pressed against Severus before Severus could do anything to stop him, pinning him against the pillows, arms around his neck and face pressed into his hair. All Severus could do was raise his own arms and pretend to fend him off. He pushed at Harry's chest to do so, and with that his hands were on the boy for the first time, and he could feel the slim, muscular body with his own trembling fingers.

Harry pulled away too soon, looking unhappy. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Whatever for?"

"I buggered everything up. I thought telling the truth was all it would take. I thought I could get them to listen to me." He gave a harsh, exhausted laugh. "Well, they did listen. But they just thought I'd gone mad."

"Haven't you?" Severus' voice was soft.

Harry ignored the question and reached a hand out to touch Severus' bared neck. "All the bites," he said. "They're almost gone."

"So they are." Severus fingered the wounds himself for the first time, and found that they had sealed themselves into smooth, tight furrows. Harry's hand caught his against his jaw, and clutched it tight.

"Why did they heal now?"

Severus shrugged. "Magic, I suppose."

"But there's been no magic allowed around you!"

"I'm afraid the hospital constabulary felt privileged to disregard that rule."


"In their…investigations. Which were rather thorough, as I'm sure you've been informed."

"Oh. Yeah, I have." He gave a weak smile. "Did that magic help you…come back, then? The rest of you?"

"I believe it did. Along with a certain amount of diligence on my part." He raised an eyebrow. "I was afraid, you know, that I was going to have to come and rescue you."

"You…you healed yourself? For me?"

"No one else required rescuing." Harry had kept hold of his hand. "Are you still in need of it?"

"I don't know. They just let me come down here to try to sort things out." He hung his head. "I'm so sorry, I should have…I never considered how it would reflect on you. I honestly didn't think…of course you wouldn't…" He looked up at Severus, his eyes red and face very pale. "You could never be a victim."

The heavier footsteps in the hall were very close now.

"What did you tell them, Harry?" Severus' voice was too soft for anyone but Harry to hear.

Harry opened his mouth to answer just as Minerva and a man Severus had never seen before—presumably the Captain—rounded the doorway. Harry dropped Severus' hand and stepped back half a pace. He was not quite fast enough, however, and the shocked expressions on Minerva and the Captain's faces confirmed for Severus that they hadn't believed Harry.

"What did you tell them?" Severus repeated, even softer.

Harry looked at them, then back at Severus. "I told them the truth," he whispered.

"All of it?"

Harry nodded, his eyes bright, and Severus knew at that moment that the boy was waiting for him, and giving him a choice.

He could acknowledge Harry and what had happened between them, and deal with their joint condemnation for any number of sins. Or, he could deny Harry and let him face a different sort of condemnation alone, while Severus became an ironic sort of hero-martyr, who had helped save the wizarding world and then been victimized. Harry was willing to take whatever blame was to be borne, whether he was ultimately judged a criminal or a madman, or both. Even more disturbing, Severus understood at that moment that Harry actually expected to take the blame; he thought Severus would walk away.

Harry watched Severus work through this in his head, and then whispered, "I can't hear what you're thinking anymore," and tapped a finger against his own temple.

Severus took a deep breath. "That's all right," he said. He raised his arms and reached for Harry, and Harry's eyes widened. He looked so trusting, and so amazed, that all Severus could think to do was pull him closer.

"I was so worried about you," Harry said, frowning for a moment in remembered despair. One hand slipped into Severus' hair. "When I heard that you…that you had come back, I was so happy." In truth he looked as close to bursting into tears as to happiness.

Idiot child, Severus thought.

Harry laid a finger on Severus' forehead and asked, "Can you still hear me? Inside?"

"No." Severus let go of everything then, everything he'd been before Harry. "But this is infinitely better." He pulled Harry closer still, and kissed him.

Margaret let out a breath that she must have been holding for a long time. Frances clapped her hands together.

"Well," Minerva said with sturdy cheerfulness. "I think this answers a great many questions." The Captain murmured assent.

No further words on his part, Severus found, were even needed.

They were allowed a brief period of privacy after that. Later Severus realised that this allowance hadn't been a deliberate gift, but rather a result of the time it took to spread the news of his re-emergence.

"Thank you," Harry said, as soon as their audience had trooped from the room. "You didn't have to do that, you know."

Severus scoffed. "Of course I did. You'd be a terrible martyr."

Harry smiled. He had eased back in Severus' arms a bit, but still sat close, and now he put a hand flat on Severus' chest. "Really, though. I didn't want you to feel pressured into telling them anything. I know this isn't what…" He hesitated. "…I mean, there's probably no room for this in your life." The smile faded. "Anymore."

"Nor in yours."

"Well." Harry tilted his head. He slid a little closer on the bed, and Severus tightened his embrace, thinking how good it felt to be able to do so. "Do you think you'll go back to Hogwarts?"

"No. Not if I can avoid it."

"Okay." Harry nodded, as if processing this fact, adding it to something being reckoned in his mind. "I wasn't planning to, either."

"I'm not surprised."

"Don't know what else I'm going to do, though. Now that you're…" He waved a hand at Severus.

"You'll figure something out."

"I suppose. Um." He twitched himself a little closer still and looked down at his hand, which had found its way to Severus' shoulder and was now fiddling with the neckline of his thin robe. "What about you?"

"What about me?"

"What will you do?"

"I have no idea yet either."


"Potter, this has all happened rather fast."

Harry looked up. "Can't you still call me Harry?"

Severus sighed. "If you want."

"I do. And I'd like…to keep calling you Severus, if that's okay."

"Of course. I could hardly object, could I?"

Harry laughed. "You could. You're pretty disagreeable sometimes."

"I'm sure that's the mildest epithet that's ever been applied to me."

Harry kept laughing, but tension showed itself in the beginnings of lines between his eyes. Severus wanted to pull him very close and kiss him again, but knew that wouldn't help matters, so he settled for reaching up to hold the hand that lay on his shoulder. Harry clutched back at him, gripping Severus' fingers as if they were a lifeline. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and sighed.

"Soon you'll be out of here," he said very quietly. "Think of that."

"Hmm. I am."

"And you'll be free again, really free."

"So will you, Harry." He pressed the hand to his chest. "So will you."

Chapter 15

Three exhausting days later, Severus asked himself why had he ever assumed that regaining power over his body would make his life easier. He asked himself several other questions as well, including:

Why did all the medi-witches now, not just Margaret and Frances, smile and blush when they came into his room?

Why on earth did Minerva—staid, solid Minerva, who had known Severus since he was a boy and was well acquainted with every foolish thing he'd ever done—do the same?

Why was the food at St. Mungo's, the scent of which had driven him mad for weeks, so very bad when one got a mouthful of it?

Why was Potter now treating him like a glass vase full of dynamite?

And last but far from least, why was Potter's cautious distance hurting so much, when Severus would have said it was what he wanted?

No one offered answers to any of these questions, but they asked a thousand others during the ordeal of verifying and documenting Severus' recovery. He was subjected to an endless series of exams: physical, psychological, emotional, teleological...all designed, he was sure, to turn him into a quietly muttering lunatic. It went on and on, until it seemed that every Healer in Britain was hell-bent on evaluating some part of Severus or another. Yet each time a sharp poke of words or needle or wand seemed sure to push him too far, Harry would appear and remind them that Severus needed his rest, and the Healers would smile at him and murmur to each other. They usually left the room quickly after that, and things would be better for a while.

Midway through the second day, they had a brief moment alone over a lunch that looked better than it tasted. Severus was eating it anyway, as he was hungry all the time. While he doggedly spooned up a bowl of bland, watery soup, Harry sat at the end of the bed and drew his legs up, folding them under himself like a child. He sat like that, watching Severus eat but saying nothing, for a long time.

"Dammit, Potter, stop hovering and just say what you need to say," Severus snapped at last. It was taking some time to evolve a new and more civil way of speaking aloud to each other. Gentleness had come more easily in the darkness, it seemed.

"Sorry, I didn't want to bother you."

"You're not. Now what is it?"

