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growing pains 00

24. 7. 2011

Growing Pains 
by 
Tira Nog

Author's Note: Sequel to A Nick in Time
Disclaimer: All characters owned by JK Rowling. No profit made on use of characters.

~~~

The Great Hall sounded as though it were full to bursting. There were the usual childish laughter and shouts, the unceasing susurration of dozens of subdued conversations, the background clatter of utensils and plates being moved, all contained in what amounted to an echoing stone box. It was way too much noise for anyone to have to deal with first thing on a Monday morning.

Severus Snape paused outside the hall entrance, ready to bolt. Two days simply wasn't enough time to reclaim one's life, let alone one's equilibrium. Friday at this very time, he'd been a child, chasing his roommate around the bedroom playing tag instead of getting dressed for school. Now . . . .

Now it was back to normal: no more tag, or quidditch, or even Exploding Snap. He wasn't going to class; he was teaching it. What's more, he had a four-month hiatus for which to make up. He didn't want to think about the state the curriculum was in. There was no way he could correct four months of substandard work in the three that remained to him.

That was really what should be troubling him, Severus thought as he stood paused outside the hall's towering doors. The work missed, the students' that would be ill prepared for their exams – those were the pressing issues, not his emotional problems.

But as he stood there frozen outside the Great Hall, his emotions were the only thing real to him. As soon as he opened that door, he was going to have to face a school full of people who had seen him as a seven-year-old. For some reason, that thought both terrified and shamed him.

It made no sense. He'd faced Voldemort for years while spying without so much as a quiver, but the idea of walking into that hall and feeling all those curious eyes upon him unmanned him. And he didn't know why.

He'd certainly done nothing wrong, nor had he embarrassed himself. Hermione and Ron had seen to it that he was properly dressed and that he behaved well at all times. There had been nothing shameful in any of it, so why was he so sensitive about it? Why did he feel like all his deepest secrets had been paraded in full view?

It was with the thought of Hermione and Ron that he began to understand what was bothering him. The whole school had seen him helpless. He'd been vulnerable and lost, and everyone had known it. They'd seen the Weasleys take him in and give him a home.

A home that was no longer his. That was the root of his problem. Every morning for the last four months when he'd entered the Great Hall, he'd been ensconced between Ron and Harry at the teacher's table. And now that he'd reclaimed his adult life, he was going to have to reclaim his isolated seat down at the end of the table as well. To do anything else would be to reveal a weakness, a need, and Severus was resolved to maintain his dignity at all costs. He'd lost so much; he wasn't about to lose that as well. But . . . .

Severus took a deep breath and tried to relax. He could do this. He'd borne the Cruciatus. He could survive this.

Steeling himself, he opened the door and entered the hall. It was impossible not to notice how all sound seemed to stop at his entrance. He could feel dozens of eyes upon him as he crossed the room to the teacher's table.

He wished that he had his hair to hide behind, but it was still drawn back in that clip Hermione had given him. Startled, he realized that his new hairstyle alone could be reason enough for them to be staring. He'd worn his hair in that same cut for longer than some of his colleagues had been alive. He supposed that the change would be shocking enough. Even so, those stares weighed on his nerves.

"Good morning, Severus," Headmistress McGonagall greeted with a warm smile. "Welcome back again."

She'd been in to see him yesterday. She was the only one of his colleagues other than Harry who had paid him a visit.

"Minerva," he nodded, and then tried to be polite as the others all acknowledged his return.

As he moved down the long table to take his former seat at the secluded far end, he realized that the teachers' table had fallen completely silent around him. The Great Hall as a whole seemed to draw a collective breath, every professor and student seeming to anxiously await his reaction. From the tension in the room, it was clear that no less than a volcanic eruption was anticipated.

Already a nervous wreck, Severus felt his own muscles stiffen up as he prepared for whatever prank awaited him. Damn, couldn't the cretins give him one morning to get his life back in order before once again making him the butt of their brainless jokes? As he turned to deal with whatever ignominy awaited him, Severus promised himself that he'd make the life of whoever had planned this hell.

His steps faltered as he took in the cause of the tension. His normal seat, the chair next to the last at the end of the table, was empty as usual, but it was no longer isolated. Ronald Weasley was sitting in the last chair, next to Severus' empty seat. Harry Potter was in the chair on the opposite side of the chair, with Hermione at Potter's other shoulder – their usual mealtime configuration for the last four months.

As if that weren't shock enough, a terrified looking Neville Longbottom was perched on the edge of the seat next to Hermione, with Blaise Zabini next to him. Merlin knew what they'd done to get Longbottom there. The man appeared on the verge of collapse.

They hadn't left a single empty chair for him to isolate himself behind. His . . . family had set it up so that Severus' only choice was to sit among them. Either that or move to the other end of the table entirely. And the only seat at that end was next to the arrogant Miller. He'd rather eat next to Hagrid's Blast Ended Skrewts.

As he stood there frozen in shock, Severus wondered how he should respond. The absolute silence around him told him that the school as a whole was expecting an amusing spectacle.

He looked at the faces of these people who'd been so kind to him. Hermione's was set with equal degrees of worry and determination. He recognized her hand in this, for only she could manipulate Longbottom into doing something so completely against his nature. Potter appeared nervous, as if he feared this move might damage the uneasy friendship forming between them. Zabini was behaving as a typical Slytherin; the lanky brunette seemed amused by the entire thing.

The only person acting anywhere near normal was Ron. His complete attention was on his bowl as he wolfed down a heaping helping of porridge. As he watched, Ron seemed to become aware of his stare and the silence raging around him. Ron glanced up, scanned down the row of seemingly petrified teachers, gazed out over the equally absorbed House tables, and finally turned to him. Ron rolled his eyes and glared down the teachers' table.

"Enough already! It's not like nobody's ever moved their seats before. Severus, sit down before all the food goes cold!" And with that, Ron went back to his breakfast.

Hermione looked like she wanted to kill Ron. Harry appeared to be waiting to make a decision as to whether to help her or not. Longbottom was attempting to fade into the woodwork. Everyone else was waiting for an entertaining spectacle of Snape proportions.

Severus took his seat.

