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It was difficult to define what it felt like to be the organic conduit through which Harry Potter's concentrated power flowed. Severus was accustomed to feeling Harry's power move through him in bed, but that was nothing like these daily healings. Every day, Harry loosed upon him an energy potent enough to blast Hogwarts and possibly Hogsmeade as well to smithereens. Severus had never felt anything like this raw power. The scope was staggering.

He knew the healings should be agonizing. He'd had enough bones regrown over the years to know how excruciating regrowth was. Only, Harry was somehow controlling the pain.

Severus couldn't say that the experience was comfortable or pleasant, but it wasn't the torturous ordeal it should have been.

While Harry's power surged through him, gradually building in potency, Severus lay flat on his back and stared up at the man sitting beside him. With his eyes closed in concentration, Harry looked absurdly young and innocent. There was nothing in that comely visage to suggest that the young wizard was violating every law of nature and forcing reality to conform to his will through unprecedented expenditures of power. Every day when Harry did this, Severus was intensely conscious of the fact that he was witnessing an event never experienced before in the five thousand years of recorded Wizardry.

That it was being done solely for his sake was humbling.

He was awed by Harry's mastery of his power and his own body systems. On a mental plane, he knew that this level of energy should be frying every neuron he had. Yet, Harry was somehow monitoring the flow, controlling either it or Severus' system so that it did no harm to him. Their sex play had demonstrated how talented Harry was at controlling his power, but this type of manipulation was awe inspiring.

It was the same process every day. Harry would start out transferring a small amount of his power to him. The level of energy would gradually increase until an immeasurable amount of energy was flowing into him, building towards a blinding climax. The intense level of transfer would keep up for some time, gradually forcing Severus' flesh to regrow, and, then, in the end, Harry would seem to access hidden reservoirs of power and blast the new growth with a lightning strike of healing energy that made the flesh expand exponentially.

They were at that point now.

Severus took a deep breath as he felt Harry gathering that power, then the tremendous flash hit him in almost the same way that Harry's mage fire had taken Burke. Severus could literally feel his right hand and tongue expand.

The power flared to incomprehensible proportions. There was that moment of intense transformation that bordered on pain as every cell in his tongue and hand responded to Harry's command . . . and then the energy blast cut off like the last spurt of an orgasm.

The breath whooshed out of Harry, and the younger man collapsed face down right on top of him.

Severus was used to this dramatic finale by now. Taking hold of Harry's shoulders, he carefully rolled the unconscious man onto the other side of the bed, covering him with the duvet. It was only as he noticed his right hand resting on the warm white bedding that he recognized the transformation that had taken place. This morning, his hand had been about the size of a five year old's. Now, it was only a half inch shorter than his left hand.

Flexing his fingers, he stared at his new hand in amazement. Another day, and he'd have his hand back. Well, a newer version of his hand, for the skin of this one wasn't discoloured from years of exposure to caustic potions.

Realizing that his hand wasn't the only thing that had experienced this radical change, Severus moved his tongue around. He could finally reach the roof of his mouth and the back of his teeth. Up until this morning, his tongue had still been too small for proper pronunciation. He'd hated the way he'd sounded, so he'd refrained from speaking.

Almost afraid, Severus tried again. The H and A sounds had always been easy, but the Rs had defeated him, and he'd found the Ss impossible. But today, he thought he might manage it, so he gave a soft, "Har-ree."

He didn't even try to keep the resulting smile off his face.

The "Severus" he tried next still didn't sound quite right, but at least it was understandable.

He blanked the smile off his face as the door to his infirmary room opened and Poppy entered.

There was a time when he would have been mortified to have his colleague walk in and find Harry in his bed, even if it were perfectly innocent and Harry was unconscious as he was now. But he'd been too distracted to pay too much attention to proper etiquette lately. Even so, he realized how . . . accepting Poppy, Hagrid, and Minerva had been whenever they'd discovered Harry and him in what could be deemed a compromising position by the prudish. He didn't know if any of his co-workers beside the Weasleys knew the exact nature of Harry and his relationship, but no one had acted scandalized by the sight of an unconscious Harry cuddled close to him.

A soft expression came over Poppy's face as her gaze settled on Harry's unconscious form beside him. "Out again, is he?"

Normally, he would nod his response to her inane inquiries. Taking a deep breath, Severus braced himself and carefully answered, "Yessz."

The S sound still wasn't proper, but it was close.

Poppy appeared as thunderstruck as if the wall torch had just answered her. "Sweet Merlin! You're talking again!"

"A fact I'm szure many will szoon regret," Severus answered in his new, slow, careful speech. He suspected he was grinning back at Poppy, but at the moment, he thought any excesses were excusable.

"I'm so happy, Severus! This is just incredible. How is your hand?" she eagerly questioned.

Severus turned to dig his wand out from under the pillow. He'd been practicing a bit these last few days. His energy reserves were still frighteningly low, but at least his magic was accessible again.

Aiming his wand at a nearby water glass, he muttered a soft spell and levitated it over to him.

"Marvellous," Poppy applauded.

"What's marvellous?" Ronald Weasley asked as he and his wife entered Severus' room.

Severus realized that it must be lunch time. Hermione was holding something that looked suspiciously like nutbread, and Ron had a tray that Severus knew would contain three lunch plates. They came every day to eat with him and keep him company while Harry was unconscious.

"Thisz," Severus said, levitating the treat from Hermione's hand with a flick of his wand.

"Oh, god, you're healed!" Hermione all but squealed in delight, hurrying to the bed. "You sounded perfectly yourself."

She looked as if she were about to burst from excitement, as did her husband.

Severus was more than a little surprised by how happy they seemed.

"My Szes are sztill off," Severus pointed out.

"Not by much," Ron said.

"This is wonderful," Hermione said. "Can we see your hand?"

"It's sztill a little szmall, but . . . . " Severus held out his newly transformed right hand.

"Another day, and it will probably be perfect," Hermione said. "Even now, it's just amazing."

"I still can't believe he did it," Ron said, his warm gaze moving to where Harry slept unconscious at his side.

"It isz . . . quite miraculousz," Severus said, still overwhelmed by the ability to voice his thoughts. Realizing that this was a perfect opportunity to address an issue that had been troubling him for the last few weeks in his silent prison, he softly asked, "Wasz it . . . common knowledge that my hand and tongue were . . . amputated? I only aszk becausze exzplaining their reappearancz without introduczing Harry'sz involvement will be difficult."

Hermione's face gentled with understanding as she answered, "Ron reported to the Ministry that you were tortured and at death's door when Harry rescued you, but he didn't tell them the nature of your injuries. The only people who know about the amputations outside of the people in this room are Minerva and Hagrid." As if realizing his concerns on that score, she quickly added, "Hagrid understands that Harry's very life could be at stake here. None of us wanted to let Hagrid visit, but he was so worried about you that Harry insisted we let him in."

Severus nodded. Potter's trust would be the death of him one day. Still, over the years Hagrid had managed to keep many an Order secret. The only time Hagrid's discretion was unreliable was when he was dealing with people he trusted implicitly, and most of those people were here in this room. So . . . Harry should be safe.

Severus nodded and relaxed back against the pillow.

"Well, I'll leave him in your capable hands for a while, shall I?" Poppy said with another grin. "It's good to have you back as your old self again, Severus."

Remarkably, she seemed to mean the words.

"Thank you," Severus softly acknowledged.

Once she'd left, Hermione began to hand out their lunch plates.

Severus accepted the plate she handed him. As usual, it contained only his favourites. Wanting to satisfy his curiosity, he asked, "He gave you a liszt, didn't he?"

Hermione smiled and nodded. "A quite detailed one."

"Instructions for the Care and Feeding of the Severus," Ron quipped. "There were more bloody footnotes and addendums on the thing than in the Goblin-Wizarding Treaty of 923."

Both he and Hermione all but gaped at Weasley.

Finally, Hermione asked, "How . . . ?"

"I suppose it'd be asking too much for you to believe that I actually remembered it?" Ron questioned with a smile. "Thought so. If you must know, I was helping one of Harry's students with his history homework during free period."

"That explainsz it, then," Severus said. He'd wondered if his speech were clear enough to convey the sarcastic flair he'd hoped to add to the response. Weasley's grimace seemed to indicate that he'd been successful.

"You know, this is going to sound completely mental, but I think I honestly missed your insults," Weasley said and then took a bite of his sandwich.

Since Severus wasn't even sure why these two people were still here, he had no clue how to respond. Evading the issue entirely, he took a forkful of the cheese and sliced apples they'd brought. He'd found if he voluntarily ate at least a few bites of whatever they offered, that they paid less attention to how much he actually consumed.

A strangely comfortable silence fell between them as the Weasleys ate their lunches. When they were done, Severus showed off by sending the empty tray and plates back to the kitchens.