Harry crossed his arms and hunched over his folded knees. Now he looked nervous, and Severus began to worry. "What? Are they coming to arrest me after all?" He didn't think this was likely. "Refusing ever to discharge me? Committing my dead body to magical research a bit early?" Harry shook his head and laughed. "What, then?"

"It's nothing like that. I just wondered..." He looked away as he kept speaking. "I'm sure you must have lots of…things, you know, that you're anxious to get back to when they let you out of here."

Severus studied the boy's profile, and the frown that puckered it.

"And I know I'm not really very interesting, and I can't, well, keep up with you, as far as conversation goes."

"What's that again?"

"Well, I mean, I read other peoples' words to you okay," Harry continued, "but I know you would have taken points for everything I mispronounced if you could have."

Severus snorted. Harry pushed on.

"So what I'm saying is, I know there's probably a million other places you'd rather be, and a zillion other people you'd rather be with, than being anywhere with me."

Ah, Severus thought. He's rationalizing, preparing himself for some disappointment. How interesting. But what he said was, "That's rather too dramatic, don't you think? After all, we have spent some pleasant time together recently. All things considered." I want him to be free of me, not to think I despise him, he told himself. That would be poor repayment indeed for everything he's done.

Harry was looking happy at his words. "I'm glad you feel that way, because I was hoping maybe you'd come stay with me for a little while after they let you out of here."

"Were you? Why would you want that?"

"So I can..." he seemed to actually gulp, "take care of you. I mean, only if you need me to, of course. I mean," he continued, speaking faster and louder, "I'll do whatever you want. Whatever you need."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "That's quite an offer."

"It's a serious one, though."

Severus shook his head. "I couldn't. You've already given up months looking after me. You need to get back to your own life." He begged silently for Harry to back down, as he didn't think he could resist for very long.

"But I don't...no. I mean, I want you to be part of my life."

"I'm afraid that wouldn't be appropriate." He knew he had to draw the line here, and he tried to keep his voice from catching in his throat. It was difficult.

"Why not?"

"Because I would be in your way. You should continue your education, or find respectable employment in some line of work where your...unique skills would be valued." He ignored the question of where 'able to kill Dark Lords' might be an important job qualification. "And as you said, I must get on with things as well. I have to earn a living somehow, and I have no intention of returning to teaching."

"But you're not strong enough to work yet!"

"I will rest for a time, but I don't require a minder. I can take care of myself."

"I like taking care of you." The boy's voice was very small.

"Don't think that I don't appreciate all that you've done," Severus said. At Harry's pained look, Severus reached out and touched his arm. "All that you've done, Harry. But you can't keep playing nursemaid." And gigolo, he thought, glad at that moment that Harry could not hear his thoughts any longer.

"I would have done, if you hadn't gotten better. For as long as you needed. And all the other stuff, too."

"Yes, and you may be sure I appreciate that commitment. But think of your future." Severus was thinking of his own future, and imagining it turning very bleak as soon as he'd succeeded in pushing Harry away. He had no idea where he'd even go, as he'd had no actual home but Hogwarts for decades. Still, he had no choice; there was no way he was going to impose on the boy.

Harry was staring down at his lap now. Severus could see his jaw muscles clench and relax, over and over. Finally he looked up. "What if I...Severus, what if I need you to come stay with me?"

Severus frowned. "I don't see what you could possibly need me for."

"Oh, but I do," Harry said, nodding. Severus imagined some kind of ridiculous strategy solidifying in the boy's head, and wished he could laugh at the obviousness of it without seeming to mock him. "I haven't been alone much for a long time, you know," Harry continued, "and I'm kind of worried about it. I really don't like being lonely."

"Surely there's no need for you to be lonely, Mister Potter. You've enough friends to last a lifetime. Friends, I might add, who would not approve of your continuing to spend time with me."

"If people feel that way then I'm not interested in spending time with them."

"What about Mister Weasley and Miss Granger?"

Potter shrugged. "They're still kind of busy in Australia, sorting Hermione's parents. Besides, they have each other, now. It's not that they don't have room for me anymore, but...things are different."

"I see. This is a new development?"

"It wasn't unexpected. But new, yeah. And," he added, "I've let it happen. I've been busy here, and I haven't tried to chase after them."

"What about Miss Weasley?"

"I already told you about her. I'm pretty sure she's still furious with me."

"Ah, yes." He couldn't help feeling a little smug at the memory, not to mention the thought that Potter had preferred him to a beautiful young woman. "She was perturbed that you had...switched camps, so to speak."

Potter laughed. "Yes. Very perturbed."

"Well. Still. I would not be a suitable...companion, shall we say, for a young man such as yourself," he said, wishing it weren't true. "But you'll have no difficulty finding someone, I assure you. You're a hero, and attractive—don't make that face, it's true—and besides," his voice dropped, "you know something of what you're about with a man, now. There are places in London where you could pick up a date in five minutes."

"I don't want to pick up a date," Harry said. "I just want you to stay with me. For a little while. Please? Just until you're stronger?" His hand darted out and caught Severus'. "Please, Severus. As a favour?"

How can I refuse? Severus thought. Harry still needed him, just as he always had, even though sooner or later he would have to push the boy away for his own good.

But perhaps he didn't have to do it just yet.

On the morning of the fourth day, Harry and Margaret showed up with signed discharge papers, a wheelchair, and a bottle of champagne. For the first time in all those days no Healers were trailing after them, and Harry explained that with Minerva's help they'd convinced the hospital staff to leave Severus alone now, and to let him go home—he gave Severus a significant and hopeful look at that word—in peace.

"There's something else," Harry said, dropping the discharge papers into Severus' lap and sitting down next to him on the bed. His voice took on a hard edge. "I learned something very interesting from Professor McGonagall this morning. Who do you think actually made the decision to withhold magical treatments from you? It wasn't the CHO."

"Some benighted Muggle-born Healer, perhaps?" Severus said, glancing over the papers.

"No. It was the Minister."

Severus looked up and frowned. "The Minister of Magic?"

"The very one."

"What qualifies him—"

"Nothing. That's the point." Harry shook his head. "He decided he didn't trust you, even after I told him the truth—what I'd learned from your memories." At Severus' look of dismay, Harry added, "Not everything from your memories. Just…recent events. What he needed to know." He patted Severus' hand. "Don't worry. He had enough information to know that you weren't a threat, but he wasn't willing to trust you. So he decided to keep you on ice, you might say. He couldn't let you die, in case it turned out you really were a hero and might be useful to him. But he didn't want to take a chance, in case I turned out to have got things wrong. So he made the decision, and the CHO backed him up and gave the order, and all the Healers had to go along or be in serious trouble with the Ministry."

"And how did Minerva learn this?"

"Once she saw that I was telling the truth about, um, everything," he said, his cheeks turning red, "she started rattling cages and turning over rocks. She pretty much demanded the whole story from him, and he must have decided it was easiest just to tell her." He seemed flushed with anger rather than embarrassment now.

"Minerva can be formidable," Severus said, thinking that Potter was rather formidable himself at times.

"Yeah, I'm sure Kingsley would agree with you. Anyway, she pushed him pretty hard, and this morning she met me when I got here and gave me those." He picked up Severus' hand and gripped it tight. "I'm sorry, Severus. I let you down."

"How on earth did you let me down?"

"I was supposed to be protecting you, but I trusted them. The Healers. I should have asked more questions. If only we'd figured it out sooner, maybe you wouldn't have—"

Severus twisted his hand in Harry's and squeezed back, hard. "You will stop that, now," he said.

"But, Severus, I should have—"

"No." Severus raised a hand to silence him, and then, finding the hand conveniently near Harry's face, let it shift a few inches so he could hold the boy's chin in his fingers. The skin was soft and a little stubbly, and he wanted to stretch farther, to stroke the blushing cheek…

He managed to stop himself. "Harry," he said. "You did nothing wrong. Is that understood?"

Harry blinked, and for a moment Severus thought the boy was going to kiss him. He knew he shouldn't allow it; he knew with equal certainty that he would.

Harry didn't kiss him, though. He stared at Severus for a few seconds, then nodded and motioned to the discharge papers. "All right, then. Shall we get you ready to go?"