He gave a droll, "Good morning," as he settled down between Harry and Ron. To his intense relief, conversation started throughout the Great Hall again as though a switch had been flicked.

"Good morning, Severus," Hermione brightly responded, looking as though she might pass out herself from the relief.

Ron's mumbled, "'morning," was lost between chews.

Harry's quiet "Hello," gave him an unexpected shiver. That was not something he'd anticipated having to deal with this morning.

"Hello," he answered, praying that he wasn't blushing as he met Harry's gaze. He'd already made a big enough prat of himself with that entrance.

"How are you today, Severus?" Hermione asked.

Completely too aware of every gaze upon him, Severus shrugged and evaded, "Here," and then silently cursed himself for the concern that filled her gaze.

He reached a shaky hand for the teapot, but a larger one beat him to it. Proving once again that he was nowhere near as oblivious as he let on, Ron poured the tea into Severus' cup, saving him the embarrassment of sloshing it all over the table.

"Harry, what did you think of what Crenshaw and Sinastra did with your classes over the last few months?" Zabini asked from the other side of Longbottom. "They told me they'd dropped by to go over the curriculum they'd covered."

He felt Potter's gaze move from him, the way he'd feel the heat of the summer sun leaving him when he passed into shadow. He was accustomed to controlling his emotions. In his arrogance on Saturday night when he'd told himself he'd be able to maintain the charade of platonic friendship with Harry Potter, he'd assumed that his feelings for Harry would be as simple to ignore as all his other emotions had been. Clearly, he had never had a true test to his controls before.

As Harry answered Zabini's question, Severus drew in a deep breath. His rubbery limbs belonged to a man who'd just fought a life and death battle, not someone who'd simply sat down at the breakfast table. What kind of feckless fool had he become to make such a melodrama out of entering a room? And, obviously, everyone else had expected him to overreact. He was clearly . . . .

His thought broke off as a large, warm hand settled in the middle of his back, Ron's comforting gesture unseen by all. Severus glanced over at Ron.

Weasley was still shovelling porridge into his mouth as fast as he could with his right hand while his left provided that surreptitious comfort, but he met Severus' gaze and gave him a quick wink and a grin before repossessing his left hand. Once he'd swallowed his mouth-load, Ron whispered, "The first step's always the hardest. It will get better."

Had he become that transparent? Was his every thought and fear now on display?

Not knowing how to deal with this, he looked at Ron. His pride was insisting he should snap Weasley's head off for his assumption, but this man had protected him when he was helpless as no one had ever done before. So instead of snarling, he quietly questioned, "Will it?"

"I sure hope so. This morning's been hell," Ron sighed, an uncharacteristic gloom settling over his normally affable features.

Severus gave an enquiring lift of his eyebrow.

Ron took a quick glance at his wife, who was seemingly absorbed in conversation with Zabini and Harry, and explained, "You know how fogged Hermy is first thing. She went to wake you boys for school, only . . . ."

"Ah," Severus nodded, beginning to appreciate that he wasn't the only one for whom this situation was difficult. These people had changed their entire world around to accommodate Harry and him in their time of need. He couldn't imagine what either Ron or Hermione must be going through, to have the children they'd taken into their home and hearts vanish overnight, never to return.

Ron's voice dropped even lower as he leaned in and said, "Thanks for not . . . just thanks. I think it would have killed her if you'd gone over to sit with Miller."

Ron was thanking him?

"Hey," Harry's hand landed on Severus' left arm as he interrupted, "no secrets at the breakfast table. Did you ask him yet?" Harry leaned around him to inquire of Ron.

"Ask me what?" Severus uneasily questioned, leaning back in his seat to try to include both Ron and Harry in his line of sight, which was hard as they were on opposite sides of him.

"Well, to reward ourselves for getting through Mondays without using an Unforgivable on any of the little monsters, we usually get together in the evening to grade papers and homework," Harry said.

"We haven't done it since December because everyone was covering so many classes," Ron explained. "But since things are back to normal now, we thought we'd give it a go tonight."

"We'd like you to join us," Hermione said from Harry's other side. "That is, if you don't have too much else to do."

"I was hoping we might fit in a game of chess," Ron added from his other side.

"You don't have to make up your mind right now," Harry quickly interjected.

"Yeah, take some time and think about it," Ron counselled.

All three of them appeared braced for rejection. From their expressions, it was plain that his compliance was very important to them.

Severus knew this wasn't a good idea. He should be cutting ties, not strengthening them, but . . . as hard as it was to let anyone in, it was harder still to refuse these three anything they might require of him. He owed each of them a debt he could never repay. If they wanted to inflict his company upon themselves, he had no right to deny them.

What incredible twaddle, he chided himself. No right to deny them? He didn't want to deny them. He . . . needed them.

And that scared him.

Severus stared down his fear for a long moment before softly replying, "I don't need time to consider. I would be honoured to attend."

His formality didn't appear to affect them, not if their grins were anything to go by.

"Perfect," Hermione beamed, her eyes twinkling bright as Albus'.

"Come on, you lot," Neville called from Hermione's other side. "We're about to be late!"

"What?" Harry, Hermione, and Ron did a classic double take as they gazed around the emptying Great Hall.

"Severus didn't even get breakfast," Hermione protested as they all scrambled to collect their book bags and personal effects.

"He's not seven anymore, Hermy. He knows when to eat," Ron snorted, but he passed Severus a napkin-wrapped muffin on his way to the door all the same.

With a rushed "See you later!" the Weasleys hit the floor running, leaving Severus standing there in bemusement staring at the pastry in his hand.

"It's a little overwhelming, isn't it? Being an adult again, I mean," a familiar, rich tenor said from his side.

Startled, Severus looked over to find Harry Potter still standing there. The green robe Potter was wearing was an exact match with his eyes.

Still uneasy with this grown up version of the boy who'd befriended him, Severus gave a cautious nod.

"I could barely muster the courage to walk into the hall this morning," Potter continued, giving a self-deprecating smile as he admitted, "Hermione had to take me by the arm."