"You barely touched your lunch," Hermione said.

"I waszn't very hungry," Severus tried to evade the issue.

But she wasn't having any of his evasions. She held his eyes with that level, open gaze she'd had since childhood and softly said, "You know Harry's worried sick over how little you're eating."

Severus tried to hold her eyes, but he found his own gaze dropping as he softly answered, "I'm not doing it to purposzefully diszpleasz him."

"I know," she gently answered. "The only time you eat at all is when he urges you to."

"I'm juszt . . . not very hungry lately." That at least was the truth.

To his shock, there was no condemnation in her attitude. "That's understandable. It must have been maddening not being able to talk for so long."

"Quite," Severus carefully agreed, unsure where she was going with the conversation. Since he didn't understand what she was doing here at all, he hardly knew what approach to take. After all that Hermione and her husband had done for him these last weeks, there was no way that he could offer them the rudeness that normally kept people at bay. All he knew was that he suddenly felt nervous, almost frightened.

"I know that you're healing and feeling stronger every day, but . . . how are you doing under all that?" She seemed genuinely worried.

Feeling both Ron and her gazes upon him, Severus gulped. He considered and discarded a dozen evasions before swallowing hard and giving her the truth, "I . . . feel . . . raw."

Severus tensed as her hand moved towards him, but she only gripped his newly healed right hand to give it an encouraging squeeze. He wasn't accustomed to receiving such solace from anyone other than Harry.

"Of course you do. How could you not?" Hermione softly said. "Just know that . . . you're not alone. Harry, Ron, Poppy, Minerva, Hagrid, me . . . we'll all do anything we can to help you through this."

She meant the words. Severus didn't think that anyone other than Harry had ever looked at him with such a tender expression. He had no clue how to respond to her kindness. All he knew was that he wasn't worthy of it.

Clearly, Harry had kept his filthy secrets and hadn't told her a thing about what Burke had revealed. It was the only thing that made any sense.

Swallowing hard, Severus searched inside himself for a suitable response. Before he could answer, a soft moan to his right turned all three of their gazes Potter's way.

Every day, Harry's recuperation time grew shorter. When he'd started these draining healings four weeks ago, Harry would be out cold for twelve to sixteen hours afterwards, but now . . . it was taking barely two to three hours for him to regain consciousness. That, in itself, was nearly as astonishing as the miraculous healings.

As those bleary green eyes focused upon his face, Severus carefully enunciated, "Hello, Har-ree."

His pronunciation still wasn't quite right, but the grin that washed across Potter's handsome face told Severus that it was close as made no never mind.

"Oh, god. You're better," Harry muttered, before reaching for him.

Severus allowed himself to be gathered close. Over Harry's broad shoulder, he could see both Hermione and Ron grinning at them.

"Well, I guess we'll leave you two alone for a while," Ron said, rising to his feet.

"See you later," Hermione called as her husband all but dragged her from the room.

"Hey, guys. That's not necessary," Harry reassured them. "We're not . . . ." But the Weasleys were already gone.

Harry's grin seemed permanently fixed on his face when he eventually withdrew from the hug. "God, I never thought I'd hear that beautiful voice of yours again. You sound perfect. How's the hand?"

Severus held out his nearly perfect right hand.

Harry took hold of it, carefully comparing it to Severus' left. "One more healing and they'll be identical. Except for colour. Do you want me to try to make the skin tones match?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head. "That'sz hardly neczeszary. I'm szure the potionsz will accompliszh that in no time."

Harry nodded, still seeming overjoyed. Then he asked the same kind of inconvenient question Hermione had just voiced, "I know that having your hand and tongue back must feel incredible, but how are you doing?"

Severus shrugged. Somehow it had been easier to give Hermione the truth than it was to admit it to Harry, so he settled on, "Well enough." After an awkward pause, he added, "Thanksz to you. There isz no way I will ever be able to properly thank or repay you for what you’ve done for me."

"I sort of hoped we were beyond that kind of thing," Harry said, reaching out to brush Severus' hair back from his face.

Severus was accustomed enough to Harry now not to flinch, but the touch made him uncomfortable. On some level, he recognized that things would change between them now that he was healed. It had been safe when he'd been incapacitated. Now that he was himself again, certain realities could no longer be denied.

Severus knew what he had to do, but looking into Harry's nearly glowing eyes, he hadn't a clue how to begin the painful process of separation. So, when Harry said, "I'm starving. Join me for lunch?" Severus took the coward's path and nodded his agreement.

Telling himself that his hand wasn't totally healed yet and that he needed at least one more healing, Severus sat back and allowed himself to bask in the warmth of Harry's love for another day.


"I never thought Poppy would release you," Harry said as they stepped from Severus' infirmary room side by side three days later. He felt as if they'd both just been released from prison.

"It is amazing how persuasive a patient with the ability to speak can be," Severus said. "I think she grew tired of my complaints."

"Complaints? You? Never," Harry tried to joke.

There was still something in Severus' eyes that made him nervous. It had been there for weeks now. If he had to define it, he'd probably call it caution.

After everything Severus had been through, Harry supposed it made sense that he'd be nervous around a lover, and, yet, Severus had seemed to find his touch reassuring when he was in infirmary. Whatever the cause, the emotion had appeared to grow stronger as Severus recovered. Now, it was like a wall between them.

Harry didn't know how to breach it or even if he should try. He was all too aware that Severus hadn't really dealt with what Burke had done to him. Like Harry himself, Severus seemed to be clinging to the illusion that everything was normal.

Only, it wasn't normal. When things were normal, he didn't find himself standing in the corridor with Severus' bag in his hand, unsure if he should accompany his lover down to the dungeons.

Thinking that they needed to get some things out in the open, Harry took a quick look around the corridor to ensure that they were alone. It was the middle of the morning. The students and other teachers were all in class. Where they were standing was well out of earshot of any of the portraits. They were about as private as they could get without being behind locked doors.

Taking a deep breath, Harry said, "The day you . . . were abducted, we talked about me moving my things down to the dungeons."

Harry held his breath, hoping that Severus would take up the conversational gauntlet, as it were.

But Severus simply stared at him from behind that wall of caution and responded with a flat sounding, "So we did."

Hardly encouraged, Harry tried again. "It didn't feel right taking my stuff down there when you were in hospital. I reckoned that I'd wait to see how you felt about it when you were up and around."

"That was . . . most thoughtful." Although the words were kind, there was no spark in Severus' eyes. He looked like a condemned prisoner before a firing squad waiting for the order to fire.

"So, er, how do you feel about it? Do you want me down there or do you need some time alone?" Harry asked.

If anything, Severus seemed to become even more walled in. Yet, there was an unbearable looking sorrow in those dark eyes as he softly answered, "It has been some time since I have had any . . . time to myself. Perhaps you are right. It wouldn't be appropriate for you to be down there with me now."

"I didn't say anything about it being inappropriate," Harry quickly said, not sure of the undercurrent to Severus' words.

"My mistake," Severus softly said, that watchfulness back in his gaze.

Harry didn't know how, but he had the definite feeling that he'd just messed up big time here. "Did I say something wrong?"

"No," Severus answered too quickly, adding a strangely soft, "I never knew comfort such as you gave me these last few weeks. Thank you for that . . . and for the healings."

Not liking the finality in Severus' attitude, Harry quickly corrected him, "You don't have to thank me for anything. I did it because I love you. I just want you to feel better so that we can be together again."

Severus had always had a flair for insinuating things with his tone of voice. The totally unconvinced "Of course," Severus gave set his teeth on edge.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry asked, not wanting to push on Severus' first day out of hospital, but unwilling to let that kind of insinuation pass unchallenged.

Severus seemed to realize what he'd said, for his face filled with regret. "It means that I am obviously not myself yet. Forgive me."

"There's nothing to forgive," Harry quickly reassured him, reaching out to touch Severus' arm. Although Severus didn't flinch or move, he could almost feel him shrink away from him emotionally. Thinking that his touch was bothering Severus, he slowly removed his hand. He could feel those dark eyes following his hand as it withdrew. After an awkward silence, Harry haltingly admitted, "I don't know how to comfort you right now."

"I don't know that you can," Severus said at last. "What happened . . . it shattered the person you knew."

That was the first time Severus had openly admitted to the effect his abduction had had on him emotionally. Harry couldn't help but feel that it was some kind of breakthrough. Holding those uncertain black eyes, he softly assured, "Not beyond mending. You just need some time."

"Yes, time," Severus repeated in the most lost tone Harry had ever heard him use.

Needing to make some kind of connection, Harry asked, "Can I come down and just keep you company for a while?"

Severus wanted him there. He could see it in his eyes. But Severus gave a slow, negative shake of his head and softly denied, "I . . . think I need to be alone for a while."