"With alacrity, if you please." Severus took a deep breath, and sat back on the bed.

While Harry rummaged through the room, packing the few belongings scattered about, Margaret poured champagne into three water glasses. She handed one to Severus and tapped her own against it. Severus was startled to see tears in her eyes.

"The best of luck to you, Mister Snape," she said. "I'm glad to see you better but sorry to see you go." She sniffled.

Harry had finished piling things into the small suitcase he'd brought, tucking the little Muggle radio in last. He picked up his own glass then, and smiled over it at Margaret. Taking one look at her face, he said, "Oh!" and went to pull her into a hug. "Don't be sad," he said with a grin, and a wink at Severus. "He was a horrible patient. You'll be better off without him."

Severus rolled his eyes. "Yes, now you won't have to put up with my stony silences anymore, nor with Potter's endless chattering." He was quite sure that it was Potter the medi-witch would miss, and so was even more surprised when she removed herself from Potter's arms and came to hug him, holding him awkwardly and smearing her tears all over his cheek.

"We'll all miss Harry, of course," she said, choking down a sob. "But the two of you together are something very special as well." She turned to Potter and said, "And don't ever let him tell you otherwise."

"No fear of that," Potter said, coming to the bedside. "I never listen to him anyway."

"You're both mad," Severus said, and drained his glass.

A few moments later the half-empty champagne bottle had been corked and tucked into the suitcase, and it was finally time to go. "You don't expect me to sit in that contraption, do you?" Snape asked, eyeing the wheelchair.

"I don't, but they do," Harry replied. "Hospital rules. I'll wheel you to the entrance, and then you can side-along Apparate with me from there."

"You don't expect me to allow that, do you?"

"Would you rather walk?"

"I can Apparate myself, thank you."

"No," Harry said, as he spun the wheelchair to face Severus. He locked its wheels with a kick and turned, smiling. "You can't. They've made me responsible for getting you home safely. After that, we can discuss it."

"What if I don't trust your Apparition skills?"

Harry laughed. Severus crossed his arms over his chest—the most indignant posture he could manage while sitting in bed—and tried to look unconvinced.

In the end, however, it was easier to capitulate. Before long Severus had been settled into the wheelchair, and he was secretly glad that he would neither have to walk nor Apparate himself out of the hospital. He'd taken several walks down the corridor, but never very far, and always with Harry's help. He'd done no magic at all and his wand, though it was safely tucked back into his robe pocket now, would probably refuse to perform anyway, to protest being left idle for so long. Letting Harry Apparate him, he decided but didn't say aloud, would be stress enough for now.

He cast a final glance around the room and decided it wasn't worth missing. "I believe it's time, Mister Potter," he said.

Harry nodded, gave Margaret one last smile, and started them on the journey home.

Chapter 16

Severus dropped out of Apparition-space feeling like a collapsed rubber ball, with all the air squeezed out of him and not much else there to hold his body in its proper shape. His feet hit the floor hard but not at the same time, and he staggered, clutching at Potter and trying to gasp in what felt like it might be his last breath.

Potter caught him, and for an instant they were in an embrace more desperate than Severus ever wanted to appear. He managed to find his balance, and pushed himself upright by leaning on Potter's shoulder, and looked around...

...and gasped again, because he had no idea where they were. He let go of Potter and spun so that his back was to the boy, and then he went into a crouch, reaching into his robe for his wand at the same time. If someone had brought them here...he frowned. Potter had brought them here.

Hadn't he?

He straightened up and turned back toward the boy, wand still drawn but lowered, his mind racing. Where was he? Was this place real, or was he dreaming it? Had everything been a dream, after all? Or a ruse to get him alone, or to get inside his mental wards? Was this really Harry, even? And was Harry who Severus thought he was? Glowering, he slowly raised his wand again.

"Severus!" Harry said, the word almost a squeak. He dropped the suitcase and reached for Severus, but drew back when the tip of Severus' wand waggled in his direction. "Hey! Take it easy! What's wrong?"

"Where have you brought me, Mister Potter?" Severus asked. He looked around. If he could trust his eyes, they had Apparated into a small sitting room.

"It's my flat! Will you put that thing away, please?"

"You don't have a flat," Severus said. "You have a house. A large, ancient, and quite unpleasant house."

"You mean Grimmauld Place?"

"Obviously." Severus began to wonder if things weren't quite as obvious as he'd assumed.

"Merlin, Severus." Harry ran a hand through his hair, looking tired. "You thought I was taking you there?"

"Where else should I have expected you to take me?"

"I got this place for you. I knew you'd hate staying at that house."

"You have acquired a flat...for me?"

"Well, sure. I didn't want to take you to some place you'd be miserable."

Severus thought about this. "But when? How? You've been either in my room or…" He stopped, reluctant to remind Harry of their recent difficulties. "You've been either in my room or in custody for weeks. When did you have the time?"

Harry went pink just at the sharp edges of his cheekbones. "You said it yourself. I might have a friend or two who could help with this sort of thing."

"But when you already own a house? That's ridiculous."

Harry laughed. "It's not ridiculous." He stepped closer, wary of the still-raised wand, and put a hand on Severus' arm. "I wanted you to be comfortable. Whatever that takes." He shrugged. "I'm not comfortable in that house myself, to be honest, and I kind of like it here. Will you at least give it a try?"

Severus lowered his wand hand and nodded slowly. "I suppose." He took a deep breath and looked around the room. It was small, but it was furnished rather cozily, with a long couch of battered-looking dark red leather, a small coffee table that looked like one might put feet up on it without anxiety, and a wall of temptingly empty bookshelves. A wooden rocking chair made all of graceful curves sat at one end of the couch, and a very large fireplace faced it.

He realised that more than anything at this moment, he wanted to lie down on that agreeable-looking couch. Perhaps the champagne was a mistake, he thought. Before lunch, even. What was I thinking?

He turned to his host, whose hand was still on his arm. "Forgive my over-reaction. I do not startle well, it seems, even now."

Potter smiled. "It's all right. I should have warned you, I guess. I wanted to surprise you, but maybe that wasn't such a good idea." He cocked his head. "Can I show you the rest of the place?"

"Please do." Severus allowed his elbow to be taken, and followed the boy along.

Harry led him through a rounded archway into a tiny kitchen, with walls painted a cheerful orange and a small window that looked out into a sea of leafy branches. "I'm a fair cook," he told Severus, "not that I can do anything fancy, but you won't starve." He squeezed Severus' arm. "It'll be better than the hospital food, at any rate." Severus gave an approving nod.

They continued into a short central hall space. "Bath's there, not very big, but everything's new. Closet there, and I've spelled it bigger so if you want me to get any of your things from Hogwarts or wherever, there should be plenty of room to store them. And this is your room," he said, dropping Severus' elbow and motioning through the door of the bedroom next to the bath.

Severus looked at him. "My room, you say?"

"Well. Yeah." Harry nodded and shoved his hands into his pockets.

Severus stepped inside and looked around. It was a modest room, not surprising given the size of the rest of the flat, and was furnished with simple oaken furniture that looked new. There were, predictably, a dark green cover on the bed and green striped curtains on the single window. The room was colourful enough but looked oddly sterile, Severus thought, and he tried to puzzle out why. Perhaps it was the crisp, unused look of the bed linens, which for some reason made him feel sad.

He looked back at Harry, who was leaning against the doorframe with an artificial casualness. "I thought you might...I don't know, want some space," he said. "Some privacy."

"I see. Thank you."

"Do you? I mean, do you want that?"

"This is not about what I want, Harry."

"Of course it is. You need to have things the way you want, so you can be comfortable."

"I'm certain I will be," he said, not certain at all.

"Even if...I don't know. Are you sure? I mean, if you don't want—"

"Is there more for me to see?" It was taking a great deal of energy to be polite. He thought wistfully of the couch, or even the bed in this antiseptic little room.

"Yeah, here," Harry said, waving to the last doorway. "Um, my room."

Severus peered inside. Similarly small, similarly nauseating in its colour scheme: dark reds, mostly, though the linens looked well used and therefore not so cold. There were a few books on the nightstand, and rather more discarded items of clothing on the floor. Severus looked back at Harry and raised an eyebrow. "Predictable."

