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Harry wasn't sure how long he was out. When he opened his eyes, he was in an unfamiliar room. The bed he was in had no canopy, so it wasn't Severus' or his own room.

The first thing he saw was Ron's familiar profile. His old friend was sound asleep in a chair beside his bed. Ron was fully dressed now in his familiar brown robes.

"Hey," Harry gently called.

Ron started awake. "Oh, you're awake. How are you?"

"Where am I seems more the question," Harry said.

As he looked past Ron, he was able to answer his own question. Severus was in a similar bed across from his, with a sleeping Hermione sitting in a chair beside him.

The fact that Severus wasn't floating midair and was dressed in an infirmary nightshirt reassured him that at least some of his lover's wounds had been healed. Even from here, he could see that the skin on Severus' face was no longer covered with cuts. The area around his eyes was still discoloured a bit, but most of the swelling appeared to have gone down, and his nose was its usual long, straight ski slope, instead of the smashed mess it had been last night.

Harry had to hand it to her; Madam Pomfrey was damn good at what she did.

"You're in a private room in the infirmary," Ron answered.

Now that he was looking around, Harry could see a familiar painting on the wall of a girl flying a kite. He and Severus were in the same room Carl had occupied last October. From the quality of the sunlight slanting through the nearby windows, he thought it must be late afternoon.

"What time is it?" Harry asked, sitting up.

"Just gone three," Ron answered.

"Oh, you're awake!" Hermione said from the chair near Severus, waking up herself. "How do you feel?"

Harry pulled himself from the bed and crossed to Severus. "That doesn't matter. How is he?"

"As you can see, Poppy healed most of the open wounds and abrasions," Hermione said. "She was able to repair his broken nose and reset his shoulder and hip joints, plus she did a ton of internal organ healings. He's out of danger now."

Harry breathed a deep, relieved sigh. It was a small thing, but he was glad to see that they'd cleaned Severus up. Even his hair seemed to have been washed.

"He looks much better," Harry said. He was standing on Severus' left side, so the stump where his right hand should be wasn't noticeable.

"Harry . . . ." Hermione hesitantly started.

"Hmmm?" Harry had reached out to lay his hand in Severus' hair. He still wasn't able to believe that they'd gotten him back alive.

"Severus' right hand and his tongue . . . they're – they're gone," Hermione said. "This morning I borrowed your Invisibility cloak and went to that Muggle castle Burke was hiding in to search for them. They're nowhere to be found."

"I couldn't find them either, even with a powerful summoning charm," Harry said. "I think the bastard vanished them."

"That's not good," Hermione said.

"I know," Harry said. "I'll go back later and try again, but I think they're gone for good."

"There were Aurors all over the place," Hermione warned.

"I thought there would be. Once I blew Burke's wards, there wouldn't be anything to stop them from finding his remains." Harry had known once he'd destroyed Burke's security wards that the Ministry would be on the place right away. He'd also been fairly certain no one would find the missing . . . items. He supposed that he shouldn't be surprised that Hermione had gone to look for Severus' missing body parts. She'd always had the courage of a lion. "Thank you for looking, though."

Normally, lost limbs and body parts would have been a tragedy to the afflicted wizard. Broken bones could be healed or re-grown. Damaged organs repaired. But when a limb was amputated or a tongue or eye removed, and the body part remained lost, there was nothing that could be done magically. That was why old Mad Eye Moody had had to use a prosthetic on his missing leg and that weird, mechanical eye. As far as Harry knew, the Wizarding World had yet to invent a substitute for a missing tongue. If he couldn't use his powers to help Severus, his lover was in for a long, hard time of it.

Even if he could use his powers, Harry knew this wasn't going to be as easy as what he'd done for Ron. Ron's body had been intact. He'd just needed to give Ron sufficient power to repair the hideous damage done to him. If he were able to do this, and he knew this was a definite if, he was going to have to re-grow the hand and tongue from scratch. Like re-growing bones, that was going to be an extremely painful process.

Staring down at Severus' unconscious face, Harry said, "I'm going to try to use my powers to heal them."

"To re-grow missing body parts?" Ron asked in the tone a Muggle would use to question someone who'd just announced his intention to fly without mechanical assistance.

"I thought you'd say that," Hermione said from beside Harry, sounding pleased. "If anyone can do it, you can."

"I hope so. Can I ask you to sit with him for a while? I want to go down to the dungeon and brew up a batch of that Sanguinis Philos potion. It made the connection easier." Looking down at Severus' unconscious face, Harry said, "I know he probably won't wake for some time, but if he does, I don't want him to be alone."

"Of course, I'll stay with him," Hermione answered.

"You're going to brew a potion?" Ron asked in that same incredulous tone.

"I've actually become quite good at it," Harry said, not quite bragging. "Come down and watch if you like."

Recalling what he needed, Harry manifested a pair of scissors out of the air with a thought and then snipped off a small hank of Severus' hair. After all his lover had suffered, Harry felt guilty about taking even that small liberty, but it was the only way to help Severus. Once he had the hair, Ron and he left for the Potions lab.

They were on the moving staircase that was slowly shifting them from the east side of the stairwell to the west when Harry remembered Burke's wand. As he was still wearing yesterday's clothes and robe, when he looked in his pocket, the yew wand was still there. For that matter, Severus and his own were in his other pocket. It was a miracle he hadn't broken any of them when he collapsed last night.

"Um, you'd better give this to your boss," Harry said, handing Burke's wand over to Ron. "It's Burke's."

"Oh, that's where it got to. Thanks, Harry. Chief Lawrence thought it had burned up with Burke," Ron said, taking the wand.

The image of those blue flames consuming Burke's living flesh flashed through Harry's mind. Realizing that the Ministry must have questions concerning Burke's grisly demise, he asked, "Does Lawrence want to talk to me?"

"He wanted to last night," Ron said. "I explained that Severus was mortally injured and that you can't be spared at the moment. I answered most of his questions. Told him that you'd told me what happened before you passed out last night. Mostly, he wanted to know what spell you used to kill Burke."

"It wasn't a spell." Harry felt his stomach tighten as he told Ron in a voice so low that even the portraits wouldn't overhear him, "I used mage fire."

"Yeah, I reckoned that was what you did," Ron said, seeming both unsurprised and unperturbed by the knowledge that his best friend had killed a man using a power that hadn't been seen in over three hundred years.

"What did Lawrence say when you told him?" Harry asked, wondering if there would be anywhere in the world he could hide once his true nature became common knowledge.

"When I told him what?" Ron asked as they stepped off the staircase.

Barely able to hold back a snap, Harry took a deep breath and whispered, "That I used mage fire to kill Burke."

Ron stared at him as if he'd taken leave of his senses, which was a very real possibility after the stress of the last three days.

"I didn't tell him that. Do you think I want to get you killed?" Ron asked.

"You didn't tell him?" Harry repeated.

Ron appeared almost offended. "Of course not. I'm not stupid. I know how paranoid the Ministry is about the rise of Dark Lords. They find out you can do something like that, and you'd never have another moment's peace."

"What did you tell him, then?" Harry asked, utterly confused.

"I told him that you were in a duel fighting for your life and that you weren't sure what happened. I suggested that your shields must have deflected that Corpus Accendio spell Burke used on me and my team last week and that it must have bounced back and took out Burke before he could block it," Ron said.