Not wanting to push, for all that this felt wrong to him, Harry said, "Yes, of course. Let me just walk you down and get you settled in -"

"That won't be necessary," Severus refused. "I'll be fine."

"Severus . . . ."


"I want to be there for you," Harry explained, the words sounding inadequate to his own ears.

"There are some things that one must do on one's own. Right now I need time to . . . determine what's been left of me. I can't do that with someone watching me every minute. As much as I truly . . . appreciate your concern, I need . . . space. Can you understand that?"

Need space. There was no way Severus could know how the Muggle cliché would affect someone raised in Muggle society. Harry felt like his whole world was crashing around him as he gave a numb nod of agreement. "Yes, of course I understand. I don't mean to . . . pressure you. I just want you to know that I'm here for you when you need me."

A flash of something Harry couldn't help but define as guilt crossed Severus' guarded features. The last thing he'd wanted was to make Severus feel any worse than he already did, but he had no clue how to reach him right now.

"Thank you," Severus said at last. "I wish . . . ."

"Yes?" Harry encouraged when Severus' words seemed to fail him.

"It's not relevant, not now. I . . . I should be going."

Harry stared down as Severus extended his right hand, immediately accepting the offered handshake, weird as it was. The expression in Severus' eyes told him that he'd once again misjudged everything.

"My bag?" Severus softly reminded, gesturing with his chin at the carryall Harry had slung over his shoulder.

Feeling an utter moron, Harry quickly handed over the bag. "I'll see you at dinner, then?"

"Yes, dinner," Severus agreed. Harry had the feeling he would have agreed to anything at that point to escape the horrible awkwardness that had suddenly grown between them.

The gaping hole that had once been his heart seemed to grow bigger with every step that tall, dark figure took away from him. Harry watched Severus' robes billow around him as he descended the stairs to the dungeons.

He was sure he was being foolish, that Severus simply needed time to heal, but there was a part of him that couldn't help but feel that they were over.


Three weeks later, Harry's fear was beginning to feel like truth.

Harry couldn't say that Severus was actively avoiding him. His perhaps-former lover showed up at all meals and even sat with the Weasleys and him; yet, there was absolutely no private interaction between them. Severus wouldn't so much as go for a walk on the grounds with him. Of course, the fact that it had been pouring down freezing rain and sleet the last three weeks might have had something to do with that, but he was fully convinced that Severus would have refused even if the weather had been clear and balmy outside.

Severus had all but begged him for time and space. Harry was doing his best to honour that request. Only, the distance was killing him by slow degrees. He'd been depressed when Severus had been trapped in his silence in the infirmary, but at least Severus had allowed him to touch and hold him then. He'd never thought that he'd look back on those dark days of pain and healing with nostalgia, but right now he'd trade almost anything to have the right to hold Severus, if only platonically.

"You're staring, Harry," Hermione whispered, her elbow prodding him back to the present.

Dinner. The Great Hall.

She was right. He'd been staring straight across her and Ron at Severus for God knew how long. Behind them, the rain was still sluicing down the bevelled windows as though someone were holding a hose against them. The ceiling above showed a clear midnight blue sky with a breathtaking hint of orange and magenta to the west where the sun had obviously recently set, but even Hogwarts' best efforts couldn't raise his spirits tonight.

Over. They were over, and he didn't even know why.

Severus still cared for him. Those weeks in the infirmary had shown him that, but for some reason, Severus was pushing him away without actually giving him the boot. Harry had never thought he'd long for an open rejection, but right now he just didn't know where he stood.

"Good night," Severus said, giving the three of them a nod as he wiped his mouth with a white linen napkin and rose from the table.

"Harry?" Hermione called as he did his best to hold it together as Severus left the table.

Tearing his eyes away from the now familiar sight of Severus' retreating back, Harry whispered, "I've lost him, Hermione."

He knew he shouldn't be talking about this, not here, but he felt moments away from some kind of breakdown.

Her hand gripped his elbow and gave it an encouraging squeeze. "Maybe he just needs some time."

Her voice was so low that he barely heard it.

Looking into her eyes, he could see nothing but compassion and understanding.

"That's what I thought at first," Harry answered in the same low tone. "Only, it's been almost a month and he's further away than ever."

"Maybe it's time you talked to him, then," Hermione suggested.

"Yes, perhaps you're right," Harry said, climbing to his feet.

"I didn't mean right this moment," she protested.

"There's no time like the present," Harry said and hurried away from the teachers' table to the doors through which Severus had just exited. He could see Severus' robes billowing at the top of the dungeon stairs as he began to descend.

"Severus!" Harry called out, rushing over.

For a moment, he feared Severus would ignore him, but Severus paused at the top of the stairs to wait for him. Harry was highly conscious of the stream of Slytherin students passing them on their way back down to their common room.

Severus waited until Harry was close enough that he didn't have to shout to be heard. "Yes?"

Taking in the crowded hall, Harry asked, "May I speak to you for a moment?"

"Of course," Severus replied, as if it meant nothing at all to him.

His mouth running dry, Harry forced himself to suggest, "Privately? There's a bit of a crowd here."

Severus gave a slow nod. He did not invite him down to his rooms, Harry noticed. Instead, Severus' chin gestured to a nearby unused classroom. "Will this do?"

"Sure," Harry agreed, following him inside.

Ironically enough, Harry recognized it as the same classroom that he and Severus had had that chat in the morning he'd told Severus how much he meant to him.

The room was even dustier now than it had been then. Harry lit the wall torches with a thought, but they did little to dispel the damp darkness of the abandoned room. The rain was still gushing down outside the windows like the special effect in a movie. He couldn't have imagined a more depressing setting to argue his case, but, somehow, the deserted classroom seemed to perfectly mirror his present emotions.

When Severus simply stood there waiting for him to speak, Harry nervously cleared his throat and began, "I can't have helped but notice that you haven't wanted to be alone with me lately."

"We are alone now," Severus pointed out, but his eyes and attitude were so guarded that they might as well have been back in that crowded corridor.

Trying to take heart from Severus' non-contentious words, Harry took a deep breath. He knew how vicious Severus could be were he so inclined. The lack of aggression meant something; he simply couldn't figure out what. Severus felt a million miles away from him emotionally at the moment.

Deciding to start on a new foot, Harry said, "I, um, was wondering if you'd like to go out for drinks at Rosmerta's tonight?"

That seemed an unthreatening suggestion. They'd be in public, but still able to talk. Harry didn't even care what they talked about at this point, so long as there was some kind of communication between them.

True regret seemed to touch Severus' features as he replied, "I don't think that would be wise at this point."

"Please . . . just drinks? I won't . . . I just want to spend some time with you. I miss you." Harry felt his cheeks warm. He'd never begged anyone for anything like this in his life, but Severus was too important to lose over his pride.

"I'm sorry. Truly, I am. I'm . . . just not ready yet," Severus gave the same kind of refusal he'd been offering for the last three weeks.

Taking a deep breath, Harry persevered with, "What about Friday, then? Hermione and Ron are going to the Three Broomsticks for an evening out. We could join them. We wouldn't be alone. It would be just like it is at dinner."

Severus also seemed to need a deep breath. "I'm not up to socializing to any degree right now."

Harry knew that was malarkey. He knew for a fact that Hermione stopped in to see Severus on the days they had a shared free period.

"I suppose next month would be out of the question as well?" Harry decided to force Severus to voice the truth that was right there in his eyes.

"I . . . ." Severus' words trailed off and he answered Harry's question with a blunt, "Yes."

"Your answer is going to be the same the month after that and the following one, too, isn't it? In fact, a year or ten years from now, your answer is going to be identical, isn't it?" Harry softly asked, unable to believe how much this hurt.

Severus held his eyes and gave a slow nod. "I'm afraid so. I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Harry stammered. "You're sorry? You won't even tell me what I did wrong, and you say you're sorry?"

"You didn't do anything wrong."

Confoundingly enough, there was once again truth in Severus' eyes. Truth and true regret. The whole thing made no sense.

"If I didn't do anything wrong, then why are you doing this?" Harry demanded, praying that he could hold himself together long enough to get some answers. He already felt an utter fool. He didn't want Severus to think him any weaker or needier than he'd already painted himself, but he couldn't just let this go. Not without knowing why. "You know I love you. I'll settle for any level of contact you agree to. I . . . I won't push you for sex. You know that. If I haven't done anything wrong, then why won't you even try? I know you love me as much as I love you. Or are you going to tell me I'm wrong about that, too, that I've been wrong about everything?"

That wasn't something he'd considered, that he could have been wrong about Severus from the start.

Harry could almost see Severus considering giving a positive answer to that last question. But apparently, even Severus in all his screwed up retreat wasn't ready to give lie to everything they'd been to each other.

After an agonizing hesitation, Severus said in an oddly gentle tone, "No. You weren't wrong."