Potter grinned. "Thanks," he said, and then, as if remembering to worry, "do you think yours is okay? Big enough? Because I can change things if you like, I could add a laboratory space onto your room, or we could add a library off the sitting room, and if you want a bigger kitchen—"

"Harry," Severus said quietly, and at the soft word Harry stilled. "I am here at your pleasure for a brief convalescence, and I do not require much space. I'm sure I will be quite comfortable and, I am afraid, forever in your debt for this indulgence."

The boy frowned. "No, you won't. I want you here."

Severus nodded stiffly. "That may be, at this moment. Pray remember, however, that I am capable of taking care of myself, and whenever you are ready to resume your real life, I will be out of your way in an instant."

"Real life. Um, yeah." He shuffled his feet. "You know, I was hoping you'd decide—"

"I am, just now," Severus said, allowing the yawn he'd been stifling to wriggle out of him, "too tired to make any decisions, other than that I ought to sit down for a bit."

"Oh, shit, I'm sorry." Harry hugged his chest. "I'm such an idiot...please, wherever you want...in the sitting room, do you think?"

"That will do," Severus said, and he walked back to the sofa on legs that were about to go wobbly. He sank into it with a sigh, and leaned his head against the back. "This is comfortable," he said with his eyes closed.

"Good, good." He could feel Potter rustling at one end of the sofa. "Do you want to lie down? There's a pillow, right here, see?"

Severus opened one eye and looked. Potter was patting a large velvety cushion, trying to make it look enticing, as if Severus were a child resisting his nap. "Just for a few moments, perhaps," he said, thinking that he was also rather hungry, and wondering what Potter planned to feed him. He realised how easily he could slip into thinking of meals as something that Potter would be providing, and felt irritated with himself. Still, the pillow looked very soft. "Don't imagine that I'm going to be a complete layabout," he muttered as he slipped off his shoes and swung his feet up onto the couch.

"I'd never think that," Potter whispered, sounding happy.

When he felt the plushness of the pillow under his cheek, Severus' irritation faded away. He sighed, letting his body relax against the cushions—the whole piece of furniture seemed made to encourage slothfulness—as Harry drew a light blanket up over his shoulders. "I'll just..." he mumbled, "...for a bit..." and then he was asleep.

A soft sigh woke him, a sigh that infused itself into his dreams and then coaxed him out of them. He heard the sigh, repeated over and over as if it flowed from a longing that was never satisfied, as if the sigher wanted something just out of reach and kept trying, and failing, to stretch far enough to grasp it. He ached sympathetically for that unfulfilled need, and envied the dreamer who found the strength never to give up.

The sigh repeated itself yet again, but this time with a nasal, snuffling sound at the end. What the...? Severus wondered, and opened his eyes.

Potter's sitting room was dimly lit now, and an array of candles glowed in the grate of the fireplace. Severus still lay on the leather sofa. It's dusk, he realised with a shock. How long have I slept? And where is Potter?

Muffling a groan at stiffness he hadn't expected, he rolled over and propped himself up on one elbow to look around the room. Potter was curled up and sitting a-tilt in the rocking chair, asleep and snoring softly—the source of the wistful sighs in his dream, Severus realised. The still-corked half bottle of champagne from the hospital sat in a bucket on the small coffee table, along with two glasses and two plates of food, one picked over and one that looked untouched.

Potter had intended that they continue celebrating, he realised. And then, he thought, with a tightness in his throat that surprised him, he was planning to pack me off to bed in my own little room. He reminded himself that this was what Potter ought to be doing, and that it was generous of Potter to provide him with privacy and a space of his own, not to mention meals, but those thoughts brought him little comfort.

He realised that he was now very hungry, and wondered if the food on the coffee table had been spelled to keep it fresh. Still stiff, he slowly twisted and raised himself to a sitting position. He flexed his stockinged feet against the floor, and noticed for the first time that a thick fleece rug was spread from the front of the sofa to the fireplace. The rug was sinfully soft, and he curled his toes into it. He wondered if he was limber enough to manage sitting on the floor so that he could bury himself deeper in it. It is a comfortable room indeed, he thought in reluctant approval of Potter's decorating choices, and then he remembered that those choices had apparently all been made with his comfort in mind, and he winced.

Potter, it seemed, had tried to provide what he'd thought Severus would want. He had drawn the line, however, at letting Severus share his bed, and Severus cursed himself as a fool for letting himself be surprised by this. He was supposed to be helping Potter separate from him; to even consider allowing the boy to sleep with him would have been supremely counter-productive.

Distracted from self-criticism by the persistent gnawing in his belly, Severus reached for the untouched plate of food, assuming it had been meant for him. It felt warm. He raised it to his nose and sniffed, then took out his wand—it was a miracle it hadn't poked a hole in him when he'd lain down on the sofa—and tapped the plate in three spots around its edge, to ascertain the soundness of the spells protecting it. Everything seemed to be in order, and the food itself looked appetizing enough, simple roast chicken with rice and some vegetables that had probably come out of a frozen bag but Severus didn't care; he was ravenous. He picked up the clean fork and thick cloth napkin—which was green, of course—that lay next to where the plate had been, and began eating.

It was good food, as he'd expected, but even bad food wouldn't have stopped him shoveling it into his mouth in a style that would not have been acceptable at the Hogwarts head table. He didn't care. He'd missed real food for ages and ages, and in the past few days had only been allowed small portions—"Best not overdo it, Mister Snape," they'd said, "give your stomach time to adjust!"—and even those had been miserable examples of actual cooking. This was delicious and hearty, and seasoned rather well; Potter might actually be a decent cook. He put another bite of chicken and rice into his mouth and closed his eyes, savouring it as he chewed.

There was a thump to his right, and he opened his eyes to see Potter squirming to right himself in the rocking chair. He kept chewing, more slowly and, he hoped, more decorously, and watched the boy rub his eyes and give him a sleepy smile. "Good morning," he said to Severus in a rough voice, and cleared his throat. "Or good evening," he corrected.

Severus swallowed the bite of food in his mouth. "The same to you, Mister Potter," he said, and nodding at his plate, added, "this is excellent."

Harry's smile widened. "Thanks." He sat up and stretched with enviable ease. Though the rocking chair didn't look at all comfortable for sleeping in, Potter didn't appear any the worse for it. "How are you feeling? Rested a bit?"

Severus took a deep breath and inventoried his condition. His entire body was sore, and he cocked his head from side to side to ease some of the stiffness out of his neck. He felt almost as if he hadn't slept at all, but said anyway, "Rested. Yes, I suppose so." He looked up at the boy, feeling self-conscious. "I'm sorry my sleeping interfered with your dinner plans."

Harry frowned and came to kneel on the floor beside him. He sat very close, not touching Severus anywhere but looking as if he might, given any excuse. "You're not interfering with anything," he said, and then he did reach out, to put a hand on Severus' knee. "But you look like hell. Do you think you'd rest better in bed?"

Severus twitched his knee under the hand, which Harry immediately pulled away. "My apologies. I wasn't aware that you expected houseguests to keep up appearances, but now that I know I can assure you I'll take more care—"

Harry laughed, but didn't touch Severus again. "No, you git. It's just that you look more tired than you did in hospital, even. I think getting you here was more strenuous than you let on. We're going to have to take it very slowly, building up your strength." He did not look upset about this.

"I'm sorry, Potter," Severus said, trying to be curt but finding he hadn't quite enough strength for it, "if it's more than you signed on for I'm sure I can—"

"Severus." Harry's whisper was gentle, almost reverent. "Don't be so sensitive, okay? It's not necessary." He lifted his face. "This is just me, remember? Just Harry." He stayed close for a few heartbeats, then sat back on his heels. "Can I get you more chicken?"

"I..." Severus said in a thick voice. "No, I've had plenty." He looked down at his plate, which was empty. Harry took it from him, stood up, and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Severus to berate himself for acting like an idiot.