"You -" Harry didn't know what to say. That wasn't what had happened, but it was a perfectly logical explanation for the state of Burke's corpse. Normally, Ron was a pathetic liar. He was shocked that Ron had come up with the idea. It was a very Slytherin explanation. "Lawrence believed you?"

Looking a little self-conscious, Ron said, "I know I'm not that good at lying, but I can when I have to. I, er, reminded him how powerful your shields have always been, how you deflected Avada Kedavra when you were just a baby. If the Chief questions you, you just tell him that you're not sure what Burke threw at you in the duel, but you just bounced it back at him. I don't know if he'll even bother with you at this point. They're all just relieved the bastard's dead."

Harry paused at the top of the last stairs to the dungeon. He felt totally adrift, grateful on the one hand for what Ron had done, but worried. Lying to the Ministry and the Aurors could put him in Azkaban. "I . . . if the truth comes out, you could lose your job over this."

"Better I lose my job than I lose you," Ron said. "You know the kind of circus this will turn into if the media gets wind of what you can do."

"I know, it's just . . . I don't want you to get into trouble because of me," Harry said, warmed by Ron's words despite his overwhelming guilt. With everything that had happened in the last three days, he knew he couldn't handle getting Ron fired right now.

"Look, if the Ministry goes after you for how you put down that monster, I don't want the damn job."

Harry knew Ron meant the words, but that didn't make him feel any better about what could happen to Ron. "Ron -"

"Harry, that fucker killed my entire team. I don't care what you did to put him out of action, and, frankly, it's none of the Ministry's damn business. You did the job we couldn't do. No one's going to persecute you for how you did it, not while I'm around. Whatever happens, the decision was mine and it was the right one to make," Ron insisted.

"I just hate the idea of your having to lie for me," Harry said, reaching out to squeeze Ron's arm.

"If they weren't such paranoid cowards, there wouldn't have been a need for lies. We both know what, well, who we're dealing with here, so there's no sense agonizing over it. Whatever happens, will happen. There's no point in worrying about it until it does," Ron said.

"You know you're the best best friend ever, right?" Harry asked, aware how lucky he was to have this special man in his life.

"Funny, I was just thinking the same thing myself," Ron said with a grin as they stepped off the stairs and turned down the Slytherin corridor. "Come on. Show me this Potions expertise you've acquired from Severus."

At Ron's mention of the Potions lab, Harry froze in his tracks.

"What?" Ron asked, pulling his wand from the pocket of his brown house robes and staring around the corridor as though they'd just been ambushed.

"Sorry. I just realized it's a school day. I'm supposed to be teaching right now," Harry said, running a hand through his messy hair, at a loss as to what to do. As much as teaching meant to him, there was no way he could leave Severus right now.

"It's okay. Minerva cancelled all classes at breakfast in the Great Hall this morning. She gave the kids the day off so that Hermione and I could wait for you to wake up. And, you don't have to worry about teaching tomorrow or anytime before Severus is up and around," Ron added.

"Huh?" Harry asked, murmuring the ward to Severus' private Potions lab once they'd stopped before its door. "How's that?"

"Minerva is arranging coverage for both Severus and your classes," Ron said.

"Coverage? Who's she got to cover our classes?" Harry wondered.

"Well, since I'm officially off duty from the Aurors for the next two months to recuperate from Burke's attack, I'm going to take the DADA classes. Hermione's got a free third period, so she's going to take that Potions class, Neville's taking first period Potions, Gavin took fifth period, Flitwick's covering second, and Minerva is going to cover the other three classes. So you don't have to worry about anything other than helping Severus get better," Ron said, patting his shoulder.

"God, Ron, that's putting a lot of work on you. You're supposed to be resting," Harry reminded.

Ron shrugged. "So long as I don't have to expend any power on spells, I can rest just as easy in the DADA classroom as in our quarters. Honestly, Harry, I'm grateful for the distraction. It takes my mind off . . . you know."

Harry nodded. He knew Ron was still having nightmares about the attack that had taken the lives of the rest of his squad. "Thanks. Like I said, the best best friend ever."

Ron blushed, his blue eyes moving to take in Severus' lab as they entered the room. There was a strange keening sound emerging from the work area that wasn't normally there.

"What's that noise?" Ron asked, staring around the dark lab as though one of Aragog's children might pop down from the ceiling to catch him in a web.

With only the fires under the cauldrons lighting the place, the lab had a frightening dungeon aspect to it that Harry had become inured to during the months he'd been with Severus. But he knew how menacing this place would appear to Ron.

Harry looked over at the keening cauldron. "It's an experiment Severus is working on. Don't worry about the noise."

"It's weird, is all. Gives me the shivers," Ron confessed.

"Me, too, but it's perfectly harmless," Harry assured, lighting the wall torches with a thought. The light made the wailing less eerie.

'This is his private lab?" Ron asked, eyeing the six counters, three of which had cauldrons actively brewing on them at the moment.

"Yeah," Harry said, going over to the shelf on the far wall where Severus had left the ingredients they'd used to make the batch of Sanguinis Philos that had saved Ron's life last week.

"It's pretty impressive," Ron said.

Harry was so used to the place now that he barely saw it anymore. "It is, isn't it?" he murmured as he collected the ingredients he'd need.

"Merlin's beard, that noise is awful. What's it doing?" Ron asked, gesturing towards the keening cauldron that was filled with a churning orange gelatinous mass. It was the orange goo that was emitting the crying sound that was eerily similar to that of a newborn.

"That one is pure experimentation," Harry said, unable to stop the smile that spilled over his face when he remembered Severus telling him about it. "It will either increase fertility or transform into an artificial child when it's done."

"What? What do you mean 'an artificial child?" Ron sounded understandably horrified.

Harry chuckled. "Severus wasn't expecting the sound effects. I think it freaked him out a bit. He was probably joking about the artificial child."

"Probably?"

"Well, you know Severus. Can you ever tell when he's being completely serious when he uses that tone of voice?" Harry asked. His guts clenched as he realized that if he wasn't successful in this healing venture that he would never hear that tone of voice again.

Unsurprisingly, considering how long he'd known him, Ron caught his reaction. "Are you all right?"

Harry shrugged. "I've been trying to stay positive, but every time I think about what that bastard did to Severus, I just . . . ."

"Yeah, I know. But if anyone can heal him, it's you," Ron said. "Look what you did for me."

"I can't undo the torture he suffered," Harry said, trying hard not to dwell on the physical and sexual abuse Severus had endured in those two days Burke had had him.

"We'll get him through it," Ron said, patting his back.

"We'll?" Harry questioned.

"Yeah, we'll. I wouldn't be here if he hadn't given you the idea that you could heal me," Ron said. "Come on; let's brew up some illegal blood magic."

"Will you help me get this cauldron going?" Harry asked, turning to hide his stinging eyes.

A little over an hour later, the potion was brewed and the cauldrons Harry had used were cleaned and put away.

As Harry turned to leave, Ron asked, "Are you going to leave those cauldrons burning like that? Won't they explode?"

"No. They're safe. That's Severus' long-term project table. Sometimes he leaves things burning for weeks over there."

They left the potion lab with its strangely keening experiment behind and returned to Severus' infirmary room, the Sanguinis Philos a warm presence in Harry's left pocket.

