Disclaimer: Harry Potter, etc. J.K Rowling, Warner Brothers, and probably a million other people; no profit is being made from this fan production, no disrespect is intended to the original creators. I'm only having fun with them. I promise not to damage them. Much.

Summary: Harry feels lost after Voldemort's demise, and seeks a comfort that Draco doesn't want him to have.

Notes: *peeks up* This is the first *long* bit of fiction my co-writer and I have put together for the Harry Potter Fandom. Expect the other three parts to be released as soon as we're done reading over it ^^;

Other stories can be found: http://www.rpgplug.co.uk/Asylum/potter/hp.html


Precious Illusions

Part I

By Kat Reitz and Tzigane

       

Flashes of memory haunted at his mind, dancing in the darkness as if flickers of grayed firelight. The pain of the moments he'd been ready to swear had been his last; the torture, slow and gradual, that had been the simple sustainment of duality in those final weeks. To bear Voldemort's touch, to feel the burn of the mark on his arm, even though it was gone now...

Even though the mark wasn't there, he could feel it. All of it, from the Cruciatus curse, down to the things he'd had to do as paraded shows of his devotion. And not a lick of gratitude from anyone for it -- though he understood that even in the aftermath's relative safety, it wasn't possible. Spies were spies -- willing to pose as being for one cause while working for another, men cloaked in mist who weren't supposed to be unhappy with their lot in life.

He'd done it because Albus had asked him. Why should he have denied the then Transfiguration professor such aid against an evil force? If someone had a use for him... Albus was probably lucky that he'd asked it of Severus in his second year. It had begun then, early, the steady nursing of a dark spot within his heart, a sharpening of razor-blade sarcasm and cruelty. And with the information he'd fed Good, they'd stayed enough steps ahead of Voldemort to hang on until it happened.

A boy, nothing more than a baby, killed the Dark Lord. Severus had been freed of the servitude that had been draining his soul, and told what he'd been doing -- that he was really a spy, that...

Not that anyone truly believed him. It was, in the end it seemed, a matter of simple coloring. Lucius was believed to have been under the control of the puppeting spell, along with his beautiful wife -- they *never* would've believed that if Snape had said it. Perhaps the darkness was still in their eyes, but Severus *seemed* dark. He looked evil to the other wizards, and their relative distrust of him was based off of that once combined with what he'd been doing.

A favor repaid in the true form of the world -- Albus had coaxed him to give over most of his soul, and for the service he rendered good he was barely tolerated. Better, he supposed, to be the hated Potions master than some trembling shell in Azkaban.

Not that he felt any stronger at the moment than one of them.

"Drink your tea, Severus," Albus coaxed quietly. It wasn't an order, but a *heavy* suggestion, and the mental brush that there might be repercussions if he didn't. Funny, the sort of command those twinkling eyes held behind them, a simmering power that had first gained Severus's tenuous trust. Dumbledore was no more the idiot he played at some times than Remus Lupin was a normal wizard. "You look ill."

"I am well." The snap in his voice seemed faded, the words not believed at all. Severus felt Dumbledore's frown, and went on with a teeth-gritting, "As well as I've ever been."

"Are you lying more to me, I wonder, or yourself," Albus mused aloud, though his tones were that same ear-softening roll that it had always been. Yes, Severus knew why he trusted the headmaster so greatly. There was a use for him at Hogwarts, protection from all sorts of things.

Himself most of all.

"You're wasting away, Severus. I actually heard a few students commenting that you seem ill. And for your condition to concern *them*, well..." Watery blue eyes seemed to spark like aquamarines, and Albus reached across his desk to grasp Snape's hands. He was clutching at his cup with both of them, hunched miserably in his chair, yet not moving.

"They're hoping that now that He is gone I'll fade away in His wake," Severus muttered bitterly, the sibilant voice shaking like the fingers Dumbledore had put his hands over. Funny, how Snape didn't even seem to hear how he spoke of Voldemort -- the respect, hatred and *fear* conjured up in a simple 'He'. Severus sounded like Lucius had when he'd been sentenced to Azkaban.

The dark mark that had burned beneath the flesh of his arm for so long was gone. The ministry had been aware of the spy moving amongst the Death Eaters this time, and there had been none of the tortuous inquiry over his actions that there had been the first time.

The first time the dark mark had faded to just a wisp.

Perhaps it wasn't over. He could feel it there, or the ghost of it. And this time, there would be no sanctuary for him, no chance at spying. The Death Eaters would aim for him, when they reorganized, for his betrayal of them, for *living* and being free while there were those in Azkaban. The celebrations of the past two weeks seemed futile to him, the cheer misplaced -- because there was no way to *know* that it was over for sure. So perhaps it was Voldemort's wake that was killing him.

When he drew his hands back, with the cup still clutched in unsteady fingers, to take a drink, Albus settled back again, sure that Snape had only taken that sip to be relieved of the agony of contact. "Your students don't truly hate you, Severus. It's just the way of children to not *want* to understand a teacher with your methods."

"They'd much rather be zooming around wasting their time at Quidditch, or playing zoo-keeper with the groundskeeper," he muttered, looking down into the cup and *startling* when he realized that Dumbledore had made it reflective. The smooth surface was showing him his thinned face, marked harder with lines than ever before, frowning at the image. Warmed liquid spilled over his fingers, and with a muttered curse he set the cup back down on the desk -- *hoping*, spitefully, that it would leave a ring on the aged wood.

"You see, Severus? You look *ill*." The headmaster had already made a gesture of his wand and effortlessly cleaned the spill. Not that he even needed the wand. Severus suspected at that point it was simply habit that made the Headmaster still carry it. "Please, for the sake of friendship and your *health*, tell me why."

/You *know*,/ he wanted to accuse. Albus didn't have to ask anything of him, because it shoved on his face for the other man to see -- easy to read as a clean sheet of parchment. "You know the circumstances," he replied once he'd sat back in the chair once more, folding his hands calmly in his lap to hide their unsteadiness. The cloak of coolness he tried to wrap himself up in was as tattered as his wizards' robes had been when he'd been found.

That was where it had started, the noticeable decline. A week of being missing, and unable to be found, after he'd left to attend an assembly of Death Eaters.

Albus had seen none of the events, only the aftermath when he'd come in with ministry Aurors at his back, to find the hall emptying out. It was only after the area was secure that Snape and Harry Potter had been found. Snape was laying, like a dog, half-under the high table at the foot of Voldemort's chair. Naked and curled up in the rags that were poor remainders of his robes, blood matting his hair, obscuring his face; the narrow, well-used body was caught in a rictus of lingering pain from the Cruciatus curses that had probably been heaped atop it. And right beside him was Harry, fainted dead away and drained with effort from what he had done to Voldemort and the curses he'd cast to hold the Death Eaters off of them.

"Just because I know the circumstances, Severus, does not necessarily mean that I'm aware of how to right them. But, to nag at you wasn't why I called you here." Severus watched the headmaster smile when visible relief rushed through him. All he wanted was to be left alone...

"I think you need to have a short vacation from the school, Severus," Dumbledore went on.

Vacation? No! Just because he was falling apart inside, it didn't mean that he couldn't teach still, that he couldn't be trusted to do what was expected of him... None of that protest rose to the potions master's lips, however. He simply thinned them darkly. "So I'm to be dismissed less than a month before the Christmas holiday?" he hissed, drawing himself to his feet. "Proper payment, I suppose. Did the Ministry tell you to do this, Albus, or did you reach this conclusion yourself...?" What had he done *wrong* in his life to deserve such... such...

"A vacation over the Christmas Holiday, Severus," Dumbledore said patiently, still sitting calmly in his desk. "Please, sit back down. Finish your tea, and I'll tell you -- would you like a lemon drop?"

"I'll have to decline," he sneered automatically, folding back in on himself as he sat down once more, and picked up the cup with an unsteady hand. Somewhere in his moments of thought, Headmaster Dumbledore had heated the tea up. And removed the reflection spell.

When Severus looked up from the first sip, to see if he was being watched, Albus had pulled out a quill and sheet of parchment, working on something. But he wasn't looking at Snape, and that was all the man needed to be assured of. His hatred of being watched had increased a thousand-fold since his last day of parading as a Death Eater. Despite being in the same room with Albus, without the man's eyes on him he could relax more, deceive himself that he was alone when he wasn't. It helped him finish his drink.

And it wasn't until the cup was set down upon wood again that Severus realized that it was probably tainted because he felt hungry, and he hadn't wanted to eat since he'd come back to Hogwarts. The edges of his mouth twisted upwards in a bitter smile that looked more like a grimace as he fixed dull black eyes on the Headmaster. "If I asked, you'd have already had a dinner prepared for me, wouldn't you?"

"Actually, Severus..." Albus tilted his head a little, signing his name at the bottom of the sheet of parchment. A gesture, and a plate appeared right atop the cup, laden with food that he knew the other man enjoyed. "You're right. Now, eat and we'll discuss this plan. Minerva thinks it's a remarkable idea, and I couldn't agree any more."

The Potions Master sat back in the chair again, after picking up one pre- buttered roll. He chewed lazily as Albus started to talk. The magically induced hunger probably wouldn't go away until he finished the plate, laden with breads and meats, and a little pudding in the corner. The Headmaster was cruel that way, and Severus was used to following the whimful orders of others, no matter how well or badly intended. /Some of us exist to be leaders, others followers. And I know where my place is./

"A field-trip for the fifth-years and older," Albus told him, eyes skimming over the parchment sheet he held. A Permission Slip. Snape almost choked on the mouthful of bread he was chewing as it sunk in. Dumbledore went on, un fazed. "Those who've already said they were staying over Christmas. To Glastonbury, to spend a week living amongst the muggles. Now, a lot of the muggles in Glastonbury like to pretend that they're not, which will make it a great deal easier for a group of Hogwarts students to blend in. No one will bat an eye at any of you."

"This is not a *vacation*, Albus -- I'd thought you were going to allow me to *avoid* the students for the holiday..." His fingers clutched around the piece of roll he still held, angry clenched close inside of him.

"I know. But it isn't wise for you to lock yourself away," Dumbledore told him in a tone that didn't chide in the least. "You'll enjoy this, Severus. You will, I assure you. Minerva will be watching the Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, and Slytherins, since there are so few of them that will be attending. And you will be watching over the Gryffindors."

It was amusing, in a sick sort of way, that the bravest house of students were the ones who were least wanted in their parents' company. Or least afforded...

"I don't suppose there's some chance Potter will be going home over Christmas Vacation, is there...?"

       

"I heard Dumbledore saying to Professor McGonagall that there was going to be a *treat* for us over Christmas," Ron beamed, as he, Harry, and Hermione walked the seemingly long hall and stairwell down to the dungeons and the Potions Classroom. It was a walk reminiscent, every time, of the walk to the executioner's chair that Ron had read of in some of the Real-Crime novels Hermione had given him to read the previous summer.

"I wonder," Hermione said slowly. "They've never done anything like this before, and we've all been here for Christmas before now. Especially Harry," she finished, glancing over at the green-eyed wizard. He'd gotten somewhat taller in the last year, and quieter, if that was at all possible. Especially since the ostensible death of Voldemort...

Harry only shrugged, though. "Maybe he thinks we need a little something uplifting after... after everything." 'Everything' was a loose referral to what he'd seen going on before... before that *awful* man had died. Before he'd killed him. Before...

Before he'd seen things darker than his friends could wrap their minds around, *felt* things darker and more harmful than anything that had happened yet. Before Everything. B.E. -- it should've been an abbreviation to put on calendars, to explain the years that had existed before that chill Halloween Evening.

"Fred and George are betting that they're bringing in a band," Ron suggested. "Like they did last year -- the ball, remember?" But it was hard to remember the ball without remembering Cedric. The first of many that followed, after the first hard and fast strike against the school on Halloween.

"Have you asked anyone to the Yule Ball yet, Harry?" Hermione's gaze slanted towards him. "If you don't hurry up, there'll be no one left to ask!"

He hadn't asked anyone, and he wasn't particularly interested in going. How could he tell them that, though? Both of them were quite pleased with going, and were also excited to be going *together*. It was a little odd to him, because they were all *friends*, but he supposed that if they were happy, he was happy that they were.

"Of *course* he hasn't," a cool voice interrupted. "Potter hasn't got what it requires to get a date, especially after that last fiasco, hm, Potter?"

"Go away, Malfoy," Ron snapped, without even having to look back over his shoulder at the boy who had probably been creeping up behind them the entire time. "Like anyone wants to go with *you* after what your parents turned out to be!" The doors of the dungeons loomed near before them -- there was no crowd outside, so Snape was probably letting the class filter in. Which meant he was busy, probably with some potion or other, and that class *might* get left alone in their work.

If he was going to tell Malfoy off properly, though, he knew he'd be best to do it *outside* those doors. "Your family turned out to be Death Eaters, and look where it got them, Draco *Malfoy*! So you shouldn't think you've got what it 'requires' to get a date, either."

The pale face turned even whiter, gray eyes becoming liquid silver that shot out heated sparks as he paused in front of all of them, mouth turned down. "That's right, and maybe you should watch your mouth, because Voldemort might be gone, but all of the Death Eaters are *not*."

"Ron, you shouldn't bait the Slytherins -- we'll be late to class, and we don't want to lose any points," Hermione said firmly, grasping the red-head's arm in a grasp that could've bent steel.

"They should give up and know they're *wrong*," Ron called over his shoulder as Hermione started to drag him forwards. "Com'on, Harry."

With a last glance at Malfoy as they all slipped into Potions, Harry moved along with Ron and Hermione to settle in at one of the tables. He began to remove all of his Potions equipment from his bag with precision, glancing around to see if everyone was present. It seemed that everyone *was* -- everyone but Snape and the few students who'd been actively involved with the Death Eaters, like Crabbe and Goyle. It surprised him, still, that Malfoy remained at Hogwarts, and he wished Dumbledore would get rid of him. He was a danger, of that much, he was sure. After all, Ron was right. His family *had* been high among the Death Eaters....

Harry had seen what Lucius was capable of doing, what *Narcissa*, Draco's mother, was capable of doing... and Draco was only steps from that in his books. But Dumbledore had reasons for everything, and was usually right in the end. After all, those students who'd been active in the Death Eaters were gone now, imprisoned like Sirius had been--

"We'll be working on the different forms of sleeping potions today, class -- once I've finished with a piddling bit of business that doesn't concern most of you," Snape announced, sweeping out of his office with a folder and a few books in his hands, that he set atop his worktable. The folder was snapped up, and he scanned the mixed class that stood before him. "When I call your name, come get your permission slip. Your name won't be called if your family loves you and desires your presence over the Holiday season."

At that, several of the Slytherins laughed, and no few fingers were pointed in Harry's direction. It made Ron's red hair nearly stand on end, and he gave a little snarl, but once again that hand of steel was on him. "Don't lose any points," Hermione hissed as Snape began calling names.

"Bastards," Ron muttered softly. "And he's the biggest, one right there at the front of the room..."

"No jeering, Slytherins," Snape said blandly, not really chastising at all as he called students up. "A great deal of people have lost their parents this year -- they'll have the chance to attend this... trip along with those whose parents don't want them -- Draco, come get your slip. That's the last of the Slytherins. Please get this signed by your parent or Guardian and return it to me a week from now. Your chaperon will be Professor McGonagall."

"Why can't we have you, sir?" Malfoy asked as he took his own slip, frowned at it, and stuck it into some pocket that couldn't be easily seen. "Why do we have to have McGonagall?"

"Because the Headmaster saw fit to make *me* the Chaperon of the Gryffindors," Snape replied, his voice somehow *less* cold simply because he was speaking to Malfoy. The bravado was there still in the young man, yet it would fade as Draco Malfoy had time to realize what and why exactly his parents were imprisoned. "Dumbledore will sign your sheet for you, Mr. Malfoy -- it's simply Ministry round-about. Now, there are a surprising number of Gryffindors that I didn't expect to see staying this holiday season. Ms. Granger, would you like to get your sheet?"

Hermione let go of Ron to move closer to Snape, passing Malfoy on the way. He studiously avoided touching her, and for that, she was glad. There was something about Slytherins that made anyone with any *sense* feel the slightest bit paranoid, and she'd just as soon not have to touch one! "Thank you, Professor," she said almost primly, holding out her hand.

"You might as well give Potter and Weasley theirs, Ms. Granger, and lessen the chances of one of you knocking something delicate over," he told her rather briskly, handing her all three forms. Oh, he *still* insulted Harry, but it was noticeable to at least Hermione that he didn't make *eye* contact with Harry anymore. Just general insults about Harry's work quality directed to the class at large. "I expect *no* trouble from the three of you during this trip."

"Yes, Professor," Hermione replied sweetly before heading back up to the tables.

"As if it's possible for them to stay *out* of it," Malfoy muttered just loud enough for them to hear. "Potter's a magnet when it comes to problems."

"We'll see what you say when Professor McGonagall doesn't let you get away with the things the head of *your* house lets you get away with," Ron hissed, before handing Harry his form, once Hermione had given him his. "I don't even want to imagine a week trapped somewhere with Snape..."

The Potions master let the chatter rise, as he turned his back to the students and started to write a list of ingredients on the board to one side of his work-table.

"I think *you'll* have more to worry about than *me*, Weasel. How on earth will the lot of you manage? Your parents obviously don't want you at home. All of those red heads and freckles. It'll be like a little sea of leprechauns," Malfoy sniffed.

"Ferrets have no right to call names, Malfoy," Harry told him coolly. "And you don't *have* parents anymore."

Again, there came that pallor, that shifting fury, but it didn't stop Draco. "You lack sense and sympathy, Potter. I suppose you'll get that ex-Azkaban guardian of yours to allow you to go."

"No *jeering* -- do I have to say it more than *twice*?" Snape gritted out over the scratch of chalk on the board. Class would pass so much quicker if they would simply *not* start things. "Five points from Slytherin, twenty from Gryffindor -- talk amongst yourselves only, or the entire *class* will find themselves with Paralyzed Lips until it's time for you to leave!"

Malfoy grimaced, but it stopped the conversation, and the lot of them went to copying notes down from the board quietly, then, interrupted only by the steady sound of scratching quills.

A note found its way to Harry's table, and he frowned, not quite sure whether to open it or not. Finally, he flicked it open and glanced down.

/Harry, it's not nice to taunt Malfoy. He's a jerk, but it just gets us into trouble and loses points. Do try to ignore him? -H./

How very Hermione. Some things *never* seemed to change.

"You've an hour to make this properly." Snape declared, tapping the board once for emphasis on what he'd written. "Don't foul it up. One of you will have to test what you make on yourselves, so do your utmost to not kill yourselves."

"Wonderful," Ron muttered half to himself as he started searching through his things for moths wings to powder. "Testing a sleeping potion right before Divinations class."

"At least we won't miss anything if we sleep through it," Harry murmured with a shrug, dragging out mortar and pestle. "There's a Grim after *you* this week, isn't there?"

"You're both silly," Hermione said as Snape began pairing them together for work.

"The numbers are off," Snape muttered, only half-aloud as he counted them all again in his mind. Too many Slytherins were gone, too many Gryffindors... "Ms. Granger, you may work by yourself to even out the pairings. Or the three of you could all work together -- then, perhaps, Potter, you can create a potion that works?" Long fingers alighted on the desk top as the Potions master stopped almost impatiently beside their desk. "I'm feeling lenient, so the decision is yours, Ms. Granger."

"Together, thank you, Professor," Hermione replied.

"She'd say thank you even if he'd just chopped off her fingertips to make potion-sausages," Ron muttered under his breath, grinning at her.

"Ten points, Gryffindor, Weasley -- Ms. Granger's hands have better uses than sitting in a stew. Your useless digits now..." Snape seemed to swoop towards Harry and Ron, and caught the redhead's fingers between the table and the heel of one bony palm. "Perhaps we could sacrifice."

"Ow! Let go!" Ron whimpered, trying to drag his hand back without knocking anything over.

"They're definitely not worth much, as he's a Weasley..." someone muttered, and laughter followed from the Slytherins.

Snape lifted his hand, and let Ron pull his poor right hand against his body as if it were truly wounded.

And against his better judgement, he directed words to Harry for the first time in long weeks. "You're quiet, Potter." Never 'Mr.' Potter. Well, not often -- sometimes it slipped free out of habit. Mr. Potter was James, and Harry... was simply Potter. "Concentrating?"

"It *is* class time, sir," Harry pointed out calmly. Mostly, he just didn't want to *think* right now, didn't want to think about the things he'd seen, or the possibility that he might have to see them again if people like Malfoy still existed.

"Surprising," was all the Professor replied, tapping his fingers idly on the table for a moment. "I trust you'll be good on this trip, Potter." The chill in his voice seemed muddied, tired from overuse, and the Potions master sensed he was losing his commanding presence and chose then to withdraw. It was hard to be truly commanding with a student who'd seen him...

/Don't even think about it, Severus, or you won't be able to complete your own potion properly./ Rather than looming up and down the aisles, he retreated to his worktable to set about doing what the students were. None of them even noticed that sleeping draughts weren't supposed to be taught yet, and he was glad of that. He'd only wanted an excuse to make some, unquestioned, for his own use, and Granger's could be used, too, perfectionist that she was.

"Creepy," Ron whispered to his best friend, passing the lizard blood bottle to Harry. "Just creepy."

"Yeah," Harry agreed quietly. "Yeah..."

       

The holidays seldom seemed to go right for Harry. His letter hadn't yet gotten a reply (which mean there was no signature on his now-missing slip) and the other Gryffindors were pestering him over the matter of the date he needed to find for the Yule Ball.

Ginny was smiling at him a great deal now, beaming at him from her pretty freckled face and under red bangs. Ron and Hermione spent a great deal of time either sniping back and forth at each other while all three of them studied, or flirting over Harry's head.

"You could... ask Cho again, Harry," Ron coaxed softly, prodding his friend's arm as he worked on a report about redwort leaves for Potions class. Each student had been given a completely separate topic in a blatant attempt to curb anyone from helping anyone else on the assignment. It all just made it seem like too much work so close to the holidays.

One more day, and the Yule Ball. Two more days, and the school would empty out. Five, and they'd go out of Hogwarts and into the muggle world that he knew better than most.

"I think she's already got a date," Harry said vaguely, preferring not to discuss it. He didn't want to go with *anyone*, truth be told. All interest in the opposite sex seemed to have faded, and he was a tad morose about it. Weren't boys his age supposed to be wildly hot for every woman they saw? Only he wasn't. He had begun to worry that this was something to do with his Aunt Petunia and some weird sort of Freudian psychosis, but he had decided that if it came down to it, he'd rather be *queer* than be in love with someone like her... although admittedly, that was just as bad.