Harry came back with a large chunk of something on a white plate. There was an inadequate-looking knife beside the mysterious chunk, which was dark and rounded. He put the plate down on the coffee table and tended the fireplace candlescape, turning his back to Severus, who leaned into the sofa and watched him. The boy was captivating, Severus thought, even while doing something as mundane as relighting candles. Flexing a shapely bicep to reach up to the mantel, balancing on one knee as he stretched to reach a candle that had gone out, always with this serious expression on his face, which Severus was sure he'd never worn as a student but which he almost always carried now, in the moments when Severus was able to watch him discreetly...everything he did seemed designed to ratchet Severus just that much closer to madness, watching but unable, unwilling, or not allowed to touch.

He'd spent all these last weeks thinking constantly about Harry without seeing him, and he found that the Harry-image he'd built up in his mind was subtly different from the real one, the one in front of him now, which he couldn't seem to get enough of looking at. Since his recovery he'd had little quiet time in which to stare at the boy when it wouldn't be noticed, and he hoped he might be able to make up for that lack while he was here.

The real Harry had scars, Severus saw, and new ones, not just the one on his forehead. He was...Severus tried to pin down what he was seeing...asymmetrical, that was it, in the patterns of muscles and veins on his arms and the stubble on his cheeks, and the way his hair twirled as it pleased on each side of his head. There were many tiny things like these about the boy that Severus had never really seen before, and they entranced him.

Harry turned away from the fireplace and smiled, his face pink as if the candles he'd been leaning over were giving off actual heat. He hobbled on his knees back to the coffee table and began attacking the dark object on the plate with the knife. He cut a ragged slice from the edge of the thing, skewered it on his knife, and handed it to Severus. "Here. Eat," he said.

"It's cheese," Severus said, surprised to see a light-coloured foodstuff inside the dark rind.

"What did you think it was?"

"I thought it might be chocolate."

"Oh!" Harry chuckled. "Do you even like chocolate?"

"Do you think me so grimly ascetic that I wouldn't?"

"Not really." He smiled and shook his head. "Just thought you might have some bad memories associated with it, that's all."

Severus shrugged. "I have bad memories associated with nearly everything."

"Oh. Well." Harry cut a few more slices of cheese, then uncorked the champagne bottle and poured the contents into the glasses on the table. He handed one to Severus. "It seemed a shame to waste this."

"Of course." Severus accepted the glass, and raised it to tap against Potter's. "To the future, I suppose," he said with a sigh. "Which cannot possibly be worse than the past."

"Here's to that," Potter said, laughing. He tipped his glass up and drained it.

"Careful there, Mister Potter," Severus said. "I'd hate to have to call the Knight Bus to get you safely home." The boy smiled and set his glass back onto the coffee table.

There was a long pleasant silence, during which Severus sipped at his own glass more carefully. The sun was down now, and the candles provided the room's only light, a soft glow that made Harry's hair look even darker and his eyes even brighter. "I guess you can see that I'm still working on the place," Harry said after a while. "I don't have many books here yet."

"Yes, I noticed." Severus looked around at the empty bookcases that filled an entire wall of the room.

"I can bring some from the house, if you want. Or I could buy some—do you know what you'd want to read? Or when you're a little stronger we could both go shopping—"

Severus waved a hand to stop him. "That's not necessary."

"But I want you to…" he began, blushing a dusty rose colour in the candlelight, "…to like being here."

"You don't have to go to such trouble."

"It's not any trouble. And I know having books is important to you." Harry said this as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Of course he was decorating his own home to Severus' tastes.

"Don't be ridiculous. I'm sure I'll not be here long enough to justify the effort." Severus looked away from Harry as he said this, into the dancing candle flames. The room was growing darker, and it was easy to lock onto the tiny pinpoints of fire and ignore everything around them, including Harry, who sat near enough on the sofa that Severus could have raised an arm and laid it across the boy's shoulders.

"You can stay as long as you want, you know."

"You will tire of me sooner than that, I'm afraid."

"Will not."

Severus saw a smirk on the boy's face, out of the corner of his eye. "I'm quite sure you will."

"Why are you so sure?"

"Because I grow tired of myself, Potter. I am notoriously poor company." He leaned forward and away from Harry, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. The candle flames continued to leap and flicker, and Severus wondered idly whether they were leaping to escape from the pain of being eternally burned at the stake. "And you," he added, "are a young man who craves good company."

"Why can't you believe I crave you—I mean, your company?"

Severus snorted, pleased to see that he might have something to fight against after all. The separate bedrooms had thrown him off task. "You've no idea the sort of long-term companion I would be. I guarantee that you will be ready to toss me out on my ear within a few days."

"I will not!"

"You will, Potter. Don't you remember what I was like as a teacher?"

"You're not a teacher anymore."

"No, thank Merlin, but having me as a guest in your home will be far worse, you may be sure." He tore his eyes away from the candles to glare at Harry. Oddly coloured flame images had burned into his gaze and they danced between his eyes and Harry's face, making the glaring easier. "I am not interested in friendly conversation," he said, warming to the challenge of pushing Harry away. "I can be silent for hours and hours at a stretch, and when I choose to speak, I will be rude to you, simply for the entertainment of watching you react. I am brutally tidy, and I will judge your housekeeping by a standard so high it will make you weep, and be vocal about telling you when you haven't met it. I am your worst nightmare of a houseguest." He cocked his head. "Heard enough?" He tried not to be mortified that he had so softened toward Harry that this was the only thing he could find to growl at him about.

Harry had the gall to laugh, and looked not nearly as put out as Severus had intended him to be. "You've been having friendly conversations with me for weeks now, or don't you remember that? I've kind of decided your rudeness is a lot more bark than bite, so that won't bother me. And if you don't like my housekeeping, you're free to clean anything that strikes your fancy. Please do, in fact. I wouldn't think of interfering with your natural tidiness."

Severus had a sudden vision of himself dusting books, hundreds of books, on the very shelves in front of him. Dizzy at the thought of so much domesticity, he said in a voice with razor-sharp edges, "Unlike you, Mister Potter, I have no interest in setting up permanent residence in this flat, so I will not be wasting my energy cleaning anything. And do not expect me to be constantly appreciative for whatever it is you think you're doing here, because I believe you're a fool for doing it."

Potter looked like he might be sick. "Severus, I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not trying to upset you. We're supposed to be celebrating."

Severus got to his feet. "In that case, just this once, I will thank you," he said stiffly, "for making this quite unnecessary fuss over whatever it is you think we're celebrating." He paused. "If you were sensible, you'd toss me out now before I make things unbearable for you, but as you've never been sensible I don't expect you will." He closed his eyes so as not to see the boy's stricken face, and said, "I think I will retire for the evening. It's been…" he took a deep breath and willed himself to calm down, "…quite a long day."

"Severus, wait," Harry said, but the sitting room was small, and Severus was already across it and shut safely into his bedroom.

Secure and alone in his room, Severus leaned against the door, breathing hard though he'd walked only a few metres from the couch. He closed his eyes and tried to understand what he'd just done, and why, his thoughts going around and around.

This was not turning out as he'd expected at all. He'd come here because…hmm, why, again, have I come here? he asked himself.

Because Potter claimed to need company. Because Potter had asked him to stay here for a little while, as a personal favour.

And, he had to admit, he was here as well because he'd thought that Potter was infatuated with him and was not yet ready to cut the intimate ties that had bound them together these past weeks. Severus had thought himself gracious to indulge the boy. It was clear now, however—and this was perhaps the only thing that was clear to him at the moment—that no matter what he'd thought before coming here, he was no more ready to cut those intimate ties than Harry was. Beyond that, his thoughts were a jumble of contradictions.

He wanted to know Harry, all of Harry, now that he was able to do so physically under his own power…but he knew without a doubt that any further relationship between them would be a mistake for Harry.

He still wanted Harry physically. He'd thought Harry still wanted him…but it seemed he'd been wrong, because there was no ignoring the fact that Harry had tucked him away in his own little cell, sending a clear signal that he had no interest in sharing a bed.

Of course, Severus would have resisted if the possibility of sleeping with Harry had been offered…but then, to his surprise and disappointment, it hadn't.