Now attired in her normal white robes and wimple, Madam Pomfrey was just finishing checking Severus' vital signs when Ron and he arrived. Hermione had pulled back from her bedside chair to give the mediwitch room to work.

Poppy eyed the blood red liquid in the large, wine-bottle sized container and asked, "Sanguinis Philos?"

"Yes," Harry answered, hoping he wasn't about to hear a diatribe on blood magic.

After a moment, Poppy said, "You're the strongest wizard I've seen, Harry. If anyone can help him, it's you."

"Thanks, Poppy," Harry answered, warmed by her words.

Poppy gave his arm a squeeze as she was leaving the room. She still seemed subdued. Clearly, she was still upset by the extent and nature of Severus' injuries.

Harry couldn't blame her. He couldn't let himself think about what had been done to Severus without going a little crazy, and right now, he couldn't afford that luxury.

Stopping beside the bed, Harry extracted a small vial that he'd put in his pocket while in the lab. He carefully filled it with the Sanguinis Philos potion. He put the larger bottle on the bedside table and then reached down with his empty left hand to lift Severus up from the pillow. Holding the tiny, vial between his ring and pinkie fingers and palm, he reached out with his index finger and gently nudged Severus' mouth open.

After yesterday, he'd thought he was prepared for the sight, but when he saw the raw flesh where Severus' tongue should have been he nearly lost it. Steeling himself, he opened the vial and tilted it to Severus' open mouth. Once the potion was in, he dropped the vial and quickly moved to massage Severus' throat to make sure the liquid was swallowed.

Thankfully, Severus didn't choke.

Harry sat back to wait a moment for the potion to make its way into Severus' system. When sufficient time had passed, he reached out to collect Severus' nearby left hand. The bridge for his magic formed with surprising ease. Well, perhaps not so surprising, considering that he linked his power to Severus' system nearly every night.

He reached out magically, letting his energy flow through the familiar neural paths. The damage that was still there was . . . daunting. He could feel Poppy's spells and potions working on repairing the hurt places. Because he could, Harry fed his power into Poppy's spells, enhancing them. Then he moved along, to the maimed areas no mediwitch could repair.

Although he had no experience with these things, he thought the tongue might be the easier job. So, he tackled that first, feeding energy to the gaping wound that was all that was left of Severus' tongue. Within moments, he sensed a layer of new flesh blanketing that hideous wound. Right now, all he wanted to do was close the opening, which, fortunately, happened quickly.

The hand was another matter entirely. Beyond the complexity of all the bones, vascular channels, muscles, and neural paths of the hand, he was going to have to get rid of the dead tissue at the end of the cauterised stump before he could grow new flesh.

Harry concentrated on blasting away that burnt tissue. Working fast, he tapped into those frightening power reservoirs he had and encouraged the cells to reproduce healthy tissue to seal the area where Severus' hand had been amputated. The burned flesh was reluctant to grow new tissue, but he pitted his will against the recalcitrant cells and soon the resistance crumbled.

He did what he could to seal both sites. As he finished up on the hand, he could feel his power waning under the intense drain. He made a frantic search of the stump and tongue sites. He couldn't find any holes or dangerous openings in veins. Only then, did he allow his exhaustion to claim him.

Harry was hardly aware of breaking the connection with Severus.

His knees gave out from under him, and he swayed forward. From a muffled distance, he could hear Hermione calling his name.

*~*~*

Harry repeated that process every day for the next week. The only change he made was to make sure he was sitting down when he linked with Severus. That way, when he blacked out from exhaustion afterwards, it was far less dramatic.

Mercifully, Poppy's potions kept Severus unconscious during the entire week. Severus' other injuries were entirely healed by that point. It was only the missing hand and tongue that declared the savage torture he'd so recently suffered.

Harry was sitting beside Severus' bed, finishing up the lunch tray that Dobby had brought him, when Severus opened his eyes a week later. Harry didn't even notice the change at first. His entire universe was focused on the healings he gave Severus every afternoon. Due to the resulting exhaustion, he spent his evenings and nights unconscious on the bed on the far side of the room. His mornings passed in a numb parade of checking the new growth and helping Poppy with the daily routine of seeing to an unconscious patient's physical needs.

It had gotten so that Harry could tube feed Severus as competently as Poppy. Fortunately, the rest of Severus' care could be handled magically, so they didn't have to worry about actually changing diapers or disposing of catheter bags.

Ravenously hungry from yesterday's healing, Harry scooped up the last of his mashed potatoes, wondering if he could possibly convince Dobby to bring him a third helping. He was placing his fork on the tray on the bedside table when a stray glance Severus' way fixed his gaze on those beloved black eyes.

Harry dropped the fork and took hold of Severus' nearby left hand. "Severus."

Understandably enough, Severus' face filled with confusion.

Harry was glad to see it. Confusion meant Severus was thinking, or attempting to think. There had been a very real possibility that his lover would wake up insane after all he'd suffered.

Severus opened his mouth to reply. A harsh, incomprehensible grating sound filled the air instead of his beautiful, rich voice.

Harry could tell the exact moment Severus' memories kicked in by the change in expression on his face. One moment, Severus was charmingly befogged; the next, bleak despair filled his eyes.

"You're all right," Harry insisted, squeezing the hand he held. "You're safe at Hogwarts. Most of your injuries have already healed, and I'm working on repairing your hand and tongue. You're going to be whole again, Severus. I promise."

Harry couldn't interpret the emotion in Severus gaze.

Severus' mouth opened again. He lifted his right arm up towards his face. It froze halfway there and Severus simply stared down at the stump with its layer of new growth. Harry had the clear impression that Severus had forgotten his hand was missing. After a second, Severus' left hand slipped out of Harry's grasp and rose to his mouth, his index finger dipping in to feel around. He seemed to be exploring the scope of his injuries.

Harry was intimately aware of what he'd find, from the inside out, as well as visually. He'd spent the last week patiently coaxing the quarter inch of flesh there into existence. The same could be said for Severus' right hand, which now had a tiny quarter inch bud of new flesh flowering at the end. It mightn't be much to show for the amount of power he'd fed into Severus' system, but since the growth was impossible at all, Harry wasn't complaining. He was convinced that the hand and tongue would grow back in time. That was all that was important.

Severus' finger slowly left his mouth. Harry saw him draw a deep, shuddery sounding breath before he squeezed his eyes closed and turned on his side to face the wall.

He couldn't imagine what Severus was going through. What would anyone be feeling after having been raped, tortured, and mutilated? Severus Snape was one of the strongest men he knew, but that kind of nightmare was enough to break any man.

The worst part was that Harry didn't know how to comfort him. What could he say or do that would take away what that bastard Burke had done to him? At a complete loss, Harry laid his hand on Severus' shoulder.

Severus gave what Harry suspected was an instinctive flinch at the contact. He'd been hurt so badly; it was hardly surprising.

Harry's automatic response was to pull his hand back, but he stopped himself at the last moment and left his hand on that bony, blanket-covered shoulder. Giving the shoulder a light squeeze, he softly said, "It's just me. Do you . . . do you want me to remove my hand? Is it making you uncomfortable?"

Harry wasn't even aware that he was holding his breath until it whooshed out in a relieved gush when the dark head on the nearby pillow gave a negative shake.