"She does. The only one who seems to be left without one is Pansy Parkinson. Even Ginny has a date as of this morning," Hermione announced quietly. "She got tired of waiting for you to ask, I expect, Harry."

"Well... You can still hang around with Hermione and me," Ron offered softly, smiling a little for his friend's sake. Frankly, Harry's withdrawal worried him and pressed him at every chance to get Harry doing *things*, silly things, with them. "We can get tricks down in Hogsmeade and leave them around at the ball and watch..."

"Mmmm," Harry answered, working on his own report quietly. What on earth could have possessed Snape to give him something on basilisks? Not that he didn't have some passing familiarity with the monsters since he'd run into one his second year at Hogwarts...

"Or we could run a line of your underwear in a cotillion through the Great Hall as the rest of us dance beneath," Hermione said lightly.

"That sounds nice," was Harry's absent-minded answer.

"He's not paying any attention, Ron. Best just to leave it."

"I don't want to leave it," Ron sigh, patting his friend's shoulder lightly to get his attention. "Harry. Harry, you can wake up now, you know -- we've been out of Divinations class for hours." Professor Trelawny had been particularly wild -- predicting numerous horrible accidents over vacation, no few numbers of death, and funnily enough, romance for Harry.

Anything that came out of that woman's mouth was as likely to happen as Dumbledore shaving his beard.

"Sorry," Harry apologized. "Did you say something about a cotillion? What's a *cotillion*?"

"A dance," Hermione informed him primly. "One you aren't going to get to do if you don't find someone to take."

"I'm really not interested. Really. I don't have to dance the opening dance this year, so..."

"And thank Merlin for *that*," Malfoy interrupted, promptly sitting upon the tabletop where their work was stretched. "Really, Potter. I think both of your feet aren't just left, perhaps they're backwards, also."

"Just when I didn't think things could get any less interesting, you show up, Malfoy," Ron muttered, flicking ink from the tip of his quill at the boy. "Don't you have homework to do? Or professors to suck up to?"

"Since it's the holidays, I'd suspect he's all sucked out," Hermione said lightly. "Harry, why don't we go to the common room now? It will be *much* quieter there."

"Running, Granger? How very unlike a Gryffindor," the Slytherin said sweetly. "Bravery, stupidity, and all. The only one left to ask is Pansy darling, Potter. Going to invite her, are you?"

"No," Harry answered shortly. "And even if I was, it'd be no business of yours."

"Oh, my heart is simply *broken* with your viciousness, my love," Draco sighed. "And here I hoped you'd ask *me*, so I'd get the chance to turn you down."

"Ewh, you're just *disgusting*, Malfoy -- normal people just don't *ask* other guys to a ball!" Ron growled at Malfoy, flicking ink again. "That kind of problem must be a Death Eater thing. Harry, let's *go*... I don't want to have to put up with this slimy Slytherin." He started to roll up his parchment again, and Hermione joined him, nodding.

"He's just trying to bait us, Harry -- we don't want to lose points because of Draco."

"I'll have you know homosexuality was the province of a great many ancient witches and wizards," Draco said with a smirk. "You're such a *plebe*, Weasel. Not," he continued, "that this surprises me."

Green eyes narrowed slowly. "If that's your way of coming out of the closet, Malfoy, you're doing an exceedingly poor job of it."

That seemed to startle the Slytherin, for he tilted his head to the side. "Out of the closet? What is that, some disagreeable muggle phrase for something?"

Hermione giggled softly, patting Ron a *little* hard on the shoulder. Oh, the youngest Weasley boy would have a surprise for him when *he* finally put together two and two and realized his twin brothers... "Yes -- it means revealing that you're gay. You're not trying to pull some sort of reverse psychology to get Harry to ask you, are you?" she asked in a merciless teasing voice.

"Dear Granger," he said with a sweetness that was utterly sickening, "why would *I* do a thing like that? Why, I'd be stripped of my Junior Death Eater badge and everything for going somewhere with Potter, didn't you know?"

"I think," Ron muttered, "I'm going to be ill. Can we go now?"

"Yes," Hermione agreed firmly, tugging at Harry's arm just as she already held Ron's, which wasn't much trouble, as he'd picked up her books for her. "Come on, Harry."

"Coming," he replied, snatching up the last of their belongings, or trying to. "Malfoy, would you get your ass off of my scroll?" he asked coolly.

"I'll think about it," Draco said with a vicious little smirk. "If you do ask Pansy, watch out for her left foot. It's a tad more vicious than her right."

"Malfoy." There was a crisp completion in that single name, chiding and slightly disappointed all in once. But it wasn't Dumbledore, or any of the professors such was expected of. It was Snape, slipping out of the darkness of the hall that Draco had entered through, hands folded in front of him as he stood there. "Junior Death Eater, Draco?"

Grey eyes looked up at him, widening slightly. The expression on the blond boy's face was, for the moment, priceless -- fear of disappointing Snape written on it and no small amount of sheer nervousness, all of which was quickly covered. "It's what they think, isn't it?"

Snape's quiet footfalls seemed to carry him further into the room, rather than his steps themselves. His fingers clutched at each other, as if aborting a strike. "If they are so petty as to think that, then perhaps you shouldn't *claim* such things, Draco. Unless you wish to find yourself in Azkaban with your father, for a cause that has no purpose." Thin lips were caught in something close to anger, but a chill sneer smothered itself over top of it. "Get off the table and let Potter have his scroll."

Humiliated no small amount, Malfoy moved to leave, teeth clenched tightly.

"You forgot your *badge*, Malfoy," Harry said with no small amount of rancor. It wasn't a Death Eater badge, as he'd been so sarcastic about; instead, it was the small badge that marked him Slytherin.

Draco's fingers didn't close over it, though -- longer, thinner fingers clutched it from Harry's hand, and pressed it against Draco's robes. "Remember, Malfoy, the House Slytherin does *not* stand for Evil. It stands for cunning. And you have none if you threaten your own existence with such foolish claims." He let the pin catch onto material, closed it easily, then stepped back. "And you, Ms. Granger, Mr. Weasley, have not been of much *help* in these dark times in such matters. If one student's way of dealing with grief, however wrong it is, amuses you then perhaps I can find equally amusing tasks for you in detention."

Funny, though, that he'd jumped on them, who'd just been watching and muffling exclamations, rather than Harry, who'd made the badge comment.

"What's *he* got to grieve over, anyway," Ron grumbled moments later, once they were out from under Snape's watchful eye. "It's not like he shouldn't have *expected* them to get shuffled into Azkaban."

"Well," Hermione said with a sigh, "they weren't the last time, either."

"And they should have been," Harry agreed. "He's almost as bad, besides."

It was good that they'd gotten out of there, because Hermione could swear she heard Snape's voice rising, directed at Draco. Strange, for him to be so sharply chastising the student who'd always been assumed to be his *favorite*. "Mm-hmm," the brown-haired girl agreed, shaking her head as she looked at both her friends. "But the Headmaster thought he was worth keeping at the school. And back there..." Her voice fell a little. "I've *never* seen Professor Snape yell at him that way before!"

"Maybe Slimy Snape was scared of Draco's father," Ron suggested with a chuckle. "Now Draco has to face the same temper the rest of us do."

"It's about time," Harry replied, but his heart wasn't really in it. In a way, he even felt a little guilty, and he wasn't entirely sure *why*. Lately, he felt a lot of things he wasn't sure about, though, so he shoved it back to think about it later. "It's almost nine now, anyway. Might as well go to bed when we get back...."

"You aren't finished with your Potions work!" Hermione pointed out.

"I'll have to finish it come morning," Harry sighed.

"But we're going to Hogsmeade tomorrow, Harry," Ron told him as they wound up a stairwell to find the painting of the fat lady "And we *are* going. A few drinks of butterbeer, and you'll feel great, I promise!"

"All right," Harry agreed. "But we'll *have* to finish off homework when we come back."

"That's the spirit," Hermione told him, leaning over to kiss his cheek. "Things will get better, Harry. They will."

"You-Know-Who is gone, and... and everything is okay again," Ron reminded him. Harry's best friend had the oddest sort of innocence around him, a sort of mental block against the sorts of things Harry had seen and he hadn't. It just wasn't taken into account.

/I wonder,/ Harry thought as they paused before the Fat Lady. /I really do.../

"Chocolate raspberries," Hermione said primly, and the portrait swung open.

They moved up the steps to the common room, and the dorms beyond. "Harry... maybe you should talk to someone. Not just Ron and I, but someone who'd know what... well, who'd understand what happened. I'm sure Professor Dumbledore would--"

"Be more than willing to talk to you Harry," Ron pitched in, cutting off those very same words from Hermione's mouth.

"I'll think about it," Harry promised, and he would. He doubted he'd do anything about it, though. After all, what could he do? He had the same nightmares, night after night, blood and death and sex, and it was all just so completely awful!

Ron was *aware* of those nightmares, had tried to wake Harry up when he started to cry out in his sleep, and had suggested *often* that he just ask Snape for a sleeping draught. That would've been easier to do if Harry hadn't known that Snape would know *what* Harry was dreaming about.

"If you get to bed and decide you don't want to sleep, Harry, Ron and I'll be down here studying until later," Hermione told him as they entered the common's room portal.

"Good night," Harry wished them, and calmly headed up towards the fifth year dorm rooms. Maybe tonight, he'd be able to sleep...

       

Sleep became wakefulness too easily, or at least the illusion of wakefulness.

He was creeping through the hallways of the rotting castle again, drawn towards torch-light that flickered from the stone walls, bouncing and reflecting off weapons and jewels. A sickly yellow gleam that fit the court and the people within. Seated at the high table, while other milled about and chatted, was Voldemort himself, gleaming red eyes scanning the room rovingly.

The Dark Lord was petting something in his lap, and with a laugh kicked it of, sending the form scampering under the table, and then stumbling down the steps and into the midst of the Death Eaters.

Snape.

It was a shock, and more than a shock. Harry could feel bile rising up in his throat as the Professor managed to gain his knees only to be kicked viciously in the belly by a woman who looked so much like Draco Malfoy as to be unmistakably his mother. "Severus, darling, what on earth possesses you?" she purred. "Getting up when obviously the Lord wants you *down*..."

Someone barely *whispered* 'Crucio', but Snape's body gave a ragged jerk, impeding a pathetic attempt to get footing of any sort as he tried to turn away from the sharp kicks landed against him. "S-stop this..." A man hauled him up by one thin wrist, uttered 'Crucio' again as he jabbed his wand against sallow skin, and then slid the wand away to make a grab at the Professor's already mangled groin.

Much more, and Harry knew he'd vomit. He knew he would, he couldn't bear to watch such cruelty, even to someone he hated as much as he detested Snape. He couldn't...

"Silence!" Voldemort bellowed, rising. His tongue darted out in an almost serpentine lash. "I smell... *BOY*...."

Voldemort hadn't noticed him *that* way, a voice tried to whisper in the back of his mind. But the dream was off and running on its own, and the horrors of it were much the same.

"Who would dare intrude...?" the man who barely held Snape up snarled, dropping the man. When he turned, it was clear to Harry that it was Lucius. "*Show yourself*!"

And he did.

He knew it was mad, he knew that it hadn't happened this way, but he *did*, walked forward and his own clothing seemed melted away and they were *on* him like slavering beasts at the feed.

It hadn't been him it had happened to, but he could *feel* it now, the hands scraping over him, the pain of the Cruciatus curse, the savageness of invasion over and over again. it wasn't going to end, no, because there was no *him* to put it to a stop, to distract even so shortly, no blast of powerful magic to warn the ministry, no... no help in sight for him, no hope of it.

"Harry? Harry, man, wake *up*!!"

"No... No, no, no, NO!!!" And he *was* awake, sweating profusely, hair stuck to his scalp it was so wet. Seamus and Neville stood over him, Ron's hand on his shoulder, shaking him still. "Oh, God..."

"Harry..." Ron's face was tight with concern, and behind him there was knocking on the door.

"Harry, are you all right in there? We heard screaming!" the twins exclaimed almost in unison, slipping into the room together.

"Neville, tell them it's okay," Ron murmured as he perched on the edge of Harry's bed. "It took forever to wake you up."

"It didn't *sound* like he was okay," Neville muttered under his breath before shaking his head and shooing the twins back out. "Just a bad dream..."

"Didn't sound like there was any *just* to it," Dean declared groggily from his own bed, rubbing at an eye. "Sounding like some sort of bloody horrible nightmare, if you ask me."

"Harry, do you want me to take you down to the hospital wing?" Ron asked, rather blatantly ignoring everyone, including his brothers when Neville opened the door for them.

"No," Harry said, shaking his head. "No, I'll be all right, just..."

"Just you haven't slept through a night in almost a month, and *that* yell was worse'n all the others 'fore it," Seamus said sternly. "You'd ought to go and see Madame Pomfrey, Harry!"

"I'll take him," Ron decided. "Filch won't yell at us once he knows why. Let me just get some shoes..." He slid off the bed to head to his own so he could slip on slippers and a robe. "She *can* do something for you, harry."

Harry was of the opinion that no one could help him. Not really. Still, he agreed because they were worried about him. "All right. Just... I'm sorry, I hope the rest of you can go back to sleep..."

"Dean already has," Neville informed him with a sigh, hooking a thumb over his shoulder and shrugging.

"Barely woke up at all, probably," Fred said anxious from within the doorway. "We four can go, since George and I are already up, right George?"

"Uh-huh," George agreed fuzzily as he leaned in the doorway.

"Here, your robe and your shoes, Harry," Ron offered worriedly. Harry had been quick enough to tell them all about his dreams of his mother screaming, but for some reason, whatever he was dreaming now was a sealed topic, and it worried him.

Quietly, Harry put them both on and pulled the covers up on his bed, reaching out momentarily to touch the curtains before he moved to the door where Fred and George still waited. "You don't all have to go," he said wearily, sighing.

"Mum'd have our heads if we *didn't*," Fred said with a shrug of his shoulders, "and besides, what good are friends for if they can't take you along to infirmary in the middle of the night, hm?"

That was less amusing than it should've been, but perhaps some things weren't as funny after sickening dreams of being raped and *hurt* down to the soul. Ron was tight at his side as they went down from the Dorms, and through the empty commons room. The Fat Lady wasn't pleased at having been woken up for students to get out, but when she looked at Harry's face, the irritation faded right away into something akin to pity.

The halls they trod were dark, filled only with moonlight drifting in through the windows and the occasional flickering torch. Hogwarts always seemed quite different at night, bordering on the sinister, somehow, instead of the innocent place it was in the daylight. It wasn't long before they heard footsteps coming behind them, a worrisome phenomenon.

"Wonder who it is," Fred muttered, looking back over his shoulder. He couldn't *see* anyone...

Hermione would've *called* out to them, and Draco, if such luck had happened, would've turned the other way right away to rat them out. The ghosts didn't make noise, so that narrowed those out... And Filch liked to scream. No screaming.

"I'll see," George muttered in the same tone his brother had. "Go on ahead, Ron, Harry, and we'll see who this i--"

"The proper question would be where you are going on ahead to, Mr. Weasley." As the footsteps came closer, it was clearly Snape, looming in the darkness with his hands shoved into his robe's pockets. The pale face looked shaken, damp and edgy around the lines of his mouth just like Harry looked. "Not going to steal more rubber gloves from the hospital wing, are you?"

"No, sir," Fred answered cheerfully. "We've got plenty of our own, thanks."

"Harry was having nightmares. Woke half the boy's dorm, so we thought we'd bring him to Madame Pomfrey..." George finished.

"Go back to your tower, Weasleys. I will see to this myself," Snape told them blandly, looking coldly down at them. "I was going there myself to talk to her."

"But Professor..." Ron began.

"It's all right," Harry soothed before Ron could say more. "Professor Snape can take me. The rest of you should try to get some sleep."

"Run along," Snape murmured, as if it were encouragement to hear *him* say that. He brushed past them effortlessly, nearing Harry. The looks the three red-headed boys gave him... well, he was used to being Slimy Snape. Now Slimy Sickly Snape, just as hated as ever by the ungrateful brats. Their curiosity wasn't worth yelling at then for, not after the nightmare that had disrupted his sleep.

But down in the dungeon, there was no one to hear him, to wake him up before the dream became too much.

Quietly, Harry moved into step beside him, heading on towards the infirmary. No words were spoken between them -- they rarely were, these days, and neither of them really wanted there to be, anyway. What was there to say? Thank you? No, not really. 'Thank you', perhaps, for what he'd done in killing Voldemort, for what he'd done in destroying more Death Eaters. But from himself, what did he have to thank the boy for? Saving a miserable life that now lacked a point other than simple routine, and for seeing him at the lowest point of his life? No. There was no thank you, only...

"I know what you were dreaming, Harry."

"...sir?" Harry whispered, looking up at him, and in those eyes were *terrible*, truly horrible things. "How... I can't... I can't *think*, I can't *sleep*, I can't..."

One lean hand settled on his shoulder, drawn out of deep pockets. Through the light touch, Harry could feel that Snape was still shaking. "It's not living, is it? A long time will pass for you before it's true living again. Madam Pomfrey can supply you with a sleeping draught... and if it fails, I can give you some of what I use. You shouldn't see such things in your sleep." But he himself was heading to see Pomfrey for sleeping draught, because it had slipped his mind that he had none left that was usable. His own procured in class that day had been a startling failure. Things that slipped his mind worried him greatly, and to ruin a potion...

It wasn't good.

"Do you think it will help?" Harry asked tentatively, biting his lip. "I... I just can't sleep, and it just keeps getting *worse*... How can *you*...?" And that was the question he never should have asked, surely, he *knew*...

"I..." Severus hesitated, drew his shaking hand back and slipped it away into his robes. Potter knew how to stab right at his depths when he could least stand it, even then. "Don't." There was no need to elaborate on his lack of sleep, or how hard it was some days to gather up the spite his classes expected of him. "You have it in you, Harry, to move past this, I assure you. Just a bump in the road, I can't see how seeing your hated Potions master that way could cause you nightmares. It's really a waste of your time, you see, to do that to yourself."

"No," Harry assured him solemnly. "No, it's not. It's *decency*. No one should suffer that way. Not anyone. Not ever." That was the crux of it, the truly terrible bit. He'd always detested Snape as much as Snape had detested him, only now... Now, it seemed impossible to do that.

Decency. Severus wanted to laugh, would have if he'd thought his throat capable of forming that sound. People like him weren't supposed to be offered decency. "How kind of you, then, to have nightmares about me. I'm flattered." The bitterness was there, but the cold in his voice seemed chipped at, strained.

After that, Harry decided to remain quiet, and so he was until they reached Madame Pomfrey's infirmary. She was bustling around another bed that was filled, the covers pulled all the way up, and so when she turned, they gave her a bit of a fright. "Severus! My goodness... and Mr. Potter..." That didn't really surprise her in the least. She'd seen a great deal of Harry Potter over the years.

She'd seen a great deal of Severus, too, in the past weeks, and before that when he was a student there. Madame Pomfrey seemed at least as old as Dumbledore most of the time. "Nightmares, Madame Pomfrey. Nightmares," Severus said simply. With the hospital wing doors closed behind them, the arrogance that he'd been animating himself with seemed to drain away to nothingness, leaving him empty again.

"Goodness. I expect you'll want Dreamless Sleep Draughts, then, the both of you. Harry, come along. You can have this bed," she said with a sigh, shuffling him towards one of the cast iron beds close by. "I'll fetch the Draught once you're settled in..."

The Boy-Who-Lived first. Snape felt a bitter stab as he watched Harry coaxed towards his bed. Lucky child, even for all that he'd been through. Friends loyal enough to sacrifice sleep to make sure he was safe, people that cared for him everywhere... /You're a jealous bastard, Severus. Decency is too much to expect./ But to have it proved again and again broke at his resolve. Barely tolerated, and he knew it -- easily forgotten, too. Madame Pomfrey turned away as soon as Harry seemed to be settling into the bed. Quietly, Severus slid down to sit on the floor and wait. Rest, he just needed to rest...

"Severus?" The voice nudged him back out of almost-sleep, Madame Pomfrey standing before him with the potion in hand. It was a stronger one than the one she held in the other, the one that must have been for Potter. "Do you want to rest here? There are beds in the back," she said gently, already knowing what his answer would be.

To decline, resolutely and miserably, get to his feet by drawing on God knew what was left for him to draw from, and head back down. Down to his rooms. Where it was dark, cool, and he could simply cease to be. It was a bad sign when he simply held one unsteady hand up to her for the potion, yet didn't make a move to get up from the floor.

"Come along," she said gently, shifting the small tube to her other hand and holding down the other to grasp his. "It will be all right, Severus."

A noise left him that might've been laughter if it didn't sound as if it had been strangled somewhere deep within his chest first. "No." It wasn't going to be, and her vague uncaring assurances weren't simply going to suddenly brighten his world. She couldn't prove to him that Voldemort was gone; she couldn't prove to him that he'd be safe on the god-forsaken fieldtrip Albus was sending him on; she couldn't prove that the mark would never return to his arm. It was hollow. But her hand seemed to give him enough sense to stand again, using the wall at his back for support. "Tend to Harry first -- he has... social responsibilities to tend to tomorrow."

Having fun. It was hard to have fun when you were falling asleep.

Silently, she retained the hold upon his hand. "Come along, Severus," she said again, most simply.

He snatched his hand back, in a last attempt at gathering broken pride together, and pushed off the wall, to follow her. Potter was watching him. He could feel the green gaze on him, watching it all... At least he could trust the boy to not laugh at it behind his back.

"Goodnight, Professor," Harry said quietly as they moved into another room.

This one had beds that were slightly wider, and there were fewer of them -- only four. Madame Pomfrey moved to the first one, pulled down the covers, and pulled a pair of pajamas from a drawer beside it. "Here, Severus. Change into these. I'll fetch an extra blanket, if you'd like..."

"No, thank you." The stiff politeness rose up unbidden, as he shakily pulled off his outer robe. The pajamas were ignored entirely -- it reminded him of previous forced bed rest, and perhaps that was her plan. He pulled his shoes off, set them under the bed, and tiredly laid down on the comfortable mattress. It was pathetic that he'd agreed to stay there for the night, more pathetic that he'd gone there in the first place, and worse that he even had such problems. The soulless weren't supposed to have nightmares!