And now here he was, alone in this too-green room, having already insulted his host…the same host who had furnished the room just for him, and was prepared to feed him delicious food indefinitely, and had bought champagne to celebrate his recovery, and rented this entire absurd flat just to make Severus comfortable.

So what, in the end, was he supposed to do? What did Harry want from him? What did Harry need from him?

All he'd ever intended to do was protect Harry. He had done so, to the end, and that should have been that, except that Potter had turned the situation on its head and begun protecting him. All the old rules and expectations had been thrown out the window.

Agitated, frustrated with himself, and furious at Potter for being so baffling, he crossed to the bed and dropped heavily onto the edge of it. He wondered why Potter couldn't see how ridiculous this situation was. He was bad for Potter. Why did the little twit have to keep tempting and confusing him by cooking delicious food, and renting this cozy little flat-for-two, and offering to bring him books, and then in spite of it all giving him this bloody private room…

When he had at last worn himself out, and the dizzy mental circles in which he was spinning began to overlap themselves, he gave up. Desperate for some distraction to untangle him from his thoughts, he took his little radio out of the suitcase Potter had brought for him and set it up on the bedside table. He turned it on and felt soothed by the reassuring voice—always the same one at this time of night—that came out of it. He sat back down on the bed for a few moments and listened, remembering so many nights when this voice—well, this, and the assurance that Harry would return in the morning—had been all he had.

Feeling calmer but no more sure of anything, he put the rest of his few things away in the bureau and found there a set of brand-new, dark green pyjamas Potter must have bought for him. He put them on, climbed in between the crisp, sad sheets Potter had also chosen, and tried—though it was difficult because his brain was still stuffed full of Potter and that left him anything but restful—to go to sleep.

Chapter 17

Severus slept restlessly, in spite of being exhausted from the stressful day. When he managed to drift off, he dreamed of a dark land, a safe and comforting place that lay on the other side of a chasm he could no longer cross.

When he woke the first time, the room was very quiet but for the soft, eternally optimistic voice of the BBC. Milky moonlight trickled into the room around the window shade, and Potter was sprawled, asleep, in a puddle of it that bathed a sturdy-looking wooden chair by the bed. He was dressed in a plain white tee-shirt and grey boxer shorts, and he was close enough for Severus to reach out and touch.

Severus glanced over at the bedroom door and saw that it was open, though he knew he'd closed it when he'd come into the room. He looked at the sleeping boy again, then back at the open door, puzzled. Potter had put him in this room alone, and promised him privacy—whether Severus wanted it or not—but then had opened the door and come into the room unbidden, while Severus slept, in order to sit on a hard chair next to him?

Severus sighed, no more able to decipher Potter now than he'd ever been. Still, the situation allowed him to look at the boy without him looking back and asking awkward questions, so he lay very still and looked Harry Potter up and down. He'd never had the chance to watch Harry sleep until now. He was just sweeping his eyes very slowly across the lean chest, from shoulder to shoulder, thinking that this was a part of Harry that should be touched with one's own hands in order to grasp, so to speak, all the nuances of it...when the boy opened his eyes and smiled.

"Good morning again." The voice was deeper and even more sleep-roughened this time.

"It still isn't morning."

Harry stretched—with that infuriating cat-like motion again—and chuckled. "I know." He settled back in the chair, and Severus watched him. "Are you sleeping all right?"

"Well enough." Severus experimented with some stretching of his own and was pleased to find that a little bit of sleep had done him some good, and nothing ached at the moment. "Why," he asked Harry, "were you sleeping in that chair?"

"What, this chair?"

"Obviously that chair. You have a perfectly good bed in your own room. Why are you not in it?"

"I wanted to make sure you were okay."

"How long have you been there?"

"A while."

Severus shook his head. "You don't have to monitor me while I sleep, you know. I'm perfectly fine."

"But I'm used to watching you sleep. Or look like you're asleep. I mean…" He hitched forward in the chair. "You know what I mean."

"I cannot believe you would want to continue that habit."

"I do. I kind of liked it."

This unnerved Severus and made him feel nostalgic all at once. "You liked watching me sleep? That's very strange." He pushed aside the knowledge that he'd been enjoying watching Harry sleep just moments before.

"Well, yeah. I do like it."

Severus rolled away from him, exasperated. "I might as well have stayed at St. Mungo's if you've brought me here just to keep watching me like a hawk. At least there the medi-witches could do the job for you some of the time." Severus waited for a retort, but there was no sound from the boy, and after a moment he looked back over his shoulder to see what was wrong.

Potter was bent over his knees, resting his forehead on his palms in a posture of exhaustion, not what Severus had expected at all. He turned slowly back to face the boy again and asked silently, Why, Harry? Why are you doing all this?

Harry did not answer—and Severus had not expected him to—but he looked up just then, and Severus remembered a moment when he'd asked the same question not long ago, a moment when he'd been able to hear Harry but not see him. I'm kissing you, one last time, Harry had said then, because I want you to know how I feel about you, and that all your worrying and scolding won't change that.

Harry looked at Severus, and Severus looked back and listened, and then he understood.

Harry hadn't brought him here just to keep watching him. Harry's feelings hadn't changed, but he was still giving Severus a choice. I'd better choose soon, he thought, or we'll both go mad.

He cleared his throat. "That chair can't be comfortable enough to spend the night in."

"It's not so bad," Harry said. "Compared to those awful chairs at St. Mungo's."

"That may be, but I will not be responsible for further ruining either your sleep or your back."

"Really, it's not so—"

Severus raised a hand to stop him. "You have spent enough hours sitting in chairs at my bedside."

"No, honestly—"

Severus shook his head, patted the other side of the bed, and said, "Get in."

Potter sat up straight. "What?"

"You heard me. Get in the bed."

"Really?" The boy's smile alone was worth whatever horrible consequences came of this, Severus decided.

"Really. If you don't get adequate rest, how will you entertain me tomorrow?"

Potter looked delighted. "Well, if you're sure…" Severus turned down the blanket and arched an eyebrow, and the boy was around the bed in an instant. He crawled in, stretched out, and immediately scooted as far away from Severus as he could.

"I won't bite, you know," Severus said.

"I'm not so sure about that," Harry replied, but he was smiling.

"I've never bitten you before, have I?"

Harry laughed. "You couldn't move before."

"You'll just have to take your chances, then," Severus said, closing his eyes. Clearly this was going to take some time, but he had plenty of that.

He yawned once and fell back to sleep.

He woke again, still in darkness, an hour or so later. He turned over and remembered what was what when he saw Harry, who lay on his back at the far edge of the bed, his face turned toward Severus. He slept with not even a sheet over him, sprawled like a child, as if he had not a care in the world. Severus stared at him, wishing that looking at him hard enough might make the boy's thoughts transparent to him as they once had been.

Harry, he thought, but there was no response. He sighed. With his eyes he traced the outline of the tousled hair, then followed the contour of a shoulder. His gaze crossed the chest and traveled up the taut, smooth neck, kissing it with his eyes. He continued up the face, then stopped to take the measure of the long, black lashes, but as he stared the lashes rose, and Severus blinked.

Looking out through Harry's eyes was someone he hadn't ever seen before. It was just Harry, neither Lily's child nor James', and Severus wondered why it was so much easier to see him as simply himself here in the semi-darkness than it ever had been in the comparatively well-lit halls of Hogwarts.

I am in love with him, he heard a small voice inside him say, all on its own. He wondered whose it was.

"Good morning?" Harry said in a thick, scratchy baritone.

He sighed. "We're going to have to work on this, Potter, or else buy you a wristwatch."

"I know." Harry rolled in the bed to face him.

"I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't. Is everything all right?"

"Yes," Severus said, though it wasn't quite true. He had no idea what to do next. Clearly it would be inappropriate to simply tell Potter what he was thinking…or would it?

"Good." Harry frowned. "Aren't you sleeping well?"

"I'm fine."

"But…you look uncomfortable. Is it too hot for you? Maybe you ate too much. Do you think you're getting sick?"

"I'm not sick, I am recuperating, Potter. That was the point of my being here, was it not?"

"Well. Mostly."