Abandoning his chair, he perched on the bed beside Severus' hips. "Are you in pain?"

Poppy had Severus on some major painkilling potions, but there had been no way to tell if they were strong enough while Severus remained unconscious.

Another negative looking shake of Severus' head followed his question.

Harry knew his lover had to be in some pain. Those potions couldn't keep the kind of discomfort rebuilding Severus' tongue and hand engendered completely at bay, but clearly it was of a manageable level. Harry was doing his best to buffer the discomfort magically, but his principal focus had to be the healings, so he wasn't certain what level of pain Severus might be facing.

But Severus said he wasn't in extreme pain and he didn't mind his touch. Harry tried again, "Can you look at me so I can see your eyes?"

Severus seemed to be hugging the truncated stump that was all that was left of his right hand to his chest as he lay there on his side facing the wall.

There was no telling what Severus was feeling. Just thinking about how he'd be if their positions were reversed filled Harry with a cold dread.

Perplexed, he watched Severus give yet another negative shake of his head to his request to look at him.

He hadn't anticipated that refusal. All he really wanted to do was take Severus into his arms and hold him until the hurting passed. Wondering if Severus had a similar need, he softly said, "I know you're hurting. I was so damn scared that I'd lost you; I still can't believe you're really here. Can I . . . can I hold you? You can say no," Realizing that Severus couldn't, in fact, say 'no', he quickly rephrased, "I mean, you can refuse if you'd rather not. I'd like to just lie down beside you and put my arms around you for a little while. Is that all right?"

Braced for another negative head shake, it took Harry almost a minute to realize that he'd received a visibly hesitant nod of agreement.

Harry quickly toed off his trainers. Moving as if Severus were delicate as fine porcelain, he eased onto the bed. Realizing that he wasn't going to be able to hold Severus while sitting outside the blankets wrapped around his lover, he shifted in the bed until he could slip beneath them.

He settled down on the bed behind Severus. Spooning himself to Severus' back, he carefully eased his left arm under him and snuggled in close.

After the last week and a half of non-stop worry and fear, feeling the living, breathing warmth that was Severus in his arms felt like sheer nirvana to Harry. He inhaled deeply, taking in as much of Severus' familiar scent as he could as he lay there hugging him.

He tensed as Severus moved in his arms. At first he worried that Severus might by trying to move away from him, but then he realized how totally wrong his fear was. His throat tightened in a choking knot as he felt Severus' left hand and the stump of his right hand clutch Harry's own hands tight to Severus' chest.

With Severus' tongue gone, he couldn't even determine if his pain were emotional or physical. He suspected it was probably both. He knew from personal experience that those pain reduction potions were only so effective.

As for the emotional damage, what man could have endured what Severus had gone through and emerge unscathed? Harry knew they were damn lucky Severus was still sane. He was awed by his lover's fortitude. He didn't know if he could have survived what Severus had been through with his mind intact. But the admiration he felt didn't tell him how to help the man.

Harry hadn't a clue as to what he should say, if anything. Somehow, it had been easier finding Severus and dealing with Burke than handling the damage the bastard had caused. He wished that he'd been able to help Severus the same way he had Ron, that his lover would have woken up whole and healed instead of . . . broken. Or better still, he wished that he could have prevented the whole thing from happening. That was what he really wanted.

No matter how hard he tried to shake the feeling, Harry couldn't help but believe that this was all his fault. He'd given his word that he'd keep Severus safe. Fat lot of good his promise had done. He wondered if Severus held him as responsible as he held himself.

Nothing in Severus' attitude suggested that Severus was harbouring any resentment towards him. He could ask, of course. Harry was tempted to do just that, but . . . the only point in bringing up the topic would be to ease his guilty conscience. That wasn't exactly fair to Severus. Right now, the only important issue was Severus' recovery. Everything else had to take a backseat.

So Harry just held on, hoping that the closeness would somehow help.

It sure went a long way in easing his own anxieties.

*~*~*

Burke had been right, Severus acknowledged. He was a weak, snivelling coward.

He knew that after what had happened, after what Harry had heard, that their . . . romantic connection was a thing of the past. Yet, he was allowing himself to go along with the pretence that nothing had changed, allowing himself to give in to his weakness and accept the comfort Harry was offering.

It was all terribly confusing. When he'd awoken, he'd expected Harry to be gone, or at the very least, for Harry's attitude towards him to have changed irreparably. Only, Harry wasn't acting as if Burke's disclosure of the unfortunate choices he'd made in his youth had changed anything. But, then, Harry was such an utter Gryffindor that it was entirely possible he'd continue to offer an incapacitated lover the comfort and support he'd been lavishing on him these last few weeks until he was healed. Never kick a man while he was down was the credo of most true Gryffindors, and Severus had to admit that he'd never felt as down as he was at the present moment.

Burke had crippled him more than physically. He couldn't speak to utter a spell. His wand hand was gone. And, for all that he was a powerful wizard in his own right, he'd never been capable of the instantaneous magic that Harry and Voldemort accomplished so easily. He'd tried holding his wand in his left hand to cast spells, but magic flowed in very much the same way that rivers did. It was difficult to impossible to induce the energy to reverse its course once direction had been decided. The power wanted to flow through his right hand to his wand, and no matter how hard Severus concentrated, he couldn't reroute the energy to his left hand. He hadn't been able to manage so much as a simple levitation or summoning spell. He couldn't perform a cleansing charm or the simplest transfigurations that he'd been capable of since first year. For all intents and purposes, his magic had been ripped from him. He wasn't any better off than a Squib at the present moment.

The most frustrating ordeal of all was his missing tongue. Not being able to speak was a trial like none he'd suffered in his often miserable life. He couldn't tell Poppy to decrease the dosage of the pain killer she was administering. He'd rather suffer the pain than a dulled mind. He couldn't respond to conversation with anything but a nod or headshake. He couldn't tell people to go away and leave him the hell alone. He'd tried writing his thoughts with his left hand, but the resulting scribble was incomprehensible even to himself. Hermione Weasley had brought that portable computer device to help, but it took him so long to pick out the letters that he rarely employed it. The end result was that he couldn't communicate on anything but the most primitive of levels. The mental isolation was driving him slowly insane, not that that was a very far trip these days.

In the silence of his own mind, all he could do was relive those horrible two days Burke had held him captive. He'd faced torture in his past – there wasn't a single follower of Lord Voldemort who hadn't felt his master's displeasure – and yet, the worst that Voldemort had done to him had been nothing compared to what Burke had inflicted upon him. That Muggle rack was unlike anything he'd ever encountered, excruciating beyond words. As for the more inventive of Burke's entertainments . . . Severus could barely bear to remember the rest of it.

Of course, the ache in the stump at the end of his right arm and the empty place where his tongue had been were constant reminders. And those hadn't even been the worst of it. The rapes had been . . . he couldn't even find an adjective that would describe those brutal, dry violations. He knew on a mental level that those sexual assaults had been just another form of torture, no different than the whip that had violated his flesh, but . . . the whip hadn't left him feeling dirty. He could have returned to Potter's bed after all the rest.

Hell, he might even have been able to carry on after the sexual molestation, but what Burke had done in his mind was with him constantly. That bastard had laid bare everything he felt for Harry, held his pathetic hopes up to the light and made him see how utterly impossible they were. He'd known from the start that Harry was too good for the likes of him, but he'd thought that perhaps just this once . . . well, Burke had made sure that those hopes would die as all his hopes always had.