At his wits end, Harry ran a hand through his dishevelled hair and all but begged, "Then why are you doing this? Tell me, please? I – I have to understand."

Severus seemed to debate the wisdom of answering before finally giving in. "I have always been cursed by a vivid memory. There were things that were done in Burke's stronghold; things that were said, that I will never be able to forget."

Harry didn't really know what Severus was talking about. But Severus' inflection told him that that one line things that were said was the key. Abruptly, Harry remembered that trash Burke had been talking right before he'd incinerated the fiend. "Has this got to do with that stuff Burke said about you?"

The pain in Severus' eyes was more than agony. It gave Harry his answer long before his slow nod.

"You're leaving me because of something that bastard said?" Harry couldn't quite believe it.

"There were no lies spoken in the dungeon that night," Severus stiffly informed. He looked prepared to be spat on.

Remembering some of the accusations Burke had made, Harry tried to absorb it, tried to understand how anything that degenerate had said could influence Severus this much, but then he remembered Burke's mental skills and knew that he wasn't dealing with reason here. It wasn't simply words. Severus had never said, but Burke had made it plain that he'd raped Severus' mind as well as his body when he'd held him prisoner. God knew what kind of insane ideas the bastard had planted.

"There's nothing anyone could say about you that could change my feelings for you," Harry softly insisted. "I love you. I don't care what he said."

He'd truly surprised Severus. He could see that, but he could also see that it wasn't enough.

"I care," Severus said, his voice dull and broken. "He . . . ruined everything."

"How?" Harry demanded. "What's changed? I love you the same as I did before all this happened, maybe even more after all we've been through together. How can you let that bastard win like this? How can you let him destroy us? What he said doesn't matter, Severus. I swear it doesn't."

"It matters to me. I . . . I can't live with you, knowing that you know," Severus said, and Harry could hear the truth in that as well. "I'm sorry. That is my final answer on this."

This time, Harry had no argument to make to that retreating back. Severus knew he loved him, and it wasn't enough to convince him to stay. What else could he say or do?

He watched Severus until the door closed behind him, standing tall and strong. The moment that ancient oak door slammed shut and he was alone, Harry gave into the despair that had been gnawing at him since he'd found Severus in that hideous torture chamber. Sinking to his knees on the dust-caked floor, he cried as he hadn't cried since Sirius' death.


"Hello, Severus," Hermione Weasley said as she entered the lab where he taught potions.

Severus hadn't expected to see her. She'd been visiting him during their shared free period since that first night she'd played SCRABBLE with Harry and him, but he'd thought his breaking it off with Harry would change that. He knew Harry would have told his friends by now.

"Hello," he guardedly answered. "I didn't think you'd come today. He told you?"

The serious expression on her face and the worry in her eyes told him she knew what he'd done to Harry.

"Yes," she said with a nod, taking her usual seat at the student bench directly before his desk. "He's . . . well, I've never seen Harry like that. He was inconsolable."

Strangely enough, there was no accusation to her words.

Even so, they hit him like the Cruciatus curse. Wishing that she'd just come out and berate him with whatever she'd come here to say to him, he found his eyes dropping to the homework he was grading as he replied, "That wasn't my intent."

His gaze was drawn back to her face, for all that he'd rather not watch the friendship she'd offered him degenerate into hate.

"Severus, why are you doing this? You love Harry as much as he loves you. I know that you've been through an awful lot, but leaving Harry like this makes no sense," she said the words in a rush, as if she wanted to get them all out before she were turned into a frog or suffered some such dire consequence.

Her expression seemed to suggest she expected as much from him, and once, she would have been right. He would have blasted her to perdition for her temerity as little as six months ago. But now . . . he simply didn't have it in him to savage her as he once would have. He knew how wrong what he'd done to Harry was. Harry hadn't deserved that kind of cruelty. Harry's friends had every right to be furious with him. Only, she wasn't acting angry. Severus didn't understand that, for he'd seen how fiercely protective Hermione was of Harry.

What confused him even more than her lack of anger was the fact that she didn't know why he'd left Harry. He'd been certain that Harry would have disclosed the unpleasant truths Burke had revealed to the Weasleys last night after he'd ended it so coldly. That Harry had kept his secret was incomprehensible. Yet, Hermione wouldn't be sitting here regarding him with such concern if Harry had told her. She couldn't know, but what man could have resisted the temptation to strike back after being treated so unfairly?

"What did he tell you?" Severus questioned, his heart thundering in his chest as he waited her response.

Her gaze was level and utterly open as she said, "Not much. Just that you told him that you couldn't be with him ever again because of what Burke had done to you."

Stars, Harry really hadn't revealed his secrets. Nor had he lied to his oldest friends. Harry had simply refrained from revealing the total truth. The consideration was unprecedented in Severus' experience. He honestly wouldn't have blamed Harry if he'd announced the truth at the next staff meeting. Revenge, he understood. This restraint was beyond his ken.

Realizing that it would seem odd if he didn't say something soon, Severus pulled himself together enough to demand, "You don't deem that sufficient reason?"

If anything, the pain and worry in her bewilderingly warm gaze seemed to deepen as she said, "I know you've been through hell. It's only understandable that you'd be . . . upset after all that happened. But you know Harry. He'd never push you for . . . anything you weren't ready to offer."

Her cheeks turned bright red as she stumbled over that last part. It was clear that she was as uncomfortable as he was. But she was a Gryffindor on a quest and not even modesty would stop her from following through.

Severus had the grim vision of her stopping in here every morning with those compassionate eyes and gentle tone trying to talk sense into him. He would have felt better if she'd condemned him. He knew he wouldn't be able to bear this every day; he also knew what it would take to ensure she never returned.

He weighed his options carefully. If he told her the truth, their association would be forever over. That pained him nearly as much as losing Harry had. But, as much as he'd come to value her company, this considerate coercion would be unendurable on a daily basis. Taking a deep breath, he took the first step on a path from which there was no going back when he softly said, "I wish he'd told you the truth."

"The truth?" Hermione questioned in a startled tone.

"I fear Harry was attempting to spare my feelings in this matter," Severus said.

"I don't understand," she said, leaning across the students' bench so that their gazes were closer.

How could she understand? It wasn't as if he'd actually explained anything.

Holding her confused eyes, Severus braced himself and said, "Burke disclosed embarrassing truths about my past to Harry, truths that I cannot live with Harry knowing."

He watched her confusion turn to total bewilderment. "You're leaving Harry because of something that monster said?"

"Burke told no lies to Harry that day," he protested.

"What? Severus, there's nothing that . . . fiend could say that would in any way alter Harry's feelings for you. He loves you," she insisted.

"Between any two people, there must be respect, dignity. Burke's revelation stripped me of all pretence of either," Severus attempted to explain, trying to be truthful without actually touching upon topics they both would prefer remained unvoiced.

"That isn't possible," Hermione said. "Harry knows you. I know you. Nothing Burke could say could diminish our regard for you."

She was so damn certain, so . . . loyal. Always in the past, he'd sneered at these stereotypical Gryffindor traits, but today he found himself almost in awe of them.

"I beg to differ," he softly denied. "I appreciate your confidence, but I assure you, it is entirely misplaced.”

"No, it isn't. Harry, Ron, and I, we all know that you were a Death Eater when you were young. We know what that means. Details wouldn't matter. That isn’t who you are now."

For over a minute, Severus could only stare at her, shocked beyond speech. It was clear she truly believed what she was saying.

All his life, he'd hungered for this kind of acceptance. Harry's love had been a gift beyond his comprehension, but that he could gain this level of support from someone he wasn't sleeping with was truly astounding. That he was completely unworthy of her regard went without saying, but knowing she felt that way about him . . . it was humbling.

"I'm afraid that the truths Burke detailed made my Death Eater days pale by comparison," Severus said, knowing where this was leading and wishing there were some way to avoid the whole sorry mess.

He'd shocked her; he could see that. He could almost read the possibilities reeling through her vivid imagination. To her credit, she didn't instantly attempt to deny his assertion. He could almost see the thoughts she was considering.

Finally, she rallied with, "That isn't possible. Anything that made Death Eater actions seem mild would have landed you in Azkaban."

"Providing the authorities were aware who had committed those acts," Severus pointed out the flaw in her logic.

She paled a bit, but stuck to her guns. "Are you saying you committed atrocities the Ministry doesn't know about? I don't believe that."

"Why not?" he questioned. He'd seen that he'd thrown her earlier, yet she had her glowing Gryffindor certainty back again.

"Because Harry wouldn't have been okay with something like that. Whatever Burke told him, it can't have been something that injured innocents. So, it isn't atrocities or Death Eater crimes. And, if that's the case, then there isn't anything Burke could say that would matter," Hermione insisted again.

Her logic was flawless. They both knew Harry would never have been able to excuse the types of actions he'd insinuated.

