Reward for Perseverance

by Warviben

Summary: After the death of Voldemort, both Harry Potter and Severus Snape join the Aurors. Harry struggles with a lack of respect from his co-workers, an attraction he cannot quash, and disappointment because the job he'd always wanted is not what he thought it would be. Snape struggles with Harry.

Warnings: This fic contains detailed descriptions of sexual encounters. Some of them are male-on-male. If any of this disturbs you, please hit the back button.

From Chapter Three:

"Let me know what turns up. Try not to worry, Harry. This is excellent news. Even if we can't find the gun, we can still establish an alternate suspect who owned the exact same type of weapon that was used in the commission of the crime."

"But it would be better if we could find the gun, right?"

"It would," Orson agreed. "Good night, gentlemen. We'll talk again tomorrow."

"Good night, Ding. And thanks," Harry said.

After the man had left, Snape turned to Harry. "This is good news, is it not?"

"I suppose so," Harry said, trying not to get too excited, and still reticent around Snape. "I'm going off to bed now. Thank you for dinner."

As Harry went quietly off to his room, Snape could only watch him go.

Chapter Four

Hermione had been called over to "babysit" while Snape went into the office to arrange for the aurors to search the flat suspected to be Gaston's residence. They waited anxiously, watching the door, waiting for Snape to return, talking little, pacing much. When Snape finally returned, Harry held his breath.

"We were not able to find the gun," Snape said. "It was apparent that Gaston was staying in the flat. He was not at home when we arrived, and we searched the place from top to bottom. There was no gun."

Harry let out the breath he'd been holding and his shoulders slumped.

"I reported our results to Dingwell, and he has used his Muggle contacts to put out an . . ." Snape searched his memory bank for the appropriate unfamiliar term, "APB I believe he said, which means that law enforcement officials throughout the city will be looking for him. If they find him, he will be arrested, and we will know."

"Great," Harry said, his voice fake-bright. "So we just wait." Lovely. He got to hang around the flat of a man who barely tolerated him for the foreseeable future.

"Harry, try not to be discouraged," Snape urged. "Dingwell told you that it was not the end of the world if we couldn't find the gun. We still have a viable alternative suspect who had the means and the motive for killing Malfoy."

"Yeah, sure," Harry agreed dully. "The Ministry's always taken my word for things. I'm sure they'll be convinced."

##########

Harry poked listlessly at his breakfast. The forced inactivity was starting to drive him spare. If he could just go outside and take a walk, he thought, his outlook would be improved greatly. He was a creature of the light, and he needed the sunlight as much as any plant did to thrive. Staring out the window just wasn't the same.

"Are the eggs not to your liking?" Snape inquired politely.

"Huh?" Harry said, looking up and then back down again quickly. "No, they're fine. Just not that hungry, I guess."

"You hardly touched your supper," Snape pointed out. "I realize you are under a great deal of stress, but you will only make it worse by not eating."

Harry wasn't sure if he should be irritated at Snape's meddling, or touched by his concern, so he settled for indifference. But he ate his eggs. Once he finished, and the dishes had been cleaned up, he despaired to think that he had yet another day with absolutely nothing to do. Perhaps he'd read one of Snape's many books. He'd perused the shelves yesterday and noted that Snape owned loads of Muggle classics, none of which he had ever read. Perhaps he'd start with Charles Dickens.

He was about to open his mouth to ask Snape for permission to read one of the books, and perhaps ask for a recommendation about where to start, when the phone rang. Snape dried his hands and answered it.

"Yes, he's right here." Snape extended the receiver toward Harry. "It is for you. It is Dingwell."

Harry took the phone. "Hey, Ding. Before you get started, let me ask you something. When can I get my phone back?" The Aurors had taken Harry's phone the morning he'd been arrested.

Whatever the response, Snape thought, Harry seemed displeased with it. "Well, it would be nice to be able to have a private conversation on my own phone." Harry said pointedly, and Snape got it. Harry didn't want him listening in on his conversation with his attorney. Saddened by the boy's continued hesitance around him, Snape retired to his bedroom, closing the door softly and leaving Harry to his discussion.

"I spoke this morning with Auror Blades," Ding began. "And I presented to him the alternate suspect, along with all of the evidence we have gathered to date. He has promised that they will look into Mr. Gaston."

Harry waited for more. Some small part of him had hoped that once the MLE had someone else to go after, they would release Harry and let him get back to his life, such as it was. "That's it?" he asked when nothing more was forthcoming.

"What else should there be?"

"I don't know," Harry confessed. "It's a little anticlimactic."

"Apologies," said Ding. "It gets worse. Although they are looking into Gaston as an alternate suspect, they still consider you one as well, and they are pressing me for an interview with you. They are rightfully claiming that were you any other suspect, they would have had that interview by now. We cannot put this off any longer. If we don't accede to a time and date of our choosing, they will come to Mr. Snape's flat and take you in at a time of their choosing. With this in mind, I have scheduled you to go into the Ministry the day after tomorrow."

Harry rubbed the back of his neck tiredly. "Can't we do it here?"

"I asked that very question. They refused."

"All right. I've got nothing to hide. Let them ask whatever they want."

"I have set aside the entire day tomorrow to prepare for the interview. You and I will go over every facet of your statement. We'll identify any holes and fill them, and we will prepare answers to any questions they may be likely to ask."

"All right," Harry said. "Not like I have anything better to do tomorrow."

"Good. Be warned, Harry, that you cannot just go to the Ministry accompanied by Mr. Snape. Aurors will come to the flat in the morning, and they will bring you in. You will be handcuffed and escorted by aurors. I didn't want that to be a surprise."

"Thanks, I guess," Harry said. "So I'll see you tomorrow?"

"You will," Ding promised. "If there are any new developments, I will, of course, alert you right away."

"All right, Ding. Thanks for the call. I'll talk to you soon."

###########

Snape had stayed in his bedroom as long as possible. Hoping that Harry had finished his call, he emerged into the sitting room to find Harry once again staring out the window. He wanted to ask what news Ding had delivered, but his recent reminder that he was not an intimate part of Harry's life left him hesitant to pry.

"Do you mind if I read one of your books?" Harry asked before Snape could form an appropriate remark.

"Of course not," Snape said, grateful. "Help yourself to whatever you find."

Harry moved to the shelf and began once again to peruse the titles. "You like Dickens?" he asked.

"I do."

"I've never read any," Harry confessed. "I was too young for it when I left Muggle school, and Hogwarts doesn't exactly encourage reading for the fun of it, especially Muggle literature, as you well know. Do you have a favorite?" he asked, running a finger along the row of titles. "Or one that you recommend that I start with?"

Snape came to stand behind Harry, and the young man tensed noticeably and instantly. "Great Expectations is a particular favorite. David Copperfield is another that you might enjoy. You, especially, might relate to the protagonist of that story."

Harry's finger found Great Expectations, and he extracted it from its place on the shelf. He studied the cover and flipped the pages open. "I'll start with this, thanks."

He started to make his way to the sofa, but Snape stopped him. "Are you going to be angry with me forever?" he asked quietly.

Harry looked up at Snape, his green eyes filled with sincerity. "I'm not angry with you, Severus. I'm just . . . disappointed, in myself, for wanting things I cannot have and for taking so long to accept what should have been apparent long ago. Those things are not your fault. They're mine. It's just difficult sometimes to forget that I'm not that person any more. I have to keep reminding myself. It's harder than I thought it would be, especially when I'm so close to . . . Well, it doesn't matter. I'm doing the best I can. But I'm not angry with you. I appreciate that you let me stay here and everything that you're doing to help Ding help me. So we're good, all right?"

Snape looked down at the sad and earnest young man in front of him. He thought they were anything but good, but he said, "All right. Enjoy your book. I will make tea in a bit."

##########

Harry was nearly willing to confess to anything if they could just stop. Ding had arrived this morning at eight, and he'd been hammering at Harry for five straight hours, pointing out every minor discrepancy, pouncing on mis-spoken words, asking purposely poorly-worded questions to elicit concessions that Harry never meant to make. Harry felt like he'd been driven around in circles by a sadistic prat with a cattle prod. His head was spinning, he was tired, his gut was churning, and he just wanted to curl up in a corner and cover his head and make the world go away.

"I think that's enough for now," Snape said from the door to the dining room. He'd hovered on the edges of Dingwell's faux interrogation, aching for Harry as his attorney brow beat him with a greater understanding of the English language, all in the name of preparing him for people who would likely want to do worse to him tomorrow. He'd watched for as long as he could, but the dejected set of Harry's shoulders told him it was time to intervene.

Harry looked up gratefully, but Ding said, "Mr. Snape, we're not finished yet."

"It is lunch time," Snape stated firmly.

"They will not let him a break for meals. In fact, the more uncomfortable they can cause him to be, the better, from their perspective. You both know this – you've both likely conducted countless interrogations."

Harry wanted to speak up and say that no, actually, he'd never been trusted to handle an interrogation, but he already felt like crying and didn't think airing that particular grievance would help any.

"We are not them," Snape said. "He has had enough for now."

Dingwell looked across the table at Harry and noticed for the first time how beat down the young man looked. "All right," he conceded.

"Good," Snape said. "I will bring out lunch."

"Are you all right, Harry?" Ding asked softly.

"Sure," Harry answered automatically. "Fine."

"You understand why I have to be harsh, I assume."

"Of course," Harry confirmed. And he did. But that didn't mean it was easy. Or fun.

"Whoever interviews you tomorrow will not be gentle. The MLE will want to dispel any appearance of favoritism when dealing with one of their own. They will go out of their way to trip you up and make you squirm. They will twist your words around until you cannot even recognize them as your own. They will want to get into things that will seem irrelevant to you and probably are, but they have a wide latitude in how they conduct their investigation. And I should warn you that failing to answer any question may result in a petition to the Wizengamot for the opportunity to be conduct the interview under veritaserum, a petition the court will likely grant. I should also warn you that they will probably ask you questions about your personal life."

"My . . . personal life?"

"Yes. They'll attempt to throw you off balance by poking into your past. They may ask questions about your childhood with the Muggles, or about Voldemort. They may question you about your friends or the people you've dated."

"The people I've dated? They can do that?" If they included the people that Harry had only slept with, this interview could take a long time.

Ding nodded seriously. "I'm afraid they can."

Harry swallowed audibly. "All right. I understand." He didn't like it, but he thought he understood how the Ministry would approach his interview.