Burke had told Harry what he'd done with Malfoy in school.

He couldn't bear the thought of Harry knowing about that sordid business. His entire life before Harry, sex had been in the same category as what Malfoy had done to him. He'd been there to be used for others' pleasures. That he'd learned to enjoy being used that way was fortunate for his sake, but it didn't change what he'd been. His whole life, he'd known that he wasn't . . . worthy of the type of caring relationships most wizards enjoyed. He'd been ugly and dislikeable from birth. He was such a disappointment that his parents hadn't even been able to love him. Harry was the only lover who had ever treated him with respect and kindness, who had ever . . . cared.

And now Harry knew the truth.

Severus realized that things would change between them now – how could they not? Harry was carrying on as though he hadn't heard Burke's words or as if they hadn't mattered to him, but how could it not matter to Harry that the man he was sleeping with had been little more than a whore? Gryffindors embodied the spirit of honour, and what he had been was so far from honourable that he knew Harry had to hold him in contempt now.

Doubtless, Harry was waiting until he was healed and back on his feet to break it off with him.

And healed, he would be. Every day the flesh in his mouth and at the end of his right arm grew exponentially as this mighty wizard forced the laws of magic and nature to conform to his will. If it had been anyone other than Harry, the unnatural healings would have been terrifying, because if Harry could change those previously immutable laws of nature, then what couldn't he change?

Even with it being Harry exerting these unheard of levels of power, there was still something frightening about how easily Harry was accomplishing what should have been downright impossible tasks. Of course, Severus had witnessed Harry do things that had forever shattered the illusion that Harry Potter was simply a carefree, innocent young wizard like other young men his age.

Severus knew on a visceral level what most people forgot, that this man had bested a dark wizard while in diapers and killed another at age eleven. Harry Potter was no more simple, innocent, or normal than he himself had ever been. Harry just hid his aberrations better.

Severus had the vivid, chilling memory of the blue mage fire flaring from Harry's fingers in that god-awful dungeon. It had passed harmlessly over Severus where he himself lay chained to the rack, but hit Burke like the wrath of the gods. Perhaps even more disturbing than that dramatic, thaumaturgical tour-de-force was the expression on Harry's normally gentle face as he'd watched Burke burn to death. There had been absolutely no hint of remorse, which had surprised Severus on some level. He knew the sadistic bastard had had it coming in spades, but that Harry could consciously inflict that kind of damage without regret was more than a little unnerving.

He knew if he had a whit of sense, he'd be scared to death of Harry, but he knew him too well to fear him, at least magically. Emotionally, he'd never felt as frightened of anyone as he was of this handsome man who sat by his bed all day, every day.

That last was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, Severus acknowledged. Harry did leave him briefly to change and shower every morning, and check in with Ron Weasley, who was standing in for Harry as the DADA teacher while on his extended leave from the Aurors. But most of the day, Harry was at his side.

Severus knew he should be similarly concerned about who was teaching his classes, but at the moment, he couldn't spare the energy. He was hurting, physically weak, confused, and increasingly depressed as he acknowledged the course he was going to have to take once he was better. In a way, he was grateful that he wasn't capable of speech, for it had postponed the inevitable, but Severus knew that the only way he was going to be able to save face at all in this situation was to break it off with Harry, before Harry could dump him.

"Ah, you're awake," the subject of Severus' thoughts said as he entered his infirmary room. Harry was looking particularly attractive today in his light blue jumper. It was a sharp contrast against his black teacher's robes and black trousers. "Hermione sent down another stack of books for you to read. She and Ron will be in to see you later."

Harry rested the impressive pile on the nightstand where a similar pile was standing. Severus hadn't touched any of the books himself, but Harry and the Weasleys seemed to enjoy reading to him.

He didn't understand the Weasleys' continued presence in his sickroom. Snatches of conversation that he'd overheard when they'd thought him asleep had told him that they'd been here the night Harry rescued him from Burke. They had to know what Burke had done to him. For that matter, it was entirely possible that Harry might have told them what Burke had disclosed about his past. He knew Harry had no secrets from his oldest friends, and, yet, every day, both Hermione and Ronald Weasley stopped in to sit with him. Sometimes they took turns with Harry reading to him, but most times they just shared school gossip.

It made no sense at all to Severus. They should be gone, and urging Harry to separate himself from him as quickly as possible, and, yet, the Weasleys returned here every day, smiling and filling the room with an insufferable cheer that Severus would have cursed them for were he able to access his magic.

Or perhaps not. It shamed him to admit it, but in his current condition, he was horribly susceptible to their kindness. He didn't understand their reason for continuing to associate with him. It was more than simply for Harry's sake, because they often came to visit when Harry was unconscious after healings and fussed over him as much as Potter did. Whatever the Weasleys' motivation, he was grateful for their presence, for it fostered a sense of normality that he was clinging to quite desperately at the moment.

"Dobby snuck some of that blancmange that you like so much out from the kitchens," Harry said, withdrawing a charmed bowl of the golden sweet and a spoon from one of the voluminous pockets of his robes and coming to sit beside his hips on the bed. Severus couldn't help but wonder if the house elf had really done so or if Harry had simply manifested the pudding to please him. "Would you like some?"

Severus looked away, as he always did, whenever food was on offer. He was trying hard not to be melodramatic, for he wasn't the first wizard in the history of the world to endure either torture or rape, but he really couldn't help but wish that he hadn't been alive when Harry had found Burke's hiding place. It would be easier for all concerned if he'd simply died there.

He heard Harry's stifled sigh. He managed not to flinch this time when Harry's free hand cupped his cheek and guided his face back.

"Have some, please? For me?" Harry pleaded.

As he did every time Harry voiced that particular request, Severus succumbed. He knew it was weak. He knew he should be denying all this fussing and walling himself off, but he nonetheless opened his mouth when Harry held a spoonful of the blancmange to his lips.

They both knew he could have eaten it himself with his left hand, but Harry seemed to like doing these small things for him.

"I don't know what you're thinking," Harry said in a gentle tone as he continued to patiently feed him the pudding. "But I can tell that it isn't good."

His thoughts were so far from 'good' that Severus couldn't hold back the snort that huffed out his nose.

"Understatement of the century, huh?" Harry asked.

The abject concern and understanding in those gentle green eyes was devastating. Severus didn't know how to deny or respond to it. All he knew was that he didn't deserve it.

"Please, don't let that son of a bitch win. You're the strongest person I know. You will get through this. Just . . . don't give up, please?" Harry whispered, looking as if he weren't sure he should speak at all.

It was almost as if Harry were reading his mind. Severus would almost have suspected him of it, but after the recent violations, he was unnaturally conscious of his mental integrity. He would have known if Harry were peeking into his thoughts. For all his power, Potter wasn't that skilled in the mental disciplines. Harry's mind touch was too blunt and open for subtlety.

No, the explanation was even more frightening than that. Harry simply knew him well enough to suspect the course his thoughts were taking. But then, again, his attempts at refusing food had hardly been subtle, either.

The hand not holding the pudding spoon reached out to stroke Severus' none too clean hair back from his forehead.

"Have you any idea how grateful I am to have you back?" Harry asked.