Taking a deep breath, Severus quietly pointed out, "There are other acts that can brand a person as socially unacceptable as the Dark Mark does."

Her expression made it plain that she didn't believe him. "Severus, we all know you. We care about you. Harry loves you. What could that murdering child molester possibly have said that you think would change that? You're not making sense."

"There are certain actions that all men would find unacceptable in a . . . potential mate's past," Severus said.

"Well, Harry obviously didn't find whatever it was unacceptable," Hermione said.

Feeling as though he were banging his head against a stone wall, he ran a hand through his none too clean hair.

"Nothing Burke said could alter the way any of us feel about you," she insisted.

There was nothing for it. The only thing that was going to get him out of this corner she'd backed him into was the truth. "I assure you, there are things I could tell you that would straighten your hair and make you turn your back on me forever."

"You were instrumental in saving my husband's life. You're Harry's lover and part of our family now. There isn't anything you could tell me about your past that will change that," she denied with typical Gryffindor fervour.

That Hermione meant every word she said was clear.

Part of our family. Both she and her husband had certainly treated him as such during his convalescence.

Severus didn't quite gulp. The sentiment moved him more than it should have. All his life, he'd been able to mock this kind of unwavering devotion, but that was when he was an object of Gryffindor scorn. Not even Albus had ever demonstrated this level of faith in his character.

But she didn't know his true character. All she knew was the unpleasant adult who'd lived like a monk in his dungeons before Harry. She knew nothing of the indiscretions of his youth. She wouldn't be here if she did.

Taking a deep breath, he revealed the truth that he knew would sever their connection forever, "From my first week in Hogwarts, I was Lucius Malfoy's catamite. I wish there were a more genteel term for it, but there isn't. When I was in my second year, three of Lucius' friends joined our little study group and I serviced them as well." Her eyes were huge as saucers as he continued, "After Lucius and his group left school, several of the upper class Slytherins, shall we say, took an interest in me. I was foolish enough to believe that they were my friends. I learned the truth the day I heard two of my 'friends' discussing me privately. It was only then that I realized that I might as well have charged for my services, for all the respect they bore me."

Severus held his breath in the silence that followed. A part of him could not believe that he had revealed these things to Hermione Weasley of his own volition. He forced himself to hold her gaze.

He'd anticipated contempt and disgust. What he didn't expect was for her eyes to cloud up and pain to fill her expression. "Oh, Severus."

Her whisper sounded on the verge of tears.

"Please, spare me your pity -"

"Pity?" Hermione shocked him by reaching across the student's bench to lay her hand on his where it rested on his desk. She was touching him? "You're my friend. How could I fail to be upset by something which hurt you like that?"

Once again, he could read only truth in her open features. She was upset on his behalf?

Panicked, because this wasn't a reaction he was prepared to deal with, he asked the only question that made sense, "Did you fail to understand what I said?"

Perhaps she was unfamiliar with the term he'd used. He didn't want to be any blunter, but he didn't want her misinterpreting him.

"You just told me you were taken advantage of in your first year at school. You can't think that I'd . . . ." She seemed to read exactly what he'd been thinking in his face. "For God's sake, Severus. You didn't really expect me to . . . ."

"Turn your back on me forever?" he voiced his deepest fear in what he hoped was a sardonic tone. He knew how proper and honourable she was. There was nothing of either in what he'd done.

He knew her well enough to believe that she wouldn't circulate what he'd told her beyond her husband and Harry, but he'd fully expected her to want nothing further to do with him.

"You think that I'd . . . that Harry would stop caring about you because of something that happened years before we were born?" Hermione asked.

"No one would blame you for disassociating yourself from someone with such . . . an unsavoury background," Severus said with as much calm as he could muster. This wasn't going at all as he'd planned. She was supposed to be on her feet and out the door, not sitting there holding his hand, watching him like he were breaking her heart the way he had Harry's last night.

"Unsavoury? You were eleven years old. Consider what you're saying. Think about how you'd react if it were one of our first year students who'd been taken advantage of by an older student this way. Would it be the first year who earned your censure?" she asked.

He stared at her as if she'd cast a petrification spell on him, unable to move, barely able to breathe as her question ripped through him.

"Well, who would you hold responsible?" she prodded. "The first year or the older student?"

"I . . . I was a willing participant," Severus protested, unwilling to allow her to paint this into some Gryffindor tragedy.

"You were eleven years old. Children do some very desperate things to fit into their peer groups," Hermione said.

"You would never have done anything so . . . unseemly," Severus said.

"Don't be so sure about that. I had Ron and Harry from my first few weeks in school. It doesn't sound like you were that lucky when it came to friends. I know what it's like not to fit in. Before Hogwarts, I spent the entire six years I was in school friendless," she said.

"Loneliness is hardly a fitting excuse for prostituting oneself," Severus argued.

"You didn't prostitute yourself," Hermione insisted. "You were a child who was preyed upon by older classmates. None of this is . . . anything that could come between us. It certainly isn't anything that would drive Harry away."

"It's something I can't stand him knowing," Severus said, feeling almost nauseous from his conflicting emotions. He would be grateful to Hermione until the day he died for the kindness she was extending to him on this subject. Yet, for all her assurances, everything in him still cringed under the memories of the horrific mistakes he'd made.

"It doesn't change the man you are," Hermione said. "Harry loves you."

Feeling trapped, Severus said, "You don't understand. You've always been good and brave and kind. You've always done the right thing and made the right choices. I . . . haven't."

"I don't understand what that has to do with this," Hermione said, appearing genuinely confused. "Harry knows you. He loves you."

"From the start, it has been difficult for me to ignore how . . . inappropriate it is for Harry to be with me this way," Severus admitted.

"Inappropriate?" she echoed as if she didn't understand the definition of the word.

"I'm old enough to be his father. He ignores the age difference. My days with Voldemort have scarred me a social leper. He acts as if the rest of the world holding me in contempt means nothing to him."

"How is that a problem?" Hermione questioned.

Severus found his gaze dropping to where her hand still rested on top of his newly grown hand. "Harry is already overlooking more than any man should be asked to deal with. To expect him to forgive this as well . . . ."

"Don't you get it? He loves you! There's nothing to forgive." Hermione said. "You make him happy. That's all that Harry cares about."

Severus took a deep breath before saying, "He is meant for something better than spoilt goods."

"My God! You're doing this for Harry's sake?"

She couldn't be as appalled as she sounded. Surely, even if she could forgive him his indiscretions, she had to realize how unsuitable he was for Harry?

"I should never have allowed things to go this far," Severus said. "It's better for all involved if it ends now."

Hermione was silent for a long moment.

Severus forced himself to bear her examination.

Finally, she asked in a soft, tentative tone, "Severus, did you ever think that perhaps it's you who needs to forgive yourself?"

"There's no forgiving certain acts, only living with them."

For a second, she seemed prepared to argue his statement, then she took a different line of reasoning, "This isn't the time to make this kind of decision. You just went through a terrible trauma. You're upset. You're confused," she said.

"Are you questioning my sanity?" he demanded.

"No. You've every right to be crazy after what that bastard did to you, but somehow you managed to stay sane. But . . . that doesn't mean you're thinking straight. Harry mentioned that Burke used his mental skills to torment you. Can you be sure that these things you're saying are how you really feel and not ideas Burke implanted in your mind? Remember what he did to poor Carl. He was more than capable of brainwashing someone."

Severus shivered. He could hear Burke calling him a snivelling coward as he raped his mind. He could feel him examining every memory of his time with Harry and showing him how unworthy he was of Harry's regard. He'd known it all along, of course, but Burke had made certain facts clear.

"Burke didn't tell me anything I hadn't known all along," Severus said at last. He felt so brittle that the compassion in her warm, brown eyes nearly shattered him.

"But before Burke, Harry was important enough for you to try to make things work," Hermione said. "Don't you see? That monster manipulated you."

"Before Burke's revelation, I was able to bask in Potter's ignorance of certain facts. Now that he knows . . . there is no pretence, no hiding who and what I am."

"Doesn't that make it easier, though?" she asked. "There's no need to hide. Harry knows, and it doesn't matter to him."

"It matters to me," Severus said.

They both started as the bell, signalling the change of period, rang.

"Damn," Hermione cursed. "I've got to get up to my classroom. Severus, what you said will go no further. Thank you for trusting me."

"I didn't do it out of trust," he protested.

She glanced at the door to ensure that they were still alone before quickly saying, "I know, and I know how much you're hurting and how much you love Harry. You can work through this."

"There's nothing to work through."

"Yes, there is. That monster Burke does not get to destroy your life. You're a good man. You deserve to be happy, so does Harry. I know you're not going to be interested in this now, but . . . I have a friend who helps people heal mentally and emotionally after the kind of trauma you suffered. He helped Carl handle what Burke did to him."