Thinking how strange it was to hear Potter openly admit to any kind of weakness in his presence, Severus slowly said, "It is, as you said, overwhelming."

"You don't have a first period class either?" Harry asked.

"No. My Monday starts with the second period and ends with the ninth. I have two double potions classes today," he answered. With a vague shock, Severus realized that he was actually making 'small talk.'

"I don't start till third. Walk with me?" Harry asked, gesturing at the French doors to their left that led out into the gardens.

Severus knew it wasn't wise to be alone with Potter. He didn't understand how the affection his childhood self had borne Harry had transformed into this totally inappropriate desire. All he knew was that it hurt to be with Potter now. And hurt even more to be without him.

Still, there was no valid reason to refuse the request. To do so would bring undue attention to his reasons for avoiding Harry. And he had given his word to attempt to be his friend.

So, he gave a nod and followed Potter to the doors.

The weather was hardly conducive to walking. The sky overhead was dark and overcast, the grey clouds spitting down a misty rain. The temperature was cold, the damp biting. Although the ground had thawed; the grass hadn't sprung yet. The earth was a muddy mire that squelched unpleasantly under their boots.

But there was something bracing about the chill. It rather suited his mood, Severus decided. And it was fascinating to watch Harry's skin turn pink as the mist soaked his face and hair.

"We would have had a quidditch match this afternoon," Harry said, staring out over the bare, rain-blackened trees. It was still cold enough that his words emerged as puffs of steam.

"If it weren't cancelled," Severus said, wondering how long it would be before his guts stopped lurching every time he thought of what they'd be doing at a particular moment if they hadn't been restored.

"Yeah, there's that. I miss Adam," Harry said suddenly, referring to the redheaded boy who had befriended them both.

I miss you, Severus thought, but he didn't speak the words.

"Isn't that strange?" Harry asked.

What was strange was that Harry could still trust him enough to share that type of confidence. Feeling those troubled eyes upon his face, Severus looked down at the soggy ground.

"I don't know," Severus answered at last. "He was a friend."

"Yes, he was. I thought of going back to see him," Harry said as they walked among the sleeping rosebushes that lined the narrow walk. This time of the year they were nothing but thorns, which somehow struck Severus as being very appropriate. His life often seemed a thin path between thorn thickets, with no haven in sight. He was so absorbed with the play of expression over those familiar, but now compelling features that he was only half-listening as Harry continued with, "But I thought it would only confuse him."

"That's probably wise," Severus said.

"Probably? Do you think I should see him?" Harry jumped at the idea.

"I don't have any answers, Harry. If you recall, it was I who wanted to remain a child," Severus reminded short-temperedly. He wasn't good at this. Potter should know better than to press him.

"So it's my fault, then?" Harry questioned. His words should have been accusative, but they only sounded miserable.

Six months ago Severus would have said Yes, it's all your fault and blamed everything from their current situation to his twisted longings on Potter. Now such pettiness seemed pointless.

Taking a deep breath of the earth-scented air, Severus softly answered, "No, I don't believe either of us ever had a choice."

Potter was silent. For a long time the only sounds were their squelching footsteps and the drip of the water off the leafless vegetation around them.

"How are you doing?" Harry asked in a soft tone some time later.

"Let's just say that you're not the only one thinking about missed quidditch games," Severus offered at last, wondering if he were being too honest. But this Harry wasn't really all that dissimilar from the boy he'd known. Potter didn't feel a need to attack a weakness simply because it existed.

"I wish . . . ." Potter began and stopped.

"Yes?"

"I wish I could make things better – for us both," Harry said, still very much the optimist that had wanted to make the world a better place.

"There is no better. There is only enduring," Severus replied, voicing the truth of his soul.

"I don't believe that," Harry instantly argued.

"That is your choice. It has, however, been my experience," Severus replied. He didn't want to argue with Potter, but he wasn't going to lie to him, either.

"If that's true, then what's the point in living?" Potter objected, sounding scandalized by the very idea.

Severus shrugged. "Damned if I know."

"Severus!"

"What?" he questioned, his voice as subdued as Potter's had been upset.

"That's not funny!"

"What would you have me say?" he demanded, out of patience already, and he hadn't even faced his first class of dunderheads. "Do you want me to lie to you?"

Harry's stare poked right through his walls.

Severus forced himself to hold that gaze.

"Do you really feel that way?" Harry asked at last.

"I have always felt that way. Except for the last four months," Severus admitted, wondering if his honesty would be enough to drive Potter away.

But his honesty wouldn't have scared the boy off, and it didn't scare the man Harry had become either. Harry was still a head shorter than Severus, but he still seemed larger than life as he reached out to grip Severus' left arm and held on tight.

"We haven't lost it all," Harry insisted.

"Haven't we?" They'd had this discussion on Saturday night. Severus wondered how many times it would be repeated before Harry finally realized that he couldn't be the same person he'd been at seven.

"No, we haven't. I know we're not kids anymore, but we're not back where we were five months ago. Things have changed, for the better. It was different at breakfast this morning, wasn't it?" Harry asked.

Severus thought of that warm, supportive hand on his back this morning and gave a cautious nod.

"I know it's hard right now, but it will get easier. I promise."

I promise, like Potter would personally guarantee him a rosy future. How often had the seven-year-old Potter made that same vow? And every time he'd listened, things had been all right. Not once had Harry ever misled him. But his seven-year-old self had had more courage than Severus could ever aspire to.

"Class is going to start soon. I must return." Severus looked away, but not fast enough to keep him from catching the disappointment in Harry's face.

Harry gave a dispirited, "Yeah," and turned back towards the school.

Side by side, they walked through the soggy April morning.

"We're soaked," Harry said as they paused on the flagstones in front of the French doors that led back into the Great Hall.

Liking neither the gloom in Harry's expression nor the knowledge that he'd put it there, Severus met Potter's gaze and offered in a dry tone, "Fortunately, I know this really neat drying spell."

Severus held his breath. Humour had never been his forte' and Harry's face was blank as a Goyle's for a moment. But then the reference seemed to click. Severus knew the exact instant that Harry remembered the words Potter had spoken to Minerva on the day they'd built that mud fort in the quidditch pitch.