"If you know any meditation techniques, it wouldn't be a bad idea to employ some of them if things get particularly rough. If they sense they are making you uncomfortable, they will press an issue until you lose your temper." Dingwell could see that his words were upsetting his client, so he sought for a more reassuring tone. "As bad as it sounds, I will be there with you, Harry, and I will not let them step too far over the line. We will get through it together."

Harry felt a tear slip from one eye. He was so damn tired, and he just wanted this over. He wiped it away self-consciously.

Ding reached over and covered Harry's hand with his own. "It will be all right. Don't give up hope."

Snape entered the room with a tray of sandwiches, but stopped short when he realized what he was witnessing. What, exactly, was he witnessing? He cleared his throat, and the lawyer withdrew his hand. Harry looked away, a strange expression flitting across his face as he hid his tears. "Lunch," Snape announced awkwardly.

##########

Ding had stayed for another hour after lunch. Severus had not left the two of them alone for a moment. After he'd left, Severus was unaccountably grumpy and short with Harry. Confused, Harry retired to his room.

Later that day, when Hermione came by for a visit, Harry asked her to teach him how to meditate.

##########

It was an indication of how Harry's day was going to go that the aurors who arrived to escort him to the Ministry insisted that he be cuffed, as protocol dictated, despite Snape's appeal that a little professional courtesy be extended to one of their own. When he arrived at the Ministry, he was brought in through the main entrance, and it was immediately obvious that the press had been made aware that he was coming. It took twenty minutes to work their way through the crowd thronging the atrium, and Harry was beginning to feel more than a little claustrophobic before they finally made it to the lifts. Somewhere along the way, Harry had become separated from Severus and Ding, and he felt a little bereft at the loss of what felt like the only support he had in a world suddenly gone mad.

The aurors cleared out a lift and pushed Harry inside. After the doors closed and they started to move, one of the aurors, Harry thought his name was Hector, said gruffly, "Sorry about the cuffs. Orders."

"I understand," Harry said, not surprised that the instructions had come from above. "It's all right."

"They're not too tight are they?" Hector asked.

"No. They're good." Awkward silence followed. "Been busy?" Harry finally asked.

"Yeah," Hector said. "You know how it is. Crime never sleeps."

Harry hmmed noncommittally in agreement.

The remainder of the ride was taken in silence. Harry was escorted out of the lift and into the same interrogation cell he'd been in directly after being arrested. Once again, with apologies from Hector, his hands were cuffed to the magic-restricting bar on the table, and he was left to wait. At least this time, Hector closed the blinds in the window in the door so that no one could see in.

Harry rested his head on his arms on the table while he waited, inhaling deep, calming breaths, centering himself like Hermione had taught him, while he waited for Ding to arrive and for the rest of this hellish day to get under way. He didn't have long to wait.

"Harry," Ding said as he walked in and closed the door. "Sorry about allowing us to get separated. That crowd was unexpected. Someone obviously tipped them off." He looked distastefully at the bar that Harry was tethered to. "We'll ask them to release you when they get in here. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I just want this to be over."

"They'll likely leave us in here a while, just to make you nervous."

"Whatever," Harry said with little interest. He was too tired to work up an appropriate amount of indignation. "Where's Severus?"

"He's going to watch from the other side of the window. He asked to be let into the room, but they denied him."

They chatted about nothing for over half an hour, Harry trying to keep his nerves at bay, because he'd learned in Interrogation 101 that allowing your suspect to stew in his own juices was a good way to start him off wrong-footed in the interrogation.

"Who do you think they'll send?" Harry asked.

"I don't know," Ding said. "Could be anyone, but I think that we'll have some idea of how they plan to handle this based on who they send. If they send someone friendly to you, we'll know that they believe you and are seriously looking into Gaston." For the briefest of moments, Harry allowed himself to picture Louisa Riggs walking into the room, but he quashed that hope quickly – it wouldn't be that easy. It never was. "If they send someone with known animus towards you, then we'll know that they are focusing on you and are taking this interrogation very seriously."

"Someone like Draco Malfoy?"

"If they send Draco Malfoy in here, you and I will be leaving," Ding promised. "He's already assaulted you once. I still wish you'd file a formal complaint."

Harry shook his head. "No. As much as I despise Draco Malfoy, he'd just lost his father. I can sort of understand his reaction. Which is not to say that I won't extract a little revenge if the right circumstances present themselves."

The question of which way the Ministry was leaning was answered when Cyril Crouchback walked in.

Cyril Crouchback had been an auror for nearly twenty-five years and had never risen above the rank of field agent. He'd survived by doing no more than what was required, by choosing carefully when to bend the law for his own financial gain, and by sucking up to his immediate supervisor so that he wouldn't be transferred to another situation that wasn't quite as lucrative.

He'd been operating this way for almost twenty years when his path crossed Harry Potter's at a crime scene. He'd been left in charge of collecting evidence following the arrest of three wizards accused of a string of robberies in Diagon Alley. The three had been living in a dingy flat above Quality Quidditch Supplies, and Crouchback was searching the flat, looking for evidence of their crimes. To his extreme glee, he found three sacks of galleons hidden in the flat's oven, and he lay them out on the table, admiring them. He could take one, put the other two on his inventory, and no one would be the wiser. He shrunk one of the bags down, slipped it into his pocket, and looked up to find newly-minted Auror Harry Potter staring at him.

Harry had only been two months on the job, and he was basically a glorified gopher. He'd been sent here, by Snape, to watch over the collection of evidence because the three arrested for the Diagon Ally robberies were also suspected of assaulting two young witches in the loo of a pub, a case which Snape's team was investigating. He hadn't expected to come in here and see a fellow auror stealing proceeds from a crime. He may have been green, but he knew exactly what he was witnessing.

Crouchback had tried to jolly the young recruit into not seeing what he'd clearly seen, and Harry, fearing that the man might become violent if challenged, went along with him and got out of there as quickly as possible. The first thing he'd done upon returning to the office was tell Arthur Weasley what he'd seen. Arthur had him fill out a report, which was shunted through the appropriate channels.

The end result of all of this was that Crouchback became the subject of an official internal investigation. He maintained his innocence: he found three bags of galleons at the crime scene, and three bags of galleons were listed on the evidence log and turned over to the MLE. He vehemently denied that he had put anything into his pockets at the crime scene. Harry was called to testify regarding what he saw, and he did so. After an hour of deliberation, the internal affairs board concluded that though this was a situation of one person's word against another's, and though in the end, all the money found had been accounted for, there was credible evidence to believe that Cyril Crouchback had indeed attempted to pocket evidence at a crime scene, and he was suspended for one week without pay. The discipline, of course, went into his personnel file.

There was only one reason why Cyril Crouchback would have been chosen to conduct this particular interrogation: Crouchback wasn't particularly smart, nor was he known as a skilled interrogator. What he had was a known animosity toward the accused. The MLE still thought that Harry Potter had killed Lucius Malfoy, and they were pulling out all the stops to get his confession.

Crouchback came into the room, didn't speak a word, and sat down at the table across from Harry and Ding. He placed a folder on the table, opened it up, and began jotting down notes in it with a quill he removed from his robe pocket. Ding and Harry stared across the table at him, waiting for the man to begin. And they waited. And waited. And waited.

After fifteen minutes, Harry began to fidget and was on the verge of saying something when Ding removed his own quill, scrawled a note on the pad he placed in front of him, and pushed it over toward Harry. It read: Who's this?

Harry moved as though to take the quill from Ding, then was brought up short by the fact that his hands were tied. He leaned close to Ding and whispered in his ear, "Cyril Crouchback."

History? Ding questioned.

"Yeah. Not of the good variety."

You know he's trying to rile you, Ding wrote. Calm down. Deep breaths.

Harry tried more of the deep breathing exercises, picturing himself on a broom, flying lazily through the summer sky. He stopped worrying and went to a happy place. He could stay here all day, and he was a little disappointed when Crouchback finally closed his file and cleared his throat.

"Enjoying your vacation, Potter?" he asked.

"What?" Harry asked, taken aback by the question and at being so abruptly brought back to the present.

"Are . . . you . . . enjoying . . . your . . . vacation?" Crouchback repeated with exaggerated slowness, as though he was speaking to a particularly dimwitted child.

Harry had to reign in the impulse to stand up and punch Crouchback. Of course, he couldn't have anyway, because he was cuffed to this table, but the longing was there, and he had to squash it down. He looked at Ding for help, hoping his attorney could deal with this ridiculousness.

Ding didn't speak. He took his own piece of parchment, looked at his watch, scribbled quickly on the parchment, and slid it across to Crouchback.

"What's this?" the auror asked.

"My bill to the Ministry for the time that we've already wasted here. I'm a busy man, Auror Crouchback, and my services do not come cheaply. You can either get to the point, immediately, or my client and I are leaving."

Crouchback glared at the nerve of the man. "We'll do this my way, and I'd thank you to remember that."

"You do not impress me with your threats. Either start asking questions, or we're leaving," Ding said. It was clear he was not bluffing.

Crouchback made a great show of sighing dramatically and rearranging his file. Then he set out a blank piece of parchment and a quill and started in on Harry.

"Before we get to the point," Crouchback began, "there's something I'd like you to clear up for me."

Harry waited for a question, but it was a while in coming. "Well?" he finally demanded. Ding placed his hand over Harry's to calm him down. Crouchback sneered down at their hands.

"Tell me about your relationship with Severus Snape," the auror finally said.

"My what?" Harry asked, confused.

"Auror Crouchback," Ding began, obviously perturbed.

Crouchback held up a hand. "Ah ah," he warned. "This is relevant."

"In what way?" the solicitor demanded.

"Potter here is accused of a serious crime. I'm simply trying to figure out if he had help."

"You think Severus had something to do with this?" Harry asked, incredulous. "You think he . . . what, he helped me murder Lucius Malfoy? You really are as stupid as you look!"

Again, Ding covered Harry's hand. "You're stretching the boundaries of relevance, Mr. Crouchback. Ask your questions."

Crouchback's smile was self-satisfied. "It is well known around here that you have been throwing yourself at Snape since you came to work here." Harry could feel his face coloring. "It's also fairly well known that Snape has slammed you at every turn."

"Is that a question?" Ding asked.

"The question is, how many times have you approached Snape, offering yourself up to him?"

Harry turned to his attorney. "Do I have to answer these questions?"