The phial was held to his lips once he laid down, the draught administered, and it made him feel such a *child*, but... but it was comforting, too, in a strange sort of way that made his self-loathing even worse. It seemed she knew that, for she drew the covers up over him gently before putting the pajamas away again. "Sleep well, Severus," she murmured, but he was already asleep.

One patient taken care of, she moved back into the first room after closing the door to the smaller room behind her. The other phial was opened, and she moved to Harry's bed, smiling softly down at him. "And your dose, Harry."

"Thank you," he told her, allowing her to dose him, and he was asleep shortly as well.

/Some nights,/ she thought with a sigh as she headed towards her own bed, /I wonder. I truly do.../ She wondered if they had done the right things or the wrong things or perhaps if everything had been inevitable from the start. Severus and Harry both were suffering so, and they weren't alone. Was peace worth the sacrifice of even one life? Did anyone truly deserve such suffering? She'd asked herself those questions many times over the years.

She had the feeling that she wouldn't stop asking them for a very long time.

       

"Is my hair really all right?" Ginny fretted, looking at Hermione across the way. "It's all this awful red!" she wailed. "I can't do anything with it!"

"Ginny..." Hermione caught the girl's wrists, smiling warmly at her. "Why're you fretting? You're *beautiful*. Just look at your robes!"

"I'm fretting because I don't want to go out looking like an idiot!" Ginny responded, looking at herself in the full-length mirror in their room. Her outfit was pale blue and closely fitted -- thank God she didn't have dress robes like poor Ron's last year, with that awful lace collar! "Only.. Oh, I'm just nervous!"

"Colin will love it, Ginny," Hermione had to insist over Ginny's protests to the contrary. "And we all look better than the boys do, you know."

"Not Harry." That was said a little sadly, but the crush she'd had on him for years guaranteed that it would be. Not, she knew, that it mattered. Harry had never looked at her any differently than he did Ron or Hermione. It was almost definitely a lost cause.

Hermione kissed her friend's cheek lightly, sighing. "It's nothing you've done or haven't done, Ginny. Harry... loves you like a sister. So you should set your sights on someone who doesn't think of you as family." How to explain clearly yet what she was guessing at?

"It's just as well," Ginny said, smiling despite it all. "Can you imagine how Ron would react. 'Ew! Not *Harry*!'," she mimicked. "'Not having sex with my *SISTER*!'"

"Well, Ginny..." Something about the other girl's eagerness, well, made her heart just sort of open up. "I don't think you'll ever hear your brother exclaiming anything about Harry and a girl."

The Weasley girl's blue eyes opened wide, becoming huge in her face. "Do you mean... Are you suggesting that *Harry*...?"

"There's a good chance, Ginny. He doesn't have *interest* in girls at all, or boys, really, but *none* in girls." The brown-haired girl nodded, looking at herself in the mirror as she smoothed down her straight green dress.

"Maybe it's just because..." Well, she couldn't honestly *think* of a reason why. "Well, so much trauma, in his past..."

"Ginny Weasley, I'm going to be ashamed of you if you suggest *that* is why," Hermione said most impatiently.

"No!" Ginny said, shaking her head. "I mean, his lack of interest in *anyone*, not specifically in *girls*. You know, some sort of.. I don't know, protective mechanism?"

"I can't think of anyone who's like that, though -- I mean, things like that don't happen, do they...?" True, Harry had been withdrawing lately, but he still had a heart heavy with things he wouldn't share.

"I don't know," Ginny admitted. "Though I've heard..." Her eyes glanced at the door to their bedroom, and a quickly muttered spell accompanied by the wave of her wand locked it. "I've heard some *awful* things about All Hallow's Eve. Dad didn't know I was listening when he talked to Bill about it..."

Hermione's eyes went wide, and she steered her friend to sit on the bed. "Tell me. Tell me, and maybe we can help Harry, please... He won't speak about it at all to Ron or I."

"All right," the redhead promised her reluctantly. "But oh, Hermione. It's awful. It really is..."

"Just..." Hermione seemed flustered at the chance to get such knowledge after too long without it. "Tell me. I can handle it."

"All right. You remember what a mangle that Halloween celebration became, with Professor Snape missing and that awful creature roaming the halls..." It had been one of the giant spiders from the Forbidden Forest, actually, and Ron had been quite petrified, she recalled. "And you remember that Harry ran down to fetch his Potions work when we were all sent back to our dorms..."

"Yes," Hermione nodded. "I remember it all, Ginny." Hard to forget that the spider had *fed* on students who hadn't been lucky enough to be corralled to safety. "Go on."

"There were Death Eaters down below," Ginny whispered, shivering. "They had Professor Snape and they... they went through the fireplace. It isn't like Apparating and you aren't supposed to be able to do it here, but they *did* somehow. And Harry *followed*. You know he can't bear to stay out of trouble," she said.

"But, Ginny, Snape went missing a week *before*, and Dumbledore had turned his offices upside down looking for him," Hermione fretted. "Harry couldn't just let something odd pass him by, though."

"Dad didn't explain that," Ginny denied. "Maybe it was just a way to trick Harry out of Hogwarts."

"All right." She could see it, from that angle. Even though Harry hated Snape, he'd never have let him be dragged off by Death Eaters. "So what happened? What's giving Harry these nightmares?"

Ginny gnawed at her lower lip, then shuddered. "What he saw when he got *THERE*. To the castle where they all were. Dad didn't tell Bill where it was, but apparently, the Professor had been... had been *savaged* somehow, and Harry saw it and sent off some kind of message to the Ministry. They were having an... There were LOTS of Death Eaters there, most of them, I think, and *HIM*, You-Know-Who. He was there, too..."

Professor Snape, savaged? He had seemed... ill lately, shaky and harder to find than ever before. Yet, strangely, he kept popping up around Harry. "And Harry killed him. Somehow."

"With a knife," Ginny whispered. "Like a Muggle. He threw it so hard that Dad said it embedded itself in You-Know-Who's skull."

"And it killed him?" Hermione seemed hysteric with that news. "Oh, oh, that must've stunned Harry..."

"None of them ever seemed to have considered Muggle ways of killing anyone. They were all so stunned that none of them did a thing, and then the Ministry came in and everything was just a mess. It's lucky Harry even got loose -- he passed out near the Professor, Dad said."

"Oh, my God," Hermione sighed softly as she swallowed and digested that information, all of it. "Then the Ministry brought them here -- remember, Snape didn't teach potions classes for another week or so? And Harry was released after a couple of days."

Ginny nodded, looking relieved. It hadn't been a very detailed accounting, but she wasn't sure she could give a more detailed account than that! "It's no wonder he can't sleep and doesn't want to be close to anyone, lately."

"But, Ginny, it was..." Hermione blinked at the words that had nearly left her mouth. "It was only Snape that it happened to. And Professor Snape has just been crawling up out of the woodwork lately. Ron told me that he was heading to the hospital wing and sent him, Fred and George back to the tower and escorted Harry there himself last night."

"I don't know about you," Ginny murmured, "but I think it would be just *awful* to see whatever had happened to him. Dad... Dad told Bill it was *bad*. *Really* bad."

"He went back to teaching almost right away, though..." The brown-haired girl sighed. "I'll have to think about this. Come up with a way to help Harry -- but let's go get the boys now, or we'll be late." She stood up, waiting for Ginny. "Thank you for telling me that -- now, let's go feel better. Your brother's going to look awfully silly in his dress robes."

"Yes," Ginny agreed, glad to have all of that off of her shoulders, "but I'll bet we'll have a marvelous time."

       

Upstairs, the boys had finished their own, less pointed chatter. Harry just *dressed*, while his friends -- Ron in particular -- preened for their dates.

"These new robes Fred gave me look better than the ones from last year, don't they?" Ron smiled over his shoulder, having already spent twenty minutes in front of a mirror.

"THAT doesn't take much," Seamus laughed, shaking his own head. "Though once you got rid of the lace last year..."

"They look nice," Harry assured him with a smile. "Much better."

"Thanks, Harry," Ron smiled over his shoulder, though he glared at Seamus. "Let's all go down to the ball now. We're meeting the girls in the commons room." Neville, nervous as he ever was, started out of the room first, and Ron seemed ready to linger to have a word alone with Harry before they went down the stairs.

"I'm all right," Harry promised him, anticipating what Ron would ask. "Really. I swear."

"You're going to have fun, aren't you?" Ron pressed a moment after he'd been interrupted so unexpectedly. "You were so *quiet* in Hogsmeade, Harry, it's just not like you."

"I rested better last night. I'll try," Harry replied. "I will." They were interrupted by laughter from below -- the girls had obviously begun to come down. "Come on. Let's go on..."

For a moment, he was able to forget everything. His friends, all pressed close around him, laughing and chattering happily, either about the trip to come, or their family's holiday plans. It seemed like he would have fun, because they stayed a group when they reached the ballroom, watched professors Flitwick and McGonagall dance the first dance. There was punch again, and it was so easy to forget...

Until the dance proper started. The boys were all eager to show off to the girls, and Ron was the only one to remember him, sparing a "We'll be back after a couple of dances!" for his sake.

That left him alone... him and one other person.

Apparently, even Pansy Parkinson had found a date, because Draco Malfoy was loitering on the other side of the Great Hall, holding up the wall as if it needed to be held up after centuries of rising there all on its own accord, before he began to move in Harry's direction.

Just wonderful.

"I see the great Harry Potter couldn't get a date after all," Draco smirked, lightly but not with all the venom he usually mustered. The wind must've been taken out of him the night before.

"I see the dashing Draco Malfoy didn't manage it, either. Pansy didn't fall into your arms as easily as you'd hoped?" Harry replied with chill inflection.

"I wasn't trying for her," Draco sniffed, looking away rather suddenly. Pale blue eyes skimmed over the crowd, taking them all in. "I'd rather watch them all make idiots of themselves as they step all over each other. Look, even the *teachers* are in there..."

"Bad dancer, are you?" Harry drawled. He took specific note that Snape was also not dancing. He was standing near the entrance with his arms crossed over his chest, looking most specifically *sour*. On the other hand, he also looked a bit more well-rested, and Harry was suddenly pleased with that.

Snape had still been sleeping, according to Madame Pomfrey, when Harry had left that morning to meet his friends. It was oddly uplifting news to keep in mind.

Draco didn't answer Harry's question -- even though it was very probably right -- and simply followed the other boy's line of sight. Pale lips curled up in a *smile*. "Why're you looking at him, Potter?"

Startled green eyes flew back to Malfoy, wide behind Harry's lenses. "He's standing there alone, isn't he? There are only three of us who are, after all." It wasn't quite the whole truth, but little ever was.

"That's still no reason to look at him like *that*, Harry Potter," Draco *smii~iled* again. He paced towards Harry, like a cat who saw perfect bait. Harry, after all, had just *shown* something, and a vague as it was, Draco wanted to know. He started to laugh before he asked, "Why don't you ask him for a dance, hmn?"

"Like *what*?" Harry asked him, a high flush coming into his face as his eyes narrowed, gaze becoming stern. "And if you're so interested, why don't *you* ask? After all, everyone knows *you're* his favorite. I wonder if that extends to after hours, Malfoy..."

"I've never had such luck, Harry," Draco purred, sidling up near Harry. "But... you've been seen around the school with him near... *often*. Is there something interesting going on?"

"You have a filthy mind, Malfoy," Harry returned calmly. "And when did you start calling me *Harry*?"

"I decided to try it on you," Draco smiled, pale brows lifting in strange glee. "Now I can tell it annoys you -- so that's what I'll call you from now on -- oh! Do I spot a lonely looking Ravenclaw girl? Oh, Potter -- Harry, so sorry -- I must be off to seem dashing. I shall sweep her off her feet." And with his robes rustling behind him, he swept in on the partnerless girl, to join dancers. Harry watched for a moment, and when he looked up, Snape was moving towards the doors as if to leave.

Without thinking, he made the move to stop the man, slipping out the door after him quietly. "Professor?" he asked, hoping that Snape wouldn't have gotten too far ahead of him.

"What do you think you're doing here, Potter?" Snape asked, half-turning to look at the boy over his shoulder. It was easier to see Harry wearing his dress robes in the slightly less over-decorated hallway than it had been in the main hall itself. Red flattered the boy's brilliant green eyes, and the gold of it was *gold* colored, not a sickly yellow that some students wore on theirs. "I rather remember hearing Dumbledore give orders that everyone should enjoy themselves and dance."

"I don't dance," Harry admitted calmly, shrugging slightly. "And I didn't bring a date. And..." Here, he paused, thinking momentarily on what to say next. "And I was worried. About you."

"Kindly of you, Potter." Severus turned a little more, fixing a calm look on the boy in front of him. Kind, misplaced and pointless concern, but it was *something*, wasn't it? So he could hate himself all the more on the morrow for taking it in the moment. For letting Harry Potter get away with it, yes, he could hate himself for that. "But I am well. I simply made the brief appearance Dumbledore required of me, and then decided to leave."

"Mind some company, sir?" Harry asked quietly. "I'm really not much in the mood for dancing..." And even if he *had* been, seeing Malfoy would have done that in.

"If you wish to follow me down to the dungeons, there is little reason for me to argue." It was a round-about answer, but Snape started walking again, a quiet, brisk pace. Never saying a clear 'yes' or 'no', Severus had learned at an early age, spared him a great deal of humiliation. "I hope you're not deluding yourself that my company will be enjoyable."

/Maybe not,/ Harry thought, /but it's much better than being alone./ After all, if he went back to the dorm, he'd just sit and brood and fall asleep and *dream*...and he couldn't bear that.

"Won't your friends become concerned when they realize you aren't there waiting patiently for them to finish entertaining themselves?" They fell into a step again, and Snape led the way without taking any turns that were too sharp. Something about having company loosened his tongue a little, even if it didn't soften it. There was no point in softening the truth.

"Probably," Harry returned in equal honestly, quite close behind the black haired man. "They're already worried. It's probably cruel of me to worry them worse. I don't think I can bear to stay, though."

"It's hard to watch your comrades enjoy themselves without a care to you, isn't it?" Or, to have nothing but acquaintances who only cared when they *needed* something. Experience gave his cold tone a bitterness that boiled in the recesses of his voice. "Just because they still enjoy something, they seem to think that doing it will make everything better for you. You can tell me if I'm wrong, Harry."

"I want them to enjoy themselves," Harry denied. "Just because I can't doesn't mean they shouldn't. Only..." He let out a sigh. "Only I can't enjoy myself with them, and I haven't got the urge to try. Even Malfoy was going to try dancing."

"That might've been worth staying to watch." Amusement, however faint, flickered through the voice and the face he couldn't see. "His... parents... sent him to many dancing lessons in hope of improving him."

"And it obviously didn't work?" That was more question than statement. "I'll bet he steps on feet all over the Grand Hall."

"There might be rumors about a 'something' having smashed most the toes of dancers at the Yule Ball," Snape agreed, starting down a back set of stairs down into the dungeons. "Still, he isn't an entirely hopeless case. Two and a half years here may yet undo the harm of what was taught him."

"You like him," Harry offered tentatively. "He's not very likable. Why?" /And why do you hate me?/

"Because if someone *doesn't* like him, I doubt that his claims of being a Death Eater would remain claims for long." At the bottom of the stairs, he grasped Harry's hand, and pressed it against the door, pulled out his own wand and tapped it lightly to the door. "There. You won't set off any of my traps now. It wouldn't be good if you ended up beheaded wandering about my rooms."

"At least I could get into the Headless Hunt, if it was done right," Harry said with only a vague sense of amusement. "Is that why you did it, Professor?"

"Did what?" The wand was slid away, and he pushed open the old door, gesturing for Harry to move ahead of him. The hall beyond was dimly lit with tired seeming lamps.

The words that came from Harry were slow, well-considered as he walked forward. "Became a Death Eater."

It was just as well that he traps had been removed -- the silence that followed his question was tense enough to snap him in half.

"I joined them at Albus's behest." The sound of the door closing behind them was almost ominous. "Though I think the only person who believes that anymore is Dumbledore himself." Not the Ministry, not anyone who'd ever known him. Oh, this time there had been few who questioned what he'd been doing... but they still thought he'd been one of them, truly one of them, from the first.

"And it wasn't for the reason that you're being nice to Malfoy?" That was asked almost gently, green eyes turned on him just as biting as Lily Potter's might have seemed.

"That... 'reason', Harry, is why I chose the road the Headmaster offered me. I was a fool, but I've served my purpose for this school through the years." No one other than Albus had cared what he did with himself, there was no family to worry over... Nothing.

He almost made a comment about how Harry looked like his father, but carried his mother's soul, or personality... but he kept that back. It just made him feel older than he already did. Instead, he pushed open the second door they passed. "My private rooms."

"Thank you," Harry said quietly. "You know, you come off..." Well, grouchy would have been putting it lightly. "Not so well, but you're not as bad as you pretend, are you?"

"No more than you are as stubborn and childish as you act at being," was the cool retort, as he entered the parlor after Harry, once more closing the door firmly behind him. The room wasn't as murky as his office was -- there was a fire already burning in the fireplace, and except for two ancient chairs that were *big* enough to be sofas, it was simply packed with books and phials. Not particularly useful phials from their twisted delicate look and odd colors.

Well, that definitely put him in his place, Harry decided. "This is nice. I never thought about what your rooms would look like before," he admitted, stopping before one case full of the delicate little glass tubes. "These are fascinating..."

"When I first became potions master here, they were what the students used in class. I couldn't think of putting such things in the hands of a student like Longbottom, so I hid those away and let the students use the more, ah, expendable ones." He moved to a corner of the room, where there was a little food spelled onto a table, and drink with it. Part of Dumbledore's plan to keep him alive, he supposed a little bitterly.

There were two mugs instead of one this time, though, and from the smell of them, there was some sort of mulled wine. "Would you like a drink?"

"Yes, thank you." It was quite odd to be so comfortably ensconced with Professor Snape, Harry decided, and even more odd to be accepting drink from him. "I was wondering..." He paused, lifting a hand to bite at a ragged nail. "I wondered. Do you have trouble sleeping often?"

"Yes." He turned towards Harry, both mugs held in one hand, and the large plate in the other. Severus set the plate down on a little stand beside Harry's large chair, then offered him one of the two mugs. "Why are you asking...?"

"I can't sleep either. You know, from last night. I thought, perhaps... perhaps you were dreaming about it, too," he blurted out, taking the mug with careful fingers.

"I do." He drew back to sit in the chair that faced Harry, pausing for a moment to take off his outer robes. It left him wearing the tunic-shirt and trousers that could always partly be seen, but somehow the shedding of official garments made it seem more possible that he was sitting in his sitting room with a student. Talking. "I'm not sure how I can be expected to not dream about it."

"In my dreams, I don't manage to kill him," Harry said almost desperately. "And Malfoy's parents are there, and Crabbe and Goyle, and it just... it just..."

"Nightmares are never pleasant," the professor told him quietly. The mug of wine was set aside on a table that Harry could've sworn wasn't there moments before; almost lazily, with both hands freed, Severus rolled the sleeve of his right arm up. "But you see this?" He showed the boy his bare forearm, fingers pressed to a clean patch of skin that had once borne the mark. "He isn't here right now. You've killed Him, for however a short time it may be. In the least, I doubt that He will be back for another twenty years, if He can ever pull himself together." It didn't mean that anything was over, though. There were still Death Eaters and their power to contend with, yet Severus couldn't find harm in trying to soothe Harry with the only proof he had. A moment more, and he started to slide his sleeve back down, cuffing it at the wrist again. "You just have to keep telling yourself that what you're dreaming isn't real."

"I get the feeling that doesn't work very well," Harry murmured quietly. "If it did, I don't think you would have been in the infirmary with me last night, Professor. Do you really think he'll rise again?"

"Yes." He lifted his mug to his lips, took a small sip of the warmed and spiced wine to taste it. The cinnamon was a bit heavy, masking a familiar bitterness of taste. Severus closed his eyes, swallowed, and took another warming sip. Mixed with the wine it would lead to a muzzy sort of sleep, though no less dreamless than if taken straight from a phial. Apparently if he wasn't going to be at the ball, Dumbledore didn't want him awake and roaming the halls. "But it will take years. A great deal of time, so there's no sense wasting your time in fretting over it."

Silently, Harry sat back, lip bitten with the heaviness of his thoughts. Time. Years. How many, he wondered, before it all started over again? How many before they were in danger again, children and adults all? "I don't know that I can stop myself," he admitted slowly. It was so strange to talk about these things with Professor Snape, so very *odd*...

"But if you don't move past it, Harry, it will ruin you." Severus warned him quietly. The words had no effort behind them, no force at all -- they seemed to drift free of Snape, like the steam that rose from the mug he held. "There's too much to you to ruin."

"Not that you'd usually admit it." There was some amount of amusement in that statement, in Harry's tired smile. "You make me curious, now. You didn't before. I'm not sure why... Things are different."

"People seem more approachable after you've seen them lying in a pool of their own blood?" was the half-sneered suggestion. "I haven't changed much at all, so it must be you, Harry, whom is different."

"Maybe that's so," Harry said slowly, tiredly. "Maybe I'm so different that I can never be the same again. Maybe..."

"Maybe...?" Dark eyes, so flat of late, glittered for a moment as Severus looked up from the mug he was sipping from. One dark brow rose with his echoing question, trying to entice Harry to go on -- to finish whatever thought had trailed off into oblivion.

"Maybe I don't want to be the same again," Harry sighed quietly. "Maybe it's better to know that such terrible things can happen, and to... to be ready for them..."

"Harry." His heart, what was left of it, went out to the boy who sat across from him. Slowly, Snape lowered his mug, letting it sit in his lap, fingers still laced around it. If he drank much more he'd become muzzy -- for the moment, he felt relaxingly mellow, unable to summon much of anything to aid his words. "Knowing it can happen doesn't prepare you for it. It never prepared me." /That wasn't a particularly uplifting thought to give him, was it? Fool. This is such folly.../ "I was in a position where it was a possibility for me. You are not, and will... never be in that position, understand?"

"I don't want anyone to be in that position," Harry said firmly. "No one I care about, nor anyone I hate. That... it was... It's so *horrible*," he whispered, "and I can't stop dreaming about it and it's driving me crazy!"

/And you hate me. You're tormented worrying about someone you hate.../ It was the worst of ironies, and the student across from him simply didn't *grasp* it. "You'll drive yourself crazy if you dwell on it. Drink your mug, there, and have something to eat -- if you don't, Albus will no doubt have my head."

"He watches out for you, doesn't he?" Harry asked, reaching for a sandwich from the plate. It wasn't necessarily a great insight -- after all, Dumbledore also watched out for *Harry*.