And, suddenly, the laughter was back. It exploded out of Harry in a heart-warming burst of sound.

His hand settling on his back as he ushered Severus into the Great Hall, Harry grinned and said, "Neat!"

It didn't change anything, but putting that smile on Harry's face made it all a bit more bearable. Even if he could no longer think with that hand on his back.

"I'll see you later?" Harry checked once Severus had used his neat drying spell on them both.

Severus looked down at Potter's cold-reddened face. The man had interesting features. His wide, bespectacled green eyes and slightly upturned nose gave Harry the vulnerable air of a young boy, while his high cheekbones and strong, cleft chin did everything in their power to undo that image.

An enticing sheen of moisture gleamed on Harry's sensual lips. The sight of it twisted something inside Severus. Realizing that he was staring, Severus ripped his gaze away and attempted to get his respiration back under control.

Yes, things had certainly changed.

"Later," he agreed.

Another grin and another purposefully childish "Cool!" and Harry seemed nearly as happy as his seven-year-old self. "I'll see you at dinner. Try not to petrify any of the monsters."

To his surprise, Severus found himself responding to Potter's irrepressible cheek. "A Gryffindor or two less – who would notice the loss?"

"Hermione and Ron, when they're counting them at dinner. You want to explain the service you've done mankind by decreasing the Gryffindor horde to her, then, please, be my guest."

"And they accuse Slytherins of having a cruel streak," Severus lamented.

Harry's laughter followed after him as he took his leave.

The day flew by. He only had double potions with the first and second years today.

To Severus' astonishment, his students proved remarkably up to snuff. They didn't have the polish that they might have gained while learning under a master, but they were adequately trained in the basics. What was astounding was the fact that it was apparently Longbottom who had volunteered to take on Snape's first and second years. Minerva had covered his third through fifth years, while Hermione had handled the sixth and seventh years. Severus had no idea how she'd managed to teach the two hardest grades in what were incontestably the school's two most difficult subjects – Arithmancy and Potions.

He was so occupied trying to decipher the rolls of chicken scrawled notes his stand-ins had left that he missed lunch. He would have skipped dinner, too, if Hermione hadn't come to fetch him.

Now, an hour after the Great Hall had emptied out and the students returned to their common rooms, Severus made his way to Gryffindor Tower with an armload of homework to grade. He still wasn't certain this wasn't a mistake.

The door was opened by a grinning, grey-robed Hermione at his first knock. "Severus! Welcome!"

For a horrible moment, Severus thought that she was going to hug him, but then she took his arm and guided him into the sitting room.

"We're all here now," she announced to the room at large.

We turned out to be more than simply the Weasleys, Potter, and himself.

Severus froze.

Clothed in a light blue robe, Neville Longbottom was sitting on the end of the couch with a sheaf of papers in his hands, looking as though he were about to be marched off to Azkaban. Longbottom's presence here really shouldn't have been that much of a shock since the boy had trailed after the famous three since their arrival at Hogwarts.

It was the other Slytherin that surprised him. Blaise Zabini was sprawled at the opposite end of the couch, with his feet drawn up onto the cushion so that they almost touched Longbottom's left leg, test papers in hand, and a goblet of red wine within easy reach. His stockinged feet proclaimed his comfort at the Weasleys'. Zabini's deep red robe was a stark contrast with Longbottom's light blue one.

In his usual brown house robes, Ron was sitting at the table they normally played chess on, working on repairing a school broom. Wearing the same distracting green robe he'd had on this morning, Harry sat across from Ron with another broom in hand. There was a broom repair kit at his elbow on top of a pile of neglected parchments that looked suspiciously like the roll of notes Severus' substitutes had left for him.

Everyone greeted him with some version of hello as Hermione led him to one of the armchairs – which had been turned into the room to face the couch, rather than the hearth.

Feeling intensely out of place amidst his former students, Severus took his seat. He really didn't belong here. Not anymore.

"So, how did it go today?" Hermione asked as she settled into the other armchair. "Harry won't talk about his day at all."

Ron looked up from his broom to shoot what might have been a warning in Hermione's direction, and then returned to polishing the broomstick.

Severus glanced at Potter, who was studiously trimming his broom's errant bristles. Harry's expression was rather tense, and now that he wasn't so absorbed with his own uneasiness, Severus realized that the mood of the room was akin to that of the Great Hall this morning when everyone was waiting for him to explode over the chair incident. Surprised, he recognized that Harry was the source of the tension.

"Oh?" Severus said.

Something in his tone must have challenged Potter, for those green eyes glanced his way, and then Harry encapsulated his day with five truculent words that were enough to chill any teacher's blood, "Trelawney had my third years."

"That's all he'll say," Zabini joked.

"What more need he say?" Severus replied, catching the grateful glance Harry shot him.

"That Miller had his seventh years?" Zabini added with suspect sweetness.

Severus shuddered to think what state Potter's last year students would be in. Miller made Gilderoy Lockhardt seem like a shining example of academia.

"My commiserations," Severus condoled with a nod of his head.

"I don't need your commiserations," Harry said. "I need your help."

The room's other four occupants appeared even more shocked than Severus was by Potter's words.

Severus didn't know how to respond at first, but after a second's thought, he asked, "Do you think it's wise to discuss this in front of four witnesses?"

"What?" Harry blinked, but at least he seemed confused now rather than simmering.

"When Trelawney and Miller are discovered with their throats slit, we will now be the prime suspects," Severus informed.

He was surprised by the reaction his comment received. Even Longbottom was laughing and Harry no longer looked as though his world were ending.

"I don't want you to kill them, you berk," Harry laughed.

"No? Pity, that. What do you want, then?"

"When I left them in December, my seventh years were in fairly decent shape. But now . . . . Shall I show you what I'm dealing with?" Harry asked. At Severus' nod, Harry put the broom down and rose to his feet. "Imagine, if you will, a classroom full of seventeen year olds, most of whom are now sporting wild, shaggy curls like Miller." Harry passed his wand over himself and a fountain of long black ringlets cascaded down his back. Severus was so startled by the effect that he could hardly concentrate on Harry's subsequent words. "I'm one of the lot. My recently returned DADA teacher has just asked me to demonstrate the defensive arts I've learned in his absence. Ron, would you mind being me?"