Ding leaned into Harry so that he could speak and not be overheard. "We talked about this, Harry."

Harry huffed a sigh and turned back to Crouchback. "I don't know," he ground out. "I didn't count them."

"Was it more than once?"

"Yes."

"More than ten times?"

"Yes."

"So it's probably safe to say that you don't know how many times because there were so many occasions that you can't remember them all?"

Harry's eyes shifted to the window in the room, behind which he knew Severus was likely watching this. "Yes," he ground out.

"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Crouchback said with a patronizing tone. "Did Snape ever take you up on your many offers?"

"No."

"Did he tell you why?"

"No."

"Could it be because he's twenty years older than you?"

"I don't know."

"Or because he's your supervisor and that would be, you know, inappropriate?"

"I don't know."

"Or maybe it's because he just didn't find you attractive, or that he can't stand the thought of touching you in that way."

Harry stared at Crouchback, wishing that he had to power to set the man aflame with his gaze. "I don't know," he spat. "You'd have to ask him."

"I think we can just assume that one," Crouchback said smugly. "Have you ever offered to let any of your other superiors bugger you?"

Ding slammed a hand down on the table. "We are done with this line of questioning! Move on, Crouchback!"

Crouchback smirked down at his file. "Is your client refusing to answer the question?"

"No," Harry said.

"No, you're not refusing to answer the question, or no, you've never offered your arse to other superiors?"

"No, I've never approached any other superior in that way," Harry forced out.

"Not Arthur Weasley? I know you have a . . . special relationship with him."

Harry's stomach turned at the accusation. "Arthur Weasley is like a father to me!"

"You wouldn't be the first man with daddy issues," Crouchback noted with a revolting leer.

"That's disgusting!" Harry spat.

"So why Snape then?" Crouchback asked, crossing his arms and leaning back, like he was really curious about the answer. "He's not exactly the best-looking bloke, you know? Although perhaps to a queer such as yourself that doesn't matter. What is it that you see in him?"

Harry turned pleading eyes on Ding, begging him to make this stop. Ding wished that he could, but he was helpless, so Harry turned back to this tormentor. "I . . . I find him fascinating. I have done for years."

"Explain something to me," Crouchback continued. "I see you in the Prophet all the time, out with birds, out with blokes, doesn't seem to matter to you. How many people do you think you've had sex with?"

"I don't know!" Harry said indignantly. "It's not like I keep a tally."

"Is it more than one?"

"Yes."

"More than two?'

"Yes."

"More than ten?"

"Yes."

"More than . . . fifty?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Probably."

"More than a hundred?"

"No."

"So somewhere between fifty and a hundred. Bit of a slut there, aren't you, Potter?" Before either man could protest that characterization, Crouchback hurried on to his next question. "So tell me something else I've been wondering. Are you gay, or are you straight?"

Harry raised his eyes defiantly at Crouchback, refusing to be cowed any further by this prick's line of questioning. "I'm bisexual. That means I like both men and women. I like women because they're soft and gentle and they smell good. I like men because they're hard and hairy and a bit more dangerous. And just so you know, when I'm with men, I do the buggering, not the other way round. And also so you know, I wouldn't touch you if you were the last bloke on earth and I had a ten-foot pecker!"

Ding didn't try to hide his smile as Crouchback flinched back as though struck. "Thank Merlin for that!" he said, obviously flustered and trying to gain the advantage back. He rustled through his file again, trying to collect himself.

"Tell me about your childhood," he ordered.

Harry actually bit his tongue to keep himself from telling the man to fuck off. Instead, he said, "What would you like to know?"

"There've been lots rumors about the Boy Hero growing up in an environment that was . . . shall we say, not very loving. I think it's important to understand why someone grows up to be a cold-hearted killer. So perhaps you could tell me about your life as a boy."

"Again, what would you like to know?"

"You were raised by an aunt and uncle, is that correct?" Crouchback knew all of this already. More information about his childhood had been widely publicized after Voldemort's defeat than Harry had been comfortable with. This was just another way to twist the knife.

"Yes."

"Muggles, weren't they?"

"Yes."

"Were they loving guardians, supportive of your magical abilities?"

"No."

"Must have been difficult for them, having you thrust upon them as an infant, having to care for some freaky little kid with magic."

"You'd have to ask them."

"Did they treat you as one of their own?"

"No."

"Did they ever hit you?"

"Yes."

"They did? Are we talking a little love tap on the bottom when you misbehaved, or are we talking full-out beatings with a belt."

"No." There had never been any type of taps associated with love, and it had never gotten as bad as a beating with a belt.

"I'm sorry. I don't understand. Why don't you give me some examples of the types of physical punishment they used."

Harry hadn't wanted to kill anyone as badly as he wanted to kill Crouchback right now in a very long time, since Voldemort. He somehow kept this off his face, but was unable to keep it out of his voice. "They hit me, most often with their hands, although my aunt once tried to hit me with a frying pan. They denied me food. They confined me to a cupboard for long periods of time."

"A cupboard?" Crouchback repeated. " I seem to recall something about you living in a cupboard when you were quite young. Is that correct?"

"Yes."

"You had a cousin, did you not? Roughly the same age as you?"

"Yes."

"Did you have a good relationship with him, at least? It would seem logical that the two of you, alone there with these terrible people, would form some sort of bond against them?"

"No, that didn't happen."

"No? That's strange. Didn't they treat him like they treated you?"

"No. They liked him just fine."

"So it was you, then. Something about you that made you unlovable."

"Apparently." Harry's teeth were so tightly clenched together that his jaw was beginning to hurt.

"So is this some sort of character flaw? That people can't love you? Because it seems, at least from what I've read in the Prophet, that you can't maintain a relationship any longer than one night. Snape doesn't want you. You're always being seen with someone different. Do you have a theory as to why no one wants you, Potter?"

"Plenty of people have wanted me," Harry forced out.

"Oh, I don't mean in their beds, Potter. I mean in a long-lasting, meaningful, committed relationship. What is it about you that is so fundamentally flawed that people can't get past?"

"I think we've exhausted this topic of conversation," Dingwell said firmly, touching Harry's hand again, hoping to relax the boy's rigid posture.

"Well, let's talk about Lucius Malfoy then," Crouchback said almost cheerfully.

"Finally!" Harry said, relieved beyond measure to have moved on from this topic.

So Crouchback started in on Harry about the murder, asking the same questions over and over again, trying to couch the questions differently to trip Harry up. Crouchback reveled in the opportunity to take his sponsored revenge out on the man who had dropped a dime on him and every question was asked with an aggressively belligerent tone, and every answer was met with disbelieving scorn. Crouchback outright called Harry a liar several times.

The questioning went on and on and on. Harry had the truth on his side, and he maintained his innocence throughout, describing over and over where he'd been the night Lucius Malfoy was murdered and his theories on what Lucius Malfoy had been involved in. When Harry's temper began to get particularly frayed, Ding would caution him to keep his cool with a touch of his hand. Finally, after four hours, Ding said, "We've gone over the same ground so many times it's churned to mud. If you have nothing new, I think it's time to end this."

Crouchback made a great show of perusing the copious notes he'd made in the last several hours, looking closely at each page, pretending to read them all. Finally, he sat back, "I think we're finished here today. You, of course, are still being held under the conditions of your release. You are not to leave the confines of the home of Severus Snape. You are subject to being called back here for questioning at our request." Crouchback stood up. "I'll have someone come in and release you."

Crouchback walked to the door. "Enjoy the rest of your vacation, Potter," he said with a smirk, and then he left, closing the door behind him.

"Bastard," Harry spit, rattling his hands, still held captive on the table. He was losing feeling in them from having to keep his arms raised up on the table for hours.

"Calm down, Harry," Ding advised. "It's over. You were spectacular. They got nothing."

Harry sat back with a sigh. "Yeah, great. Nothing's changed though, has it? I'm still a prisoner. They still think I did it, and they're still going to try to prove it. I am so tired. Are we going to get out of here soon?"

Harry's question was answered by Snape's arrival. He freed Harry from the restraints and said, "Let's go home."

Unable to look at him, Harry stood up and shook his hands at his side to regain feeling in them. He now had to go home with a man who had just listened to him reveal details about his childhood, his sexual history, and Harry's interest in him, an interest he had spurned for years. Things just kept getting worse.

"Would it be possible for me to speak with Blades while I'm here?" Harry asked, facing his lawyer but actually speaking to Snape.

"I will see if he can see you," Severus promised, and he left them in the sheltered confines of the interview room.

##########

Harry breathed a huge sigh of relief when the aurors escorting him back to Snape's removed the handcuffs and left them. He rubbed absently at his wrists – he thought sure he'd be feeling phantom restraints for some time.

"Would you like tea?" Snape asked gruffly.

"Hmm?" Harry asked, startled out of his reverie.

"Tea?" Snape repeated.

"Sure. I guess."

Snape's ill humor softened a bit at the very weary set to the boy's shoulders. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"I'm glad that's over."

"You did a fine job with Crouchback," Snape noted.

"You saw all that, huh? I was kind of hoping they'd not let you in."

Harry followed Snape into the kitchen, where the older man began to gather things for tea. "I'm glad that Ding prepared me as well as he did," Harry noted. "I didn't appreciate it while it was happening, but it certainly made it easier to get through today."

"I thought that was what his touching you was for," Snape snarked.

Harry stared at Snape. It sounded like the man was . . . jealous. Nah. Couldn't be. Snape didn't want him. Harry sat at the table and rested his forehead on the surface. "I am knackered."

"Perhaps you'd prefer to rest, then?"

"No," Harry said to the table. "Tea would be good first."

The two men were silent for several moments before Snape asked, "Do you mind if I ask you what you spoke with Blades about?"

Harry sat up. "I resigned."

"What?"

"The writing was on the wall, was it not? His bringing in Crouchback told me loud and clear just what he thought of me. While I was in there being interrogated, I was composing my letter of resignation in my head."

"Do you think you are being rash? Perhaps if you waited a bit, until this situation has blown over . . ."

"No," Harry interrupted. "This has been a long time in coming. And it's not just Blades. It's everyone. Including you."

"Me?" Snape questioned.

"How long have I been an auror?" Harry asked.

"A little more than five years."

"And how long will I have to be an auror before you trust me to do the job?"

"I am not sure what you mean. I do trust you."