The energy Potter was expending for his healing and his refusal to leave his side had given Severus a pretty good idea of how shaken Harry had been by his abduction. When Harry looked into his eyes like this and touched him so tenderly, he could almost believe that the things Burke had told Harry made no difference to him.

"I know this whole thing has been an unending nightmare for you. And I know it's taking a terribly long time, but I'm working as fast as I can to heal you. Please, Severus, hold on a little longer?"

Severus squeezed his eyes shut as Harry leaned forward to place a soft kiss on the centre of his forehead. The idea of losing this was almost more than he could stand; only . . . he'd already lost it when Burke had spilled his filthy secrets. Even if Harry were somehow capable of overlooking what he'd done, Severus couldn't bear the idea of Harry knowing.

It was all just too much for him to deal with.

When Harry's arms circled him, he didn't have the strength to pull away. He needed this, maybe more than he needed the healings, maybe even more than he needed air. Shaking at the thought of what he was going to have to do, Severus let himself be weak for a little while longer.

*~*~*

"Ooooo!"

Harry rolled out of the bed at the terrified exclamation from the other side of the candlelit room. Still half-asleep and groggy from the latest healing, he stared around Severus' infirmary room.

The harsh sound that had woken him had come from Severus, who was currently thrashing around under the bedclothes as though trying to fight his way clear of restraints. That that was precisely what his lover believed himself to be doing while locked in the latest nightmare was in no way reassuring. Severus was giving him a run for his money when it came to night terrors lately.

Harry crossed to Severus' bed and perched on the side beside his lover's hips. Sweat and tears were streaming down Severus' face as he fought the tangled bedclothes. A low, hopeless moan filled the room.

Wishing he could end this suffering the way Severus had ended most of his night terrors, Harry laid a careful hand on Severus' shoulder. "Severus?"

As happened every night, the instant he touched Severus, the other man bolted awake. Wide-eyed with fear, Severus stared around the room as he flinched away from Harry's hand.

"It's just me," Harry said in a soft voice. "You're safe. It was a nightmare."

Severus blinked and croaked, "Ha-hee?"

That was the closest Severus could get to his name these days. His tongue was nowhere near regenerated enough to allow proper pronunciation.

The instant Severus heard the sounds he'd produced, his eyes squeezed shut and he clamped his mouth closed as if to hold in all other sound.

He hated how Severus wouldn't try to communicate to whatever level he could. He understood about pride, but there came a time when a person had to deal with situations the way they were. He was healing Severus as quickly as he could, but it wasn't fast enough for either of them.

"It's okay. You're okay," Harry soothed. "May I touch you?"

Severus hadn't refused him yet, but he was always careful to ask, especially when Severus was still shaking from one of those damn nightmares. Once he'd received the expected nod, he reached out to brush Severus' sweaty hair back from where it was plastered to his face. He stroked Severus' hair until some of the tension seemed to leave his lean face and then softly asked, "Can I hold you?"

He didn't always get a 'yes' to that question. Severus wasn't able to tell him, of course, but Harry suspected on the nights he received a denial that Severus was too caught up in the memories of rape. Knowing what that degenerate Burke had done to Severus, he was amazed that his lover allowed him near at all. But it almost seemed as though Severus weren't able to refuse him.

Harry released a slow, relieved breath as Severus gave another nod and shifted over in the bed to make room for him. Lifting the bedclothes, he climbed in beside Severus. He lay flat on his back.

After a momentary hesitation, Severus slid closer and settled into his arms, resting his head on his chest and carefully laying his bandage wrapped stump with its new growth on Harry's arm.

Closing his eyes, Harry breathed in Severus' comforting scent and let his hand stroke over the sweat-damp nightshirt covering that slender back. Recognizing just how soaked Severus' nightshirt was, he performed a quick drying spell on it.

Severus gave an appreciative, "Mmmm," as the no doubt clammy garment became comfortably dry again.

Harry couldn't repress a shiver at that soft sound. Gods, how he missed holding Severus every night. He was grateful that Severus trusted him enough to allow him to comfort him this way, but Harry still missed the passion that had made them combust whenever they were horizontal together. Everything was so horribly tense now. It was hard to believe that things would ever get back to normal.

Still, a few weeks ago, he hadn't believed he'd ever have Severus back alive at all. He knew how lucky he was. Telling himself that it was just going to take some time, he recommenced rubbing Severus' back. When he heard Severus' breathing change into the deep, steady rhythm of sleep over an hour later, he pressed a kiss onto the crown of Severus' head and closed his own eyes, even though he knew he wouldn't sleep again now.

He hated watching Severus suffer this way.

More than anything, he wished he could erase what had happened. If he could just have been in Diagon Alley with Severus that day, Burke never would have gotten hold of him and none of this would have happened. But it had happened, and it wasn't like he could change time . . . .

Harry's thoughts froze on the words 'change time'. While it was true that the only time turner he knew about had been destroyed, he'd experienced what going back in time felt like. He was intimately familiar with magic that pushed at reality until reality gave, allowing a wizard to affect his will upon previously unalterable conditions.

Could changing the past really be all that more difficult than healing Severus?

He had no idea how to make a time turner, but there was a part of him that knew he could recreate that magic if he tried. It wouldn't be easy, but . . . it would spare Severus this agony and that was all that mattered.

Resolved to give it a try, he rested his lips against the crown of Severus' head and tried to sleep.

*~*~*

Deciding to alter time was quite different from actually doing it; Harry was forced to admit three days later as he sat at his desk in his room contemplating his last two attempts. The power requirements were . . . exorbitant, and he still had to heal Severus afterwards.

The most frustrating part was he had no way of knowing if he'd succeeded. For the last two days, he'd pushed at the fabric of time with his considerable power. Something had seemed to give, but . . . he was sitting at his desk, in a room with no Muggle timepiece, so he had no way of determining if he'd gone back in time a minute, an hour, a day, or not at all. Since he didn't end up sitting in his own lap, he suspected that nothing had happened both times, even though he'd felt as if something had.

Today, he was going to be smarter about it. Taking a piece of blank parchment out of his top drawer, he tore it in two and left it sitting on the blotter before him. This way, if the paper were gone after his latest attempt, he'd at least know that something had happened.

Even as he started to draw on his powers, he knew how completely illegal what he was doing was. Time manipulation was strictly forbidden, for good reason. No sane person meddled with time. But . . . Harry knew he was far from sane.

Mental or not, the illegal experimentation was taking its toll on his nerves. For the last two days, he'd felt like someone was watching him when he was doing his time experimentation. If he let his concentration drift, he swore he could feel an intensely powerful wizard in the room with him. But thorough searching had turned up not so much as a house ghost. He was totally alone in his chambers. And, yet, he still had that palpable sense of being watched while power danced along his skin like heat lightning across the horizon.

Deciding it was merely a guilty conscience, he set to work.

Taking a deep breath, he concentrated on going back to a time before he tore the paper, focusing all his energy on pushing time until it gave. He threw so much power at it this morning that he wasn't sure he'd have sufficient energy left for Severus' afternoon healing.

Just as had happened the last two mornings, Harry felt that same strange sense of disassociation that he'd experienced the one time Hermione and he had used the time turner in third year.

Opening his eyes, he stared around the room. The weak light of the grey January day outside his window looked very much the same as the light had when he'd started, only . . . .