Ron looked up from his broom. "Only if it's just for the demonstration. I'm all for slitting Miller's throat."

Ron rose to his feet.

"Hermione, would you mediate the duel?" Harry asked.

"Only if I don't have to get up, and if you promise not to break or otherwise demolish anything in the room," Hermione answered, so buried in parchments in the chair beside Severus that it looked like it would take her an hour to clear enough paper away simply to gain her feet.

"Agreed," Harry said.

"Fine, then," Hermione gave in. "Wands out on three, then. One, two, three!"

Ron's wand popped into his hand so quickly that Severus barely caught the movement.

He knew Potter was faster by half, but . . . Harry proceeded to remove his wand from his pocket with a wide, sweeping flourish of a gesture that took up enough time for an opponent to both curse him and dispose of his corpse. Meanwhile, he threw his wild mane of hair back and struck a dramatic pose.

Ron was on the last syllable of "Expelliamus!" before Potter even had his wand pointed in the proper direction.

Harry's wand skittered across the room to land at Longbottom's feet.

"That is what I am dealing with," Harry announced.

Everyone was laughing again. Severus himself was having difficulty maintaining his controls with the lugubrious expression Harry was sporting.

"Surely, they're not all as bad as that," Severus said at last.

"Well, I've one or two Slytherins that are capitalizing on their classmates' stupidity and blasting them silly; figuratively, for the most part, unfortunately. But most are actually worse," Potter said, slumping back down onto his chair, before giving a subdued. "Accio wand . . . and half of them can't do a decent summoning charm, either."

Harry gave a listless wave of his wand once it returned to his hand and his curls disappeared. Staring at his restored hair, Severus decided that he preferred Potter's normal style. The shaggy, just-below-the-ears length suited Harry's rather long, masculine face better.

"So you wish me to murder your students then?" Severus asked, still uncertain what Potter desired of him.

"No, though it's damn tempting. I was hoping you might come in for a demonstration. I thought I might ape their style in a duel with you and let them see you toss me across the room before I've even got my wand out of my pocket."

"Ah, so it is yourself that you are asking me to murder," Severus said with open satisfaction. His uneasiness was fading in spite of himself. He was so accustomed to this room and to gently teasing Harry that this visit was beginning to feel like the many nights he'd spent in these quarters.

He couldn't help but notice how both Longbottom and Zabini were watching the playful exchange between Potter and himself with their jaws practically hanging open. Hermione and Ron were grinning, but seemed unsurprised. After living with him and Potter for four months, the Weasleys were accustomed to their brand of banter, if on a more childish level than tonight's.

"Well, if you put me out of my misery, I won't have to worry about figuring out how to disabuse my third years of the notion that all they have to do to protect themselves against dangerous magical dark creatures is to use their inner eye to psychically make friends with Grindylows and the like," Harry answered.

"What?" Severus couldn't quite conceal his shock at the absurd suggestion.

"Remember," Harry began, the other four joining in like the frog chorus in a Greek comedy, "Trelawney had my/his third years."

While the others erupted into gales of unrepressed laughter, Severus felt his own mouth twitch at the corners.

"So will you do it?" Harry asked with genuine concern while everyone else was still trying to catch their breath.

"Murder you? No. I might finally end up teaching the Dark Arts, and for some reason, my enthusiasm for it has waned this year."

"Severus!" Harry protested.

"What?" he asked, enjoying this.

"Will you?"

"Why should I?" he questioned, fully intending to do it, but wanting to make Harry work for the concession.

"Because you owe me, damn it!" Harry testily responded.

It was true. He did owe Potter. However, it was also not like Harry to rub someone's nose in their indebtedness like this. Abruptly leery, thinking that he might have misjudged everything and made a fool of himself, Severus tightly questioned, "For what?"

Harry's eyes flashed green fire his way. "For the last time I helped you with an experiment when you asked me to."

Hermione and Ron roared with laughter, while Longbottom and Zabini stared at them all in confusion.

Finally, Zabini said, "You've lost Neville and me. What experiment?"

"I helped Severus with a potion last week – " Harry started.

"Last week?" Zabini interrupted. "You were children last week."

Harry nodded. "Yes, but we were doing some potions experimenting and Severus, I mean, we . . . ." Gryffindor to the core, Potter's often incomprehensible sense of honour didn't seem to be able to allow him to reveal any more of the details, all of which would incriminate his companion.

Severus sighed and finished the tale, "I mistook fenwart for fennel. The results were most unfortunate."

"The entire place stank like a rotting corpse for four hours," Ron lamented.

"And we got an hour time out," Harry added. "So you do owe me."

Severus remembered that. Once his mistake had become obvious as the Weasleys' quarters filled with the pungent stench that he hadn't known how to fix, he'd been terrified of the consequences, sure that Ron or Hermione would have to beat him at the very least to punish him for stealing the ingredients from the security cabinet in his former workroom. But all they'd done was tell Harry and him to go sit in chairs in opposite ends of their quarters while the adults dealt with the foul smell. They hadn't even made him miss dinner that night. Severus still couldn't comprehend their forbearance.

Everyone was laughing again at Potter's childish tone.

"I suppose you do have a point," Severus said, forcing his mind back to the present. "I will help you with a demonstration."

"You will?" Potter sounded shocked.

"How could I possibly resist the opportunity to toss you around in front of a room full of people, while safe from all retaliation?" Severus responded

"Who said anything about no retaliation?" Harry challenged.

"That would, of course, be one of the terms of my involvement," Severus said, savouring the interplay.

"It would?" Harry had never sounded so much like his seven-year-old self.

Severus knew he should have jumped right in and confirmed his outrageous demand, but Potter's vulnerable tone completely disarmed him. With the possible exception of Albus Dumbledore, there had never been anyone he couldn't attack once he scented a weakness. For want of a better definition, that malicious streak was as much a part of him as his dark hair. But looking at Harry now, all he wanted to do was reach out and assure his normally optimistic companion that everything would work out. And that was so against his nature that it totally perplexed him.