"You're talking about a Muggle psychiatrist," Severus said, remembering Harry mentioning that Mr. Westfield had been consulting a Muggle doctor.

"John's a Squib. Do you remember Lydia Penbroke?" she asked.

"Slytherin, five years your senior," Severus automatically answered, wondering how she would know Miss Penbroke. He knew for a fact that Potter and his cronies hadn't associated with anyone in his house during their school days, certainly not a Slytherin five years older than them.

"John's her brother."

"How do you know Miss Penbroke and her family?" he asked.

"It's Mrs. Forrester now," Hermione startled him yet again by correcting him. "She married right after school."

"That still doesn't explain your acquaintanceship," he reminded. It took a good ten minutes for a class to make it down to his Potions dungeon from Hagrid's Care of Magical Creatures class out in the field. They should have perhaps nine minutes of privacy before his next class started to filter in. Hermione, would, of course, be late for her next class up in the Arithmancy tower, but this conversation had been her idea.

"Lydia has a son, Marcus, her only child. He was a very sick little boy. His only joy was quidditch. He, um, worshipped Harry when he was on the Cannons. There was a point when Marcus was in St. Mungo's, dying. One of Lydia's cousins had a child in my Arithmancy class who told her that Harry sometimes came to visit me at Hogwarts. Lydia came to me to ask if I'd get Harry to send her boy an autographed picture. She thought it would help raise his spirits."

"Potter did it, of course," Severus said, still not understanding how any of this would lead to Hermione knowing Lydia Penbroke's family well enough to have met a Squib brother.

"Not exactly. Harry brought his entire team down to meet Marcus. He'd asked me to come introduce him to Lydia, and, well, her brother John was visiting Marcus the day Harry and his teammates came. John and I got to talking about the need the Wizarding World has for people in his field, and, well . . . we've been fast friends ever since."

"I see," he said. Curious, he asked. "The boy lived?"

"Marcus should receive his Hogwarts letter this year," Hermione said with a smile. The story had a happy ending, of course. Gryffindors would accept nothing less.

Severus had to credit her, for her next words proved that Hermione knew what to say to best persuade him. He wouldn't go, of course, but it was clear she knew him well enough to know what approach to take. Harry had never been this devious. "Lydia's entire family have been in Slytherin house for centuries. John knows all about the Wizarding World. No one need ever know you consulted him. He's helped a lot of wizards through difficult periods. "

"Is that what you call this . . . a 'difficult period'?" Severus questioned.

Hermione's face was shining with the serene certainty that Severus had seen depicted in the pictures his Muggle grandmother had of Muggle saints as she replied, "Yes. You will get through this, without losing Harry."

He was saved a reply by the noisy arrival of the first of his third year Potions class.

She quickly withdrew her hand from his before any of the students entered the class far enough to see that they were touching. Standing up from the student's bench, she said, "I'm late."

For all that it had seemed he might never smile again after last night, he couldn't help but give her a small one at her expression. "Yes, you are."

"You really need to work on being less gleeful about the misfortunes of others," Hermione commented, but she was grinning.

"Such small joys get me through the day," he answered, unable to believe that she would actually joke with him the morning after he'd dumped her best friend.

"Right," she said. "Before I go, here's John's card. Please don't incinerate it until I've left the room. He's on the floo network. If you should decide to go and want some company, I'd be more than happy to go with you." As she placed a small white card of thick parchment on his desk, she lowered her voice so that the children grouped in the back of the classroom curiously watching them wouldn't hear her next words, "Harry need never know."

"I'll take it under consideration," he said.

"I'll see you at lunch," Hermione said and then finally left.

As his students began to file into the classroom, he stared at the little white card on his desk. He was tempted to do precisely as she'd thought he would and ignite the damn thing with a thought. Those do-gooder Gryffindors thought they could fix everything.

Only . . . after what he'd told her this morning, he'd expected her to be gone, not offering to accompany him to doctor appointments. That she would not only remain, but be so supportive, was more than he could comprehend. Although he didn't understand her reasons, he was ridiculously grateful not to have lost the only platonic friend he'd made since Albus' death.

He reached out to pick the card up and place it in his robe pocket. He could always toss it into the hearth when he got home.


Nights were the worst, Harry decided. During the day, it was hard to sit at the teachers' table with Severus, pretending that the mere sight of the man wasn't ripping his heart to shreds, but he could do it. His classes kept him occupied during most of the rest of the day, and Hermione and Ron were turning handstands to try to cheer him up. In daylight, he was pretty much able to deal.

However, once Ron and Hermione retired for the night, Harry felt like he was being haunted by a man who wasn't even dead. Sleep was a thing of the past. Even with Severus' Dreamless Sleep potion, he only got a couple of hours in before the cold on the other side of the bed where Severus was supposed to be sleeping would wake him. He was beginning to feel like a bloody house ghost; he was spending so much time walking the school halls after dark.

Well, tonight he'd actually gone outside. The sleet had finally let up. It might be nearly the end of February, but the gales were still blowing down out of the mountains fierce as if spring would never come. He wasn't going to complain. The wind had cleared the clouds. The sky overhead was black as velvet, glittering with millions of stars.

Harry took his Firebolt up into the night sky and sought one of the few pleasures left to him. He'd been neglecting his flying while with Severus, he realized. He waited for his optimistic side to point out that at least now he'd be able to practice regularly again, but even the eternal optimist in him was hurting too badly to even try to suggest that there was anything the least bit good about Severus breaking it off with him.

The weird part was he couldn't even blame Severus. Hermione had told him about the talk, well talks, she'd had with Severus. It only confirmed what he'd known all along, that Severus was hurting so badly from what Burke had done to him that he couldn't cope with intimacy on any level. Though he wished he could have been the one in whom Severus had confided, he was glad Severus had Hermione to talk to. It was hard, though, so hard to be cut off cold like this. He'd never felt so lost in his life.

Working out his frustrations in the only way that had ever truly helped, he swooped through the sky fast as a Muggle fighter jet. The winds were so strong that he normally wouldn't have gone up for fun in weather like this, but fighting the air currents gave him something to think about other than his broken heart.

He found himself falling into the practice routine he'd used to fly when playing for the Cannons. Crisscrossing the quidditch field, he covered every inch of territory from the ground to half a mile up. The winds were merciless that high, intent on ripping his robes right off him, but he kept flying.

His favourite moves, the ones that had won him more games than he could count, were the ones where he'd used his courage against the other team. Muggles called it playing chicken. He'd learned in first year that if he veered straight at a spectator tower or some other immobile object while chasing the snitch, his opponent would bail out long before absolutely necessary. Of course, knowing when 'absolutely necessary' arrived took a bit of skill, but he had those last minute turns down to an art form. He knew the exact moment he had to shift his broom to prevent a lethal accident. The high winds made those moves a bit chancier, but the concentration it was taking to keep from splattering on the stands and announcer's tower was finally clearing his troubled mind.

Three weeks. It had been three full weeks since Severus dumped him. No. He wasn't supposed to be thinking about that.

Narrowly avoiding becoming part of the spire on the announcer's tower, he aimed his broom towards the ground, realizing it was a lost cause. Not even flying was going to get his mind off Severus.

He swooped down as if he were hot on a snitch's tail, speeding straight towards the slushy earth so fast that stopping would take every bit of his concentration.

He was just about to put the breaks on, quidditchly speaking, when a magic as strong and fierce as the winds ripping at him plucked him out of his dive and held him frozen in place a safe four feet above the snowy field. He was strong enough to break that magical hold, but he was curious to see who had been powerful enough to halt his plunge. Even Professor Dumbledore had experienced difficulty in stopping him from falling when those dementors had knocked him from his broom in third year.

"Are you attempting to kill yourself?" Severus' familiar deep voice demanded from somewhere in the shadows beside the Hufflepuff stand. "I had thought you above such melodrama."

A stranger probably wouldn't have noticed a thing off in Severus' voice, but Harry could hear how genuinely frightened Severus was.

"I wasn't going to kill myself," he protested, finally picking Severus' tall silhouette out of the inky darkness beside the stands.

"That wasn't what it looked like from here," Severus said. "What the Devil were you thinking? Taking a broom up on a night like this!"

Harry supposed he should be grateful Severus was angry with him. If his former lover truly hadn't cared, Severus wouldn't have been upset if he chose to splatter himself on the side of the wall.

"I was just practicing," Harry insisted.

"Potter, it's not worth this. I know you're still . . . upset, but you'll -"

"Don't you dare tell me I'll get over it!" Harry cut him off. "What the hell do you care if I smear myself against the wall? You've made it plain you want nothing to do with me."

"I don't want you dead," Severus answered.

Hearing the genuine fear in Severus' voice, Harry took a deep breath and tried to calm down. He knew how this must look to Severus.