Only, when he looked at his desk, the parchment he'd just shredded was nowhere in sight – which meant he'd either gone back to a time before he'd shredded it or had moved forward to after the house elves had cleaned the mess up.

Truly excited, Harry bounced to his feet. He'd done it! But done what? He had no idea . . . when he was.

There had to be some way of telling how far he'd gone back. Remembering that Ron had a subscription to the Daily Prophet, he rushed to the open door that connected the Weasleys' and his sitting rooms.

As usual, there was a clutter of old newspapers on the coffee table, interspersed with quidditch magazines and Hermione's neat piles of books.

Harry grabbed up the paper on top of the pile. The date was two days ago.

That didn't necessarily mean anything, he tried to tell himself, quelling the burst of triumph that shot through him. It was entirely possible that Ron had left the other two papers in the loo or brought them down to the DADA classroom with him. All he'd proved with this experiment so far was that he could change time.

But that in itself was a major miracle.

Bursting with excitement, Harry knew he had to share this discovery with someone. He had to tell Severus about this.

His mind already plotting how he'd intercept Burke out in front of the ice cream parlour, he hurried down the stairs from Gryffindor Tower to the infirmary.

He paused inside the infirmary door. The place wasn't empty. The main ward had a couple of third years who'd collided in the latest Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw quidditch match peacefully sleeping on beds near the door. He was pretty sure that the pair had been released a couple of days ago, which was encouraging as far as being consistent with the timeline.

Harry quietly crossed through the ward, eased open the door to Severus' private room, and froze in the doorway at the sight before him. Severus was sound asleep in his bed, but he wasn't alone. They'd obviously just finished a healing because Harry himself was lying unconscious in the bed beside Severus. The blue shirt he was wearing seemed to confirm that it was, in fact, two days ago, for that was the shirt he'd worn on Monday when he'd first started messing with time.

It abruptly occurred to him that he'd forgotten something very important. Going back in time from the future didn't erase the Harry that was already living in the past. Recalling how adamant Hermione had been in third year about not meeting themselves, he quickly stepped out of the room as Severus' eyelids flickered as if they might open. He couldn't be sure that Severus didn't see him as he withdrew.

Damn, how could he have forgotten that he'd be here in the infirmary with Severus? What was he thinking?

Panicking at the thought of someone seeing the duplicate him, Harry hurried back up to Gryffindor Tower. Fortunately, class was already in session and he passed no one in the halls going back.

Once he reached his quarters, he locked the door behind him and pretty much collapsed into the nearest easy chair. That was close. He couldn't imagine how upsetting it would have been for Severus to open his eyes and find two Harry Potters in the room. Considering what Burke had done to poor Carl Westfield, Harry wouldn't have been surprised if Severus had thought it was his abductor playing more mind games on him.

Appalled by the consequences his rash action could have had on Severus, he sat there berating himself for an utter idiot.

Deciding that this had been a really bad idea, perhaps the worst idea he'd ever had in a life of hare brained plots, he hauled himself up and moved to his desk with the thought of undoing what he'd done and returning to when he'd started the experiment, only . . . as he sat down at his desk, he didn't know if he could pinpoint his return to the correct day and time. He'd had no control at all over where he'd ended up going backwards. What was to say he'd have any more success travelling forward?

Granted, all he'd been thinking about when he'd used his magic to turn back time was returning to a point prior to when he tore the parchment. Theoretically, if he concentrated on arriving two days hence, he should return to the correct day. But after this morning's close call with Severus in the infirmary, he was afraid to try going forward. What if he miscalculated and ended up appearing in the room when Hermione or Ron were in here with him? How would he ever explain that? Hermione would murder him.

Or what if he overshot the date entirely, and rematerialized a hundred years in the future?

This was a nightmare.

Harry racked his brain, attempting to find a foolproof way to end up where he wanted to be. He came up blank. Magic was accomplished as much through belief as the exertion of power. He knew that these doubts he was experiencing on his ability to safely return to his own time would sabotage his attempt as readily as a lack of power, which left him with only one alternative.

There was only one way to guarantee that he didn't mess things up any more than he'd already done, he was finally forced to acknowledge. The safest way of getting back to his own time intact was to stay out of sight and wait the two days out. Theoretically, as soon as he vanished to test his time changing theory, he should be able to step back into his own reality without creating a time when two Harry Potters coexisted. Fortunately, this morning's efforts had only brought him back two days. It was a long time to hide, but he was very conscious of the fact that he could have ended up two years back or two thousand.

Waiting had its own risks, of course, for there was a greater chance of someone stumbling upon him during those two days than if he'd only been here for a brief visit, but . . . he really couldn't see any other alternative.

Venting a resigned sigh, he stared around his empty quarters, realizing that it was going to be a very long two days.

*~*~*

"Harry?"

Harry started like a thief at the soft sound of his name, so startled that the brush he'd forgotten he was holding fell out of his hand to bang onto his dresser. He'd spent so much time hiding in his quarters earlier in the week that he'd forgotten that he had a legitimate right to be seen in them now.

"Hi," he said to Hermione as she entered his bedroom. He had no idea how long he'd been staring off into space. He'd come up here to change and shower some time ago. Since he'd ditched his time experimentation efforts, he felt oddly helpless again.

"I just left Severus. I marked where I left off in the book," Hermione said, her brown eyes studying him.

"Thanks . . . for everything," Harry said. She and Ron had been down to see Severus every day at lunch and then again after dinner since they'd recovered him from Burke.

"There's nothing to thank me for," Hermione denied and then softly asked, "What's wrong?"

"He's just so . . . depressed," Harry said at last, not knowing how to describe Severus' condition. Depression seemed inadequate, somehow. "I mean, I know it's understandable with everything he's been through. It's just . . . ."

"It hurts. I know," Hermione said. "Ron's still not himself. I guess none of us are." After a moment of glum silence, she perked up and offered, "We just have to keep trying. It won't be much longer. Severus' hand is back."

"I wouldn't call that pathetic thing a hand, Hermione," Harry argued, shuddering at the thought of the strange looking appendage that was now at the end of Severus' right arm. It looked like a foetal hand had somehow been grafted onto Severus' arm. The same was true of his developing tongue. The tissue was shaped right. It just wasn't of proper size yet.

"It will be in a few more days," Hermione insisted. "I still can't believe you did it."

"It's taken forever," Harry couldn't help but complain. He hoped it didn't sound as much of a whine to Hermione as it did to him.

"It's only been three weeks," Hermione corrected. "Hardly forever. And it shouldn't have healed at all. You know how amazing what you've done is."

"It doesn't feel very amazing," Harry admitted, unable to hold back his frustration with how slow the healing was progressing.

"That's because you're overtired and depressed yourself," she said.

His chin snapped up. "What do you mean 'depressed'?"

"For God's sake, Harry, you love the man. What was done to Severus hurt you as much as it hurt him. You need to be more patient with yourself."

He thought she might be right. He'd felt like hell since Severus was abducted. He had only to think of the crazy scheme he'd tried earlier in the week to know how desperate he was. Desperate and depressed pretty much summed him up these days, he realized.

"You should have been a Muggle shrink. You know that, don't you? You're wasted in this school," Harry complimented her.