Feeling all those laughing eyes upon him, and knowing he had to cover his feelings immediately, Severus forced himself to relax and give a droll, "I'm afraid so."

"And your other terms?" Harry questioned, appearing endearingly nervous.

"To be discussed at a later date," Severus decided.

"You're in for it now, Harry," Ron laughed, sitting back down and taking up the broom he was repairing.

"Yeah," Harry agreed, but he didn't seem to be too bothered by the thought. If anything, he looked content.

Severus couldn't remember ever enjoying his co-workers' company as he was doing tonight. He'd feared that his presence would inhibit the proceedings, that he would fall back into being whom he'd been before December to isolate himself. To his shock, that wasn't happening. No one was forcing him to interact or making awkward attempts to include an obvious outsider, yet somehow he was a part of them.

They didn't even seem to mind when he turned his attention to the homework he'd brought when the conversation moved to other topics. One by one, the others picked up their own work, and before long the room was as quiet as the school during finals week.

"It's not Wolfsbane that dispels nervousness, is it?" Zabini asked into the silence.

"Verbaine," Hermione, Longbottom, and he answered in unison and went back to their work.

About an hour later, Hermione said, "My brain hurts. And I'm hungry. Anyone want some tea?"

Digging her way out from under the parchments burying her, Hermione gained her feet, but not before half her papers went scurrying across the rug. As she straightened out her grey robes and knelt down to collect the mess, Ron quickly moved to help her.

For the past two months, any time Ron was on the floor, it was an open invitation to attack. Severus was shocked to find himself seized with the nearly irresistible impulse to wrestle Ronald Weasley to the carpet. Stunned, he looked quickly away . . . to find green eyes watching Ron just as intently.

Seeming to feel his gaze, Harry met his stare.

Severus didn't know how he knew, but he was suddenly certain that Harry was resisting the same inappropriate impulse. It was all he could do to keep from bursting into laughter at Harry's horrified expression.

By the time Hermione's parchments were restored, so was their control. With a last, rueful glance at each other, Harry and he turned back to the room.

Once Ron finished helping Hermione, she moved to the sideboard, while Ron returned to the table. Harry and Ron then stowed their brooms and tack away to make room for the tray she brought over to the table.

Seeing the others occupied, Severus put his own work down on the end table and crossed the room to the other sideboard drawer where the Weasleys stowed their teapot and mugs. The move was automatic, something he would have done on any of the nights they'd spent together in this room.

He was a little self-conscious when he turned to find Hermione beside him. Obviously, she'd come to fetch the pot herself. For a moment, he felt like he'd committed an indiscretion of some kind. After all, he didn't live here anymore. It really wasn't his place to be going into drawers, but the smile she gave him instantly vanished his misgivings.

"Thank you, Severus," she said, giving his arm a soft touch before she moved to the other chest where the plates were stored.

The house elves had outdone themselves in providing snacks, Snape thought as he surveyed their repast. There were the custard tarts that both Ron and Longbottom enjoyed, a small chocolate cake that Harry was currently hungrily eyeing, the cinnamon raisin rolls that Hermione favoured, assorted biscuits . . . and the nut bread for which no one other than Severus himself seemed to care.

Hermione had always made sure that there was some of the nut bread or lemon cake for him as an after-homework treat. That she would remember to include it tonight touched him greatly.

While everyone helped themselves to sweets and tea, he cut a slice of the nut bread and liberally buttered it.

"I was hoping you still liked it," Hermione said beside him, fixing his tea as his adult self preferred – more milk than tea, unsweetened. As a child, he'd liked it milky and sweet.

"Thank you for remembering," Severus murmured, still not entirely easy in either Ron or Hermione's presence. He owed them both so much, but they seemed to want nothing from him, other than his company. Even Albus had always had ulterior motives for befriending him. He didn't know how to deal with people who wanted nothing from him. This was completely outside his experience.

"How could I forget? And you are most welcome." Hermione graced him with one of those blinding smiles he remembered from the past few months, gave him his usual tea mug, and turned to pour Zabini his tea.

A very nervous Neville Longbottom stepped up to the table beside him.

Severus looked at the Herbology teacher, unable to credit how little he'd changed from the boy he'd known. His eyes were still a blue so deep they were nearly violet, and his hair still sported the childish fringe in front. He was still on the plump side, utterly insecure, and visibly terrified of his former Potions teacher. Recognizing that he was in debt to this man as well, Severus cleared his throat and softly said, "Professor Longbottom?"

Longbottom nearly dumped the tarts from his plate, he was so startled. Those deep blue eyes could barely meet his own in their nervousness. "Er . . . yes?"

He'd always found Longbottom's open terror incredibly irritating and was hard pressed to resist the malicious impulse to tell the man to buck up and get a hold of himself. But that wasn't going to aid his purpose. He could hardly malign his co-worker and then thank him for his excellent work, as tempting as the impulse was. And beyond that, he owed Longbottom as well, and not just professionally. During the past four months his former student had had ample opportunity to take his revenge for all the years Snape had terrorized him, but Longbottom had been nothing but kind to his seven-year-old self.

He could feel both Potter and Hermione's worried gazes upon him as he spoke to Longbottom, and knew that he was being closely monitored. Yet another reason for not giving in to his baser instincts.

"I want to thank you for the work you did with my first and second years. I was pleasantly surprised by their level of competence," Severus softly admitted.

"Are – are you being sarcastic?" Longbottom blurted out, apparently so surprised that he forgot his manners.

"Actually, no. You did an excellent job," Severus said, wondering if he'd even be believed.

To his surprise, Longbottom's round cheeks turned pink with embarrassment. "I just followed the work book word by word and step by step."

Severus nearly said, 'Pity you couldn't have done the same while in school, ' but managed to restrain himself. Instead, he offered, "Whatever you did, it was quite effective."

"Er . . . thanks," Longbottom said.