"No, you don't. And it's not just you. Everyone treated me the same – like I was a child trying to force my way into the grown-up world. My opinions were ignored, my instincts were disregarded. Time after time, I proved that I could do my job, and it never made any difference. I was given grunt assignments, and when they turned into something bigger, something important, they were taken away and given to more experienced aurors. I'm tired of it."

"Harry, we can change things. I admit that what you say is true, that I am guilty of these things. But I can change. I want to change."

"It's not just that," Harry said, running a hand through his hair. "I wanted to be an auror so I could help people. It feels like I don't help anyone. We're always getting there after the crime has been committed, when it's already too late. This thing with Eliza really got to me. I saved her from a bad situation, and she's still dead. That's like . . . the opposite of helping people."

"What happened to Eliza Godfrey was not your fault," Snape insisted.

"Maybe," Harry conceded. "But I certainly didn't help her much, did I?"

"Still, to throw your entire career away . . ."

"Frankly, I don't see that I'm throwing away anything of value."

"But what will you do now?"

"Well, first, obviously, I need to get this murder charge resolved. And then I'm going to spend some time rebuilding my flat. I've talked to Hermione and Ron about setting up shop together, running a security outfit, you know, security systems, for wizards' homes and businesses. Maybe this way, we can prevent bad things from happening. Ron and Hermione both need time to settle things at their current employment, so we'll likely not have anything up and running for at least six months."

"You've thought about this quite a lot," Snape noted.

"I've had a lot of time to think lately."

"And what if . . ."

"What if what?" Harry challenged. "What if I don't beat this murder charge? That is not an option I'm going to consider even for a second."

"I believe that you will be successful. You are, after all, innocent. And you certainly have a hands-on attorney."

Harry stared at Snape for a long time. What was going on in that man's head? Everything he said led Harry to believe that Snape was jealous of Harry's perfectly innocent interaction with his solicitor. Taking a huge risk, Harry said, "You sound as though you're jealous."

Snape stared right back. "And if I am?" he said, his tone challenging.

"If you . . ." Harry asked, bewildered by this turn of events. Was Snape playing some kind of game? He'd never shown any interest in Harry, had turned every advance he'd made aside without hesitation. "I am so confused," he confessed. "And I think it's possible that I'm hallucinating. I think maybe what I really need is to sleep for a bit. When I wake up, if I'm still having the same hallucination, then maybe we could talk?"

"Yes, we certainly should," Snape agreed. "You rest well."

##########

Snape quietly entered the spare bedroom, where Harry continued to sleep soundly. Harry had been asleep all afternoon, and Snape was hesitant to wake him now. He had news, however, that he knew Harry would want to hear. He set the cup he was carrying down on the bedside table, sat on the bed beside the young man, and shook his arm gently. "Harry," he said. "Harry, wake up."

Harry was slow in waking, and he blinked his green eyes several times to clear the sleep from them. "What time is it?" he asked, making no attempt to sit up. He didn't have his glasses on, and the bedside clock was unreadable without them.

"It's a little after six. I'm sorry to wake you."

Harry stretched languidly, and Snape couldn't help but admire the lines of his young, firm body. Harry, nearly blind, didn't notice his interest. "I haven't slept that well in weeks. What's going on?"

"Your solicitor just phoned. He has some news. Come, sit up." Snape handed Harry his glasses, and once Harry had struggled to a sitting position, handed him the cup. "Coffee. I thought it might help."

"Thank you," Harry said. "Tell me."

"Graham Gaston was arrested a short time ago. He was intoxicated or high or both in a Muggle pub, brandishing a weapon. I've called Blades. He's going to have Guy Lemongrass intercede with the Muggle authorities so that they will perform testing on the man's weapon. Ballistics I believe they call it. They will be doing this immediately – Lemongrass will be given the authority to persuade them to do it quickly. If the results of this testing establish that Gaston's gun fired the bullet that killed Lucius Malfoy, he will be picked up by aurors as soon as he is released from his current confinement. He will be brought to the Ministry for questioning. Under veritaserum."

Harry took a moment to process this. "Blades is helping me?"

"Despite what you think of his choice of interrogator, he is on your side. He asked me to tell you that he has not yet filed your letter of resignation. He would like you to consider changing your mind."

"I appreciate what he's doing, but I'm not going to change my mind."

"I didn't think you would."

"So now we wait?"

"Now we wait," Snape confirmed.

Harry looked shyly up at Snape. "Can we talk now?"

Snape nodded. "Let's. Shall we adjourn to the sitting room?"

That was probably a good idea – much more neutral and much less intimate than here on the bed.

##########

They sat in chairs facing each other, each waiting for the other to begin. The silence became awkward quickly. Finally, Snape bit the proverbial bullet.

"Before we begin, I must ask once more. Is there any chance that you will reconsider your decision to leave the MLE?"

"No," Harry said firmly. "That chapter of my life is over."

"Good," Snape surprised him by saying.

"Glad to be shed of me?" Harry asked, more than a little hurt.

"No. I am glad because a relationship between us, when I held a position of authority over you, would have been more than a little inappropriate."

Harry stared at Severus. He was doing it again – saying things that on their face seemed so obvious, but given their history didn't make any sense. He decided he didn't want to misunderstand anything here – it was too important.

"Severus," he said, quietly and earnestly, "I'm not sure what's going on here. When you say things like that, I think . . . I think there's a chance for us to have something, the kind of relationship that I've always wanted to have. But then I remember all the times I've offered myself to you, and you've declined without thought, and I think that I'm just getting my hopes up again. I don't want to get my hopes up again, Severus, so I ask you to tell me straight out what it is you mean."

"I mean, that with you employed elsewhere, the last barrier has been removed. There are no longer any reasons to deny that I am attracted to you, that I have been since your sixth year at Hogwarts if I am being totally honest, and that I am very interested in attempting to see if we can make a go of a romantic relationship."

Harry swallowed audibly. "You . . . you want to be . . . with me?"

Severus nodded. "I would like to try."

Harry's emotions were churning inside him like a tornado. The one thing he'd always wanted was being offered to him, without strings and without hesitation. He should be over the moon. He should be leaping about the room, or at least leaping at Severus before the man came to his senses and changed his mind, but something was holding him back, some concern which he would have thought irrelevant but for the massive upheaval he'd experienced in his life lately.

"Can I be honest with you?" he asked.

"I would prefer it actually."

"I should be so happy that you're willing to give me a go. I know that. I should just throw myself at you and close my eyes, and hope for the best."

"But?" Severus urged.

"But I'd given up on you. I'd told myself that I was being stupid to keep this up for so long without any encouragement. I told myself I was going to get over it and move on."

"Are you telling me I'm too late?" Severus asked with obvious fear in his voice.

"No," Harry hastened to reassure him. "No, I said it. That didn't mean I believed it. But if we're going to do this, I want to . . . I guess . . . reassure myself of a couple of things."

"All right," Severus said, sitting back in relief. "I will do what I can to reassure you. What are your concerns?"

"When I was in school," Harry began, "you thought that I was lazy and incompetent and not very smart."

Snape nodded his agreement with this statement.

"And while I willingly admit that I wasn't the most devoted student, you must also admit that you never gave me a chance in your class. From the very first moment we met, you went out of your way to belittle me publicly and created an atmosphere where there was no chance that I could succeed. Not only did you criticize my every move and destroy or ignore my work when I did manage to produce something halfway decent, you allowed Draco Malfoy to sabotage and harass me to the point where it was nearly impossible for me to even function in your class."

"Surely you realize why that was now," Snape said quietly.

"Of course I do. Well, I do think you carried things a little too far, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. That's the past, and I'm pretty sure we've moved beyond that. And as much as some of your actions might have been exaggerated for the benefit of others, I think that you really believed that you knew me and that I was arrogant and attention-seeking and dim. And then we began to work together, and you treated me the same, as though my opinions were worthless and my work unimportant, and it was obvious that you didn't trust me with anything but the most mundane assignment."

"Harry . . ."

"No," Harry said. "Let me finish. Please. As much as I have wanted you for years, I'm not sure I can get involved with someone who values me so little. It's tempting to just disregard that, but I wouldn't be doing myself any favors long-term starting a relationship with someone who doesn't trust me to tie my shoes properly."

Harry was done, and he sat back. "I'm finished."

Snape thought for a moment before responding. "I confess that you are right about many of your statements. I have thought all of those things about you. But I have also come to see a new you in the last few weeks. You were right about Lucius Malfoy. Only you saw what he was and had the gumption to go after him. You pieced together everything that he did, and you pursued him with conviction when everyone around you told you you were paranoid and throwing your career and your life away. And you very nearly did. How could I watch what you've done and not come to see that you are intelligent and persistent and dedicated? This you that is before me now . . . that is the you that I see now. You are an impressive individual, and I was a fool not to have seen that before, when I could have encouraged your academic pursuits and your professional advancement. I would not blame you if you could not forgive me for the way that I have treated you, but I assure you that will not be an issue now."

Harry smiled at him, nearly overcome with relief to hear these sincere words. He was pretty sure he would have embarked on a relationship with Snape no matter what, but it was profoundly reassuring to hear him say that he no longer thought of Harry as a juvenile delinquent.

"Thank you," he said warmly. "That means a lot to me."

"Were there other concerns?" Snape asked.

Harry paused for a moment to think about how to phrase this next bit. "Remember that night when you were at the club, and you . . . helped me when I was jacked on the adrenaline?" he asked.

Snape, of course, knew exactly what he was talking about. "I am not likely to forget that night any time soon. As a matter of fact, I use that memory as inspiration during moments of self-pleasure," he said with a completely straight face.

Harry's heart rate sped up a little bit at the blatant sexual reference, and he swallowed once before continuing. "You said something that night, and it sort of concerns me now."

"What did I say?"

"You said that you never bottom."

Snape's cheeks colored an adorable shade of pink.

"I don't mind bottoming on occasion," Harry went on, "but I prefer to top. I don't mind some kind of even split, but I can't imagine a future that includes only a receptive role in bed."

Snape looked down, then away across the room, apparently unable to meet Harry's eye. "I might have been fibbing about that."

"You might have been?"

"No, I definitely was," Snape said, looking at Harry now. "I thought that letting you bugger me that night would have been completely inappropriate. So I told you I didn't bottom."

"But you do?"

"I do," Snape confirmed.

"Do you top?"

Snape nodded.

"So you'd be willing to . . . take turns?"

"I would."

Harry smiled at him. "Are we really doing this?"

"It appears that we are."