"Has since I was a student here," was the barely spoken agreement as he lifted the mug to his lips again. "He doesn't realize how kind he is." Giving chances when none were really deserved, watching out for people when he really didn't have time to waste... Or both. Severus couldn't help but think that it would've been *truly* kinder if he'd been left to die curled up on his robes on that floor.

"He knows, I think," Harry answered quietly. "He knows, and he has a very good sense of what's wrong and right. He's the real reason you're good to Malfoy, isn't he? Because he was good to you. And because sometimes, someone needs that."

"Someone has to be." Eyes dull black again, he looked at Harry with a strangely curious expression. "You understand what it's like to have everything be your fault, don't you? Those muggles you live with..."

"Yes," the Boy Who Lived agreed. "I never have to go back there, now..." Not since Peter Pettigrew had been caught and sent to Azkaban with the Malfoys and so many others. Now, he would be able to live with Sirius, to have love and a *chance* to be happy... If only he could take it.

"That's right..." He'd forgotten entirely that Sirius was a cleared man. /More things that slip your mind, Severus./ "You don't have to stay over the holidays, then, do you? So why *are* you, since your... godfather is more than willing to take you in?"

"He's being reinducted as an Auror, and he has to get the house ready. Remus -- Professor Lupin... He's helping, since he's so busy, but it won't be done 'til after the holidays. He said he'd come see me, though, before our trip..." Come see him and bring gifts. Sirius had been heartbroken that everything wouldn't be ready for Christmas, and had wanted Harry to come despite that, but Lupin had pointed out that perhaps sleeping in a cupboard -- again -- wasn't the best way to start.

/Then he had better come and see you,/ Severus thought a little maliciously as he nodded to Harry's words. Finally, he lifted the mug to his lips, and took another sip of the over-spiced wine. "You deserve to have a family that cares about you. I'm pleased that you don't have to return to the care of those idiotic muggles."

"Why are you so kind, now?" Harry asked him. "You haven't even been particularly interested in me in class. I don't know why..."

"You've been doing your work, instead of playing games with your friends during class time. And I don't have to try to prepare you for things that others don't understand. Not anymore, when you've seen what I was trying to harden you against..." He fell quiet for a moment, taking another slow drink. It wasn't just his imagination that the mug was refilling itself in steady measures. "Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, rode into this school on a name he didn't know he'd made for himself. Harry Potter, the student who wasted his time on a *game*, nearly failed Potions class four years in a row. But when you were made *angry*... then you made potions good enough to pass you through the class. Harry Potter couldn't be allowed to think that his celebrity and his luck could get him through everything... could he?"

"Maybe not," Harry admitted with a tired smile, drinking from his own mug. It tasted quite odd, as he wasn't accustomed even to mulled wine, but... It wasn't so bad. "It was nice, some. To come somewhere people liked me. It's always felt rather like a dream or something, though."

"Still, somewhere along the line you had to back up that reputation you came here with. And you have, Harry, and backed it up well." The edges of his lips quirked up for a faint, tired moment. "Perhaps it's just vanity that made me expect so much of you as a student in my class. You could temporarily destroy Him, but not mix a simple enlarging Potion? You didn't know what Shrivelfig was? I couldn't believe it."

"Aunt Petunia," Harry said dryly, "didn't even approve of rosemary or basil. I'm afraid the chance of running into Shrivelfig prior to my arrival at Hogwarts was..." He paused, smiled slightly. "Slim and none." Talking with Professor Snape was making him feel better, after all. He... STRANGELY enough, he rather thought he liked the man, particularly when he wasn't being nasty. It was nice.

"It didn't help my opinion of you when you became your house's seeker," he went on, in a drawlingly soft sort of amusement. "You just seemed to walk on water. Just like your father did, through all of his classes, through his entire time here. Nothing could touch him because it all came *naturally* to him. His arrogance..." Snape shook his head. "No, that's jealousy speaking."

"Did you really hate him so much?" It was a horrible question to ask, really, it *was*, but there was a morbid need to *know*. "Am I so much like him?"

"You only look like him, Harry. You *act* so much like your mother did..." He took a deeper draught from the mug, and then set it aside. "And you have her eyes." Brilliant green jewels, that showed so much, even half-hidden behind thick glasses. Severus swallowed down, again, a feeling he had no right to have, and went on, "I never hated your father -- I was jealous of him. He didn't work at anything, and got everything a man could want."

"Then I'm glad I'm like my mother," Harry said quietly. "I don't think I would like it very much if you hated me. You..." He paused. "You don't, do you?" He was sure that Snape didn't, but... "It must be terrible, to be jealous of someone." Harry had never understood jealousy too well. He knew that others felt it, but often, he found that jealousy was only an emotion that did more harm than good.

"It is. It only makes your own situation look worse, when compared against someone who has a better life." Folding his arms over his chest in a vaguely tired attempt to look threatening, "And do you really think I would've let you follow me down here if I hated you?"

"No," the fifth-year admitted, suddenly smiling. "But sometimes, it's very good to hear. I don't hate you, either."

It was strange, how Snape looked so *surprised* for a flicker of a second, before his expression fell into that drawn, flat appearance Harry was so used to seeing. "It is good to hear such a thing." Though he had to ask himself how Harry didn't hate him... though his mind, the wheels slowing in their spinning already, wasn't up to that mental drill yet.

"You haven't eaten anything," Harry prompted him, handing him a sandwich from the never-ending plate of them. "You really should."

"Albus drugged the wine -- I'm too close to falling asleep," he excused, waving the food off without taking it from Harry's hand as the boy leaned forwards across the space that separated their two facing chairs.

"Take it," Harry insisted gently. "I'm sleepy, too, but you need to eat. Everyone's noticed how thin you're getting, and you were thin to start, weren't you?" He'd noticed, which actually surprised himself. He'd never thought about Snape before...

"The rest of the student body is hoping that I die." He took it, though, leaning forwards to pluck it from Harry's hand. If the young man *insisted*, he knew that it would take more effort to continue disagreeing than it would to just eat the damned thing. "'How dare Professor Snape outlive his master!'"

"Not all of them. Not the Slytherins that are left." Harry didn't particularly *like* Slytherins -- who did? -- but they *had* been obviously quiet lately, and no few glances had been cast towards their Head of House with worried looks. "Hermione's noticed."

"Ms. Granger is simply worried that I'll pass on before I can impart on her any more of my admittedly useless knowledge." Bitter words, but Snape sounded at least half-joking as he took a bit of the sandwich.

"Well," the Gryffindor said with the beginnings of a smile, "maybe..." And maybe that sarcastic humor just ran amongst the Slytherins, he decided.

"If one student can appreciate the effort I've put into my teaching, then I suppose I should eat to keep my strength." He flashed Harry a brief smile, however bleak the expression seemed at its heart, and returned to eating in silence. Severus didn't *feel* very hungry, but... well, if Harry insisted, if there was a little interest being shown to him from the young man... /Folly, Snape. Imprudent folly, but if this is what I need to go on.../ And if the strange occurrence that was the two of them sitting in his sitting room, talking, never happened again, he had at least one pleasant memory to nurse his mental aches with.

"Thank you for this evening, Professor. I think... it'll make things a little easier, somehow. To have talked about things..." Even if they hadn't directly discussed what had happened.

For another discussion, perhaps?

"Thank you, Harry Potter, for keeping me company for a bit of time." His voice, stretching for aloofness, failed as he muffled a yawn with his hand, and then took a last, damning sip of his drink. "Goodnight."

"Good night, Professor," Harry returned tiredly, rising to his feet. "Sleep well. And..." He paused. "Merry Yule to you."

"Merry..." That was so soft, and Severus didn't have a chance to get any further as Dreamless Sleep claimed him tightly.

Leaving Harry to worry if he could get all the way back to his dorm room. There was, after all, the chair that he'd been sitting in, and it was comfortable enough to sleep in...

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to fall asleep right... where... he was...

       

"I can't find him anywhere!" Ron cried. "He's not in the common room, not in our dorm room..."

"We should've gotten back to him sooner!" Hermione panicked quietly, pacing the hall in front of the Fat Lady. "We need to see if anyone saw him -- find out where he went. Was the Marauder's map gone, Ron?"

"I didn't look for it, his trunk was locked," the redhead admitted, shaking his head.

"Well go back up and *get* it!" Ginny cried. "We have to find him!"

"I'll help you pick it," Seamus offered, as they both turned to the portrait. He murmured the password 'chocolate raspberries' and the picture slid aside for them to try again.

"But, why would he have left the ball?" Colin asked the two girls he'd been left behind with, once Ron and Seamus slipped back upstairs. Neville was nowhere to be found, but he'd last been seen sneaking off with the Hufflepuff girl he'd gone to the Ball with, so who knew *where* they were.

"He's been so tired lately..." Hermione fretted, hands wringing together. "Maybe he's just wandered off somewhere to sleep..."

"But, Harry would've *told* one of us if he was that tired, wouldn't he?" Ginny asked in tense worry. "He should've!"

"Why should he?" drawled a voice from the shadows. "The lot of you were having such a marvelous time, and he was there all alone. Potter's not the sort to bother the rest of you with *his* minor inconveniences, now is he?"

"Have *you* seen him, Draco?" Hermione frowned at the pale boy as he stepped nearer them. He'd probably followed them the entire way up, and *listened* to their worried chatter the entire time.

"And why should I tell you if I have, Granger?" he returned coolly. "Will you even believe me?"

"Idiot," Ginny hissed, "just spill it, if you know!"

"We'll believe you," Hermione said slowly, thinking carefully as she chose her words. Because Draco obviously *did* know something, and if Harry's *life* was in danger again... "You should tell us because we're *worried*."

"He's asleep in the dungeons, in Professor Snape's parlor," Malfoy told her coldly. "I'd suggest leaving him there, as both of them obviously need the sleep, and they're comfortable enough where they are."

Colin's eyes went *wide* before anyone else's did. "How do you know that?"

Draco only *looked* at him. He didn't *say* anything, because his first response was to snap out that Junior Death Eaters always knew the location of Harry Potter, but Snape had chewed on him heavily enough the last time he'd said such a thing that he really didn't want to chance it again. He didn't like having Snape disappointed in him -- it hurt.

"You've been spying, haven't you?" Hermione accused softly, frowning at him. "Professor Snape wouldn't be happy if he knew that you were." Draco's spying and lurking didn't worry her, though -- that Harry was spending so much time with Snape worried her.

"Considering that they walked out of the Great Hall together in the middle of the Yule Ball and you, his oh-so-wonderful Gryffindor friends, didn't even *notice*, I'm not sure you should be tossing about accusations, Granger," Malfoy said shortly. "The Professor's parlor is on the way to the Slytherin dormitory, and his rooms are always open to students from his House who wish to speak with him."

The girl's cheeks flared with guilt, and for a moment, she looked to Ginny, and Colin for help, but...

The picture slid aside, and Ron and Seamus nearly tumbled out. the map was clutched tight in the Weasley boy's fingers. "Hermione, we have to go help him -- he's down in the dungeons! Snape's got him!"

"He's sleeping, Weasel. Don't be an idiot," Malfoy said shortly.

"If he really *is* sleeping, maybe we should leave him..." Ginny began.

"But how can we take Malfoy's word on it?" Ron protested. "And why would Harry have gone *there*? Snape's probably put a spell on him..."

With an exasperated sound and a wave of his hand, the Slytherin seemed to disappear easily enough back into the shadows, exasperated with the lot of them. "If you want to be a complete *git*, Weasel..." his voice drifted back to them.

"Well..." Hermione said, biting her lip.

"Let's just check?" Seamus half-pleaded, looking at the two motionless dots on the map, both in the dungeons. "If they're sleeping, there really isn't.. I mean, I guess there isn't any harm..."

"He ought to be in his *own* bed," Ron insisted stiffly. "That's where he belongs. NOT in that slimy git's dungeon!"

"Then we'll bring him back up," Colin said, starting off ahead of them all. Even though he didn't have a map at all. "Let's go!"

Shrugging, Ginny shook her head and trooped off after the boys, Hermione falling into step beside her. "Do you suppose..." She whispered, then paused and shrugged. "I don't know! Do you suppose they might have been talking?"

"I don't know how they could talk about anything -- they... they don't *like* each other, I can't see what there is to talk about..." But she could see it, even though she didn't want to. All those things Harry couldn't talk about to *them*, he probably *could* talk to Snape about.

"Oh, don't be a ninny," Ron hissed back at his sister. "What would Snape talk to him about, anyway? How much he hates Sirius, or Harry's Dad? I mean, you know, I..."

"Shhh!" Seamus hissed at them all. Heeled shoes were coming down the hall towards them -- they had to scramble, or *someone* would catch them...

It was too late. They were definitely caught.

"Well, I'm *most* surprised," Professor McGonagall said sternly. "So many Gryffindors out so late. And what, if I may be so bold as to ask, are the lot of you doing when Yule Ball is over and all of you should be finding your beds?"

"Well..." Ginny hedged.

"You see, Professor..." Colin gulped.

"We can't find Harry," Hermione volunteered bravely. "And Malfoy said he saw him sleeping in Professor Snape's study, and that Snape was there sleeping, too, so..." Her already red cheeks, embarrassed at having been caught, went one shade deeper. "We were just going to make sure Harry was all right."

"Well, the lot of you go on to your beds," they were told firmly. "*I* will check on Mr. Potter."

"But Professor..." Ron began.

"There will be *no* buts, Mr. Weasley. To your beds," she said.

"We just wanted to make sure he was okay..." Colin said plaintively, even as he started to turn. There was no arguing with Professor McGonagall at *any* time.

"If he's with a Professor, then I'm *certain* that he's fine. To bed!" McGonagall told them one last time.

"Just great," Seamus sighs. "It figures. Come on, then..."

And that was that

       

It wasn't light that woke him so much as a sense of morning having arrived; that it was the *right* time to be awake, even if it was dark and quiet where he was, and singularly comfortable.

Harry was goaded further into consciousness when a hand clutched lightly at his shoulder, shaking him gently. "Come on -- wake up, Harry. I know Dumbledore didn't put a lethal dose in the drinks for all that you're sleeping like the dead..."

A tremulous yawn shook him, and he blinked his eyes open slowly. At some point in the night, his glasses had been taken off and a blanket had been thrown over him, and now all he could see was the fuzzy picture of pale face and dark hair somewhere over him, backed by the darkness of the dungeon. "'s morning?"

"Mid-morning, in fact," he was told by Severus. It was strange to see someone else waking up, something he'd seldom seen in his life from a comfortable vantage point. But he'd done a great deal of watching after he'd garnered seven hours of sleep, or so. Without his glasses, Harry seemed more delicate, even more like his mother... but still very masculine. He'd settled into the blanket comfortably, too, once Severus had gotten it for him, and watching the slow movements of Harry wrapping himself in it had been oddly relaxing.

Snape suspected he was losing his mind.

"Oh," Harry said blankly, and a rumble of his stomach brought a flush to his face. "I'm sorry I fell asleep here, Professor. I didn't mean to intrude, I just..." He smiled a little sheepishly. "Couldn't stay awake any longer."

"It wasn't an intrusion." It had been very nearly a delight, and perhaps a bit of that slipped through in a tone that wasn't dismissive of Harry's words. "Are you feeling better today?"

"Much," Harry said with some surprise, smile spreading. No nightmares, no thrashing, no lack of slumber... "I slept. Did you, sir?"

"Quiet well." Harry felt the blanket pulled back a little, enough to free one of his sleep-heavy hands from its wrapping warmth, and he felt his glasses placed there. "As the trays and mugs are gone, I think it's safe to assume that the headmaster would like us to *be* at whatever is left of breakfast."

"Mmmm," Harry agreed, sitting up and rubbing the sleep from his eyes before he put his glasses on. That brought everything into clear focus -- the room, the blanket, and a freshly bathed Snape, waiting patiently for him to rise. It was rather odd. "Thank you," he said, sliding his legs from beneath the blanket slowly. His dress robes were terribly rumpled and he could probably use a bath, too, but he was *starving*. "I'm hungry enough I think I could eat a hippogriff," he admitted, stretching.

"You shouldn't ever let Hagrid hear that." Severus turned with surprising calm and casualness -- surprising for himself, because when Harry stretched with the blankets around him still, he showed quite a bit of leg. It was more than Snape needed to see so early in the morning if he wanted to continue being calm. "The only students left by now are the ones who'll be here for the rest of vacation." He probably should've woken Harry earlier, but he'd looked so comfortable in sleep...

"Oh, then breakfast will be going long!" He stood, smiled at Snape. "Shall we go to breakfast, then, Professor?" It seemed oddly comfortable, being where he was, speaking to Snape that way. Yes, it was definitely odd, but also... nice.

Snape nodded, flicking long bangs out of his eyes for a moment. with his hair freshly washed, it looked *soft*, not as greasy as the running joke had always been, and the black robes, while still black, looked a little less stiff... Or perhaps it was just his imagination.

"I would feel better at ease if you called me 'Severus' when there are no other students around," Snape told him, heading unerringly for the door.

Well, THAT was an interesting sort of invitation. Things had obviously changed more between them last night than even Harry had thought! "Thanks," he replied with a nod. "You know, you're a lot nicer than you pretend to be. I like you this way."

"Don't tell the other students that," he warned as they went up the hall to the dungeon door, voice carrying a very *quiet* threat in it in case Harry did feel like breaking Snape's tenuous trust. "I don't want to lose what little respect I still have."

"No worries, Severus," he said before the door opened, green eyes gleaming with sudden humor. "I'll tell them all you were horrible and mean to me, if you want."

One eyebrow arched, and for a moment, in the light that spilled into the darkness from the partly opened door, he thought he saw Snape truly smile, a wry twist of lips usually drawn tense with displeasure. "Yes, that might be of help, Harry."

"Professor?"

That was a tentative voice from out in the hallway, and it drew both of their attentions as the door finished opening altogether and let in the morning light.

Red hair, and for a moment that was all that Snape could make out, squinting for a moment against the light. "How can I help you, Mr... Ms. Weasley." His eyes finally focused almost too late to see that it was longer red hair, and the petite girl was almost upon them entirely.

"We were worried, sir, about Harry. He didn't come back to the dorm last night, and Professor McGonagall said he was here, so..." Ginny's voice trailed off. "Ah, we've been waiting, one at a time, so when he woke up..."

"I'm fine, Ginny," Harry said gently. "I fell asleep and the Professor was kind enough not to wake me."

"Hopefully Potter getting some *rest* didn't unsettle your Yuletide fun," Snape uttered in an arch manner, making to move up the stairs that she was standing on.

"Oh," Ginny said, startled as she stepped to the side. "No, sir! Not at all!!" Her glance darted quickly to Harry and then back again.

"Come on, Ginny. Is breakfast still upstairs?" he asked, wondering if he'd have to check in with the house elves to get breakfast.

"Yes," she smiled in relief as she started up the stairs as Harry did. Snape was already moving up them, with his quick, purposeful stride. "You're still in your dress robes -- you should change..."

"I'm too hungry to bother," Harry confessed. "I'm sorry if I worried everyone..."

"We shouldn't have left you alone," Ginny apologized in a rush. "It wasn't right of us to leave you alone."

"It's okay, Ginny," the boy excused. "Professor Snape gave me a sleeping draught, and I feel much better this morning. It's really all right. I promise."

"Mr. Potter came to no harm other than perhaps being bored to tears," Professor Snape told Ginny as they reached the hallway proper, turning to head back to the main hall.

"I'll go get the others, Harry?" Ginny asked, pausing. "Ron was really worried..."

Yes, it truly was time for the Potions master to make himself scarce -- he knew as much, as reluctant as he was to leave company that had been pleasant for the time it had existed. "You can tell your brother that Potter wasn't chopped up and dropped into a potion. There's no need for such a *fuss* to be raised, however, over a simple matter."

"Good morning, Professor." Snape had nearly tripped over a tired-looking Malfoy, who seemed to have taken up station near the doors to the Great Hall. "Ah, and Miss Weasel. Lost your brother, have you? And I see you've found *Harry*..."

"Good morning, Draco." A little chill, and the other Slytherin's presence was all the excuse he needed to become Professor Snape again, and slip through the Great Hall doors to take his seat and eat as quickly as possible. As quickly as Dumbledore would let him get away with.

"You were right," Ginny sighed, as soon as Snape was gone. "I'm sorry, Malfoy, that we thought you were lying."

The blond boy shrugged and rose up gracefully, palm pressed to the floor. "Hope you had a nice night, *Harry*," he returned causticly, waving as he headed for the nearest set of stairs.

Ginny watched Draco leave, then looked at her friend. "You, ah... talked with Professor Snape all evening?"

"And slept a pretty long while," Harry admitted, watching after the blond boy with curiosity. The morning felt so utterly surreal, almost as if he'd been dropped down in the midst of an entirely different world than he'd been in the night before...

Draco was being simply *odd*, but not triumphant about it. Snape was... well, that oddness started arguably weeks prior, and came to a peek the night before.

"Harry!!" Ron peeked out of the Great Hall door. "Why've you still got your dress robes on? Never mind -- come in here and have breakfast! And watch the show! Sirius is here, Harry!" And with the door opened, he could *hear* clamor that hadn't been there before. Dumbledore trying to *quiet* two *arguing* voices...

"I don't give a damn if you *are* taking them to Glastonbury, Snape! He's not going with *you*, and that's final! Not without *me*!"

"What do you expect me to do when I get there? Kill them all? Use your brains, Sirius, if you've got any left at all in your thick skull," Severus snarled as he tried valiantly to outmaneuver the other tall figure. Height wasn't an advantage at all when the opponent as just as tall, he noted miserably to himself. He simply wanted to get in, and get out, though if the ex-prisoner *persisted*, he was making plans on just getting out of the Great Hall, before the students became any more 'entertained' by the argument. "I don't plan on dragging them up to the bloody *Tor* to bury them!"

"Sirius Black, I assure you that there is no harm to come to the Gryffindor students by letting Professor Snape watch over them," Dumbledore said rather firmly, walking nearer to both men. "It was *entirely* my suggestion that he go on the trip -- you could even say that I've got him going against his will, if it would *assure* you further that my Potions Master isn't *plotting* anything!"

Ron slipped back into the Great Hall, and grinned over his shoulder to Harry, whispering, "See?"

Harry nodded, eyes wide as he watched the two of them yelling at the front of the Great Hall. Apparently, everyone who was remaining behind at Hogwarts this year was watching them, as well, because there were almost twenty other students still at table, gaping at the arguing pair.