"May I ask a question?" Severus was unable to resist asking the nervous man before him. One of his greatest joys during the last few months had been Harry and his almost daily visits to Hogwarts' greenhouses. They'd spent hours down there, chasing the butterflies and asking a thousand questions of Longbottom.

Still uncertain and obviously wanting to be anywhere else, Longbottom gave an affirmative nod.

Severus tried to find a tactful way to phrase his inquiry, but was unable to do so. There was no polite way to phrase his question, so he just asked it; his confusion was too strong to be denied. "For the past fifteen years, I have been nothing but cruel and scornful of you. Any time the opportunity presented itself, I went out of my way to ridicule you."

Longbottom's milky skin blanched so pale he seemed to have no pigment left at all. "I . . . don't understand what you're asking me."

Severus was extremely conscious of Harry and Hermione hovering beside them. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see that Hermione's mouth was opened, as if to interrupt them. It appeared to be Harry's hand on her arm that had halted her interference.

"Since December, you have had ample opportunity to avenge yourself. You could have made my life miserable, if you'd so chosen." It was only as he finished speaking that Severus realized his words were a statement and not a question at all.

Yet, judging by Longbottom's response, the gist of his inquiry had been understood. His voice dropping and his spine straightening, Longbottom squarely met his eyes and firmly answered, "No, I couldn't have."

"Why not?" Severus questioned, truly at a loss here. "I couldn't have stopped you."

Put on the spot, Longbottom glanced at Hermione, as if for help, but apparently their discussion was not what she'd expected. All she did was give Longbottom an encouraging nod.

After a moment, Longbottom said, "It isn't what a man is capable of doing that tells you his character; it's what he chooses to do."

Severus was hard pressed to keep the sneer out of his voice. "So, it was Gryffindor honour, then?"

To his surprise, Longbottom didn't flinch. Those blue eyes held his own and softly countered, "Not entirely."

"What then?" Severus asked, needing to understand. Hermione and Ron rising above their past differences with their former potions teacher, Severus could almost understand. They were both Gryffindor to the core, and Snape hadn't really treated them any more horribly than he had any other students from their house. But Longbottom . . . he'd gone out of his way to torment the hapless incompetent from day one. He wouldn't have blamed the other man for taking his revenge. But Longbottom hadn't, not once in all the time Severus had spent in the hothouses, even on those rare occasions when Harry hadn't accompanied him down.

"Well, aside from the fact that it wouldn't have been right to punish a little boy for something he hadn't done yet, it would have upset Harry had I been unkind to you," Longbottom answered.

"So you did it for Potter's sake then?" Severus questioned. He could almost accept that. He'd seen what Harry's friends would do for him over the years.

"To some extent," Longbottom responded.

That wasn't the answer he was expecting. Barely masking his irritation, Severus demanded, "Why were you kind to me, if not for Harry's sake?"

The room was too quiet around them. Severus was abruptly aware of the fact that everyone was observing them and waiting for Longbottom's reply. He also belatedly recognized that he'd set the stage for some major payback. Longbottom could disgrace him totally right now and he would have to accept it, because he'd hounded the man for the truth.

But Longbottom didn't seem to be enjoying the situation at all. His corpse pale skin pinking with embarrassment, his former student softly offered, "I wasn't mean to you because I liked you. It's as easy as that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd really rather not discuss this anymore."

With that, Longbottom collected his tea and sweets and returned to his corner of the couch.

Floored, Severus stood frozen by the dessert table, his own plate and mug in danger of dropping to the floor. Neville Longbottom liked him?

A hand came out of nowhere and took his dish and mug from him and placed the nut bread on the table. The vibrant green sleeve, fine-boned wrist, and hand told him it was Harry.

"We left a lot of stuff inside. Come help me sort it, Severus," Potter said.

Severus followed the gentle tug on his arm. The next thing he knew, he was back in the bedroom they'd shared. Harry guided him over to his old bed and sat him on its edge. Then Potter placed the tea mug into his hands.

"Drink," Harry urged as he sat down next to him, entirely too close for Severus' peace of mind.

Severus stared down into the pale tan depths for a moment and then took a sip. Tense, he waited for the inevitable lecture, but Harry didn't say a word for the longest time. As he slowly relaxed in the familiar setting, Severus sipped his tea.

"Did I tell you that I'm proud of you?" Harry said suddenly.

"For causing a spectacle at the dessert table?" Severus snorted.

"No. For having the courage to try and meet us half way. Hermione, Ron, and I pretty much expected you to wall yourself away down in the dungeon. I know none of this is easy for you," Harry said, those piercing green eyes way too close.

Everything was too close, not just those eyes. Severus could feel the other man's body heat.

"And you didn't cause a spectacle," Harry added.

"Oh?"

"No, you should hear Ron and Blaise when they get going on house rivalries if you want to see spectacles," Harry said with a laugh.

Severus ignored the change in topic, "Why did you bring me in here if I wasn't making a fool of myself?"

"You just looked like you needed a break. I know I did. It's been a long day," Harry said.

"And you find being trapped alone with me in here relaxing?" Severus gave into his sarcasm, too discomforted by Potter's proximity to care about being nice.

Harry took a deep breath and leaned against the footboard behind him. "To be honest, it's the first time I've felt normal since Saturday."

"What?" Severus searched Potter's face, trying not to get distracted by the peaches and cream complexion and compelling bone structure of the long, quirky face. Harry didn't seem to be lying.

"I've felt like I'm missing an arm or something since Saturday. When we were joking around before was the first time everything felt normal," Harry replied in a low tone. Severus sensed how uncertain the other man was of the sentiment he'd voiced. "Thank you for that, by the way. It's been one hell of a day."

Seeing how utterly drained Harry abruptly appeared, Severus questioned, "Have you been using a glamour? Those circles weren't under your eyes a moment ago."

"Damn." Harry bounced up from the bed and crossed to the mirror above their old dresser. A few muttered words and Severus saw the purple circles in Harry's reflection disappear again. He was rather touched by the fact that Harry hadn't been able to maintain his facade in his presence. The inability to maintain a glamour was normally an indication of absolute trust between wizards.

"Aren't you sleeping?" Severus asked.