"Wow," Harry said. "I thought I'd never see this day. Can we take things slow? Maybe hold off for a bit before we actually do the deed?"

"Not as eager as you thought?" Snape asked, wondering if he'd just been insulted.

"No!" Harry hastened to assure him. "I just . . . with everyone else, I've always just jumped right to the sex. Because it didn't mean anything. The sex was all there was, and once it was over, there was no reason to stay. I don't want that with you. I want to have a real relationship that's based on something other than this incredibly strong physical attraction I have for you. When we have sex, I want it to be after we've established something deeper and more meaningful. Do you mind waiting, just for a bit?"

"I can wait," Snape said. "I am not a teenager with no control over my urges. But may I make a request?"

"Sure."

"When we . . . 'do the deed,' as you so eloquently phrased it, I would like you to wear the outfit that you were wearing on the night we first were intimate with each other."

Harry smiled slyly at Snape. "You liked that, did you?"

"I found you incredibly arousing."

Harry was beginning to get aroused himself now. "You realize that outfit was destroyed in the fire, right? I can find something really close, though. I don't think you'll be disappointed."

"I have faith in that," Snape said. "Shall we set a date for our first tryst? To give me something to look forward to?"

"Sure. Not too long, though." He looked appraisingly at Snape. "I can't wait forever to sample that."

Snape blushed and looked away.

"How about one week after the day I'm cleared? I know that could be a very long time, and if the worst happens and I get sent away, we may have to grab a quickie in the loo before I go."

"With any luck, this whole mess will be over with soon," Snape observed. "But one week from that wonderful date will suffice."

They stared at each other for a moment, until Harry said, "I know we said no sex, but I was wondering . . ."

"Yes?" Snape prompted.

"Do you think that includes snogging?"

"Why, no, I don't believe it does. Was there a particular reason that you were asking?"

"Mmm," Harry confirmed. He got out of his chair, approached Snape and dropped to his knees between the man's spread thighs. "I want to taste you." He leaned in and pressed his lips to Snape's.

The kiss consumed them totally. Neither of them really realized when Harry pulled Snape out of his chair and they both went to the floor, rolling like teenagers on the rug and kissing passionately. When they finally parted, Harry lay atop Snape's prone form, and they were both panting.

"Why are we on the floor?" Snape asked.

"Dunno," Harry asked, well beyond caring where he was. "I'm beginning to rethink that whole stupid waiting idea."

Snape kissed him again. "Should I try to convince you to wait or not to wait?" Severus was willing to follow Harry's lead on this, but before any decisions could be made, the telephone rang. "Let it ring," Harry said into his mouth.

"It could be Dingwell," Snape pointed out.

Harry sighed and reached up onto the table beside the sofa, groping for the phone. Once he found it, he handed it to Severus. Severus greeted the caller, then handed the receiver back to Harry.

"Hello."

It was Dingwell. Harry held the phone between his and Severus' ears so they both could hear the solicitor's excited exclamation. "Harry, ballistics testing proves it was Gaston's gun that killed Malfoy!"

"That's great news," Harry agreed, then licked a trail up Severus' jaw bone. Severus shivered.

"He'll be in Muggle court tomorrow morning," Ding continued, "on the myriad of charges that he's facing there."

Severus ran a hand down Harry's back, stopping to cup his arse and squeeze gently. Harry gasped and bit gently on Severus' neck.

"He's expected to be released by noon. Aurors will follow him when he leaves, and they will pick him up once they can do so unobserved and bring him to the Ministry for questioning."

Harry began to suckle the spot where he'd bitten Severus. Severus used both hands to grasp Harry by both arse cheeks and hold him close enough to create friction when he thrust his cock between their bodies.

"They've applied for and obtained permission to use veritaserum during the interrogation. This will likely all be over with by tomorrow tonight, Harry. You'll be a free man."

"Wow, that's . . ." Harry groaned, pressing himself down into the other man, then tried to gather himself. "That's awesome, Ding. Can I be there while they question him?"

"Well I'm sure they won't let you take part in the questioning, if that's what you mean. They likely won't even let you watch, since you're technically still a suspect yourself. But we could be on premises, so that once they've satisfied themselves of his guilt, you could be released from their custody immediately."

"And have this stupid anklet removed?" Harry asked, trying to match Snape's thrusts with his own and still keep his mind on this conversation.

"Of course. I'll let you know once they have him, and we'll get some aurors over there to fetch you to the Ministry."

"That sounds great, Ding," Harry said. "Thank you so much for everything."

"Just doing my job, kid. I'll talk to you later."

Harry hung up and tossed the phone aside, then attacked Snape's mouth with his own. When he could pull his mouth away, he said, "I want you to fuck me, Severus. I want it so bad."

Severus was more than willing to comply, but before he could suggest that they take this to the bedroom, or strip the boy here and take him on the floor, someone knocked on the door of the flat.

"Ignore them," Harry ordered, slipping sideways off Severus and placing a knee between the other man's thighs, bringing his leg into even closer contact with Severus' raging need. Severus whimpered and thrust up roughly, begging his self-control not to dessert him now. The knock sounded again, followed moments later by the phone ringing, and Harry just knew that Hermione was on the other side of the door, and probably Ron as well, and that she would not go away without seeing Harry. Harry slumped against Severus, going boneless with defeat.

"It's gotta be Hermione," he groaned. "She won't leave."

Snape pulled himself out from under Harry. "I'm afraid we failed the first test of our resolve to wait. Had she not appeared when she did . . ."

"Yeah, we'd be fucking like rabbits right now," Harry said, clearly disappointed at this turn of events. He got slowly to his feet, his very obvious erection making the movement awkward. "Go away," Harry ordered his erection. "Hermione's here."

That seemed to do the trick, and Harry began to deflate. Snape got off the floor as well and sat on the sofa, bringing a book into his lap to cover what was left of his excitement. Harry grinned cheekily at him, smoothed down the front of his pants, adjusting his half-hard cock so it wouldn't be as noticeable, and went to answer the door.

"Harry!" Hermione said, smiling widely. Ron stood just behind her, a big bag of takeaway food in his hand. "Arthur told us! This is great news!" She flung herself into his arms and hugged him tightly for about three-tenths of a second, then pulled away very quickly, looking embarrassed. She looked at Harry, then at Severus, who was sitting serenely on the sofa, his cheeks flushed and his breathing a little faster than it should be for a man just sitting and reading. She looked back at Harry, expecting to see a self-conscious flush on his cheeks as well. She was surprised to see a cheeky lifting of his eyebrows and a knowing leer. She couldn't help but smile – she knew how badly Harry had wanted Severus for years now, and it looked like he was finally going to get his chance.

Hoping he had his body back under control completely, Hermione hugged him again, relieved to not feel anything unusual this time, and whispered into his ear, "I'm sorry. If I'd known what we'd be interrupting, I would have stayed away. Should we go?"

Harry hugged her tightly, loving his friend with all his heart for understanding just how important this was. But the moment had already been ruined. "Nah, you might as well come in. We just got a little carried away."

"I'm so happy for you," she said, kissing his cheek before pulling away.

Oblivious to everything Hermione had just figured out, Ron smiled at Harry and set his burden down. "Congratulations, mate," he said, "I knew they'd come to their senses eventually." He threw an arm around Harry's neck, pulled Harry's head close to his chest, and rubbed his knuckles furiously against the shorter man's scalp.

Harry yelped and twisted out of his grasp. "Get off me, you big oaf!" Harry said, but he was smiling broadly, happy that his friends were here to help him celebrate.

Severus stood up, and Harry discretely checked the front of the other man's trousers – all evidence of their earlier tryst had disappeared. Harry thought Severus was going to excuse himself from their company, so he was surprised when Severus said, "I'll get the plates."

##########

Ron and Hermione stayed for two hours. Dinner had been accompanied by two bottles of wine and had been followed by celebratory firewhiskey. Ron was a little tipsy when they left. Severus, too, seemed to be feeling a little extra happy, and he put an arm around Harry's shoulders and hugged him. "Where were we?" He ducked his head down to kiss Harry, but Harry weaseled out of his grip.

"We were deciding to wait."

Severus pouted. "Waiting doesn't sound like fun."

"I want you to remember the first time we make love, Severus. I'm not sure you will if we do it now."

"You may be right," Severus conceded. He drew Harry into his embrace again, this time content for a simple hug.

Harry let himself be held for a minute, then said, "Ding said I'll likely be released tomorrow, get this anklet off, and I'll be free to go."

"Do you want to go?" Severus asked into his hair.

Harry lay his head on Snape's chest. "I currently don't have anywhere to go. Remember? Explosion? Fire? Bye bye flat?"

"You are welcome here as long as you want to stay."

Harry looked up into Severus' dark eyes. "Thank you. If I stay here, are you going to be angry if I lose all self-control and insist that you fuck me before the week is up?"

"How could I be angry about something that would give me such great pleasure?" He kissed Harry's forehead. "But we will attempt to be strong." He pushed Harry away from him.

"Now get away from me before I lose control and throw you to the floor."

##########

Harry woke the following day happier than he had been in a long while. There was every possibility that he would be a free man today, and he had that and this new relationship with Severus to look forward to. The wait for consummation was going to be exquisite torture, assuming that they could last, and Harry hoped the clock started running today.

He got out of bed, visited the loo, then went out into the kitchen, where Severus was already seated, drinking tea and reading the Prophet. Harry hesitated in the door for a moment, just marveling at the fact that this man, this man that he had wanted for as long as he could remember, was now his. Unable to keep himself from smiling, he approached Severus and leant over to give him a good morning kiss.

"Good morning," Severus said. "Did you sleep well?"

"I did. You?"

"Very well, thank you."

"All right if I make coffee?" Harry asked.

"Of course it's all right. I told you when you came here that you should make yourself at home."

Harry gathered the coffee and the filter and started the coffee brewing. "Have you eaten?" he asked. "Can I make you some breakfast?"

"That is not necessary," Snape assured him.

"I know," Harry said. "I want to. Please. It's the least I can do."

Severus couldn't resist Harry when the young man was looking at him like that. "All right."

"What would you like?"

"Whatever you feel like will be fine with me."

So Harry set to work. He chopped mushrooms and onions. He cooked bacon and chopped that as well. Then he mixed eggs and cream until they were frothy, dumped them into a saute pan, threw in the things he'd chopped, added some cheese, and cooked the whole mess up together. While it cooked, he toasted several slices of bread. Once the scramble was finished, he brought everything to the table, topped off Snape's tea, and sat down with a ravenous appetite.