"I don't care if he's *plotting* anything or not!" Sirius insisted loudly. "He's a great bloody prat, and if Harry's going off with him, then I insist that I'm going as well!!"

"Oh, *God*, I am *not* going to withstand your presence for a week," Snape gritted out, pivoting to head towards the door instead of to sit down in his seat. "I'm not doing this, Dumbledore, if this is a taste of the idiocy I'm going to be facing."

"Do eat some breakfast first, Severus," Dumbledore said mildly. "Now, Sirius, really. Harry is in no danger, Professor McGonagall will be present. If you like, I'm sure we can arrange for you to go along, but you'd have to agree to help Professor McGonagall with the Slytherins, Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, and you would have to *promise* most sincerely to let Severus alone..."

Like a promise to *that* sort would ever mean a thing from Sirius Black's lips. Snape snorted darkly, glaring icily at the animagus. "Or, you could go back to Lupin and finish working on the *house*, instead of wasting your time hindering things here. Potter is here only because the house isn't finished yet, hmn? So you should spend your time seeing to that."

"Remus is doing an admirable job all on his own!" And Remus *wanted* to do it on his own, and there was no *way* Sirius was going to undermine him by not letting him have his way! Not when his friend had been so alone and so hurt for so long! "Harry understands that, and you seem to have a lot of boys here. I know about *boys*, Severus, and there's no way you're going to be able to control them on your own!"

"Fine," Snape acquiesced suddenly, pausing at a point between the table and the door as if unsure of whether to stay or to leave. Just like that night in the hospital wing, he seemed to lose whatever was animating him. No, he wouldn't be able to handle the students if he was going to be attacked right in front of *all* of them, questioned in his capabilities. "Undermine me, then. I'll be down in my workshop, Headmaster Dumbledore, if I'm needed."

"Sirius," Dumbledore sighed, "let's go up to my office. You, also, Severus. I'm sure we can have breakfast sent up. And Harry, *do* come in and stop hovering in the door."

Startled slightly, Harry stepped forward, heading towards the Gryffindor table but pausing as Sirius came up and hugged him lightly. "See you in a bit," the older man whispered in his ear, and then they were all headed for the hallway.

Severus stayed quiet as he fell into step beside Dumbledore. Dark eyes stayed focused straight ahead, expression flatly sour -- such a pity, the day had actually been pleasant until then. Quiet conversation, company when he woke up in the morning... A *presence* that he didn't mind.

"Did you really have to make such a scene, Sirius?" Dumbledore asked the animagus as he turned to look at him.

"Well, Snape *did* yell something about my mother when he walked in," Sirius denied innocently.

"Still, that's no rea--"

"And then you *proceeded* to essentially tell me students that I was unfit to act in the position Albus put me in. I don't even want to *go* on this god-forsaken 'trip'." His voice dropped into the hiss that Sirius was more than half-expecting, "It's no fault of mine that you are an ignorant son of a bitch."

"What I don't want, *Snape*, you jackass, is you being a complete bastard to Harry because I'm his godfather and James was his father!" Sirius snapped back at him. "And you certainly have been in the past, so don't tell me I'm not justified! That's all I've been even remotely concerned about!"

A small bubble of laughter, a raw, wolfish noise, escaped Severus instead of words. It was ironic. It was sickeningly ironic, and pushed Snape nearer the edge of reason he'd been teetering at. /Yes, I'm a bastard, Sirius. You've no idea how wrong you are, and you couldn't care less./ He could feel Albus's worried gaze on him, those old, penetrating eyes dwelling on him before he could *stop* that noise, and look at the two men who walked beside him. "You couldn't be more wrong, Black. I'm trying to help him..." It was all he'd tried to do for the previous four and a half years, after all.

Reluctantly, Sirius turned to the headmaster. "Albus...

"Severus *is* correct, Sirius. Though perhaps his methods are not to be completely admired, he has held Harry's best interests to heart. Severus, *do* eat something," he sighed, a plate appearing as if by magic, full of eggs and bacon and muffins. "Even in trying to get you sent back to Azkaban, though I do admit that it was entirely the *wrong* thing to do..."

A thin hand plucked a muffin with precision, and Snape paid it most of his attention for a few *long* moments. The sandwich the night before had been all that he'd had for two days before, so... /If Albus keeps popping food up in odd places, I might start some strange sort of habit./ "Black tried to have me killed when we were just *boys*. I never had a reason to think plainer murder was beneath him -- though after I saw Pettigrew with my own eyes, I realized that I must relent my opinion of your... Guilt."

"Thank you for that much," Sirius said, though he was obviously uncomfortable with it. "Look, the issue is, I hate for Harry to go off over the holidays, anyway, only the house is still upside down, so... would it really hurt so much if Remus and I came along?"

"I suppose not," Albus said, casting a worried glance to Snape. It hadn't quite been what the old man had been trying to plan, yet...

"Ah, the would-be-Potter-family goes on vacation. Sounds like wonderful fun for you," Snape complimented in a chill tone, but only once he'd finished his muffin. Hopefully Dumbledore would leave it at that. He didn't stop with one comment -- oh, no, that would've been too easy for him to do, to *stop*. "Harry will enjoy it. The students will tag along with you because you're wonderful -- and perhaps I can take my idle hands and crawl under a rock. Yes, a brilliant idea, Black."

"Do eat your eggs, Severus," Sirius answered him coolly, fighting back the urge to poke out his tongue at the greasy-haired prat. "I don't want to deal with the rest of your children. Just Harry. I suppose, if Albus agrees, we could just take him home for the holidays and get a room or something for a short while..."

"Sirius..." That was Dumbledore, speaking up after a silence during which he'd let them bicker as they tended to do with flair. "There was a reason why I... placed Snape at the head of the Gryffindors for this trip. After the events of Hallow's Eve, there have been... repercussions, as you're aware, Sirius. One of which is your new-found legality." He looked to Snape now, smiling good naturedly for a moment. "Of which I am glad. But I've been watching the school -- and while the staff and student body have mostly been on a rise, I see some few declining. Harry seldom sleeps a night through now, plagued by the same nightmares and fears that Severus has faced for years and years now.

"I had hoped that perhaps they could help each other, because they've seen things that few have. Harry's friends don't quite understand, Sirius... They weren't there." Severus remained quiet, but looking at Sirius with cold eyes -- waiting for the attack that usually came.

It didn't, for once. Instead, the ex-Auror sighed deeply and leaned back in his chair, fingers laced together and laid over a flat belly. "So you're saying you want me to let him go and not to hassle Snape about it," he said thoughtfully. "Hm."

"Just that, in so few words," the headmaster agreed, in a rather proud tone that no fights had broken out. "Lemon drop, either of you?"

"No, but thank you," Snape replied blandly. No attack, not yet -- perhaps it would come out of Dumbledore's presence, or when there were a great deal of people to humiliate him in front of. That rather seemed Sirius's standard mode of operation.

For a moment, the former prisoner of Azkaban simply *looked* at him, cool and steady, expression bland, long-suffering. Finally, though, he stopped and turned back to Dumbledore, raising an eyebrow. "All right. He can go. But if *one single thing* goes wrong..."

"You'll kill me and go back to Azkaban, much to the disappointment of Harry and Mr. Lupin?" Severus sneered silkily, leaning towards Sirius for a long moment, before he stood up. "As I said before -- if I'm required, Headmaster, you know where I can be found."

Sirius stuck his tongue out at Severus before he turned his back. "Nyah."

"Boys," Dumbledore sighed, and to him, perhaps, they were.

       

The common room was a quiet, hazy sort of place on the holidays, barren of the students that had packed into it during the semester. Decorations of greenery and glittering bubbles that Fred and George were taking great delight in popping, abounded, splashes of brilliant colors. The Gryffindors there were all friends that had been with him for at least four years, all safe to be around...

But safety and comfort didn't always coincide.

"Sirius left saying he had to do something, Harry, but I think he'll be back again," Hermione said as she backed into the room, with her arms laden down with the packages that Harry's godfather had shoved into her arms.

"Thanks," Harry responded, taking some of them from her to help her hold them more carefully. "I think he's bought enough to make up for my *ever* having missed a Christmas," he said dryly.

"You'll get another sweater from our mum, too, won't he, Fred?" George laughed, popping a bubble full of glitter open directly over Harry's head. "And maybe ours won't have our names on them!"

"They have for years; don't see why Mum would change now," Fred laughed, dusting the golden stuff into Harry's head. "Harry'll probably get green again this year. And Ron'll get..."

"...mauve. D'you ever wonder what possesses that woman?" George drawled.

"The same thing that possesses her to not kill both of you when you blow up the bathroom?" Ron teased, tromping down from the dorm-room with books under his arm. "Right. You know, we should just have a party tonight. Feels right for that sort of things. Free."

"Then what've you got *books* for?" Fred snorted.

"And we only blew up the bathroom that once," George insisted.

Ron smirked as he set one book down on the table, and opened it. Within was a neat, sealed bottle of liquor. "Oh, I don't know... Harry, do you want some? Hagrid gave them to me!"

"Oh, Ron, really, I don't think we should," Hermione began.

"Really," Harry agreed weakly.

"No one's going to come up here and see us," Ron tried to coax. Ah, well, if they wouldn't... then he'd just put the 'books' away and forget the idea. But so much for trying to start a party!

"Except maybe Sirius!" Hermione sighed, shaking her head. "You know he isn't gone yet!"

"Yeah, but I *don't* think he's likely to tattle," Fred -- or was it George? -- chuckled.

"Oh just forget it," Ron sighed, already putting the bottle down. "We should raid the kitchen, or go play in the snow... Don't any of you want to do *anything*? Harry?"

"I think I could eat a couple of oxen," Harry admitted with a sheepish expression, hair falling into his eyes as he shrugged. They'd just had dinner but he was suddenly *hungry* for the first time in weeks, and that response got cheers from Fred and George both.

"Raid the house elves!" one cried.

"Dobby'll have *plenty*!" the other agreed.

Hermione seemed ready to sigh again, but just shook her head. "Better hope Professor McGonagall doesn't catch you *again*."

"More, I'd worry about Slimy Snape showing up!" Fred grinned. "Because he pops up *everywhere*."

"He's not really so bad," Harry said, despite the looks it got him. "Sort of nice, really, when you get right down to it..."

"Nice?" Ron asked, as he set about magically resealing the 'books' with his wand. "Get off it, Harry -- the man's a flaming git, and we all know it."

"Yeah, but he is," Harry shrugged. "He's got... well," he finished lamely, "he's just nice, when he's not in class."

"Detention must count as class," George decided, patting his brother's shoulder as the younger Weasley started the trudge up to the dorm again. "We were really worried about you last night, when you couldn't be found, Harry -- and I think I can speak for all of us that *we* feel like complete fools for leaving you alone there."

"It was all right," Harry denied weakly. "I was terribly glad you were enjoying yourselves..."

"Yes, but we had ought to have paid attention, Harry. Even Malfoy got in a dance or two before disappearing, so we were just sure you would have, too," Hermione fretted.

Most of the guilt stemmed, most likely, from the fact that they'd left him alone, and rather than waiting, he'd left to spend the evening in the company of the potions master. "Cho was looking for you at the end of the evening, you know, to get a dance in with you... Lots of girls were, but you'd left, "Ron chipped in as he came downstairs. "Why'd you leave, Harry?"

"I was just tired," Harry answered with a shrug. "I haven't been sleeping, and I was tired..." He smiled a little sheepishly. "I mean, I even fell asleep in Professor Snape's parlor, so obviously..."

Hermione gave a strange little smile as she leaned in, and kissed his cheek lightly. "Are you still tired, Harry?"

"Not so bad," he said, flushing just a bit. It was odd to get a kiss in front of others. "Apparently once I was fed and had something to drink, I dozed right off and slept almost through the end of breakfast."

"I'd've worried about being poisoned by him, myself," Fred chuckled as he started towards the door. "Let's go, and not run into *any* professors while we're out?"

Luck didn't seem to be with them, as the moment the portrait hole opened, Sirius nearly ran right into them with another load of presents. "Harry! Where are you going?"

"Going down to the kitchen for food," Ron volunteered eagerly, while his brothers nodded in agreement.

"There isn't going to be room in his dorm for his bed, Sirius, if you keep that up," Hermione teased lightly.

The slight disappointment on Sirius's face made them all laugh before he brightened slightly and winked. "I'll just have to make an ever-expanding trunk to hold it all, then, won't I?" he asked lightly. "Want some company down to the kitchens?"

"Sure," Harry said warmly. He was *always* glad for Sirius to be around, grateful to him and, in their way, they loved one another most deeply because his god-father was caring, and a true link back to his parents.

Sirius set the armful down just a bit past the inside of the portal, and turned to head out with them. "This way you won't be in trouble for wandering the halls past curfew."

"You think of *everything*," Ron said gleefully. "Bet it's been a while since you've been down to the kitchens and seen the house-elves!"

"Yes," Sirius smiled, "and while we're going, I'll tell you all about the time James managed to eat an entire cherry cream pie in only four bites!"

Quiet chatter, hearing and partaking in it, and hearing Sirius's voice telling him one more precious anecdote about his father, made the languid walk down, down to the kitchens so worthwhile. Everything felt... almost normal, the six of them blending seamlessly from topic to topic. It was just like being in the Weasley household, *that* was the feeling that took a hold of him! *Family* and ease.

"And then Remus had him wear the pie-tin on his head as a hat for the rest of the feast," Sirius concluded cheerily as he pushed open the kitchen doors.

It nearly sent them all into full-level shock to find Severus Snape sitting at the table surrounded by house elves offering him sweets.

"Urp," Fred said in shock... or perhaps it was George.

"Eek," his twin agreed.

They must've jinxed themselves with their earlier comment -- there was no other explanation for it. It took Severus a moment to notice them lingering in the doorway, in mid-rant as it were. "Look, you stupid elves, I just came down here to get a drink. Coffee, tea, *something* that the Headmaster hasn't drugged -- understand that? I don't want your bloody sweets!"

"Oh, Laylie is bad, bad, bad!" one elf wailed and began smacking her head against the table. It was most shortly followed by another one, leaving Severus holding his own head tightly in exasperation.

"Dobby," Harry called. "Could you get Professor Snape some tea?" Herbal, he figured, wouldn't be nearly as bad as coffee. "No caffeine, okay?"

"Dobby get tea for Master Harry!" the house-elf agreed almost instantly, scampering off.

"How the fuck did we have the luck..." Ron muttered under his own breath, glancing over to Sirius.

Snape lifted his head a little, fingers of one hand pressed at a painful throbbing temple, as he looked at the group before him. Oh, it was the entire *pack* of them, and the big Grim at their head... "Thank you, Harry," he murmured, getting to his feet if only to escape the destructive elves. The next morning, he was going to have a *talk* with the headmaster -- it was nonsense, ordering the house-elves to not let him have anything to drink past nine p.m. that didn't have Dreamless Sleep Draught in it.

"You're welcome," Harry said politely, tilting his head to the side. "Would you like to stay? We're all starving..." He smiled a little. "Well, I am, anyway."

He wasn't hungry at all, but... company, well, that was a different matter than eating. Still, there were five other people with Harry, none of whom looked particularly thrilled to see his chill presence *anywhere*. "I would very much like to stay, Harry," he intoned *very* quietly, so that it could be barely heard over the clamor of the house elves. "But your friends... seem less inclined."

A green-eyed glance revealed the truth of the matter, and Harry felt a sudden sharp jolt of disappointment. He supposed that he had thought Sirius, at least, would understand... Oh, he didn't know what, understand *something*, understand about a fellow creature *suffering*, but it seemed very much that he didn't. "You could have a sandwich to go with your tea," Harry said a little weakly, mouth tilting up again at the corner crookedly.

"That's all right." He wasn't going to protest not being able to have company that he had no right to expect. It was luck at all that Harry had come down there when he'd been fit to leave in a burst of anger at the elves. The anger had ebbed away, though. "I'll just take my tea and go, but thank you." Smoothly, he got to his feet, dragging cold dark eyes over those still in the doorway. "Well, you can walk, can't you? I'm not keeping you out of the room with my presence, am I?"

"As if you could, even on a *good* day," Sirius snorted.

"Er, sorry, Professor," the twins said in tandem, both of them shuddering a bit.

As the house elves went back into hyperactive feeding mode, Harry leaned closer to Snape. "Would you mind if I came down for a while a bit later? It's nice, having someone to talk to..." Someone who understood the way he felt about things... He could talk to Sirius, but somehow, he felt that would be a betrayal of everything that had happened, horrible as it had been, a betrayal of himself, and a betrayal of Severus, as well.

Ron sulked into the room along with his brothers but Hermione kept her eyes on Harry, standing so close to the now-standing potions master. How strange...

"Mind? No, I would... appreciate it, Harry," Snape murmured easily. The voice that gave those words wasn't as chill as it was at other times, more the sibilancy that seemed to pass for relaxed for the potions master. "I'm more than willing to help you however I can."

"Dobby brought tea for Harry Potter!"

"Thanks, Dobby," Harry murmured, turning it over to Professor Snape easily. "And could I have some pumpkin juice, too?"

"Coming right up!" Dobby promised, scurrying off. It never struck anyone as odd that none of the house elves were offended by Harry giving Snape his tea. The little creatures were always quick to wail of offence, after all. Perhaps it was just that it was so late at night...

Severus wasn't going to question it. The cup was warm as he cradled it in both hands, giving a quiet murmur of thanks to Harry. "Don't knock on the outer door -- simply press your hand against it for a three count." Leaning close to Potter to talk to him, so close... strained him past reason, past sense. Whatever reason Harry was willing to seek him out, it wasn't something to be taken as anything more than it outwardly seemed. /Sick, Severus, you're sick -- this is the face of pity, and you know it well./ It was the only possible explanation, though since Harry wasn't blatant about that fact, he could internally take it however he liked.

Ron didn't like what he was seeing, no more than Sirius could've been. Snape leaning close enough to their friend to touch him, looking down at him with the oddest facial expression -- something dark, and far more dangerous than simple malice lurking behind those eyes. Then the Potions master seemed to snap himself free of whatever was keeping him rooted in place, and silently walked to leave the kitchens.

"Here, Harry Potter!" It was his pumpkin juice, and he turned to look at his friends, smiling weakly. They certainly didn't seem to be all that happy, except Hermione, who had the strangest look of understanding on her face...

"What?" he asked, just a tad shortly. "He's human. Honestly, the lot of you..."

"Harry, that was just creepy," Fred snorted, swooping towards the table to pick up one of the sweet that Snape had been declining. "Human -- you, of everyone, should know he isn't, after he's spent the past *years* harassing you."

"Just one more semester, Fred, and we won't ever have him teaching us again," George grinned.

Sirius was quiet, though, *looking* at Harry as the group of students started to move about again. The Boy-Who-Lived didn't seem to mind Severus Snape, but even with Dumbledore's support, he couldn't entirely trust the man -- not after seeing two separate ways of acting within seconds. First, calm, if a bit frustrated, for Harry, then snapping at *them*... /Not trusting him with my Harry. No more than I trust him around Remus./

Hermione seemed to be the only one who fully understood. "Let's have sandwiches, then," she decided as Winky came up, looking at her as though she might be a firecracker about to go off. "I'm sure they've got some crisps somewhere, too, don't you, Winky?"

Winky, who'd been worried about Hermione since her efforts with S.P.E.W., nodded reluctantly and trotted off to fetch the requested food items even as Harry took a swallow of his pumpkin juice.

"Sometimes," he said solemnly, "you just don't understand things 'til they've been stuffed practically down your nostrils. Then you don't have any choice but to understand them."

Fred choked on the piece of pastry he'd been stuffing into his mouth, and then tossed Harry an oddly mangled ball of chocolate. "Ugh, Harry! Mental pictures, the *mental* pictures you just gave me!" He mock-shivered, chewing on his food while his brother plucked something else up.

"What's there to understand?" Ron grumped.

"That even *Snape* is human, of course," Hermione sighed, handing him a chip. "Really, Ron...."

"Snape's never been human," Sirius grumbled. "He's always been a nosy prat, 's what he's been."

"He *did* nearly get himself killed because he wanted to catch all of you running off doing something wrong, didn't he?" Ron half-tried to remind Harry.

"Well..." Sirius hedged. "I sort of implied that he had ought to go check things out for himself..." He was just lucky James hadn't let Remus *eat* the jackass...

"Still, he was nosy enough to bother in the first place when it wasn't any of his business," Ron snorted. "And now, Harry, he keeps *showing up*. And I think you're encouraging the bugger."

Tiredly, Harry began to eat the sandwiches in front of him, and he didn't say anything else at all. How could he? No matter what he said, the answer would be the same... 'How could you? Don't you know he's just the same old bastard as always?' The man *wasn't*, though, things had changed, and no one seemed to understand that at all!

Then again, Severus seemed to show none of that odd change to any of his friends -- except Hermione, who'd thought something odd in the lightened workload in Potions class, and Snape's sudden ability to tolerate things he hadn't before, and *not* tolerate things that he had. Not all of Malfoy's cruel little jokes were funny any longer, and most of them got him soundly chewed out by the head of his house.

Hermione patted Harry's shoulder as she sat down, and conversation swelled up again.

"So what's living like a muggle like, anyway?" one of the twins asked, nibbling on an eclair.

"Yeah!" the second seconded, grinning wildly. "I heard it was all sex and dirty jokes!"

"Mostly it'll be Harry and I watching all of you figure out things like light switches and telephones, right?" Hermione smiled at her friend. "And laughing. Maybe we'll help you."

"I'd rather laugh," Harry said a little smugly, smiling at all of them. He couldn't help himself; even if he had WANTED to be cranky, there was no way to do it with the twins.

"Father's got a few light-switches floating around the house," George said through a mouthful of sticky fudge. "They're those things scattered about on the floor of the shed, right? I can't see what good they are..."

"Even *I* know what those are for!" Ron declared. "They flick out candles, right?"

Sirius laughed, unable to help himself. "Something like that."

"We shouldn't tell them anything, Harry," Hermione decided, smiling to herself. "Because I want to see you geniuses work through living as a muggle."

Harry was already holding back yawns as he polished off his sandwich and reached for an eclair. "It'll be good for a laugh," he agreed sleepily, biting into the chocolate-and-cream thing firmly.

"You sound tired, Harry," Sirius murmured as he watched the twins split one of the sweet things.

"Dobby did what he was told!" The house-elf smiled from behind the group. "Yes, yes, Dobby did a good job!"

"Dobby..." Hermione's eyes seemed huge in her face. "What did you do?"