Hermione giggled. "Was there ever any place that needed a psychiatrist on staff more than Hogwarts? I mean, Filch alone is enough to keep an analyst busy full time 24/7."

Harry felt a grin spread across his face. "You've got me there. Did you know he railed off the main hall Tuesday after mopping it so no one would track dirt across his clean floor? Minerva was not amused."

Harry didn't expound upon the particulars, that it had been the footprints his invisible self had left on his way back from raiding the dinner table in the Great Hall that had driven poor Filch over the edge.

Even without his explanation, they broke into much needed laughter. He didn't know what he'd do without Hermione and Ron. Whenever things got really bad, they always kept him sane.

"Severus will be all right," Hermione said once their laughter calmed.

"I know you're right. It's just . . . ."

"You're worried," Hermione said, stepping forward to hug him. "How could you not be? We're all worried about him."

"It's more than just worry. I think I might be going a little mad myself," Harry found himself confessing.

"What do you mean?" Hermione asked.

Knowing that he should tell someone the insane things he'd been doing, he softly said, "I've been considering ways to make this better. I think I figured out how to do it."

"You know you've figured out how to do it. Severus' hand and tongue will be healed any day now," Hermione said.

"No, that's not what I'm talking about," Harry said. "I want to make it so this never happens to him."

"What?" she asked.

"I, er, I'm going to go back and kill the bastard in Diagon Alley before he gets to Severus," Harry said, adding a reluctant. "As soon as I can figure out how to control when I show up."

"You mean go back in time?" Hermione questioned. The fact that she didn't immediately scorn his ability to do so told him that, unlike Ron, she had a clear scope of his abilities.

"Yeah. If I can take out Burke before he gets to Severus -"

"Harry, stop, please. You know how dangerous time travel is, let alone changing events," Hermione said.

"We've done it before," Harry reminded her, not mentioning his own misadventure earlier in the week.

"Yes, we did. But we were children then and didn't really understand the dangers of what we were doing."

"But it worked," Harry said.

"Yes, it did."

"So why do you think it won't work now. I know we don't have a time turner anymore, but . . . I don't need one. I've been pushing at . . . well, I don't know what to call it. I guess the fabric of time, and . . . I can get through."

"You've been trying this?" Hermione voice held a rising note of horror.

Harry gave a reluctant nod. "I went back two days in time earlier in the week. I couldn't figure out how to get back to exactly when I started, so . . . I waited it out. I was hoping you might have some ideas on how to control when I appear. If I can just figure out how to control when I arrive . . . I think I can go back to the exact moment I need to and . . . ."

"And kill Burke on the street?" Hermione questioned.

Harry gave a grim nod. "I don't like the idea of striking first, but I know what he'll do to Severus if I don't fix it -"

"Harry, it's already happened. You can't fix it, not without changing everything," Hermione insisted in a warning tone.

"And what would be so wrong about that? What would it hurt if Severus just came home from the store with my ice cream that day and I moved down into the dungeon and our lives went on the way they were supposed to?" Harry challenged.

"Nearly three weeks of events have gone by since Severus was abducted. If you change what happened to Severus, you'll be changing all of that as well."

"Once again, what would be so bad about that?" he knew he sounded like a truculent child, but he couldn't help it. What had happened to Severus was wrong, and he had the ability to fix it. All he needed was better control. He knew he wasn't smart enough to figure this out on his own, but Hermione could do it. Her intelligence was equally as frightening as his freaky powers.

"Maybe nothing, but we don't know that. Once you change what happened, we can't be sure of anything anymore. We know you were able to best Burke after seeing what he'd done to Severus, but we don't know how you'll fare if you attack him cold, as it were," Hermione said.

"What do you mean?" he asked, surprised that she seemed to actually be considering the idea. He'd been certain he'd have to argue her into the ground to get her help.

"I know you, Harry. You couldn't just kill someone, not without a hell of a motivation. What if you needed the horror of seeing what was done to Severus in order to kill Burke? Without that anger, you mightn't be able to take him down so easily."

Harry remembered how he'd had to foster his hate to reach the stage where he could use his mage fire to destroy Burke, but . . . even now, he had that level of hate broiling in him. "I'm angry enough. Take my word for it."

She studied him for a long moment before giving a soft, "Okay. You're angry enough, and maybe you're determined and strong enough to do it, but . . . ."

"But what?" Harry demanded, at his wits' end. If she believed he was powerful enough to do it, then what was the problem?

"You're not going to be isolated in some distant keep. If you attack Burke before he gets to Severus, you're going to be duelling with a wizard of Voldemort's power on the most populated street in the Wizarding World. What if you don't take him by surprise? What if he's ready for you? Severus was abducted in front of an ice cream parlour. There could be children there."

"Mr. Fortescue said it was a very slow morning. That was why he saw what happened to Severus; he wasn't busy," Harry said.

"It wasn't busy on the day Severus was abducted. The minute you step back into time, you alter it. You can't say that events will happen exactly the same way, because your presence has already changed those events. If you attack Burke on the street, you might take him out as easily as you did in his keep, or it might get messy. You might have to duel with him. You know he wouldn't be above throwing an Unforgivable at a passer-by to distract you. Innocent strangers could be hurt or killed. Are you willing to risk that?"

He felt his last real hope of truly fixing things shatter. He knew time travel was crazy; after spending two days hiding in his own armoire, he knew it. But even knowing it was insane, he was willing to give it a try. He was willing to risk his own life to spare Severus the torture that he'd endured, but he wasn't quite insane enough to risk hurting innocent bystanders.

Apparently, his despair must have shown in his face, for Hermione reached out to squeeze his arm. "Harry, I understand how desperately you want to spare Severus what happened to him. We all would, if we could, but . . . changing time isn't the way."

"I . . . I just want him back," he mumbled. "I know you're right, it's just . . . this is so damn wrong, so wrong." His eyes started to sting. He'd known it was a crazy plan, but it was the only one he'd been able to come up with to save Severus.

Her arms came around him as his voice broke. He buried his face in her shoulder and held onto her for all he was worth.

"Sssh," Hermione murmured, holding on to him.

Overwhelmed, he muttered into her shoulder, "He's had such a hard life. People have . . . mistreated Severus since he was a baby. On Christmas day, I promised him that I'd never let anyone hurt him again. I've done a piss poor job of protecting him."

"If it weren't for you, he'd be dead. No one else could have saved him from Burke, and no one else could have healed him." She rubbed his back for a long time. Much later, when he felt ready to pull back, she added, "Severus is going to be fine. We'll get him through this, Harry, no matter what it takes."

"But no time travel, right?" he checked, in case she'd changed her mind.

"No," she said with a sad smile, "no more time travel. It's just going to take longer this way."

"Yeah. I know you're right. I just want to see him happy again," Harry said.

"You will," Hermione assured in the tone of a promise.

"I don't know what I'd do without you," Harry admitted. "I know you don't want to hear it, but thank you. You keep me from going crazy; you know that, don't you?"

Hermione gave him another quick hug and stepped back to look into his eyes.

"There isn't anyone in this castle who hasn't been crazy for years. Come on. It's almost time for you to do the impossible again," Hermione said with a mischievous grin.

Nothing had really changed, but somehow, he felt better for having talked to her. Finding a smile for her from somewhere, he fell in step beside her as they left his quarters.

*~*~*

 

 
 

 

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