They ate in relative silence. Once Snape's plate was clean, he said, "That was delicious. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Harry said brightly. He made to get up, but Severus waved him back down. "No, you cooked. I shall clean up."

"All right," Harry agreed happily and sat back in his chair, sipping his coffee, content to just sit and watch the other man move.

When Severus had finished, he turned to Harry and said, "What shall we do now?"

Harry stood until he was nearly standing on Snape's toes. "I have some ideas," he said, his voice low and husky. He reached up and kissed the other man, and they were soon lost in the feel of each other's mouths on their own. Hands joined the party, with Snape's threading through Harry's hair to hold him in place and Harry's roaming up and down Snape's back.

When their mouths finally parted, Harry rested his forehead on Snape's chest, panting heavily, willing down the erection straining the front of his jeans.

"You are an incorrigible tease," Severus accused, obviously fighting the same problem Harry was.

"I'm sorry," Harry whispered.

"Don't be," Severus said. "Kissing you is worth it. It will make the night that we finally give in that much sweeter. That being said, if you don't get away from me now, I will need a cold shower."

Harry chuckled, pressed a kiss to Severus' breastbone, and pulled away. "So what else can we do to pass the time? I'll go spare waiting for news!"

"You can tell me about your new flat. I know you have ideas floating around up there," Snape said, tapping the side of Harry's head. "Tell me what you plan to change from your prior flat and what you plan to keep. And if we exhaust that topic, you can tell me about your plans for your warding business. That should get us through to the phone call."

##########

The phone call finally came, just after noon. After Harry spoke with Ding and learned that Gaston had been released by the Muggles and subsequently immediately picked up by aurors, Severus called Blades and arranged for a pair of aurors to come and pick up Harry. Half an hour later, Harry was being handcuffed and escorted from the flat.

Harry was brought to the Ministry and installed in a conference room. This time, when his hands were uncuffed, he was not shackled to the magic-restricting bar on the table, for which he was extremely grateful. He was left in the room with Dingwell and Severus to wait, once again, while Gaston was interrogated under veritaserum.

Harry had expected it to take hours, but after only ninety minutes, Ding was pulled out into the hallway. He was gone for seven minutes (Harry timed him), during which time Harry paced relentlessly around the small room.

When Ding returned to the room, he was smiling widely. "It's over, Harry. He's confessed to everything."

Harry flung himself into Severus' arms, and the taller man held him tightly in relief. Ding let them have their moment, then said, "Have a seat. I'll fill you in on what I know."

Both men sat across from the solicitor. They held hands beneath the table while they listened to the tale. "Gaston had a Blue Dragon habit. His first exposure to the drug was at the Pissing Oyster. He was in beverage distribution, and the club was on his route. He talked Miles Osbourne into supplying him on credit, and he worked up quite a debt. When payment was demanded, and Gaston couldn't come up with the cash, his step-daughter was taken as incentive. After you rescued Eliza, she was murdered to keep her from identifying the men who had taken her. Eliza's mum was a casualty of simply being a witness."

"It was Malfoy, right?" Harry asked.

"Indirectly. He wasn't involved directly in the kidnaping or the murders, but he hired both jobs done. Gaston has provided the names of everyone he knew who was involved in both the drug selling and the other criminal activities. Those who are wizards will be arrested by aurors, and the Ministry will work with muggle law enforcement to arrest those who are not."

"Did Gaston tie Malfoy to any of this at all?" Harry asked, beginning to despair that Lucius Malfoy was so far above the action that his name wouldn't even be sullied by all of this.

"Yes, I'm getting there," said Ding patiently. "Gaston has confessed to meeting with Lucius Malfoy regarding the placing of an explosive device in your building, Harry. This was how Gaston was to pay off his debt for the drugs. Gaston did not plant that device himself, because he did not have the necessary expertise, but he did hire the man who did, at Malfoy's behest. Somehow Gaston learned that Malfoy was responsible for killing his wife and step-daughter, and he killed Malfoy because of it. So that's it. Everything tied up in a nice neat package with a pretty bow on top."

"You were right," Severus said to Harry. "You were right about everything. Lucius was behind the drugs, and he was responsible for Eliza Godfrey's kidnaping and the murders. You were the only one who truly saw him for what he was. And no one would listen to you."

Harry smiled grimly at Severus, unable to feel any satisfaction about being right: Eliza Godfrey and her mother were still dead. "So Miles Osbourne is going to be arrested as well?"

"Yes," Ding confirmed. "Not for what he did to you, unfortunately, but he will see substantial jail time. Gaston has provided plenty of information which will demonstrate that Osbourne was a major distributor of an incredibly dangerous and addictive substance. He will not see daylight for a long, long time."

Harry sat back in relief, glad that Miles was going to pay for something. "So am I free to go?"

"Your property is being retrieved and should be delivered here any moment," Ding assured him. "Someone should be in momentarily to remove the anklet. After that, you are free to go."

"Thank you, Ding," Harry said, grateful tears in his eyes. "I don't know how I could have gotten through this without you."

"Thank me after you get my bill," Ding joked.

"You were worth every penny," Harry said fervently. "But I hope you don't take it personally if I tell you I hope never to see you again. In a professional capacity, at least."

Ding smiled. "I don't take it personally at all."

A knock sounded on the door, and an auror entered, carrying a bag. Harry signed a form indicating the return of his property, including his cell phone and his wand, the anklet was removed, and Harry all but ran from the building.

##########

When they returned to Snape's flat, Harry didn't want to go inside. He'd been cooped up for several days, and the sunshine on his face felt so wonderful. Severus convinced him to come inside by promising to pack a picnic supper which they could take wherever Harry wanted. Harry agreed, and Severus began to regret the offer when Harry asked him if he had a broom of his own. Severus didn't, but Harry soon rectified that by flooing to Diagon Alley to replace his own broom, lost in the fire, and to buy an identical model for Severus.

Harry had to hold himself back from zooming at top speed through they sky once he got on his broom – Severus wasn't as fond of flying as Harry was. He led his lover to the field he'd visited the night Lucius Malfoy had been killed, and they ate their picnic under the tree. After they'd eaten, they stretched out under the tree, snogging and talking and snogging some more. When it began to get dark, they packed up and returned to Severus's flat.

"It feels good to be free," Harry said with a sigh as he let himself fall onto the sofa.

"Will you be staying here with me until your flat is rebuilt?" Severus asked, sitting next to him.

"I'd like to," Harry said. "I can't wait to meet with the architect! Tomorrow I'm gonna call the guy I used before. I hope he can meet with me soon. I loved that place." He paused for a moment before saying shyly, "If things work out well, you know, between us . . . while my place is being rebuilt, I was wondering if you might want to move in there with me once it's done. Unless you really like living here. I'd understand, you know, if you didn't want to uproot yourself just for this . . . whatever it is."

Harry stared down at his hands as they fiddled with the hem of his shirt, unable to look at Severus while he waited for a response to his invitation.

"Harry," Severus finally said, and Harry gathered his courage and looked up. "This flat is nothing more than a place to rest my head at night. If things go as I hope they will with us, then whom I reside with is going to be so much more important than where I reside. If you still want me when the time comes, I will leave here without hesitation."

Harry beamed a bright smile at Severus. "Brilliant! Do you want to meet with the architect with me?"

"It is your home, Harry."

"But if you're living there, I want you to have some input into the design."

"I will be happy with whatever you decide. I told you the whom is more important than the where."

"Okay," Harry said happily, snuggling up against Severus' side. "But I'll show you the plans before I decide anything."

Snape drew him in closer.

"When are you going back to work?" Harry asked.

Severus sighed. "Monday, I suppose."

"You don't sound very excited."

"Your embarking on new challenges has made me rethink my own life, I suppose."

"You're not happy being an auror?"

"I've never really been happy at any profession," Severus confessed. "I was through with teaching, and Kingsley made me feel wanted and needed by the MLE, and I knew I'd be good at it, so it seemed a natural fit at the time."

"But not now?"

"I have become disenchanted with the system. Seeing the way it treated you, how it turned on you after all you have given. It has left a very bad taste in my mouth."

"What will you do?"

"I don't know as I will do anything," Severus confessed. "Being unhappy with one's lot does not mean that one has the resources or the options required to make a change."

Harry suddenly sat up straight. "I've just had the best idea ever! You should come with me! With us! With Ron and Hermione and me! In the new business! You'd be of so much assistance to us."

Severus stared at the boy, surprised by how much he liked the thought of that idea. "You don't think we'd grow tired of each other with that much exposure?"

Harry raised his eyebrows in a suggestive leer. "Just how much exposure are we talking about?"

"Down boy," Severus said with a smile. "Are you serious about this offer?"

"I'm very serious. You'd be an incredible asset. And you could be a full partner, with Ron and Hermione and me."

Severus didn't need to think about this – it just felt so right. "You are not intending to begin this endeavor for a number of months."

"True. You could stay with the Ministry until then, or if you really don't want to keep on with them, you can just quit and become a kept man. My kept man."

"Hmm, that sounds really intriguing. I'm really going to have to give some thought to my options now."

"You should opt to get over here and kiss me," Harry ordered. Severus was more than happy to comply.

##########

Finally, finally, the week was over. Snape had gone to work each day, putting in long hours and coming home exhausted. Harry had met with his architect and was busy going over design books and furniture catalogs and carpet samples. He had a builder lined up to begin construction on his flat in two weeks and another team already working on repairs to the flats that had been damaged in the explosion. All of his tenants should be back in their homes within a month. His own flat would take at least a month longer than that.

Harry had also revisited the shop where he'd bought his performing clothes, and he'd put together an outfit he thought Severus was really going to like.

He'd made Severus a nice dinner, which the two of them ate after Severus returned home at eight. Both were antsy with anticipation for what was to come later, and they couldn't clear away the remains of their dinner fast enough.

"Would you like to soak in a hot bath for a bit?" Harry asked solicitously. Snape looked exhausted.

"That sounds heavenly. I wish that the tub were large enough for two."

"The one in my flat will be," Harry promised. "But you look like you need the time alone in any event. You know, if you're too tired, we can postpone this to another time."

"I appreciate your consideration and understanding, but thinking about what we would be doing here tonight has been the only thing keeping me going this week."