"Dreamless Sleep Draught!" the elf *beamed* at them all. "Headmaster doesn't want Master Snape, or Master Harry losing sleep. So we're supposed to make sure they take it. Master Harry wanted tea, gave tea to Master Snape, saved up trouble!"

Harry stared, open-mouthed, unable to believe the sound of it. "You mean... that is..." he blurted out as the twins began to laugh.

"I think he got both of you," Fred chuckled. "Won't be having problems sleeping now!"

"Don't worry," Ron shrugged, "We'll just drag you back up to the dorm if you pass out before--"

"Or, one of us could 'enervate' you," Hermione said, pulling her wand out of his robes -- much to Dobby's disappointment.

"No, no, shouldn't undo!!"

"It's okay," Harry promised with a giant yawn. "I'll just go back to the tower. I promised..." Well, should he tell them, or not? They'd get worried... "I'm going to take Professor Snape a sandwich first.

Four pairs of eyes looked at him as if he was crazy.

"I'll go with you," Hermione said. "Dobby, do fetch another plate of sandwiches."

"Already done!" The house elf grinned at her, zipping away before tottering back with a tray that only held two. "Here, here sandwiches."

"Harry, even if... you keep insisting he's human, it isn't like you owe him all this... *kindness*," Ron murmured incredulously.

"I'm not going to let Harry go back on a promise because you feel like being gitty, Ron," the brown-haired girl told him *firmly*, as she bent to get the tray from Dobby. "Won't be a moment!"

With a wide yawn, Harry waved his hand and smiled as they headed out of the kitchen. "Thanks, 'mione," he said once they were out in the hall. "I appreciate it. I do."

"You're welcome," she replied politely. Hermione was rather glad that her odd hunch didn't seem, yet, to be wrong. "I think you need a better way to explain this... that you're talking with Professor Snape, Harry, than you've been. It sounds like it's pity, and Ron and the twins just don't understand why."

Sleepy eyes turned on her almost sharply, Harry's brows knitting together. "I don't feel like I can talk about it, 'mione," he said quietly. "It all seems so... so innately, *terribly* personal, is all..."

"I know... a very little of what happened that night, Harry," Hermione hedged quietly as they walked. "And you don't have to tell anyone anything at all if you don't want to. I understand, that, Harry. But... Just tell Ron that you're trying to make friends or something? Please, Harry, it'd make it easier for them if it was something that they thought they couldn't talk you out of. Taking sandwiches to someone out of pity, that can get a lot of questions..."

"And then I'd have to answer even more questions than everyone's got already, and I'd really rather not." He glanced at her, biting slightly at the corner of his mouth. "How do you know?"

"Ginny... heard her father talking about it to Bill," Hermione said hesitantly, and then fell quickly quiet -- to see what Harry's reaction was.

His voice was fairly gentle when he spoke to her. "Then I guess you can imagine what it would feel like, to suffer so much. I dream about it..." His brows knit together. "And sometimes, I can't save him, and sometimes, I can't save *me*, and... and it *helps*, to talk together..." Even if they didn't talk about *that*.

"I understand that, Harry," Hermione assured him quietly, pausing in the hallway as they reached a point where she knew they were *nearer* to the dungeons, but she was unsure of where to turn next. Harry knew the way to Snape's office.. or rooms, or wherever it was they were going. "I don't -- I mean, I know now that he was... savaged, and that you saw, and killed You-kn--Voldemort. So I can't really imagine what you must be dreaming. But if it helps you, Harry, to talk with him, then just tell Ron that. He'll understand that."

"I will," he promised, smiling at her sleepily. "Thanks, Hermione."

"You're welcome. And you probably don't want me following you, do you? Unless you think you'll fall asleep first..." She held out the small tray to him, letting him choose.

"I probably will," he admitted wryly, "but if I do, don't worry about me. It'll be all right. And I'll talk to Ron first thing," he pledged.

She let him take the tray with a little smile to him, and turned the other way. "Please do, Harry -- I'll see you tomorrow, then." Because she *knew* he wouldn't get back up to the tower.

Quietly, he headed down towards the dungeon, tray in hand. He knew he'd be lucky if the Professor was awake when he arrived; after all, it was all *he* could do to keep his own eyes open! Still, it was worth a shot, and so he slipped into the Potions room and headed for Snape's parlor.

It wasn't the back entrance that Snape had shown him, but it did take him where he wanted to go.

Snape had decided, only after slipping into his bedroom to change clothes, that the aftertaste of the tea was singularly suspicious.

It wasn't... A tired noise left him as he kept himself standing by pressing his forehead to the chill stone of his bedroom wall, buttoning his shirt with tired fingers. It wasn't fair that he was going to fall asleep after elaborate plans of a quiet night of finishing grading and testing a new potions idea. But he had to finish getting dressed, first, then find a potion to counteract what Dumbledore had slipped him in misguided kindness.

"Pr... Severus?"

It was a voice as sleepy as he felt, and it was a familiar one -- the one he'd heard so shortly promising to come down in just a bit.

"Hmm?" He blinked furiously, turning his head a little and pressing one hand against the wall. "Hold on..." Sleep-filled voice from his parlor... so Harry had come.

"I brought your sandwiches," the tired young man offered, eyelids drooping. It was perfectly impossible to fight off sleep...!

Severus finished buttoning up the white shirt that he wore usually beneath his robes, tucked its ends into his trousers, and stepped unsteadily into the parlor. "Dumbledore got your drink, too?" It was a bitter question, as he moved, using the wall, towards the desk against the back wall. "I've something... where is it..."

"Yes," Harry answered agreeably, sitting down. "I don't mind. It's nice to rest..."

His eyelids threatened to fall, and he glared at the potions, all in neat, small bottles on his desk, and the spiky script he called labeling. "There were... things I wanted to say, to get done tonight, but..." Unless he could gather some enormous leap of consciousness, he wasn't going to take a dose of anything from his bottles unless he was sure of what it was.

"But I think it's better to sleep. Have a sandwich first," Harry coaxed. It felt almost dreamlike, *bizarre*, to be speaking that way to Snape, but that was kind of all right. It made it easier. "Come on, Severus."

"And if I refuse?" The arch tones would've been more chilling had Severus not sounded as if he were stifling a yawn as he turned smoothly from his desk. Why, really, the hell not?

"Then they'll probably dry out and you'll be hungry come morning," Harry informed him pragmatically.

"Still..." He moved closer to the seated boy, lingering oddly beside his chair. It was *good* to be so close, even though he knew he should simply take the two steps backwards and sit down in the chair that faced Harry's. "I don't want my eulogy to read 'aspirated on sandwich'."

"'Here lies Severus Snape. He was no Mama Cass'," Harry said jokingly. "I know the Heimlich. I might even be awake enough to perform it. At least take a bite."

"'Mama Cass', Harry?" It worked, the chilled questioning tone, as he took the offered sandwich, and took a bite. "I really am tired of being chased around and told to eat... it's most irritating."

"A muggle singer who choked to death on a chicken sandwich or something," Harry explained. "And if you would *eat*, we wouldn't have to chase you around and tell you to." As if Harry was *certainly* one of the people forcing food on him!

Continued existence wasn't a high priority, eating was a distraction from his work, and at times something that made his stomach do turns, depending on the mood, and if he'd been thinking. Harry, surprisingly, made it easy to not think about what had happened, despite the boy being the only essential witness to it. "I've been tending to more pressing matters."

"Must be pretty important if it's not sleeping or eating," Harry announced, his own eyes closing slowly. "They're even feeding *me* and giving me potions, and I don't think I've got that much to do now that the holiday's here."

"I've been..." He yawned, realizing that he had to choose to sit down before his body sat itself down. The half-eaten sandwich was set down on the tray again, and for a moment his hand alighted on the arm of Harry's chair. Close, so close, and those beautiful green eyes were closed to him now. No fear of being seen as long as they stayed closed. "Working on a better truth serum. The ministry needs something stronger for the trials..."

"I think it can wait until tomorrow." It was said with such a strange gentleness that Severus didn't notice for several seconds that those eyes were open and looking up at him, serious and strangely tender.

It nearly drew the breath from his lungs; not in startlement, but simple... and probably sick, enjoyment. Those eyes were so much older than they should've been. Harry should've been with his friends, not down in the dungeons with *him*, not trying to help him. Could the damage to Harry be undone if he shoved the boy away?

A fleeting reflection that gained little actual thought, as Snape remained caught there by those eyes. "Perhaps... it can."

There was a vague, tired amusement in them as Harry smiled. "Good. You should go to bed. Would..." He paused, bit his lip. "Would you mind if I slept here again? I don't think I can make it back upstairs..."

"Keep sleeping in a chair and you'll ruin your back," Severus warned, pulling away at last. "There's a cot in my..." Another yawn had to be stifled, and he remembered why he was vaguely annoyed at Dumbledore. "Work room. I'll get it for you."

It didn't seem to Harry that he could make it that far, but he simply hummed a little in agreement, eyes closing again as his head dropped back. He was so tired, and perhaps if he just rested his eyes for a moment...

Severus was biting the inside of his mouth to stay awake when he dragged the cot through the parlor, and into his bedroom, where the fire burned higher than in the parlor, where the chill seemed to bite with less strength. It didn't surprise him that Harry was asleep already -- the only question was if in picking the boy up he'd awaken him.

He decided to chance it -- after all, the sleeping draught would surely go back to work with ease, wouldn't it? Harry didn't so much as stir beyond laying his cheek against Severus's shoulder, hands remaining lightly folded in his lap.

The longer one resisted it, after all, the harder it took one when they gave in. Harry would sleep for a long time, but at least it would be quiet for the boy. That mattered, that he hadn't indirectly ruined Harry Potter because of what he'd seen of him. /How he can stand to be near me../ Wasn't going to be too deeply questioned. Harry was laid out on the cot, and Severus dragged a blanket off of his own bed to toss over him.

It was all he could do to cross back to his bed and kick off his shoes before he fell into it, tugging the remaining covers up close.

       

It was said that all barriers fell in sleep. All barriers were dropped to the side, leaving the sleeping open victims to their own fears and hatred, and anyone lucky enough to catch them in an off-guard moment. Severus hated to sleep anything other than the well-deserved slumber of the exhausted, and that urge had heightened since his return to Hogwarts.

Severus Snape looked more tense in drugged slumber than he had when on the verge of it. Long fingers were knotted in the bedding that Severus had haphazardly dragged over himself, shaking and clutching spasmodically in the fisted sheets. He seemed caught in a nightmare, but the draught -- perhaps not enough? -- was dampening its strength.

The room was still dark, lit only by the sputtering fireplace, so Harry had no idea how long he'd been asleep, or what time it was. Only that he'd woken up in a cot that was in the Potions Master's bedroom.

With careful fingers, he reached down and soothed the tortured lines from that brow, gently stroking Severus's face until it loosened. He didn't *think* about what he did; if he had, perhaps he couldn't have done it, and it seemed so necessary just then.

Slowly, slowly, the older man was soothed. Touch brought him closer to consciousness than the nightmare had taken him, so he was half-aware of fingers on his forehead, the edges of his cheeks. Strange, a touch that didn't make him want to flinch back... He didn't dare open his eyes yet, though. That decision was half of fear for what he could see, half of fear that it was only his imagination working at him. Like those dreams where one ran and ran, only to find their leg twitching when one woke.

"It's all right," Harry whispered. "It's all right. You can go back to sleep now. Everything will be all right..." He didn't know if that was truth or lie, but it was *needed*, and so he gave it, the way he so often gave without thinking.

The voice Severus heard wasn't His voice, nor Lucius's, nor his own echoing in his mind. It was familiar... and he wanted to listen to the directions, quietly whispered and half-promising as they were. It probably would've been best, but he opened his eyes instead, blinking the world into focus.

"Hello," the Gryffindor said quietly. "I suppose you didn't want to sleep anymore?"

Sitting up calmly, after such a tense night that had only recently been soothed -- by the most unlikely of hands -- was hard. Yet Severus had brought to an art form the task of keeping himself tightly wrapped in calm, and it was taken in hand as he closed his eyes again for a moment, moving as if to get out of the bed that he'd barely made it to. Deny it. That was all that he could do, deny and forget what fingers had felt like on his face. /It's pity, Severus, you fool./ "No, I don't suppose I do."

"It might be better if you laid back down and slept a while longer. You weren't sleeping very well," Harry informed him. "I think you were dreaming. You looked so sad..." Sad and hurt and frantic, but he wouldn't say those things. No, not just now.

"It's not your place to watch me sleep." The words fell from his lips easily, as he stayed unmoving, still sitting up. Oh, the hypocrisy of those words, when in the early morning hours their previous evening he'd watched Harry sleep with frightening intensity... But Harry didn't know that, couldn't know, and that left Severus with no sensible explanation for why Harry was still standing beside his bed looking... mussed and too tempting.

"Maybe not," Harry replied slowly, "but I think I enjoyed it. I enjoy your company, Severus. It... It makes me feel better about things. I hope it might make you feel better, too."

"It is... a change from my routine." /Yes. Yes. Yes. He has no idea that these are good memories to claw onto when he realizes that it's idiocy on his behalf, when his friends talk sense into him.../ And they would. And Harry Potter would soon fall back into the old paths of making his teacher frustrated, and that would put Snape back where he'd been before. Severus wasn't sure he was up to facing that eventuality, or any eventuality. The day to day was hard enough without having to *think*... "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to get up, now. It's probably already impossibly late."

"Maybe," Harry agreed, "but it doesn't matter. There's no class today, and you look as if you could stand a little more sleep. Go back, and I'll make sure no one bothers you," he promised, lightly putting a hand on Severus's chest to push him back to laying down.

Something hot flickered behind dark eyes in the ever-shifting firelight, flared and died when Severus crushed it himself. Harry touched carelessly, touched everyone with the ease that only the innocent could. It was meant to mean nothing at all, and he kept repeating that as he did lay down -- though not so fast as to escape that hand that pressed against the fabric of the shirt he wore. "And what will you do?"

"Nap some more. Make sure you rest," Harry replied solemnly. "You should, you know. You seem so tired, and... and I want you to."

If only sleep could make his heart less tired, or his mind... "Why do you want me to?" Harry's concern was... odd to him, foreign, unexpected. Not to say that it wasn't wanted, but there was little sense in leaving himself open to pain by accepting it. After all, he was Professor Snape the git of a potions master. The delusion of calm between them certainly wouldn't last the next two and a half years.

"Honestly?" the green-eyed boy asked, frowning. "I don't know. I..." He felt things. That was why, he supposed. He felt... *warmth*, and he felt kindness from Snape, something he wasn't accustomed to having from many people. He felt... "I don't know yet. Ask me again tomorrow."

/Or safer yet, don't ever ask again. if you think too hard, Potter, you'll change your mind./ "Perhaps some things are best left unsaid," Severus mused quietly, shifting a little, and pulling the sheets up again. Sleep wasn't as hard to find again as he would've liked.

"Perhaps so," Harry agreed softly, but the older man was asleep again already, and so all he could do for the moment was to sit and *watch* him.

There was something fascinating about that, especially when he wasn't sleeping fitfully. Innocence had never been a quality he would have equated with Severus Snape, and so perhaps he didn't know, but there was definitely a certain sweetness to that thin face in rest, a tiredness that seemed imprinted in the very bones of him. That was something Harry could understand; he himself had probably looked like that more than once in his life, as if so exhausted he could slip from living to dead in a moment.

Harry still felt at that verge, as he perched at the end of his awkwardly angled cot. Everything seemed so unsure, and the final battle had been so anticlimactic as to not let it *feel* over. It still wasn't over, and until it could be, he hung in a strange limbo of worry and trying to relearn normalcy. Now he was sure that he wasn't alone in that limbo.

It was certainly enough to make you feel better, in a weird sort of way. It also worried him. If Professor Snape, older, wiser, obviously couldn't find his way back to normalcy, how could he? Ever?

It wasn't fair that his childhood had been taken from him, that his friends couldn't *grasp* properly that he'd done things... and seen...

"Hmmm." A sleep-filled murmur from Snape, unlike the tense noises of before, and he turned onto his side languidly, face towards Harry.

He couldn't help it when he reached out and gently traced the shape of the man's jaw, feeling guilty and... and something *else* when he did it, some thin understanding that he *knew* he shouldn't react the way he suddenly was, neither to man nor professor. It was disturbing.

Yet he was reacting, he was tracing a hand over the sharp line of Severus's tired face; touching, willingly, the sleeping features of a man he'd hated since his first days at Hogwarts. It was no wonder that his friends were worried about him. He probably ought to be worried about *himself*, but he couldn't bring himself to feel that way. Sirius, he knew, would be frantic if he could see the strange gentleness in the way he was touching a man who'd tried to get the Dementor's Kiss for his godfather. He wondered what Lupin would think...

Lupin was so steadfast, though. And Snape didn't seem to hold any grudge against *him*, so the same frantic reaction probably wouldn't happen. Snape seemed to have little problem making the wolfsbane potion for Lupin. Was that same Snape who went to that trouble the one who was shifting, minutely, nearer his hand?

He rather thought so. It made him feel even more guilty for the sudden surge of almost *need* he felt, and his brows knit as he pushed soft, silky hair back out of Snape's face, aware that it was slightly sweaty with the sheer heat the man threw off even in sleep.

A soft puff of air could be felt against his wrist, and the man he touched shivered a little in his sleep. A slurred noise left his lips, and he shifted nearer again. Any nearer and he'd fall right off the bed.

Unable to help himself, Harry smiled, shifting himself upward and to the edge of the bed. It wouldn't do to let the man fall out of it, now would it? Surely not!

The touches blended into sleep-thoughts, questioning at the edges of his mind. Sleep lingered at his mind, but slipped into the vestiges of lingering nightmares. Hand on his face... Who was it?

Harry could see Snape flinch back suddenly, pulling in on himself quietly.

"It's all right," he whispered softly once again. "It's all right..."

"Not..." Severus said something else, quiet and defensive sounding, eyes closing tightly. He'd disoriented himself in his doze, and now... now he wasn't sure if he was awake or not.

"Shhhh," Harry soothed, shifting to rub his back lightly instead of his face. "Shhh. Go back to sleep. It's all right."

The cloth under his hand was rough, scratched a little against his palm -- a simple difference between wizard and muggles shirts, what it was made of. And the back... his hand rubbed a little at a hard spine that could be clearly felt, tense narrow muscles. His words garnered an almost disagreeing murmur, but Severus seemed to settle again. The potion's effects must've worn off entirely on him.

Harry still felt drowsy, but that seemed to fade when he heard a knocking from the door at the outside of Snape's quarters.

Silently, he rose and moved to the door, turning the handle and opening it just a crack to peer out of it. "Yes?"

The parlor door beyond was still sealed, though, and that bore a fury of knocking. "Snape! I know he's there!!"

Sirius.

Wincing, Harry hurried out, shutting the door behind him to try and cut out the noise. He hurried across the parlor and opened the door just as Sirius's fist came down again, right where the door would have been and into Harry's nose.

"Oh, Merlin! Harry, are you all right? Oh, dammit, I'm sorry..." The new reinstated Auror flicked his wand out of his robes as he entered the parlor, face caught between fury and pure horror at what he'd done. "It's bleeding?"

"No," Harry moaned, grimacing. It had made his eyes water, though, and he was fairly certain he didn't want another smack like that anytime soon. "Ow. Sirius, you'll wake up the Professor!"

"Wake him? Harry, don't you know what time it is? It's past noon already -- You weren't at breakfast, and when you weren't at lunch, we guessed you were still *here*..." He fussed a moment, unable to help it after he'd put his wand away. Harry's chin was lifted by Sirius's fingers, peering at his nose to make sure it was all right. "Why're you here, Harry? It's not healthy to be around that Slime for long, and I think it's colder down here than it is outside."

"It's comfortable through there," Harry pointed vaguely. "And we were *sleeping*. There was Dreamless Sleep Draught in the tea and the pumpkin juice and..." He paused, sighed, rubbed at his nose. "Sirius, maybe we should talk..."

Sirius was looking half-gaped at the closed door that Harry had pointed at. No, no, his godson *hadn't* been in Slimy Snape's bedroom... "We should talk *now*, Harry," Sirius insisted, peering at Harry's eyes to see if he'd been spelled in any way.

"All right," Harry agreed. "All right. Just... Can we sit?"

Two large chairs seemed the only place to sit, so Sirius moved to sit in one. It seemed to be very firm still, without much wear at all, while the one across from it seemed well broken in, stained with ink on the arms a little. "What... Harry, what do you want to talk about?"

"You know what happened Halloween night... part of it," Harry hurried to say as he slipped into Severus's chair. "Maybe not all, I don't know what you know..."

"Just that the Death Eaters were... more gruesome than usual. There were muggle bodies all over that hall..." Not that Harry needed to be told that. So instead of going on, Sirius just nodded, lips set grimly. "I know enough."

"I really don't think you do," Harry said gently to the tall man. "I really don't. It was worse than that. It was more terrible than that. They were..." He paused, bit his lip. "They were doing some things no one should ever have to live through, Sirius. You understand? Some things more terrible than death. And some people *did* live through it." His eyes darted to the bedroom door, still closed. "And it's like Azkaban. It marks you. It marks you when you see it, when you touch it, when you live through it, and only someone else who has can understand it. I..." He paused again, swallowed hard. "I *need* that... I *need*..." Professor Snape, and in some ways he didn't yet understand.

"Oh, Harry..." Sirius's expression was still tense, and he leaned forwards towards his godson. "*He* was a Death Eater, Harry. He did those things himself, he's not the one to go to for understanding. There's headmaster Dumbledore, so many others who aren't..." Tainted with evil, Sirius almost said, but bit it back.

"No," Harry insisted. "*No*. He *didn't do those things*, Sirius. Not this time. Not like this. There's something..." He bit his lip. "When Dumbledore asked him... You *have* to know what he asked him to do. You *have* to know that it was terrible. For a man to make a choice, to make a change like that, and to be betrayed on all sides..." He was babbling, perhaps, but it was no less true for all of that. "You have to know, Sirius. I need him because *he understands*."

"Harry..." Sirius sounded strained. "I'd swear he's tossed a confundus spell over you, Harry -- you're not making sense. I don't see what there is to *understand*."

"Rape and blood and pain, Sirius," Harry whispered. "What is there *not* to understand?"

Sirius's dark eyes flared for a moment, then simply seemed to close off. "That it's Snape. Harry, I can't... see how he doesn't... deserve what you're saying. He's cruel, sick in the head. He's *always* loved to see other people hurt or in trouble, even when he was a first year here. Biggest rat in the school. How he could go so deep into that organization and not *expect*..."