"Ah, yes. I am also helping you stave off loneliness in my spare time."

"Doing a right job of it, too."

Severus snorted.

"You are. I haven't been lonely for a minute."

"You've scarcely left my side for a minute."

"There, you see? It's working."

Severus rolled away, sighing loudly. "Go back to sleep, Potter."

He closed his eyes and feigned sleep. After a couple of moments had passed, he realised that the dim light in the room had become even dimmer, so perhaps the moon had set. He wondered if he'd still be able to see Potter if he turned toward him. Then he wondered if Potter had fallen asleep again.

All was still in the room for a few moments, and then there was a creak from Harry's side, and the sound of padding feet close to the bed. Severus forced himself to hold still. There were a few seconds of soft swishing noises. Was Harry undressing? The temptation to look was enormous, but he resisted. The bed creaked again, and dipped, and then it was quiet.

Sleep departed the scene altogether after that, and Severus lay motionless, although his head buzzed with questions. Was Harry all right? Had he removed his clothing? What is the idiot boy doing? Severus thought over and over, wishing he hadn't been so hasty about turning away.

At last, when what seemed like dozens of frustrating moments had passed with no more sounds from Harry, Severus decided he must be asleep, and that it was now safe to turn over and survey the situation. Moving slowly, crawling, just inching his way over, he turned to his right side and looked.

There was just enough light to see by. Harry had indeed removed his shirt, and the relative scandalousness of the dark-haired chest so revealed made Severus mad with the desire to reach out and touch it. He still wore the grey shorts, and Severus wanted desperately to remove them as well. He wasn't sure how he was going to survive the rest of the night like this, with the boy laid out in front of him. But Harry's eyes were closed, and it seemed he had fallen back to sleep.

Without thinking Severus stretched out a hand toward him. The naked chest beckoned, and he closed his eyes to help him concentrate as he gathered his nerve to actually touch.

Harry, he thought into the darkness before his tight-shut eyes…and as he did, a different Harry rose up inside his head; it was the Harry he had spent weeks with in hospital. He gasped and drew back as this not-vision appeared, not in the room but right there in the darkness with him.

This Harry was both more and less than a picture in Severus' mind, for he'd never needed eyes to see him. This Harry was a familiar voice, whether he spoke out loud or silently. He was warm hands, smaller than Severus' but big enough to do whatever Severus asked of them. He was soft lips and a stubbled cheek, and a startling brush of wavy hair against Severus' skin.

He was a hairy, sweaty chest pressed against Severus' back, and an eager prick, just the right size no matter how either of them imagined it.

He was a head packed full of crazy, contradictory things, including far too many hopes that somehow hadn't been ruined by all the evil he'd seen. There was confusion too, a great deal of it, along with fear and worry. And there was a smokescreen of lusty frustration hanging over the whole messy scene.

Severus breathed in arousal-scented smoke, and it tasted of himself. Harry still wanted him; he was sure of it now. What's between us is madness, he silently reminded the sleeping boy who filled his head, but I want it, too. There was no answer, but Severus knew that right in front of him lay a very real, half-naked young man. He wanted to touch, needed very much to touch that mysterious, familiar body.

He opened his eyes and looked, trying to connect the Harry in front of him with the Harry in his head, and then he could not help himself. Not sure quite what he meant to do, he reached out a hand again, this time toward the boy's face. It stopped a finger's length away, and he almost pulled back. If he wakes, he thought, what will I tell him? If he does not, what will I be compelled to do next? He moved the hand again, and this time it touched Harry's hair. He stopped at the first contact, the first physical touch he had initiated between them, awaiting a reprimand…but there was none, only softness under his fingertips.

Harry didn't stir, so he held his breath and stroked a bit of the overlong fringe that hung in front of the boy's eyes, carefully smoothing it to the side. Harry smiled, but didn't waken. Severus steeled himself and pushed a lock of hair behind his ear. Harry wiggled and rolled his head, but his eyes didn't open.

Severus dragged a last bit of courage up from the depths, and using stealth developed while spying on Death Eaters, he wormed his shoulders across the bed a little. That was good; now he could reach Harry more easily. He was close enough to feel the warmth of the boy's breath, and he closed his eyes for a few seconds to memorize the sweetness of it. He looked again, and reached up with great care to run a fingertip down Harry's cheek.

Harry stirred, and Severus stopped breathing. The sleeping boy opened his eyes slowly, and Severus knew he'd been caught, but Harry only smiled and reached out to take the hand that had touched his face.

"Don't," Severus said, his voice raw in his own ears, "that is, you needn't—"

Harry raised not his own finger but Severus' to his lips and made a silent shushing motion, then kissed the finger.

"I didn't mean…" Severus said, trying again. "But I…"

Harry only smiled and pressed the palm of Severus' hand flat against his cheek.

"Harry…" Severus said, but saying the name was almost an acknowledgment that it was too late to stop, so he gave up and fell silent.

Holding Severus' hand, Harry turned his face against it and kissed it, palm first and then each finger in turn, every motion slow and undemanding. Then he rose up on an elbow so that he looked down on Severus, who twisted away onto his back and then lay there as if paralyzed.

Harry ran a finger down the center of Severus' chest. He looked at Severus, a question in his eyes. Severus gave him a tiny nod, and he began unbuttoning the green shirt, though he kept his eyes locked with Severus' as if expecting to be told he was doing it wrong. One button at a time, very slowly, he undid the fabric barrier until it lay open, revealing Severus' pale skin and feathery islands of dark hair on his chest. "Very nice," he whispered.

"It's nothing you haven't seen before." Severus tried to keep his voice from shaking.

"But not like this," Harry said. "Right here in bed with you, with no medi-witches anywhere nearby, and with no worries anymore."

"Oh, I have plenty of worries."

"Shhh, not now." Harry leaned nearer. "You don't need to worry now. Will you trust me?"

"I am trying," Severus said, trying, as well, to keep breathing.

"Good." He smiled. "Will you trust yourself?"

"That may prove to be...more difficult." Harry's face was so close it was all Severus could see, and it seemed magnified, and every curve and plane of it was a wonder to his eyes, as if he'd never seen anything so perfect before. He was staring at it, overwhelmed by all its details, when the boy lowered himself with slow grace to press his lips against Severus' in a warm, easy kiss. Severus lay there, not moving, but not resisting, either.

After a long moment, Harry drew away just as gracefully and looked down at Severus. His smile had become another unspoken question, this time a deeper one. In answer, Severus asked one of his own. "Do you really want this?"

The smile puckered a little. "Of course I do."

"There are risks, you know…" Harry leaned a little closer, and his eyes were magnified again. Severus swallowed and kept talking. "I'll probably hurt you." Harry raised his eyebrows. "You'll probably hurt me," Severus continued, trying to shift away, but his back was to the mattress and there was nowhere to go.

"I won't hurt you," Harry whispered, from much too close.

"You know I never expected you to do this. Not now," Severus said, needing to clarify. "Not...after. It was only...in urgent circumstances, when there were no other options..." He stopped, his voice ragged and, he suspected, contradicting his words.

"I know. But I want to."

Severus opened his mouth to speak again, but his power of speech fled, leaving him as silent as he'd been in hospital. In frustration, he closed his eyes, willing his voice to return, mentally shouting at his tongue to obey him. And then, while his eyes were closed and his mouth barely open, in search of words that might still protect this foolish heroic boy hovering over him...at that moment, the foolish, heroic boy kissed him again.

Severus froze, Harry's lips on his. His eyes didn't open, and in that moment, he was back at St. Mungo's. He couldn't see Harry any longer, but there was no need; he knew Harry now. He could smell Harry, feel him, hear him. He put his arms around the boy, and very slowly, his lips began to move.

Harry's mouth coaxed him for a moment, then drew back just far enough for him to speak. "Maybe it's best if you keep your eyes closed for now, hmm?" he whispered, and Severus felt Harry's breath behind the words. He nodded and waited. "Perfect," Harry murmured, and then he kissed Severus a third time.

He didn't pull away after that, nor did he ask permission; he just took charge, the kiss slow but its intentions clear. A few moments passed, leisurely and sweet, and then Harry asked in a thick voice, "Is everything all right?"