"Good," Harry said, happy he wouldn't have to wait much longer. "I'll go run the bath."

##########

Harry surveyed himself in the full-length mirror in Snape's bedroom. He looked just as he had when he'd been performing. The trousers were made of a shiny lime green leather and had been difficult to pull on they were so tight. The well-defined bulge at his groin left no need for any imagination on anyone's part concerning exactly what Harry was packing. It began to grow and twitch as Harry studied himself, and he took a few calming breaths, knowing from experience that trying to sport a full erection in incredibly tight trousers was anything but a pleasurable experience.

The shirt was a black mesh sleeveless tee, through which Harry could see his nipples, which had hardened at the scratchy feel of the material. He adjusted the material slightly, which caused the hard little nubs to poke out between holes in the mesh.

Harry thought Severus would like the effect.

He sat down and began to apply the makeup he'd also purchased earlier this week. After rouging up his cheeks, he outlined his eyes with a black pencil. He then took another black pencil and outlined his lips, then filled them in with black lipstick. He changed out the diamond stud earring in his ear lobe (he'd liked the earring and had never stopped wearing one in his lobe even after his undercover assignment had ended) for an earring that looked like a blood drop, then fed two small hoops, connected by a fine chain, through the holes on the top of his ears. He'd thought those holes might have grown closed, as he had not been wearing earrings in them, but the new rings slipped right in.

The hair next. Harry squirted a quantity of mousse into his hand and ran it through the hair on the top of his head, making it stand up straight. He then used his wand to color the tips an iridescent green.

The final touch was a silver chain he'd found with a large clunky snake pendant and a leather bracelet which he placed around his left wrist.

He was ready.

He checked himself out in the mirror one more time and almost didn't recognize himself. He sat on the bed, waiting for Severus to emerge.

##########

When he did, Harry stood up, unaccountably nervous. He'd known that people found him attractive in this outfit – he'd had ample evidence of that during his undercover assignment. And Severus had asked him to dress up like this after all. Still, Harry didn't want to displease the man, not now, and despite how he thought he looked, he stood anxiously waiting for Severus' judgment.

Severus was tying the belt on his robe closed when he caught sight of the alluring young man in his bedroom. For the briefest of moments, Severus didn't recognize the tempting morsel, but of course it could only be Harry, his befuddled brain told him before he could make a fool of himself. His body became suddenly unable to function, and Severus' hands dropped to his sides, unaware that the belt he was tying came loose, allowing the sides of his robe to gape open and display his interest in this incredible specimen standing here, obviously nervous, though Merlin only knew why – he was . . . perfect.

"Liam Stockbridge," Severus breathed.

Harry looked down at his feet, anxiety overcoming his good sense. "Is it him you want, then?" he asked.

Severus tipped Harry's head up. "He is but one of the many facets of Harry Potter. I want to get to know them all. At some point, it is quite likely that I will want you in your Hogwarts uniform. I've a fantasy that involves a desk and the potions classroom. And then perhaps another time in your auror robes."

Harry's relieved smile beamed up at him. "So you . . . you like it then?"

"That would be an understatement," Severus said. "You look exquisite. Even better than I remember. May I touch you?"

"Only if I can return the favor," Harry said.

"Give me a head start," Severus requested. "This may take me some time."

Harry nodded his acceptance and vowed to himself to remain as still as possible while Severus explored.

Severus touched the ends of Harry's spiked hair as though afraid they may be sharp enough to cut. When he discovered they were not, he patted down the spikes and watched them return to their original position, amused. He then ran a finger over Harry's joined earrings, running his fingertip down the outer edge of Harry's ear until he reached the blood drop. Harry shivered.

Severus cupped Harry's face in both his large hands and studied the boy's face – the outlining that made the green eyes ever more vibrant. Those eyes were slitted now, but through those slits, Snape could see Harry's pupils blown wide with arousal. He rubbed his thumbs over the rouged cheekbones, then over the darkened lips. He wondered how they would taste, made up like this, and he leaned in to find out, but then stopped a hair's breadth away, teasingly.

Harry groaned in disappointed frustration.

Snape chuckled darkly, then turned his attention to the chain around Harry's neck. He picked up the snake pendant and studied it. Harry looked down, too, then said, in Parseltongue, "I thought of you when I bought it."

Severus shuddered and closed his eyes as the sibilant sounds washed over him. He'd always found the language of the snake incredibly arousing. He wondered if he'd made a mistake allowing Harry Potter to see just how deeply it affected him. But when he opened his eyes again, it was apparent that the younger man was just as deeply affected as Severus himself was. Severus decided he'd better finish his exploration before they both reached culmination too soon.

He dropped his hands to Harry's shoulders and felt the mesh rough on his palms. He flicked one exposed nipple, then the other, then ran his hands down Harry's sides.

Now for those intriguing trousers. They were just as interesting to touch as they were to look at, and Severus explored Harry's hips, and his tight arse, and then the enticing bulge in the front. Harry moaned almost painfully when Severus cupped that bulge, and the older man understood. "Would you like me to take these off?"

"Yes, please," Harry panted.

"How about the shirt first?"

Before Severus could react, Harry had whipped the shirt over his head.

"Eager, hmm?"

"You have no idea."

"Oh, I think I do." Severus undid the button on Harry's trousers and with a quick look of reassurance into those green eyes began to peel them off of Harry's frame. When he finally got them off, Harry stood before him in nothing but a snake pendant. Severus couldn't stop looking. "You are incredible."

"Is it my turn to touch now?" Harry asked, but didn't wait for permission before he was pushing Snape's robe to the floor. Reverently he cupped Snape's fully-erect member. "This is incredible," he said.

Severus had noted a distinct wobbliness of his knees, and he suggested, "Perhaps the bed?"

"I like that idea," Harry said. Since he was closer, he backed toward Severus' king-sized bed, pulling the taller man with him. When they reached the bed, Harry pulled Severus down on top of him. "When I imagined us doing this, I thought it would be a slow, luxuriant fuck. But I don't think I can wait any longer, Severus. I've wanted you too long. You go ahead and top first. I'll take my turn another time. Right now, I want to feel you filling me up."

Severus groaned. He, too, would have liked this first time to be slow and intimate and satisfying on a spiritual level. But he also felt the need building inside and knew that it wasn't going to wait much longer. They could do slow and sweet next time.

"I have something that I wanted to give you," Severus said, pressing his weight down onto Harry, creating a delicious cavern between their bodies into which they both thrust their aching need.

"Unless it's about this long," he said, pulling his hand along the length of Severus' member, "and about this big," he grasped Snape's cock in his fist, "can it wait until later?"

"I think it's going to have to," Snape confessed. He dipped his head down and kissed Harry soundly. When he pulled away, it was to summon the lube from his bedside table. "Let's prepare you."

Severus was as thorough at this as he was about everything else in his life. Harry didn't bottom much, and he was very tight, and it took some time for Severus to feel that the young man's body was ready for him. When that moment finally arrived, Severus tossed the lube off the bed. He positioned himself for entry, but when he looked up at Harry's face, wanting to see his eyes dilate further when Severus took him, he was surprised to find those green orbs swimming in tears.

"What is wrong? I have not even entered you, and I have hurt you?"

"No," Harry hastily assured. "It's not that. It's just . . . I've waited for this moment for so long. I'd given up hope, and now we're here, in your bed, and it's a bit overwhelming. Could you . . .? No, forget it, I'm sorry. Keep going. I'll stop being stupid.

"Tell me what you need, Harry," Severus requested.

"Could you just . . . hold me? Just for a moment?"

Severus gladly took the young man into his arms and held him close. They lay that way for a time while Harry got his wild emotions under control. "All right, I'm done being a girl," Harry declared. "Now I need you to fuck me into the flat downstairs."

Severus wasted no time obeying this edict. He re-lubricated himself, positioned himself at Harry's entrance, locked onto those green eyes, mercifully tear-free now, and began to ease himself into the tight tunnel. By the time he'd bottomed out, he was nearly ready to explode.

"This will not take long," he complained.

"Then make it count," Harry said. "Fuck me hard, Severus."

Severus began to move, slowly at first, then picking up steam until he was slamming into Harry's unprotesting body. All too soon, Severus felt himself reach the pinnacle and he began to ejaculate with long, deep strokes.

Harry hadn't got there yet, so he reached down to fist his own cock, pulling several times and then coming with a shout.

The two men lay there, panting and sated. "I think I'm going to sleep now," Harry said.

"Go ahead, pet," Severus said, smoothing Harry's green-tinged hair down while simultaneously pulling out of Harry's arse and casting a cleaning spell. "I shall be right here when you awaken."

##########

And he was. Harry woke up in the circle of Snape's arms, and he was overcome with emotion once again as he looked up at the sleeping man. He hoped he got used to this feeling soon – bursting into tears frequently would probably wear thin with the man in a very short time. He lifted his head and kissed the man softly on the cheek, and Snape's eyes fluttered open.

"Hi," Harry said, unable to contain the smile that blossomed on his face.

Severus stretched a bit beneath Harry, then said, "Hi yourself."

Harry snuggled back down. "That was better than I dreamed of," he said. "Thank you."

"The pleasure was all mine, I assure you." Snape placed a kiss on top of Harry's head. "Can we sit up?"

"Sure," Harry said, though he would have preferred to keep cuddling. He scooted up so that he was sitting against the headboard. Snape sat up as well, then leaned away from Harry to retrieve something from the drawer of his bedside stand. He sat back up with a parcel wrapped in brown paper in his lap.

"This is for you," he said, but he did not hand it to Harry.

"Um, thanks," Harry said, slightly confused.

"I felt so badly when you lost everything in the fire. I could not replace your father's cloak or that infernal map, but I could do something about this." He ran a hand over the package. "I'm sure it's not complete, but I did the best I could. I hope that you like it."

Harry smiled encouragingly at him when Snape still didn't give him the package. He could see that Snape was reluctant to hand the gift over, probably unsure of its reception. Harry could have told him that if Severus had given him a box of dirt, he would have cherished it.

Finally, Snape lifted the package from his lap and handed it to Harry. Harry smiled at him again, set it in his own lap, and removed the brown wrapper. Inside he found a leather-bound book. Before opening it, he smiled up at Snape again.