"No," Harry said simply, shaking his head. "I don't think that's what it is. Don't wizards know anything about psychology? I think it's more a case of hurt-first-before-they-can-hurt-you." He'd been thinking about it all morning, about the things that Snape had done. He'd tried to get him expelled, out of school, back to the muggles...

Back to the muggles with whom he was completely safe, thanks to Dumbledore and the magic that had kept him protected so long as he was with them.

"And what's it a case of now, Harry? He can act, do you know that? With enough reason, he can *pretend* anything that's asked of him. Once, in fourth year, he had your mother just..." Sirius trailed off into a growl before picking up again, "Fawning over him when Malfoy punched him for saying something. It was damn pathetic to watch, a fourth year just collapse on the Quidditch field. So whatever you've been seeing... It's acting, Harry." Not that the Auror wanted to think about Snape's motives.

The sheer disappointment in those green eyes sang. "You don't understand," he said finally, quietly. "I really did think that you would. I can't believe you don't..."

"It's *Snape*, Harry -- remember? You nearly pole-axed him disarming him, remember? You've moaned about how much you hate him, remember? Or how he tried to have me given the Kiss from the Dementors? Just because he hasn't had the happiest of lives isn't a reason for him to be the biggest asshole in existence."

"He was wrong then, Sirius, just like you're wrong now, and you aren't coming off much better!" Harry almost regretted that when he said it, but it didn't stop him. "One almost-death for another ought to be enough for both of you, hadn't it? Truly?"

Where talking sense into the Auror didn't work, guilt did. Sirius had a great deal of low-simmering guilt over how little use he'd been in Harry's life so far, to his being out of Lupin's for too long. "All... right," Sirius sighed after a long unhappy moment. "But that doesn't explain why you're spending so much time here, and not with your friends."

"Because they don't understand, Sirius. How can they?" Harry smiled at him, shifted, moved to hug the other man. "They... well, take Ron. Ron's not got a lot of darkness in him, he's never seen such terrible things. How can I lay that kind of burden with him?"

"You can't," Sirius sighed, squeezing Harry tightly to him. "It makes more sense now, but... I'm still not comfortable with it. You'll watch yourself on this trip, Harry? Remus and I might end up in the area... take in a few muggle sites, take a break from painting."

"I'll be careful," Harry promised, warming greatly in that embrace. There was something so wonderful about being held, and it had been denied him for so very *long*... "And I'd really like to see both of you, if I can."

"We'll visit, then." Harry could hear his godfather's smile. "Remus is doing very well, doesn't forget to take his potion the week before he turns. It's not nearly as bad as it used to be..."

"See? Everything S.. Professor Snape does *isn't* bad," Harry pointed out, pulling back slightly. "It's okay, Sirius. It really will be."

"I hope you know what you're doing, Harry, because I don't," Sirius sighed, patting his back lightly as he finally let Harry loose. "Can I convince you to go upstairs and get lunch now?"

His godson shook his head slightly. "I'll be up in a little while. I want to make sure he's able to sleep a little while longer. It... It's been hard for him. Hard for *me*. So, when you *can* sleep, it makes it kind of important to."

Sirius seemed willing to let it go at that, but paused as he started towards the door. "Harry... maybe you should be warned -- if Snape lays so much as a finger on you, come and get me. He had... tastes when we were in school." Tastes for blood and strange sex that Lucius was so quick to give, pain and humiliation that Crabbe and Goyle had granted gladly. Everyone knew it, probably even Dumbledore.

"I promise," Harry lied in two words. "It's all right, Sirius."

Harry's godfather gave him one, last, wary smile, and then left.

"You probably should have left with him," a roughed voice murmured from the doorway of the bedroom. "It would have been wiser... Harry. Easier for you."

"I didn't want to," Harry replied, turning slowly. "And I've never been the type to take the easy path. Somehow, I don't think you are, either."

"Far too dull for my... tastes." He let that fall with the same disdain and disgust that had been in Sirius's voice, mocking himself with ease as he took a backwards step back into his bedroom. "But you rush headlong into things without a thought to consequence."

"I'm young, yet," Harry said easily, following him. "I suspect that's bound to happen."

"It's all you've ever done," Severus countered, sitting down on the edge of his rumpled bed. "And if you tell me to sleep again, you're wasting your breath." /I can't./

"Then I won't. Are you hungry? I'm starving." And a growl of Harry's stomach announced that just as well as anything else might have.

"Eat and sleep, eat and sleep... I'm beginning to suspect that I'm being viewed as a *pet*." That was slightly spat out, but he did rise in mild agitation. "There are things I must do today -- and if you're going to linger and tell me to do wasteful things like eating and sleeping, I won't be able to get them done."

"What do you have to do today?" Harry asked curiously. "If you want, I'll leave..."

/Yes, you should really go. Thank you for the company last night, but please don't touch me again when I'm sleeping.../ "I must work on that version of Veritaserum." What left his mouth wasn't what he'd plotted on saying, and Harry was so damnably close by that it must've addled his tongue. Because what he said wasn't an answer at all. /Leave, stay, stay, you should stay, but you should *go*.../ No, Harry had no idea of what he was doing. What he was doing *to* Severus. "Don't leave unless you feel that you must. I..."

"I'll go to the kitchens and get us something to eat, then," Harry decided. "I want to see the new Veritaserum, and maybe an extra pair of hands wouldn't hurt..." He smiled tentatively at the dark-haired man, who looked rumpled, still sleep-ridden, and his hair was slightly damp with sweat.

That smile just warmed him, black eyes flickering dully for a moment as he looked at Harry. /Close, you're so close, you could just--/ Do the unspeakable, lean near, touch the boy, thread fingers into that thick-looking hair... "Then I'll make good use of the time before you return." Get dressed, washed, and hopefully start the potion before Harry got back.

With a firm nod, Harry rose and left, intending to bathe and change, himself, along with his trip to the kitchens. It shouldn't be much of a problem, he decided, to do it quickly and be done...

And Snape made good use of his time -- washed, changed, and then moved into the potions room. With Harry around so often -- with human company around so often -- he was paying more attention to his personal upkeep. And the routine of walking up every morning when Harry did was starting to settle in, replacing the routine of teaching classes. /You're losing your mind, Severus.../

If he'd had one to lose to start, something that he actually was beginning to question a day or two ago. That much interrupted sleep eventually made you doubt yourself and reality to boot, there was no question of *that*.

By the time he finished setting up the beginnings of the potion, Harry was back with a tray in hand, hair still wet from his own quick shower. "Here. Nothing's drugged," he promised a little breathlessly. "Hermione went and fetched them for me."

"That was kind of her," Severus commented absently, plucking a pinch of redwort from a small scale, to drop carefully into the cauldron he was stirring. The work-room, a small and until then unnoticed offshoot of the parlor, was as barely lit as the classroom usually was, though the odd stools here and there looked more comfortable than the benches in the classroom. Severus looked engrossed in it already. Even if he was losing his mind, there was refuge to be found in the familiarities of weighing ingredients against each other in his mind, remembering their effects and side effects.

"I agree," Harry said, tilting his head to the side. "She's brilliant, you know. Why do you pick on her so very often when you let Malfoy get away with so much, Severus?"

"The brilliant can become too confident." The older man's reply was soft, an absent speaking of his mind as he watched the red ribbons from the specks twist into the green that the potion had been. "And it's partly of ha -- damn. Harry, stir this for me." Less request and more of an order, but he kept stirring, waiting for Harry to take the ladle from his long fingers, while he peered over the ingredients gathered before him.

"Part of ha-what?" Harry asked, taking the ladle obediently and stirring. THIS Snape was not just interesting.

*THIS* Snape was *FASCINATING*.

"Habit. Even Minerva clearly favors her own house, hmn?" The crisp sarcasm was no less biting than it had ever been, yet Harry now felt as if he were let into the joke -- rather than simply being the victim. "Dried bicorn blood..." A soft utterance under his breath as he picked up a small flask that was filled with little dark crusty chips. He shook it a moment, and seemingly on a whim uncapped it and tossed its contents into the cauldron.

"That's true," Harry agreed. "Just not quite so... erm..." Well, the word *viciously* did come to mind, but he searched for a better one. "Not with quite so much fervor. If Malfoy *couldn't* turn a hedgehog into a pin-cushion, I'm sure she'd be just as kind to him as to Hermione. Or at least not take points from him..."

"Keep stirring." For a moment, it seemed as if his comment was going to be left un-countered, as Snape swept off to the other side of the workshop, pawing quietly through his supplies. But when he neared the table again, weighing an exact amount of... *something* onto a clean scale, he finally gave an answer. After all, if he was going to waste Harry's time, he might as well waste the boy's time and make it interesting for him. "Lucius expected his son to curry my favor."

"And you gave it to..." Harry trailed off momentarily. "To keep him thinking that you were doing whatever he wanted you to do. Or that you were loyal to them. Yes?"

"That... was not the original intent." No, the original intent had been to buy himself time, and perhaps a bit more freedom... and then it had simply blended so well with what Dumbledore had asked of him. Yet Harry couldn't have guessed at the back-story that existed between himself and the Malfoy house; which meant it either had to be explained, or left vague. And how did one explain bargains of sex and hurting so as to not sound insane? Lips drawn into a momentary frown from an expression of familiar blankness, he carefully measured three lines of the dark powder into the cauldron.

"What's that?" Harry asked, still stirring. It wasn't anything they ordinarily used in his own potions classes, which might well mean that it was something exotic or even dangerous. "And if that wasn't the original intent, then what was? If you don't want to answer, you don't have to, only... I want to understand," he explained.

"Powdered numbweed. Terrible smell, but its properties are... Never mind. I'll be teaching it next term." He pulled his wand out, and brought the heat of the cauldron up higher, watching the substances within boil as a syrupy blue. Ten minutes, and by then it should be clear, and finished. which gave him ample time to have to answer Harry. Dark brows drew together, and Severus kept his eyes to the boiling potion. "I've known Lucius for... longer than you've been alive." If bitterness rose up in his voice... well. Harry knew very well that Snape held *grudges* with the ferocity of no one else he'd ever met. "Before Voldemort enlisted us."

"So you were friends," Harry suggested almost gently. "Or at least, not enemies?"

"Friends..." No, not friends. The frown on his narrow face tightened a little. no, they weren't friends. "No. No, Harry, not friends, and not enemies... users. We used each other."

"Was... Were you like that all of the time? Both of you? Did it give you what you wanted...?"

"For a cost." Attention and touch, the illusion of friendship and company, in exchange for being a punching bag and toy, half-servant at all times. What Lucius, beautiful Lucius, wanted, he got. /Stop remembering./ He didn't want to remember, or to *think* about how satisfying those things had been. "A very high cost."

"You don't want to tell me," the green-eyed boy said calmly, "and that's all right. It's really not my business, I suppose. I'm being nosy..."

"Does it help you to be nosy?" A twitch of movement, and dark, dark eyes, that held a pinpoint reflection of candlelight, looked up to Harry.

Slim shoulders shrugged. "It helps me to learn about you. I find... you... *fascinating*," he declared helplessly, flushing a deep red.

Fascinating. The sudden wry twist of Severus's mouth seemed to share his opinion of that word, and for a moment he seemed ready to simply let Harry's reply fall to the wayside -- yet swept it up again at the last comfortable moment possible. "That's a term I've never heard used to describe me before, Harry. Git, slime, ass, worthless, failure, pest, creep, traitor, dangerous, murderer, vicious... *far* more familiar. I wonder... what drives this new opinion you hold?" He moved nearer, hand alighting on the handle of the ladle just beneath Harry's fingers. "You can stop stirring now."

Carefully, Harry let go, giving over the ladle to Snape. "I'm not sure. You're showing me parts of you I didn't see before, so I suppose it's only natural that I be curious. It's in my nature," he declared firmly. "Before, you were always cranky and grouchy and... well... You *were* an ass," he declared, shaking his head. "At least as bad as Uncle Vernon, who's the king of them. But now, you... you show more. I can't help it."

Just as carefully as Harry had let him have it, Severus shook it off above the wildly bubbling potion, and set it aside on a clean rag. "I prefer to not be compared to the scummier of muggles." Naturally, his arms folded over his chest, and he leaned ever so slightly against the heavy work-table, still standing near to Harry. Yes, it was a small, sick indulgence, the sin of wanting proximity, but he couldn't deny himself from taking it. "I teach a subject that no one cares about. Spend your every free moment trying to devise new ways to make a class *interesting* to students who couldn't care less, and eventually you simply give up trying to be nice. Niceness was a poor teaching method. Fear teaches lessons so well."

"Neville does better when he's not scared witless," Harry pointed out. "Fear inspires Slytherins, maybe, but I think everyone else is just terrified you really *are* going to poison one of us one day. I'm terrified of that," he said, waving at the Veritaserum. "Have been since you threatened me with it, last."

"It's nothing to fear unless you've plans on lying," Severus mused, looking to the cauldron, where the potion was starting to bubble clear. No, not long enough yet. He went on blithely, "And if I did poison one of you, I've enough antidotes. Nothing that can't simply be undone."

"Except for the fact that we'd all be scared to death," Harry muttered. "Besides, *every* teenager has some secret he doesn't want to spit out, surely?" For example, the fact that he was pretty sure his crush on Cho Chang hadn't been more than a fluke because she was a *girl*.

"Some have darker secrets than others." A slight, meaningful look to Harry, before he slipped into motion again, to retrieve clean bottles to put the potion away into. It was nearing perfectly clear at last. "Though your reasons for not wanting to test something like this are a great deal more mature than those of your age-mates."

The smile Harry gave him was edged with a certain wryness. "What makes you so sure? I mean, I wouldn't want to answer questions about Voldemort or about what happened, but I doubt any of them would think to ask me questions like *those*. They'd probably ask me more embarrassing things."

"I know what adolescents can do when they get their fingers on a potion such as this," Snape agreed, dipping the ladle into the still boiling liquid, stirred it a little to test for color. He set five clean bottles down on the work table. It might span to six, yet... it would be enough. "If you were lucky, they would avoid the dark secrets and simply ask you things like if you thought so and so was 'cute', or what color your underwear was."

"Isn't that bad enough?" Harry asked, shuddering. "I don't think I'd care to answer about who was *cute*. The color of my underwear would be easy, though," he said, grinning. "At least I wouldn't have to worry much about that."

"I'd ask why, but I'm not really curious," Severus replied, lips still twisted in that slight, strange smile as he brought the ladle up to his lips and blew on it. Then a slight touch of mouth to the clear liquid, just enough to taste the potion. /Seems... Yes, that's just how it should taste. Perfect -- even with Potter half-distracting me./

"Why aren't you curious?" Harry asked him, one brow raising in sudden amusement. It wasn't like Snape to make a mistake like that -- he'd once told Harry three drops would be more than enough to make him tell every secret he'd ever had. Surely a drop of something stronger, even just a *taste*, would produce interesting results!

Yet it had slipped the potions master's mind as he lowered the ladle, and wiped his mouth with the rag on the table. "Because I don't want or need mental images of such a thing," was the bland answer, as he started to pull off the stoppers of the bottles for the potion.

"Because I'm not interesting to you," Harry stated in what was almost a sigh.

"Because I'm as old as your father would be, and it's *sick* of me." Severus seemed unaware of what he was saying, as he went rather mindlessly about the task of pouring the precious potion into the large vials. "Use your wits, Harry, if you haven't dashed them all to death yet in your heroics."

Both of Harry's brows were raised, his mouth parted in surprise. "Why would it be sick of you to be interested in me?" he asked, not sure of *quite* what he was asking. "Wouldn't it be more sick if... if..." /If *I* was interested in *you*??/ Because he would be terrified of admitting *that* in front of the whole class of Slytherins and Gryffindors. God only knew what they'd say about that, and Snape would probably make some remark that would dash him beneath the dungeon floor for embarrassing him that way in front of so many people!

"If what? If you knew? Far more sick, then." Severus could even be vague when under the effect of his own potions, still ladling each drop so carefully, mindful to not spill a drop. "Then you'd stop talking to me, if you had any sense. I'm a ruined man who's only getting older, and you're a boy who has no idea of what a mistake I am."

"No," Harry corrected quietly, solemnly. "If *I* was interested in *you* is what if."

"I'd be more worried about you than I already am." That came out in a displeased sounding breath, as one bottle was carefully capped, and set aside. "Harry Potter, 'interested' in his pathetic, untrustworthy potions master? No, you'd have to be sent to St. Mungo's for a mental examination."

"I figured they probably sent you there for not liking girls to start," Harry muttered, turning that deep red color again.

"Everyone knew I preferred men, but I didn't end up sent there." He picked up the next bottle, inspected it in the candlelight for cleanness, and then started to pour again.

"Is that what Sirius meant by sick?" He had his own suspicions about Sirius and Remus Lupin, but neither of them had *admitted* to it, so perhaps it was only his own twisted mind at work.

Twisted and *hopeful*, because if they were, then they'd be more understanding... of at least part of it.

"Sick? Doubtful, considering his were-companion. The games Lucius played were 'sick', though. Not that Sirius should call them that -- he watched once, and just *watched*." Words seemed separate of Severus's mind and body -- and for the moment, he was an endless stream of information, ready to be taken when asked.

"Why?" Harry asked. He wasn't quite sure he understood. That sort of thing seemed awfully *private* to him, and he wouldn't want anyone watching him while he did... any of *that*, the things he'd thought about in the dark. It was nice to have his thoughts on Sirius and Remus ratified, though...

"Lucius liked to have witnesses. He liked the power, he liked the pain." Severus swallowed, and for a moment the ladle, so careful until then, spilled a little potion back into the caldron.

"To... hurt someone? Like that night?" Harry asked, appalled. "Why would you let him do that?"

"It was something. The other houses hated me on sight, because I was small, thin, *weak-looking*. I didn't laugh, couldn't joke with them... and wasn't pure enough for the Slytherin house. Not enough of something for them. I couldn't hate as well -- but the fear, I felt that." He seemed to calm, poured more of the clear liquid into the bottle. "There's nothing like the feeling that you're going to die."

"Is that why you became a Death Eater?"

He was half expecting a completely different answer than the one he'd gotten before -- yet it was still the same. "No, I joined because Albus asked me to. Then... then, once there, it was so hard to leave..."

Harry nodded slowly, tongue darting out to moisten his lower lip. "I'm glad that... so many of them are in Azkaban now. I'm glad *He's* gone, at least for now if not for always. I'm glad..." He tilted his head to the side, *looked* at Snape. "I'm glad you're safe from that."

"You shouldn't be. You should want me dead... I should be dead. Things would be simpler if Albus had just let me die -- stubborn bastard. There isn't anything for me anymore, is there? Just teaching, and they don't care. Neither side trusts me, I can't leave the grounds without watching my back, the ministry expects impossible things from me... I'll be making amends until I die. You'd do well to forget me when you graduate."

Sudden sheer determination rose up in the green-eyed boy and he leaned across the work-table, drawing up all of his will and all of his nerve. It took all of it, he knew, to do what he did -- press his mouth to that of Severus Snape and kiss him, lightly, ever so lightly.

"I don't think I can," he whispered, and then did it again.

Ladle and flask were dropped into the cauldron with a messy splash when the second soft kiss was pressed, as his mind finally registered what was being done. Long-fingered hands came up to grasp at Harry's shoulders, a sudden, sharp movement, but they couldn't push him away. They clutched desperately, as the kiss slowly went on -- still light, mouth against mouth, and Severus shakily licked his lips with his mouth still pressed against Harry's. The need couldn't be denied, not as long as the potion forced truth of word and action.

The heat of the cauldron beneath them brought them both to sweating, but it didn't seem to matter, for Harry's mouth opened slowly, and before he knew it that kiss had become a deep and *needy* thing, his own hands pressed one to the work table and one to Severus's face to steady himself.

Someone let loose a silken-sounding whimper, and Severus was only half aware that it might've been himself. The noise came with a deepening, though, his tongue sliding needily between Harry's parted lips, pressing closer in desperation as one lean hand slid up to cup the back of Harry's head, tangling into dark hair.

"Professor Snape?" came the call from the Potions room. "Potter? Is anyone here?"

They parted, Harry giving a little panted gasp, lips bruised and eyes darkened as he trembled only inches away from Severus. "Someone's here," he whispered, stating the obvious almost stupidly.

Snape seemed disoriented, hand lingering on Harry's shoulder, where it had fallen when the boy had pulled back. He needed, oh, he *needed* more of the drug of touch, but adrenaline was making the potion wear off, and it left him fuzzed at the edges of his mind, unable to do anything more than shake for the moment. His control, of himself, of situations, felt so shattered...

"Prof... HARRY!?!?!?!"

Oh.

Shit.

Snape didn't look -- didn't yet dare look away from those darkened green eyes. The voice didn't register yet, and his slight, potion-induced transgression, so small, so brief, was still working its way through his mind. He'd just kissed and been kissed by Harry Potter, a fifth year student, The Boy Who Lived, who killed Him, who...

His mind started to shut itself down by sharp degrees, the spark that had been in dark eyes souring with misery. "A moment."

The stuttered sound of a breath came from behind Harry, sharp and almost pained, a single stuttered sound that definitely *was* following it, and then feet shifted, moved, *ran*. There was silence again, a quiet that lay heavy and thick between them as Harry watched Severus without moving.

"I need to... resign... immediately," the potions master said in a fractured voice, eyelids falling closed to cover sad dark eyes. Kissing a student, and seen doing so by another... Incomprehensible conduct, even under a potion that made him act *true*.

"Don't be ridiculous," Harry told him most sternly. "It's not like whoever it was will run straight to Dumbledore..." He hoped. "...and even if they did, it's their word against yours and mine and it's the most unlikely thing to ever happen. He wouldn't fire you, and you're..." Well, dammit, he'd just say it. "You're *far* too good at what you do to *resign*!"

Barely opened eyes were impossible to read, though, as Severus disentangled himself, still shaking. "I crossed the lines of his trust." The potion had to be bottled before he could go to Dumbledore, and Harry was... /It doesn't matter if I'm good or *not*./ "I shouldn't have let you do that."

"But don't you see? *I* did it. Not you. It isn't your fault!" Harry informed him sharply.

Severus, half-turned away, licked dry lips again. His mind felt clearer after the flood of want and fear swept through him, cleansing that tiny taste of potion from his mind. But the damage was done already, and at least in the potion's control, he didn't *think*. "I wanted it. That's fault enough." Fuck the potion -- fuck the cauldron, the ladle, the ingredients, and the Ministry. No matter what he did, why or for whom, he couldn't hide the sickness when he most desperately needed to cover it. "Leave."