If he'd come out here and seen Severus using himself as a living bullet for target practice with the walls, he might have been similarly freaked out. Severus had never seen him fly professionally, or even watched him practice, for that matter. His lover had no way of knowing how routine his moves had been.

"Look, I wasn't trying to kill myself. I promise. I used to fly like this all the time with the Cannons. I was just about to break the dive when you grabbed hold of me. Speaking of which, would you let me down now?"

That mighty force holding him motionless as a fly in amber cut off like a Muggle light switch had been thrown. Harry righted his broom automatically and coasted over to where Severus was standing and hovered before him so that they were at eye level.

The starlight wasn't as bright as moonlight, but it was good enough to see by. Looking into that lean, strong-boned face, he thought Severus appeared as haunted as he felt. It was two in the morning. Obviously, Severus wasn't sleeping any better than he was these days.

All he wanted to do was take that long, slender figure into his arms and hug Severus until everything was all right. Knowing how utterly juvenile and useless the impulse was, he took a deep breath of the icy night air and said, "I'm sorry I alarmed you."

"It isn't just this," Severus said. "You've . . . ."

"Yes?" Harry prompted, ready to let Severus vent in whatever way he needed to. He realized that with everything Severus was dealing with, it wasn't fair of him to make the man think he was trying to commit suicide with a broom.

"You haven't been yourself lately. You're not eating properly. You're not sleeping. The Weasleys are beside themselves with worry."

It was clear Hermione and Ron weren't the only ones beside themselves, Harry realized. He wanted to say whatever was necessary to make Severus feel better, but the part of him that was still reeling from Severus' rejection couldn't play nice. "I had my world knocked out from under me three weeks ago. I'm sorry if I can't carry on like nothing happened." Part of him wanted to yell 'This is all your fault!', but he managed to restrain the childish impulse.

"It's not worth this. Nothing is worth this," Severus said.

"I already told you I wasn't trying to kill myself. Look, I'm sorry you had to see me practice. I'll fly over the woods next time. Only . . . don't expect me to act like everything's normal. I'm doing my best to be adult about this, but I'm not Superman. I love you, and it hurts that you don't want anything to do with me anymore. It hurts so much, Severus." Realizing that he was on the verge of disgracing himself entirely, he swallowed hard and looked off towards the Forbidden Forest's dark fringe in the distance.

"I didn't do this to hurt you," Severus said in a voice that sounded lost and vulnerable.

"I know. I know you were hurt so bad that it messed everything up for us." Harry took another gulp of the icy air. "None of this is your fault, so . . . don't feel bad about it, okay?"

Something seemed to snap in Severus, for he all but shouted, "Must you always be so bloody noble? Can't you rail at me like you should? You should be hating me, not . . . . You need to move on, Potter. Pull yourself out of this funk and find some handsome young man. I'm not worth all this."

Landing his broom, Harry grabbed hold of Severus' arms. The man was trembling like a Jelly-leg jinx had been cast on his entire body.

"Ssssh," Harry tried to sooth. "It's all right."

"It's not all right!" Severus protested. "You're young and beautiful. You should be out sowing your wild oats, not trying to kill yourself over the likes of me."

Harry was so distracted by how warm Severus felt against his wind-chilled hands that it took him a minute to interpret what Severus was saying. Young and beautiful? Hermione had told him that she thought Severus was leaving him for his own good, but he hadn't believed her. Now, he was beginning to wonder if maybe she wasn't right about that, too.

Recognizing how close Severus was to some kind of breakdown, he stepped closer and wrapped his arms around his perhaps-former lover. Severus was so thin he could feel his bones through his heavy winter robes. And Severus had the nerve to talk about him not eating properly!

Harry was worried that his move might precipitate an explosion, but Severus responded the same as he had to every one of his tentative openings while in infirmary. Instead of pulling back and demanding that Harry unhand him, Severus melted against him. Those long arms closed around him and squeezed as if holding on for dear life.

It was sheer heaven. Harry gulped in breath after breath of the Severus-scented air.

"You're okay. I'm okay. We're both okay," Harry murmured into Severus' neck as the taller man wrapped himself around him.

For what felt like an eternity, they clung to each other. Harry couldn't really tell who was comforting whom, all he knew was that they'd both obviously been hungering for this for weeks.

It broke his heart when Severus stiffened in his arms and pulled away as if he'd suddenly realized what he was doing.

"Forgive me. That was . . . unpardonable," Severus said in a shaky voice.

"That was wonderful," Harry corrected.

The starlight had turned the whites of Severus' eyes to silver and cast a strange bluish tint over the rest of his features.

Harry could feel those glittering eyes regarding him as though he were completely mental.

"Can I ask you something?" Harry asked, his heart pounding as he was struck with the kind of sudden inspiration that had pulled his friends and him out of the proverbial fire many a time in their harrowing younger days.

"Yes," Severus said, adding a guarded, "I can't promise I'll answer."

"Did you lie to me that night we broke up three weeks ago?"

"Lie about what?" Severus responded.

"When you said that the reason we couldn't be together anymore was because of the things Burke told me when I rescued you," Harry said, holding his breath because he wasn't sure how Severus would react to his mentioning Burke's revelation, not to mention questioning his probity. "Was that the truth?"

Severus gave a stiff, "It was."

"So, if Burke had never said those things, you would still let me share your life?" Harry asked.

"What ifs are rarely satisfying," Severus said.

"Just answer the question. If Burke hadn't said anything, would we still be together?" Harry pressed.

"I . . . ." Severus paused, and then whispered, "Yes."

"I want to be with you, Severus, and I'm not talking about just sex here. I want to have the right to hold you like we just did, and to talk you through the shakes when the nightmares wake you up. And I think you want that, too."

"Unfortunately, what I want is immaterial. What he told you that night changed things between us forever -"

Before Severus could go any further, Harry interrupted with a calm, "So take it away."

Severus was staring at him again as if he'd gone daft. "What?"

"You're the strongest wizard alive when it comes to the mental arts. You're saying that the only thing standing between us and happiness are the things that bastard said to me – things that don't make any difference to me. So go into my mind and take the memories away. I know you have the skill to do it. I'll never know the difference. Just go in and erase everything you don't want me to remember, and then we can be together again," Harry pleaded.

"You can't be serious," Severus said after a long pause.

"I'm entirely serious. The only other person who knows what Burke said to me is Hermione, and you told her yourself. If you ask her not to speak of it, I'll never find out. Please fix this so that we can be together again?" Harry didn't quite beg.

"You are seriously suggesting that I . . . ?"

"I want you back. I don't care what it takes; I'll do it. I don’t know why it took me so long to come up with this idea. It's brilliant," Harry said, feeling so happy as the heavy weight lifted off his heart that he feared he might break into hysterical laugher at any moment.

"It's insane."

"Maybe, but it works for me," Harry said. "What about you? Can you deal with it?"

Severus gave a slow nod.

"Okay, go ahead," Harry said, stepping back into Severus' personal space.

"What? You want me to do this here . . . now?" Severus said in a near-stammer.

"Why not?" Harry said. "Go on, fix me."

"Let me understand. You wish me to erase anything from your memory that . . . ."

"Makes you uncomfortable," Harry said.

"Anything that makes me uncomfortable?" Severus checked.

Harry didn't know what it was in Severus' tone that sent the shiver down his spine, but the hair on the nape of his neck was standing up straight as he affirmed, "Anything. I love you and I want us to be together."

The pause that followed seemed to last a century.

"As you wish," Severus finally conceded.

Harry stepped even closer. His heart was pounding; he was so excited that things were finally going to go right for them.

Severus reached out his newly regrown right hand, resting his chilly fingertips against the equally cool skin on Harry's temple.

Those fingers stroked into his hair for a moment. Harry didn't understand the intense sadness he caught in Severus' expression in a fleeting instance of openness.

"What's wrong?" Harry asked.

"I have never said it to you before, Harry Potter, but I love you as I have loved no other person or thing in my life," Severus said in a strangely choked whisper.

Finally! Harry's heart gave a jubilant shout. "I love you, too."

He watched Severus lower his head. As those cold, thin lips touched his, he hungrily returned the kiss.

When he felt Severus' mind brush questioningly against his own, he opened himself fully and joyfully to his lover's mind-touch.


Harry never even saw it coming, Severus thought, shaken by his own temerity. He still couldn't believe what he'd just done.

Wondering if perhaps they were all wrong and he really was insane, he stared down at the handsome man lying unconscious at his feet. He knew he had to be completely mental to have done what he'd just done. No sane person would violate another's mind and trust as he'd just done to Harry.

Harry had offered him everything he'd ever wanted, had trusted him enough to allow him to manipulate his very memories. He could have had it all; instead, he'd left himself with nothing.