Harry opened the cover and stopped breathing. Photos. There were photos here of his parents, the same photos which had been in the photo album that Hagrid had given him all those years ago. As he paged through, Harry didn't even try to stop the tears. He'd thought the photos were gone forever, but here they were again, returned to him by a man that he was now certain he loved beyond reason. He thought about telling Snape that, but figured he'd scare the man straight out of his own flat if he voiced that sentiment already. Instead he said, "How did you do this?"

"I remembered Hagrid going on and on in the staff room about how he'd written to friends and acquaintances of your parents for photographs. I floo called him and asked him for the names of those that he had contacted. He provided them to me, and I contacted them again, hoping that they still had the original photos and could make additional copies. They did, and . . . here we are."

Harry looked up at Severus. "You must have started this right after the fire, before we even . . . before there was anything between us."

"Yes," Severus confessed, looking embarrassed. "The idea occurred to me the day after you lost your home."

"So you were going to do this for me even before we became involved, when we were just co-workers?"

Severus nodded. "It saddened me terribly to think that the only remaining items you had from your parents had been destroyed. As I said, the cloak and the map were one-of-a-kind items, but the photographs I had a chance of replacing. And also . . . although I know that you cannot replace Boris, when you are ready to find another friend, I would like to provide that to you as well."

Harry closed the photo album before his copious tears dropped on the photos and ruined them. "Thank you, Severus. This means so much to me."

"I did not receive return correspondence from a couple of the people that I contacted, so it's possible that a few more photos may still remain, but I think most of them are there."

"It's perfect, just the way it is," Harry assured him. He set the book aside, heaved himself over Severus so that he was straddling the man's lap, and kissed him soundly. "Thank you."

Snape ran his hands over Harry's bare back and bottom. "You are welcome, although I could not have done it without Hagrid's assistance."

"I hope you don't mind if I don't thank Hagrid the way I intend to thank you."

"I would quite frankly be rather upset if you did."

Harry kissed Snape again. "I'm a little hungry. You want some of those biscuits?"

"No, thank you. But you should help yourself."

"I'm going to go get them and eat them in bed," Harry proposed. "Then I'm going to go hunting for the crumbs. And if you're not too tired, I'm going to return the favor and bugger you until you can't remember your own name."

"That sounds like a most acceptable plan. Try not to be too long. I might have to start without you."

Harry smiled widely, then picked up the album, rubbing his hand reverently over the cover. "Thank you, Severus. I love . . . it. Very much." Phew! Harry thought. That was close. Good save, Harry.

"You are very welcome. Now go. The biscuits will not bring themselves to you. Oh wait – yes, they will. Accio chocolate biscuits." Severus held up his hand, and moments later the packet of biscuits was sailing into it. He thrust them at Harry.

"I love magic," Harry proclaimed as he dug in.

##########

Prologue (364 days later):

"I'm sorry I'm late," Harry called as he rushed through the door of the flat he'd shared with Severus since it had been rebuilt following the explosion that had claimed his prior home. The flat had been redesigned much along the same lines as his previous home, with a few improvements, such as a bigger rooftop garden, including a hot tub big enough for four but which only ever contained two, a small fireplace in the bedroom, and a larger fireplace in the sitting room which was glassed in and viewable from all four sides. Harry had also put more thought into the kitchen, since he intended to be home a lot more now that he wasn't on the prowl while waiting for his true love, and it contained the most modern Muggle appliances and conveniences. He and Severus both liked to cook, and the kitchen was the most used room in the house, rivaled only by the bedroom.

A large gray cat sauntered across the room in greeting. "Hola, Manuel," Harry greeted him. True to his word, Severus had brought the cat home from the shelter the day after he'd moved in with Harry, and he'd become the instant head of the family. Content now that both of his subordinates were present and accounted for, the cat butted his head against Harry's shin and wove around his ankles as Harry went in search of his lover.

Harry stopped short when he entered the dining room. The table was set with their best dinnerware, crystal goblets gleaming on the white tablecloth. Candles flittered in their silver holders, and a bowl of lilies occupied the center.

"Severus?" he asked, stunned by what he was seeing. "Are you here?"

The man himself appeared from the kitchen, wearing an apron that Harry had given him that ordered the reader to Kiss the Cook. "I'm here," he said. "Welcome home."

After Harry had obeyed the apron, he said, "Sorry I'm late. The Cantwells are a little thick. I had to explain the system to them three times, and I still won't be surprised if they call with questions when they arm it tonight."

"You are forgiven," Severus assured him, pulling the younger man into his embrace, tucking Harry's head under his chin and inhaling his rich and familiar scent.

"What's all this?" Harry asked into his chest.

"This," said Severus, "is a celebration."

"Of anything in particular?"

"Of us. It has been one year today."

Harry looked up at Severus. "It has? One year today since . . . what?"

"Since you and I consummated this relationship."

"Oh," Harry said, snuggling back into his lover's embrace. "That's nice."

Severus stiffened a little in Harry's arms. "I thought it an occasion worth celebrating."

"Of course it is," Harry assured him, pulling away again to ensure Severus saw how earnest he was. "It's just . . . I'm not sure how I would have picked a date to represent the start of our relationship. I'd wanted you for a long time, since I was in sixth year probably. And then there was that night at the club, when you . . . you know, helped me. Although I guess that doesn't count, since there really wasn't anything between us, although it did mean a great deal to me, at least. And then there was the night that we decided to give us a go and to wait until I was free, before we did anything about it. And then there was That Night." Harry referred to it with capital letters. "So I guess I just see the start of our relationship being a progression of time and not just one date. But the night you first fucked me works for an anniversary, I guess. It was certainly the happiest day of my life up to that point."

Severus kissed Harry on the forehead. "Admirable job digging yourself out of that hole, young man."

Harry smiled at Severus. "Can I tell you something?"

"As long as it is not, 'I'm leaving you, Severus,' you may tell me whatever you like."

"It's not that. Never that," Harry assured him. "It's something that I've been thinking for as long as I can remember, and it's something I should have said long before now. I've wanted to say it every day for a year, but I wasn't sure if you were ready to hear it, and I didn't want to scare you away if you weren't. It's something . . ."

"I love you," Severus blurted out, interrupting the young man's seemingly endless monologue.

Harry stopped, stunned. "That's what I was going to say!" he complained.

"And now I have said it first," Severus said smugly. "In the annals of our relationship, let it be known that Severus Snape said 'I love you' first."

"I knew I should have said it yesterday," Harry said with a smile. "You may have said it first, but I'm certain I thought it first."

"You are probably right," Severus conceded. "I am remarkably slow when it comes to matters of the heart. But once I become aware of my feelings, I act on them immediately."

"Immediately? So you only became aware that you love me two and a half minutes ago?"

"Well, immediate may be a relative term in this context."

"So tell me when, then?"

"I believe it was when I had that stomach flu several months ago. I vomited on your shoes, remember?"

"I'm not likely to forget that!"

"You were more concerned about me than about the fact that I'd soiled your shoes. You cleaned me up and put me to bed, and you cared for me more tenderly than my own mother would have. I believe it was then that I knew that I had something special in you, and I realized that what I felt for you was more than gratitude, much more."

"So you bonded with me over vomit?" Harry asked with a mischievous grin.

"You are an unusual person, Harry Potter. Nothing normal ever happens around you, does it?"

"No, I suppose not. But I don't care how it happened, as long as it did. Why didn't you say something before?"

"For much the same reason you didn't, I expect. It is surprisingly terrifying to voice that sentiment for the first time when you are not completely sure how it will be received."

"How could you have doubted I'd be anything but thrilled to hear you say that? You know I would die for you, right?"

"Perhaps," Severus said with a put-upon, long-suffering sigh. "But despite the fact that I told you I loved you four minutes ago, you still have not said it in return. I am beginning to wonder just exactly who you do feel."

Harry kissed Severus with every bit of love he felt for the man. When he stopped, he whispered, "You'll never have to wonder again, Severus Snape, because I intend to tell you I love you every day of my life from here on out. I love you, Severus. I love you."

Severus kissed Harry this time, and when that kiss ended, he said, "It's funny you should mention the word 'bonded.' Because I was wondering – " Severus pulled away from Harry, removed something from his trouser pocket, and dropped to one knee. "Would you do me the honor of bonding with me, Harry Potter?" He extended a gold band toward Harry. Manuel, who had been lacing himself around both their legs the entire time they'd been there, stood up on his hind legs, his paws on Severus' knee, to get a better look at whatever it was his men were going on about.

Harry's bottom jaw dropped. Nowhere in his imagination could he have thought that Severus would propose. Hell, if he was being completely honest, he'd have to confess that he hadn't even remembered that today was their anniversary, and he was quite astonished that Severus had. He was not normally a sentimental man. And then to find that the man had gone out and bought him a ring and was down on his knees right now, waiting for an answer to the most important question anyone had ever asked him.

Oh – he was waiting for an answer!

"Yes, Severus. God, yes!" He dropped to his knees to put himself level with his lover. He leaned in to kiss Severus excitedly, nearly toppling the man over backward in his enthusiasm.

Severus broke away from the kiss to place the ring on Harry's finger. "There," he said with some satisfaction. "Mine."

"Always," Harry assured him solemnly, cupping the beloved man's cheek with his hand. "For as long as I can remember and until the day that I die." He couldn't resist kissing him again, until finally Severus complained about his knees. Harry popped to his feet, then gave Severus a hand up.

"I've made dinner," Severus said.

"The table looks lovely."

"Then might I suggest you go sit, and I will be out directly."

"Can't I help?"

"Thank you, but I do not require assistance."

So Harry sat at the table and smiled and sniffed the air appreciatively when Severus delivered two crocks of French onion soup to the table. "First course," he said, sliding into the chair opposite Harry.

Harry reached across the table and covered Severus' hand with his own. Severus turned his hand over so that he could lace his fingers through Harry's. "Thank you, Severus." He looked down at the new piece of jewelry adorning his finger. "For everything."

"No, Harry," Severus said. "Thank you. If you had not had the fortitude to wait out my stubborn insistence that I felt nothing for you, we would not be here today. I would not have this incredibly fulfilling relationship, and I would not be soon bonded to the only person I have ever loved. I look back on all the roads I have taken in my life, all the wrong turns, all the stretches that seemed endless and desolate, the detours and the dead ends, and I realize that I wouldn't have it any other way if they all led me here to you, to this moment." He raised his wine glass to toast his young lover.

"Good thing I'm such a pain in the arse, huh?" Harry said with a happy smile.

"Yes," Severus agreed. "But you are my pain in the arse. Forever."

The end

47