"No," Harry refused. "No. I won't. And I won't let *you* leave until you swear to me that you aren't going to do something infinitely noble and *stupid*, which seems to be a failing of yours -- you know, stepping in where most idiots fear to tread."

A dry noise left him, almost a laugh, and surely infinitely bitter. A student, lecturing him... "Really. I thought that was a Gryffindor hallmark."

"It seems to be one that passes across the board, so to speak," Harry informed him dryly.

"You've no idea what you're doing. What you did." He swallowed, flicking his wand out of his robes, and removed the heat from the cauldron. "The rules... expressly forbid things like that." /I want more./

"Maybe there are exceptions to the rules," the young man replied firmly.

"What are you... attempting to imply?" He had to strain to keep his voice on an even keel, as he lifted his head, dark hair hanging in his eyes, to look down at Harry. Just... just a child, a mere child, in comparison to his potions master. Even as accomplished as he was, he was still a *student*, and there was no exception for that. No...

Why would Harry Potter even want an exception, for *him*?

"I'm attempting nothing. Rules are there for a reason, as are the exceptions. You've always told me that I thought *I* was above the rules. Well, I don't see why *you* wouldn't be, especially considering all of the things that happened seven weeks ago."

Dark eyes traced over the planes of Harry's undeniably young face, before Severus dropped his gaze to look at his own hands -- knotting together out of habit, shaking still. It was an idiotic idea. He was so much older than the young man in front of him, his hated *teacher*, evil, undesirable... and Harry was a teenager. People so young were as fickle as the wind, fluttering a different direction when least expected. "You're a fool, Potter." /And I am worse than that./

"You've said that before," Harry reminded him gently. "It didn't change me then. And it won't change me now. Eat a sandwich before you do anything else," he ordered, and held the plate out to him.

Surreal. Perhaps the potion had been flawed, and he was really half-dead on the floor of his work-room. Yes, he was half-dead on the floor of his work room, and this was as close to a pleasant hallucination as he could get. Harry Potter kissing him, then offering him a sandwich. Certainly strange enough to have a place in his mind... "Simply because you don't listen to me, doesn't mean I'm not right." He didn't move his hands yet, though he stilled the nervous motions. "You're still a child. You don't know what you're suggesting."

"I haven't been a child since Dumbledore left me with the Dursleys," Harry answered grimly. "Not really. I know *exactly* what I'm suggesting. If I didn't, I wouldn't suggest it. *I'm* not as fond as you are of walking into things better left not walked into."

"I'll be compromising what little professional... integrity that I have left." Not that Harry would care. No, of course he wouldn't think of such things... Severus was careful to not break the rules at Hogwarts -- if he lost his position, he was as good as hanging from a tree-limb with a Death Eater's noose around his neck.

Green eyes watched him solemnly. "So it would make it better somehow if I turned around and walked out and never said another word."

"Better for you. I'd cost you everything you have, and it's not worth it." Family, friends, respect, goals in life... Harry Potter would become a great wizard someday, with a little more time. And he didn't need to be tethered to Severus, the potions master knew.

"What will it cost me?" Harry asked him softly. "I don't want to lose my friends and I don't want to lose my family, but if they can't understand and if they can't *help* me when I need something, then there's something wrong with that picture."

"I'm a teacher. Barely." He shifted, wanting to leave, wanting to stay, wanting to... "Dead weight, Harry -- I'd be a mark on your life worse than Parseltongue."

Harry shrugged. "I've been the object of ultimate enmity on more than one occasion, Severus. I lived for ten out of eleven years of my life in something almost that bad. I can face it, I think."

"You'll change your mind." Desperate for ammunition against a very resolute Potter, scrabbling for control as it was, Severus was already on the losing side of the battle. He'd lost mere seconds after the kiss. "You're young and you deserve better."

"I *deserve* understanding, and so do you," Harry said softly. "That's the best I can imagine *getting*."

/Cold, dammit, be *cold*, you've done it for most your life, what's wrong with it now?!/ Demanding things of himself failed him worse than ever, and he simply stood there, looking at Harry with a desperate gleam in his eyes. He couldn't, it was *wrong*, sick, so sick... "I can't lose my job, Harry, and you wouldn't be safe if you were expelled..."

A slow smile came over the boy's face. "Then we'll have to keep it secret, and we'll have to wait. Or maybe you should just talk to Dumbledore. I'm sure he's probably got a vested interest in seeing you happy. He wouldn't have put up with you all these years, otherwise," Harry finished dryly.

"Guilt, I'm sure," Severus sighed, looking at the dark floor again for a long moment. "I need to talk to him. And we'll need this to be a secret... but someone's seen."

"Who *was* that?" Harry asked. "I couldn't see them."

"Draco." He lifted his head again, scanning his worktable. "I need to finish bottling this. And find Malfoy. And speak with Albus..."

"Yeah," Harry agreed, "because I sincerely doubt Malfoy's going to talk to *me*."

The edges of his mouth twitched for a moment, threat of a tired smile. "Can I trust you to finish pouring that?"

"I won't spill a drop," the Boy-Who-Lived promised.

Severus somehow doubted that, yet... "Thank you. I'll be back as soon as I can manage." Draco first. Then the Headmaster. Pulling together his well-acted demeanor, he swept tiredly from the workroom, and out of his rooms towards the Slytherin dormitory.

The hallways were almost eerily quiet, as they often were during holiday breaks. He could hear his own footsteps echoing along after him, making him shiver slightly with a sudden jolt of paranoia. It hurried him along his way, and very shortly he was at the small portrait hole which would allow him into the nest of Slytherin.

"Halt and give the word," the portrait demanded hollowly; a Malfoy ancestor, actually, Severus was almost certain, a veela woman as he recalled.

"Basilisk." At least the veela wasn't a chatty thing -- unlike most of the portraits. He might've yelled at it if it had been.

It swung open, allowing him into the common room without another word. There was a sea of green and silver within, calming colors, but not even a small fire in the large fireplace that lay open before several chairs.

"Draco? Mr. Malfoy, are you in here?" Formality felt odd, given the circumstances, but there was nothing else to fall back on, for the moment.

No answer; at least, none immediate, but the slight shift of curtains against the wall, the only window in the room, revealed as much as it concealed.

He walked silently towards that window, pulling together his calm so Draco could at least have a bit of familiarity. "Draco, I know you're there."

"If you know, then why did you ask?" That, at least, was the Draco most were familiar with; cool, slightly sarcastic, and altogether unapproachable.

Severus didn't give it an ounce of belief. "Formalities of being polite. Things like knocking on doors and such. You're aware of them, aren't you?" Colder than he'd wanted, as he pulled the curtain back from Draco and his position in the window seat.

The boy was even paler than usual, and the eyes that looked at him so limpidly were the drab color of granite, expression tightly set. "The last time I checked, walking into your classroom to find you when you'd always been available to Slytherins as Head of House had never before netted me the sight of you kissing Harry Potter."

"I had taken a taste of a potion to make sure the ingredients were in proper balance, and underestimated its strength, Draco." His own eyes had calmed at last -- the brisk walk to the commons room had given him that much animation. "I was acting under its influence."

The press of lips tightly together only revealed their trembling more than Draco would have wanted, and it would have pissed him off if he could have seen it. "Of course, Professor," he agreed coldly. "Of course."

"You don't believe me." He knew that sort of expression too well, that tone of doubt. "Why not?"

"Because it was *him*," Draco answered bitterly. "It was *him*, and he always gets whatever he wants, even if it's you for now. It comes to him with such ridiculous ease, doesn't it? As if it's only the natural order of things, and what any of the rest of us might want or need doesn't matter so long as *Potter's* got what he's after. I used to think *you* knew that."

"What you saw, Draco... will not affect how I act towards my House. It changes nothing." He had to be firm on that, or else...

The laugh that escaped him was just as acrid and raw as the words he'd spoken. "Oh, no. It doesn't change anything at all. Just everything."

"I'm afraid you're going to have to elaborate for me, Draco." Severus's tone reached easily for irritated -- he was in no mood for guessing games. "What does it change?"

"It's nothing." That was a change from caustic to lackluster, an almost uninterested answer. "If you don't understand by *now*, you aren't going to understand at all, so why don't you go back to Potter or whatever else you were doing and leave me alone?"

He was tempted to -- but couldn't. No, he'd put too much work into Draco Malfoy already... Worried too much about the boy. Draco felt fingers, unsteady, clutch tight at his shoulder, turning him around firmly. "I can't be of help to you if you're going to talk in riddles."

For a moment, it truly seemed that there would be no answer; and then, for the second time that day, lips pressed to his, cool and soft, and then Draco drew away from him, unlike Harry had done. "You see?" he murmured sadly, shaking his head. "Everything. Go away now. *Now*."

"I'm sorry." There was little else to muster up, after that touch, little left of his mind that would stay still long enough to form words. "You're like a son to me, Draco..." And Harry was no such thing -- sick, sick, there was no other way to frame it.

"Get out," Draco whispered. "Just *get out*, you miserable *ass*!"

"Draco..." Useless. Words were useless, and now he truly would have to resign, because he'd hurt one of his own house... broken the heart, unwittingly, of his favored student in the house. For a moment, his hand squeezed Draco's shoulder, and then he turned to leave. To speak with Dumbledore. To resign. "I am sorry."

"No you aren't. Don't *lie* to me, *Professor*," Draco said, the cold acrimony creeping back into him. "If you were at all sorry, it wouldn't be *Potter*."

"It was a foolish slip on my behalf." He looked over his shoulder at Draco, stopping in his pace to leave. "Veritaserum. I tasted the Veritaserum, that I'm making for the trials. It's not completely gone, yet -- and I am sorry. You're a son to me. There isn't anything that could change that."

Quietly, so quietly, those green curtains were pulled closed once more, and the last remaining free Malfoy was hidden from him.

"Nothing will change that. Hate me all you wish, Draco, but I will still watch out for you." If the boy wasn't listening, there was nothing to be done for it. Silently, he left the commons room, and took the shifting stairs to the hall that Dumbledore's office was secreted within. Severus had always hated the odd passwords that Dumbledore used, yet they were simple to remember. "Jujube," he told the gargoyle that stood guard, and then shifted aside as if it had never been frozen in front of the entrance. Muggle candy. Why bother with passwords at all?

"Come along, Severus. I've been waiting," a voice called calmly enough from the top.

/Papers at ready, perhaps something suitably poisoned to save me from a more painful fate.../ Facing a likely disappointed Albus Dumbledore was really far worse than it had ever been to face his often enough disappointed father. "I knew you would be."

The smile that Dumbledore gave him was slow, just a little sad. "Are you feeling better, then, now that you've had some sleep? I know you were quite offended by the Dreamless Sleep Draughts, but I'm afraid they were really quite necessary..."

Sad. It hurt to see him so, sad and no doubt disappointed... /Small talk, to calm me. I see through it, Albus, why waste your time?/ "It's been bothersome," he commented quietly, as the stairs took him up even with the older Wizard.

"You know, you really worry quite too much sometimes, Severus," the Headmaster said, turning to walk back to his desk. "Do sit. And stop fretting, I'm not tossing you out upon your ear nor are you allowed to resign on your own."

"It's unreasonable, Albus, that you seem to know what's going on in my life better than I know it," Severus sighed in a quiet, miserable tone as he sat down in the chair across from that desk. The last time he'd sat there... /I'd almost forgotten about that damnable 'trip'./

"Well, we *do* have our ways," the old wizard informed him with no small amount of amusement. "You take yourself quite too seriously, Severus... among other things."

"I'm glad that you find this amusing," the potions master half-snarled, shoulders hunching for a moment in a way that he had admitted on occasion was childish.

"Not really," Albus said. "After all, if you aren't careful, you'll gain Harry and lose Draco to the remaining Death Eaters. You tread a fine line, Severus."

/I always have./ Yet... "What would you have me do, then, Albus?" He tended to defer to the older Wizard -- had done so since he was a child -- and even in this subject... He had to. His job still felt at stake.

"What do you think you should do, Severus?" the question was returned to him solemnly.

"Leave." He managed that through his dry throat, and a moment after that helped him regather his thoughts more. "If I... with Potter, then... aside from breaking multiple rules, I lose Draco to the Death Eaters. And I *cannot*... with Draco. The boy" -- /they're both boys, don't forget that, same age, same grade/ -- "is like a son to me. To do even close to what he asks means..." Cutting all contact with Harry, aside from classes, no doubt. It would break sharply the bared parts of himself that he was still holding together.

"Rules are made to be broken," Albus dismissed, echoing Harry eerily. "To be very honest, you're breaking no rules *I've* made, Severus."

Severus had been half afraid that Albus was going to tell him that. Half scared, and half-joyful; his fingers folded themselves together again, proving agitation. "Sirius will kill me."

"Only a little," Dumbledore chuckled. "I promise he won't be allowed to kill you... much."

"Well. If that's all..." He shifted to the edge of the chair, waiting for some sign of dismissal. Given half a chance, he wanted to escape to his rooms, and sleep again in an admittedly sad attempt to shake off the agitation that now clung to him like water.

"I know I haven't helped you very much, Severus. I'm sorry for that. I'm afraid it's the sort of problem that you will have to sort out for yourself," the older man sighed sadly.

"If I fail, don't be surprised." He'd never been good at dealing with people at *that* level. 'Friends', acquaintances... Easily, smoothly dealt with. Past that... /I can blame Lucius partly for that,/ he mused a bit bitterly, standing up. "Thank you for not dismissing me. I will do my best to keep this a secret." And his best was usually flawless -- Severus was used to doing his business out of sight.

"All right, Severus. You know, you might want to consider talking quite seriously with Harry about the intricacies of this matter in all of its details. He can be a most surprising young man."

As if he wasn't aware of it already. The edges of his mouth quirked up for a moment, before he asked, "Is there anything I should mention that might slip my mind before I do?"

"Why, I can't think of anything, right off. Lemon drop?" the older man offered, smiling at him still. For all that Severus had gotten into some *truly* noteworthy tangles over the years, Albus still treated him with the same dignified respect and -- yes, yes, perhaps an almost familial love, as well.

The quirk of Severus's mouth deepened for a moment, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. It had been wise to see Albus after all... "No, but thank you."

       

Nervously, Harry paced back and forth beside the work table. All of the Veritaserum had been neatly bottled and stoppered and he'd cleaned the instruments, as well as having put away the things that had been out and in use. He was, to be quite honest about it, a nervous wreck. It was just taking so *long*...

Until he heard displeased mutterings at the closed door from the hallway, and then quiet footfalls. "Are you still here...?"

"Here!" Harry said, relieved. "How did it go?"

Severus looked *drained* again, as he turned for a moment to close the doors behind him. He looked as if stress was going to send him toppling from his feet at any moment, and felt at least so bad. "Not so well, and well enough."

"Well, that's at least partially good, then," Harry said with a heartfelt sigh. "The Headmaster isn't angry with us?" There seemed no question as to whether they were in this together.

That, at least, was heartening. Snape paused a moment, then simply decided to quote the man. "He told me that 'Rules are made to be broken'. And that they're none he's made." Which made the entire situation still only as clear as mud. It had been easier to work with before he'd started thinking. "He also said that he'll only let Sirius kill me a little."

At that, Harry couldn't help but grin, his eyes lighting up with amusement. "Well, *that's* good to know. I doubt I'd be particularly pleased if he were allowed to kill you a *lot*." The question that had been on the tip of his tongue paused and he took a deep breath, letting it out again. The question *now* concerned what lay between them, what it was, how they were going to do things... So many complicated what-ifs racing through his mind were tamped down carefully.

The potions master seemed well aware of those questions -- for they were the very same ones that clung within his own mind. "We should no doubt rest, Harry, and talk more. This morning has been... singularly exhaustive."

"Afternoon," Harry corrected gently. "It's later than it feels."

"Afternoon, then," Severus agreed easily enough, shifting to move towards one of the two chairs in the parlor, starting to take off the heavy drape of his outer robe. "I suspect we can expect no further visitors."

"Except maybe Ron or Hermione or Malfoy coming back or..."

"I'm locking the door," Severus half-snarled, a familiar displeased tone as he paused long enough to pull his wand free, and cast a series of *heavy* hexes atop that door.

"I take it *that* conversation didn't go as well as the other," Harry muttered half under his breath.

"Not nearly." Snape put the wand down, then sat down heavily in his chair. "I will... sort through one thing at a time. You, first." if only he had any idea of where to start.

The Gryffindor took in a deep breath. "I suppose right now I'm just... I'm nervous. Everyone's always nervous at the start of something new, aren't they? No matter what it is? And especially if they aren't yet sure where it's supposed to go..."

/If anywhere.../ "This is entirely new to you, isn't it? All of it," Severus went out, not quite waiting for verification as he looked at Harry. "Sit down, please."

"The closest I've ever come to...something like this was a crush I had on Cho Chang last year," he admitted, mouth quirking upward slightly. "Before I realized that she wasn't quite what I was in need of."

/Seasoned veteran of surely every sick sexual twist in existence, meet the unspoiled innocent./ He winced a little to himself, nodded. "Why ever couldn't you have been normal and wanted someone from your own grade, or another student...." That wasn't said with any real force behind it -- just the sort of odd utterance that left Severus's mouth, bitter questionings. "Must've been too easy to do that."

"I told you I don't take the easy way," Harry agreed calmly. "I've never been the sort to do that."

"I know." As someone of like mindset, he knew that well... "Harry, sit *down*." Or hold still near him, or just let a moment of touch, *something* other than the slight wandering that Harry was doing. Something.

"Sorry. I've been a bit nervous," Harry said, settling down in the chair opposite Severus and wiping damp palms upon his own robes. "What with Malfoy and the Headmaster and not knowing..."

Languidly, Snape leaned forwards, closing the space between the two of them. "I truly hope that you know what you've put yourself in for. Or have an inkling of what you want of this."

"An inkling," Harry agreed. "More than that. And I'm definitely tougher than I look." Tougher than he looked, indeed, growing but slim, that Seeker's build inevitable in the height of him, the length of his legs, the broad span of palm and growing shoulders.

Beautiful to Severus, both the present and the potential, Harry's maturing face and brilliant eyes. "Tougher than me, most likely," the older man mused, just moments before he got up from the chair, and closed the space between himself and Harry. He wanted to kiss him immediately, but perhaps... perhaps it was best to test things slowly. One thin hand moved of its own will into Potter's hair, brushing over his cheek in the process. "I trust you."

"That's good," Harry whispered a little shakily. "I just hope I can keep trusting myself." That seemed to give Severus pause, and he hurried onward quickly. "I get the feeling that resisting you and keeping up open enmity for the sake of the general public might get a bit difficult."

/Two and a half *years*... at least./ He'd kept things hidden for so much longer, though... and that much time seemed almost as if nothing to him, while for Harry, it was comparatively a large slice of his life. "Then we will keep public and private two very separate things."

"I guess that means we should start building on the private about now," Harry suggested, swallowing.

/He's scared. Of course he's scared, Snape, you fool. This is idiocy, and it's not going to go anywhere.../ Slowly, he moved his fingers through Harry's thick dark hair, stroking tenderly. soft strands felt wonderful over his hands, and the motion sought to further calm him. "Only if you wish to. It's not such an appealing idea anymore, is it, now that your head's cleared some?"

"It's appealing," Harry replied, "it's just that I'm not sure how things go, exactly. I've never done this before," he pointed out. "You won't let me screw anything up too badly, will you?"

/It's a little too late for that, Potter./ "Then we'll talk, and see where things progress naturally." Still, as close as he was, a hand threading languidly through Harry's hair, it would've been expecting too much of him to not kiss the boy. slowly, he leaned down the rest of the way, and brushed his mouth against Harry's lips.

Again, it was like sinking into sensation, like coming *home*, and Harry's mouth parted needily beneath his own, leaving both of them pressed close and breathless, delirious with need and want. /Mmmm, nice...../ "Nnnnmmmm..."

Severus felt light-headed and breathless, on the verge of just soaring past all sane barriers and demanding *more*. Kissing the younger man was familiar, strangely completive for him; fear of what that feeling meant, though, intensified the shaking of his fingers. He broke the kiss, and slowly knelt down in front of Harry's chair, lean cheek pressed against Harry's. "Perhaps we should do something," he suggested, almost desperate to not ruin things by going too quickly.

"Something?" Harry asked a bit shakily, quite uncertain as to what 'something' might be.

A slight turn of Severus's head, and he pressed a kiss against Harry's cheek, working slowly to a point just in front of the boy's ear. /Stop, stop, Severus, you'll scare him worse./ "Something that doesn't present as much of an opportunity as we have now."

"All right. Okay..." It was shaky agreement at best, but shaky as much from a sweeping eagerness that worried at the pit of his belly as it was from nervousness. "That sounds good."

Which left them both with the problem of 'what', and Severus in particular with the problem of how to pull back fully. Down on one knee before Harry -- the significance of that wasn't entirely lost on him, or the irony of it -- kissing him with a slowly burning hunger... /Control, Severus. Control yourself, or he doesn't have a chance./ Slowly, he leaned back, letting his hands rest on Harry's shoulders. Just a light touch, that could be shrugged off with the slightest gesture. Dark eyes gone sharp with want dragged over Harry's face, taking in the flush on his cheeks. "Perhaps I should let you rejoin your friends for the remainder of the day. You probably don't want to help me grade papers."

Dazed green eyes closed, the bottle-color of them hidden behind dark lashes momentarily as Harry relaxed slowly against him, tongue darting out in a nervous gesture to taste at his upper lip before he opened them again. "Might be more interesting," he said lightly. "I'd learn a lot. May I... May I come back when you're done? If you don't want my help?"

It was better that he go spend time with his friends -- else they'd worry, and become suspicious. "Come back tonight. We'll talk more, then."

"I promise," Harry said, standing up slowly. It put him most distinctly in the area of Severus's arms, pressed close against him hip to chest where Snape still knelt before the chair.

It took every last ounce of willpower to do nothing more than drag his hands down Harry's back, light and simply touching to touch, before he, too, stood. "Then I will see you this evening." /Time enough for both of us to think./ And with his mind agitated and distracted, the number of 'Fs' that he'd be giving out would probably peak.

"Tonight," Harry promised, and then he stepped away, heading for the door with little more than backwards glances.

Which would leave Severus with a good five hours or so to think of ways to keep himself from pressing things too far for the boy.


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