But . . . he hadn't lied to Harry. He loved him more than he loved anything. It wasn't right that Harry be so . . . desperate for company that he'd be willing to let someone adjust his memories.

Severus knew that he was broken beyond repair. Even if Harry weren't aware of his awful past, there was no way he'd ever be able to be what he'd once been to him, and Harry deserved to have everything that was good and wonderful in this world.

And now he would.

Severus schooled his face as a groan sounded from near his feet. Holding his breath, he watched as Harry rolled over onto his back and blinked up at him in confusion.


"Are you all right?" Severus asked in as normal a tone as he could manage. He'd seen what Harry's mage fire could do to human flesh. He didn't want to end up on the wrong end of that elemental force, which could well happen if he'd made a single mistake, besides, of course, the original mistake of betraying Harry. Even now, mere moments after he'd acted, he knew how wrong he'd been.

"Er, yeah, I think so." Harry's confused gaze moved from him to the nearby spectator bleachers. "Did I really hit the wall?"

Taking a deep breath as he took the next step down this path of deception, Severus said, "So it would seem. Are you injured?"

Harry shook his head. "No. But I should be dead. You stopped me from hitting the stand full force, didn't you?"

There was little difference between impacting with the wall or the frozen ground, Severus told himself as he gave yet another nod.

"Thanks," Harry said, giving his arm a friendly pat and gifting him with a grin the likes of which Severus hadn't seen since before his abduction.

Maybe the decision hadn't been so wrong, after all.

Already feeling better about his choice, Severus solemnly answered, "No thanks are necessary."

"It's weird. I've never hit a wall before," Harry said, picking up his broom.

"Well, the winds are high tonight," Severus said.

"Yes, they are. Good thing for me you were up and about. I don't even know what made me think flying at this hour in these winds was such a bright idea. I usually only fly at night when I'm upset about something," Harry said.

Severus tensed, waiting to see if his handiwork would hold. He was so exhausted from the effort it had taken to rework Harry's memories that he could barely stay vertical.

"Whoa, there," Harry said, grabbing onto him as he swayed. "Are you all right?"

"Merely tired," Severus lied around the pounding in his head.

"Right. That's why you're turning green. Do you need Poppy?" Harry asked, adjusting the broom in his right hand so it wasn't digging into Severus' forearm.

"No. I merely need some sleep," Severus denied.

"All right. Let's get in out of this wind," Harry said, keeping hold of his arm as he guided him back towards the castle.

Rather than make a fuss, Severus allowed Harry to accompany him straight to his door, which would have been out of the question this morning. It was strange to see Harry's eyes look at him with simply the fondness of a friend. For so many months now, this man had seemed able to read his very soul with a glance, but there was nothing other than surface concern in Harry's gaze now. It didn't seem to hurt Harry to look at him anymore, which was what Severus had intended.

"Thank you, Potter," Severus acknowledged when they reached the door to his quarters. He hadn't expected it to hurt so much to see Harry so changed towards him, but, as with most of the impulsive decisions he'd made in his life, he hadn't thought this one through.

"No problem," Harry dismissed. Giving him a sudden grin, Harry said, "Hey, do you want to go to the Three Broomsticks for drinks Friday night? Ron and Hermione are going. I know things have been hard for you lately, but it might help to get out."

This was where his deception was going to get difficult. He hadn't been able to completely erase Harry's memory of their relationship. Too many people knew that Harry had rescued him from Burke, and their immediate friends knew Harry had healed him. Harry had to retain knowledge of these events for daily interaction. There was no way he could return Potter to a state prior to their détente without leaving Harry questioning why he would have worked so hard to heal someone he disliked intensely. So, Severus had been forced to return Harry to the state their relationship had been at in mid-October before they'd become lovers. Détente, drinks out several nights a week. It was more contact than Severus was ready for, but it had been his only choice.

Well, not his only choice. He could have simply done what Harry had asked him to do and removed the conversation with Burke, instead of walling off the memory of their entire affair, but that would have tied Harry to him indefinitely. It was time for Harry to be moving on.


"Er, what?" he snapped to attention.

"Did you want to go for drinks at the Three Broomsticks Friday night?" Harry asked again, worry beginning to enter his attitude.

"Yes, that would be fine."

"Great. I'll see you at breakfast, then. Make sure you take some of that headache draught before you go to bed. You look rough," Harry said.

"I will. Good night, Harry," Severus absently said as he took his leave.

Harry had turned to go, but he froze suddenly to look back at him.

"What?" Severus asked, for Harry's shock was plain.

Had his work toppled so soon, Severus fretted, realizing that couldn't be the cause of Harry's reaction. Harry simply appeared surprised. No, once Harry realized what he'd done to him, Harry would be after his blood, not merely looking confused.

"You just called me Harry. You never call me by my first name," Harry said,

Cursing himself an idiot, Severus tried to cover with, "Forgive me . . . ."

"Nothing to forgive. I like it. See you tomorrow, Severus."

Venting a relieved breath, Severus watched the light-footed young man who had once shared his bed and life hurry up the dungeon stairs, as carefree as a first year. Seeing the bounce that was back in Harry's step, Severus tried to tell himself that he'd made the right decision.


"You seem very happy this morning," Hermione Weasley commented as a whistling Harry sat down beside her at the teachers' table at breakfast.

For the first time since Severus had broken it off with Harry, there weren't dark circles under his eyes. She couldn't recall the last time she'd seen him so rested and animated. He'd been exhausted during Severus' prolonged healing, which had been pretty bad in itself; but since Severus had called things off, Harry had been like the walking dead. The only time he displayed any life at all was when he was in front of a class. The moment the students were out the door, he'd wilt like May daffodils.

"Yeah, I feel great," Harry said.

"What's got you so cheerful, then?" Ron asked Harry from her other side as he buttered a slice of toast.

Severus wasn't at the table yet, she worriedly realized. Normally, he was the first one down to breakfast. Well, him or Harry. They were running neck and neck for the finish line when it came to the most-tormented award.

"Severus said he'd go to the Three Broomsticks with me tomorrow," Harry said as he reached for the bacon. He gave a startled "Ummph!" as she flung her arms around him and hugged him.

"That's great, Harry! I'm so happy for you," Hermione enthused.

Ron reached across her to pat Harry on the back. "I'm glad for you, mate, for you both, truth be told."

Harry was giving them both the strangest look as she released him.

"It's just drinks at the Three Broomsticks," Harry said.

"Yes, well. It's a start, isn't it?" she said.

"A start?" Harry echoed, seeming oddly confused.

"I know Severus isn't ready for much, but at least he's willing to try. It's a breakthrough, isn't it?" Already her day was looking much brighter. She could hardly wait till she got Severus alone during their free period.

The confusion seemed to clear from Harry's face. "Yeah. I guess I just wasn't thinking about it that way. It's got to be a good sign that he's willing to socialize again."

"That's right," she agreed.

"Put a sock in it, the both of you," Ron warned from Hermione's far side. "Himself's just entered the Great Hall."

"Good morning," Severus greeted as he took the empty chair on Ron's far side.

"You must be feeling better," Harry said to Severus. "You've actually joined us."

Severus didn't look as though he were feeling better. To the contrary, he paled at Harry's words as if he'd made some kind of major social gaffe.

For her part, Hermione couldn't understand Harry's comment. Severus had been sitting with them since Ron had blundered in on Harry and him months ago.

Severus' next words cleared her confusion.

"Yes, my headache is much improved," Severus said.

Realizing that that must be what Harry had been referring to, she turned to Severus. "You have a headache?"

Now that she looked at him closely, she realized he looked very much as he would on those mornings after he'd rewritten one of Harry's night terrors.

"Had," Severus corrected, although she suspected from the tension around his purple-bagged eyes that he was lying to her. "I'm afraid lack of sleep is taking its toll. I might have to beg off on our outing tomorrow night, Potter."

To her absolute bewilderment, Harry gave what appeared to be an understanding nod. "No problem. We can go some day next week if you're up to it."

If Severus were up to it? Harry had been pining for weeks for Severus to spend a little time with him. How could he be so blasé about Severus cancelling on him like this?

Ron and she exchanged a mutually confused look as a seemingly unperturbed Harry attacked his breakfast with the gusto of a man who hadn't eaten in weeks, which was almost literally the truth. It was obvious from Ron's face that he'd expected Harry to be devastated by Severus' cancellation the same as she had.

A glance Severus' way showed him watching them all as though he'd been thrown into a den of man-eating lions.

Her stomach tensed into a tight knot. She didn't know what the hell was going on, but she was sure she wasn't going to like it. Her happiness a thing of the past, she poked at her now-cold porridge and tried to be surreptitious about watching Harry and Severus, which wasn't exactly easy as they were on opposite sides of her. Wondering how she was going to approach Severus on this subject, she took a deep breath and practiced patience.






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