"Yes," Severus whispered, his eyes still closed. He squirmed a little and rolled his head back, meaning it as an offer of submission, and hoping Harry would understand it as such. A wave of heat and pleasure rolled through him when the boy growled softly and pushed himself up and over, a hand on either side of Severus' body. He seemed to thrust out his chest against Severus, arching over him, promising all the things Severus wanted.

Words stopped flowing then, in spite of the fact that their lovemaking in hospital had always been filled with words. Now, though they could both speak, there seemed no need to. Severus had asked, with his body, for what he wanted. Harry knew what to do, and Severus would have let him do anything.

Harry kissed him for several long, exquisite moments, but soon he put a hand on Severus' hip, sliding his loose pyjama pants down until he could kick them off. The hand returned to his hip and began guiding him onto one side. With a low, animal sound Severus was sure he'd never heard the boy make before, Harry pressed against him from behind. Severus reached a hand back to urge him closer, but Harry caught the hand instead and twisted it up and around so that he clasped it against Severus' chest. He used the hand to anchor himself as he thrust with slow undulations of his whole body against Severus' back.

Severus lay in his self-imposed darkness and trembled with pleasure, even though he felt vaguely pathetic, as though he ought to have recovered the strength and will to act like a real man in the bedroom by now. He made a whimpering sound and felt even more pathetic, but also more aroused than he could remember ever being in his life.

Harry stopped moving, and Severus was horrified, wondering if his whimper had been misunderstood. "Yes?" the boy asked him, as if there might be a chance Severus had changed his mind.

"Uhh," Severus answered, having trouble for a moment coming up with an actual word. "Yes."

Harry moved faster after that. He maneuvered Severus' limbs with sure, gentle hands, bringing him into position just as he had in St. Mungo's. He muttered a rather sophisticated cleansing and lubrication spell Severus was sure he hadn't taught him. He couldn't worry about that now, however, and instead just moaned at the mix of cool and hot feelings that spread inside him.

He felt Harry pull back a little, then move purposefully, slicking and positioning himself. Severus couldn't remember when Harry had removed his own shorts, but that no longer seemed to matter; from this moment there was no more awareness of anything so specific as clothing or hands or isolated motions; Harry became his cock and his cock became Harry, and together they dove into Severus and drove him mad.

He pushed back against Harry, trying to work with the rhythm of Harry's thrusts but feeling as though he was losing more control with each one. Harry moved smoothly, as if his own control was infinite. At first Severus craved more and more; then it was perfect; then it was too much. He grabbed Harry's hands and pulled them around his own chest, wrapping himself up tight inside Harry, falling into his release and carrying Harry with him physically, the only way he could now. Harry grunted once against the back of his neck, affirming rather than resisting. Then he thrust very fast, a handful of times, and held on tight to Severus as they fell the rest of the way together.

They lay quietly for a long time, restful but not sleeping. Sunlight was fingering the edges of the window shade before either of them spoke again.

"Feeling all right?" Harry said from behind him, absently stroking Severus' chest.

"I'm not sure."

Harry went still. "Did I hurt you?"

"Of course not." There was a long pause. "Where did you learn that spell?"

Harry laughed and hugged him tighter. "I looked it up in a book. Aren't you impressed?"

"I am." And relieved.

They settled again, lying still. A few moments later Severus asked, "You don't regret all this, do you?"

"No. How could you think I would?"

Severus closed his eyes and tried to reassure himself that this was not all a huge mistake. "I never imagined things would go this way," he said.

"I know you didn't. Thanks for changing your mind."

"Oh, I haven't changed my mind."

"But you didn't…when you first got here you wouldn't even kiss me."

"I would have."

"Then why didn't you?"

"At the time I didn't think you wanted me to."

"What! Of course I wanted you to. How could you think I didn't?"

Severus twisted around so he could look the boy in the eye. "You assigned me a separate bedroom, Potter. What did you expect me to think?"

"I was just trying to give you space!"

"I never wanted bloody space. I wanted you."

"Why didn't you just say so?"

"Because I am your guest, Potter, and in no position to make demands. If you wanted me, why didn't you invite me to sleep in your bed?"

"Because I was trying to be a good host! Because maybe I thought you wouldn't be interested in me anymore, now that you have more…options."

Severus snorted, and muttered, "Options." He rolled himself to face Harry and put an arm around him. "It's astonishing to me that you want this. Though I suppose it's no more unlikely than the fact that you seemed to enjoy what we had before." Harry drew back a little, and Severus stared at him. "What?" he asked.

Harry looked away. "Just so you know," he said, his fingers sliding onto Severus' chest and combing through a patch of dark hair in the middle of it, "I kind of…really liked what we had before."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, I wanted this, what we're doing now, all along." He looked back at Severus, blushing. "But…can I tell you something awful?"

Severus raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps you had better."

"I don't want to mess anything up, here," he said, and then hesitated. "I don't want to make you angry. But you should know."

"Just tell me."

"Okay." He leaned back, so that he was no longer filling Severus' field of view. "You know I did always want you to get better, in the end. You have to believe that."

"Why wouldn't I believe that?"

"Well…" He frowned. "When you were still…stuck in bed. And we were…when I was touching you, and you were talking to me, all sexy, you know, quite a lot there for a while, I think…I think I wanted to hold onto that." His eyelashes swept down. "Maybe I even spent more time thinking about that, than about wanting you to get better." He did not look up.

Severus lay silent.

"Please understand," Harry said.

"You wished..." Severus stopped, trying to think this through. "You wished to retain me as a lover, even if I remained paralyzed?" Then he understood Harry's fear. "Even if that required that I remain paralyzed?"

"It sounds horrible, I know, but I didn't mean to—"

Severus held up a hand in a shushing motion between them. "You enjoyed what we were doing that much?"

"I did." He nodded, then added quickly, "You did, too, didn't you?"

Severus rolled his eyes. "I had no options, Potter. What you did for me kept me from going mad."

"But you did like it, didn't you?"

"Of course I did." His voice was soft. "You know that."

"Well, it's not so weird that I liked it, too, then. A lot. You can be…nice, you know, when you try. You want to convince everyone that you're ugly and nasty, but you're not. I can see through that act now."

Severus gave him a stern look. "Your judgment has been clouded by sex."

"No more than yours."

"That may be true, but…you would have left me in my paralyzed state, if necessary, in order to keep me sexually involved with you? Or more precisely, sexually dependent on you?"

Harry pushed his head into his pillow as if trying to hide. "I'm sorry, Severus, really I am. I didn't mean it that way. I just wanted to keep feeling like I was somehow the best part of your life."

"You were," Severus said quietly. "You are."

Harry looked at him. "You do understand, then?"

"I do. But surely you understand that you could easily have found a more conventional, not to mention more convenient, lover? One to whom you could also have become…indispensable?"

"No," Harry said, shaking his head. "I couldn't. I just wanted you." He looked up and into Severus' eyes.

Severus looked back for a long moment, and then he asked, "Do you still?"

"More than anything."

Severus took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing himself to steadiness. "Well," he said, running a hand up and down Harry's arm, feeling the soft hair there stand up at his touch. "I suppose it all works out for the best, then. Given the circumstances."

He allowed himself to smile faintly and then continued. "If you enjoyed our relations before…" He cleared his throat. "I do not think it unrealistic to imagine that they can be even more satisfactory now. In fact, I believe I can guarantee it." He slid his hand behind Harry's head to guide him closer and into a kiss.

They held each other for a long time, needing only the exquisite language of touch to confirm what was between them. Whatever it was, love or loneliness or need or all those things, they could not see it, as it lived in the darkness between them, invisible and everywhere. Merely seeing it wasn't enough, but it also wasn't necessary.

As the morning sun came up hot and bright, lighting their bedroom even through the drawn window shade, Severus thought to himself, I hope you're very sure about this, Mister Potter, because I'm afraid you're going to have a beast of a time getting rid of me now if you should change your mind.

He wasn't even surprised when Harry kissed his cheek and whispered, "It's Harry, remember? And don't worry. I won't."