Still peering intently at his reflection, Harry snorted. "I haven't slept since I was one. Well, aside from the past few months, that is." Severus wondered if Harry were aware of how much that qualification revealed. The fact that he kept right on speaking indicated he was probably completely unaware of what he'd said. "The last few nights have been rough. I thought that it'd get better once I was teaching again, but . . . ."

"We'll sort the seven years out on Wednesday," Severus offered. "You've got them again that day, don't you?"

"Yes," Harry glumly replied as he slumped back into his spot at the foot of the bed.

"We'll do a demonstration that will make them think twice about their new defence techniques. I think it would be quite entertaining were they to see those precious curls of yours go up in flames a second before your wand goes flying, don't you?" Severus suggested.

Harry grinned. "That might do the trick." Severus was puzzled to see the smile quickly die. "What are your other terms?"

"What?" Severus asked.

"Before you said that I couldn't retaliate. What other conditions are there?"

The glamour might be up again, but Severus could still see how tired Harry's eyes were. He made his decision quickly. "I was joking before about the no-retaliation clause. You may defend yourself as you see fit. The only condition I must insist upon is a small one."

To his satisfaction, suspicion entered Harry's expression. If nothing else, the years had made Harry less blindly trusting. "What condition is that?"

"That you allow me to give you a sleeping draught, which you will solemnly swear to take on any night you experience difficulty sleeping."

"I don't like sleeping potions," Harry protested. "They make me groggy and cranky the next day."

"The one I give you will not. You have my word on that," Severus promised.

"You've taken it yourself, then?" Harry asked.

"You don't think I could have lasted as Albus' spy for as long as I did without some sleeping aid, do you?" Severus questioned. "There were whole stretches of years that I needed something nearly every night. This potion will not stupefy you, nor is it addictive."

"I notice you make no claims about crankiness," Harry pointed out. "Is that your way of warning me that I'll have the same sweet disposition as you if I take it?"

At first he thought Potter was insulting him, but then he saw the light in those mischievous eyes and the too serious tone registered. Harry was joking. He felt his lips twitch and it was all he could do not to laugh out loud.

"Why do you do that?" Harry asked.

"Do what?" Severus questioned, taking another sip of his tea.

"Stop yourself from laughing. You do it all the time. Sometimes I can tell that something someone said really strikes you as funny, and the laughter is there in your eyes, but you never let it out," Harry noted.

Something squeezed his insides at the innocent question. This was how the contention always started in the few friendships he'd attempted. The Why do you? inevitably became Why can't you? , and the pressure to make him change would begin.

"Does it bother you?" Severus asked tightly, cursing himself as an idiot after the words were out. Of course, it bothered Potter. Why else would he have mentioned it?

Harry's left foot reached out to poke him in the calf, the way Harry would have done last week if he'd said something stupid while they were reading on the same bed. "Don't be a moron. It doesn't bother me. I was just . . . curious, that's all. I mean, you've got a great sense of humour. It just seems strange that you won't let yourself laugh, that's all."

Severus' searching glance could find no traces of subterfuge. "The one thing I have never been accused of is having a sense of humour. Humourless bastard is, I believe, one of my more common appellations."

Harry laughed in his face at that. "Whose fault is that? Maybe they do call you a humourless bastard, but the fact of the matter is that you are usually at your funniest when you're ruthlessly insulting people. Most people just can't appreciate it at the time."

"And do you appreciate it?" Severus questioned, unable to credit how important Harry's answer was to him.

"I don't like when you're truly vicious, but I've always liked that you say what you think," Harry replied before returning to his former topic. "So why don't you laugh?"

"It was a habit I developed when young. It's hard to break." Harry didn't say anything, but Severus could almost feel the other man's curiosity. He flinched as a hand settled on his arm.

"Your grandparents," Harry said. It wasn't a question.

His mouth dry despite all the tea, Severus nodded, staring down into the nearly empty cup. Harry wasn't pressuring him for any information, but something in Severus felt compelled to offer the truth, all the same. "Laughter was the surest way to draw attention to myself."

Harry gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "I know what you mean. The Dursleys always seemed to go out of their way to kill any laughter, not that there was much cause for it back then. But all that's changed. They can't hurt us anymore. We can't let their cruelty poison our lives."

Such courage. Severus bit his lower lip. He didn't know if he had it in him to match Potter's bravery, but he could at least match him in honesty. After a long pause, he admitted, "I was poisoned before I could walk, but . . . It's not just my grandparents. Laughter gives too much away. It gives others too much control over you."

"How so?" Harry questioned, sounding intrigued, rather than put off.

"It can be taken away so easily," Severus said in a low voice.

"It?" Harry asked.

"Your joy," Severus answered.

Harry was silent for a moment, and then he softly asked, "Do you think that anyone in that room out there would purposefully hurt you if you were to laugh with them?"

Put that way, it did sound absurd. But absurd or not, that was his reality. Feeling cornered, Severus quietly reminded. "I have spent forty-eight years building walls, Harry. I don't know that I can stand without them."

Harry once again surmounted one of his tallest barriers, that of touch. Reaching out, Potter hooked his chin and raised his face until their gazes met, acting as though touching him were no big deal. Severus couldn't help but compare Harry's attitude to the reactions he normally received. Most times when he had accidental physical contact with someone, the person would grimace and pull quickly away, as if they'd touched something slimy and repulsive. But Harry didn't respond that way. If anything, Harry's face was softer than normal, his touch sure and comfortable as he said, "If you can't stand, I'll hold you up. That's what friends do."

Severus gulped. Harry's words sounded like a solemn vow.

Those eyes were utterly bewitching. Severus stared into the green depths, stunned by the emotion reflected in them. They terrified him as deeply as they drew him.

And those burning hot fingers were still gripping his chin.

In a semi-daze, he realized that Harry's head was positioned perfectly for a kiss. All he need do was lean down and cover those enticing lips with his own . . . that's all he'd have to do . . . to lose Harry's trust forever.

Getting a hold of himself, Severus concentrated on the topic at hand. "I don't have much experience with friendship."

"That will change," Harry said.


 

 

 
 

 

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