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překlady 6

Severus' eyes snapped open. All he could see was the textured grey of knitted wool. Confused, he stared into what seemed to be a grey jumper that his face appeared to be pressed into. Taking stock of himself, he realized that his cheek was pillowed on something warm and firm that could only be someone's lap. As his mind was besieged with the what, where, and who of it, the legs supporting his cheek shifted.

Harry Potter's unmistakable voice gave a sleepy, "Good morning."

Disjointed memories of Harry leading him back to the castle from that awful storm he'd been standing in slithered through his mind. Realizing that he had no right to be lying here with his head in Harry's lap, he forced himself up.

As his sleepy mind became cognizant of his physical state, Severus realized that this was the first time in months that he hadn't woken in stark terror. More than that, his eyes weren't gritty and sore this morning. Nor did his muscles feel as though he'd spent the night being stretched on Burke's rack. He still felt awfully tired, but it wasn't the abject exhaustion he was used to experiencing. Abruptly, he recalled Harry's offer to help him last night. Clearly, he owed the first decent night's sleep he'd had since January to Harry's magic.

Not knowing what to say, he watched Harry shift up from his slumped position in the corner of the couch and stretch. From the wince Harry gave, it seemed his neck was bothering him. Little wonder, that. He realized that Harry must have spent the entire night sitting there safeguarding him while he slept. He couldn't recall having a single nightmare.

"How are you feeling?" Harry asked, nothing but worry in his face.

Severus gave a dry swallow. He felt mortified and deeply ashamed. Harry should not be here doing these things for him. Finding his voice, he rasped out, "I . . . should not have imposed on you last night. This was . . . ." Words failed him under the enormity of this new transgression.

"You were out on your feet last night. It was me who did the imposing, so let's not worry about that right now," Harry dismissed in that easygoing way he had and repeated, "How are you feeling?"

Reading the genuine concern in those tired features, Severus answered, "Better. I . . . thank you."

"You look a lot better," Harry said. "But you probably could use another two or three days sleep. I know I could."

"You should not be exhausting yourself on my behalf," Severus said, uneasy under that steady, green gaze that he remembered so well.

"I didn't exhaust myself. Last night was actually the first night I got some real sleep since January," Harry said.

Reading the truth in that, Severus dropped his gaze to the stained trousers he was wearing. His shirt wasn't in much better state, he realized, taking in the unwashed linen. He could smell himself. He knew Harry had to be able to smell him, too. He reeked, and, yet, Harry was sitting there close beside him as though everything were perfectly normal.

"Severus?"

Snagged by the softness in that voice that could lure him into his grave, he made himself look back up and meet those concerned eyes. "Yes?"

"We've both been through the wringer since January. If something helps, maybe we shouldn't question it too much."

"I can't allow you to -" Severus began.

Harry cut him off with an adamant, "Yes, you can. You slept. I slept. It was a mutually beneficial exchange."

"You spent the night twisted like a pretzel," Severus said. Even now, Harry was moving his head as if trying to loosen the muscles in his neck. Time was when he would have reached over to knead those aches away, but those days were long gone.

"But I slept," Harry said with a small smile.

Though it had felt like heaven to sleep straight through last night, Severus' conscience wouldn't allow him to do so at Harry's expense. "You cannot spend every night sitting upright on a couch."

"Then we'll move into the bedroom tonight," Harry said. The tension that claimed him must have shown on his face, for Harry continued with, "Oh, for . . . we'll wear pyjamas, all right? If it's that big a deal, I'll transfigure a cot next to your bed. I just have to be close enough to you for my magic to flow. We'll work it out. Please, don't . . . stress over this? Last night helped us both. Let's try it, okay? Please?"

His pride was insisting that he reject the offer out of hand. Only, what Harry had done for him last night felt like it had snatched him back from the brink of insanity. Though hardly normal, his mind was functioning much clearer this morning than it had in months. His body wasn't a collection of aches and throbs. He felt . . . transformed. How could he possibly turn down the offer of another nightmare-free night?

"I know it is weak," Severus said, "but . . . ."

"It's not weak," Harry denied. "It's sensible. We both need the rest. Now, do you feel up to some breakfast?"

To his complete surprise, he was starving. Giving a nod, Severus watched Harry, still unable to understand why he was here involving himself in his problems.

"Good," Harry said with a genuine grin. "Why don't you go take a shower while I ask Dobby to get us something to eat?"

Although the suggestion was lightly voiced, Severus could see how hard Harry was struggling to maintain the semblance of normality. No one knew better than he how close he was to snapping and losing the slippery grip he had on sanity. He wanted to let Harry know how much he appreciated the effort he was making here, but couldn't think of a way to do so without turning the scene into some maudlin horror that would embarrass them both.

Finding the tattered remains of his humour, Severus held those hopeful eyes and said in his driest tone, "You could just say I stink."

Harry's eyes widened and then he chuckled. "Okay, you stink. Go shower."

Amazed, Severus felt his own lips twitch. It was incredible what a single night's uninterrupted sleep could do for a person's outlook on life. Holding those laughing eyes, he said, "You needn't be so blunt. Don't you Gryffindors have even a vestige of diplomacy?"

"The reek killed it," Harry countered, barely getting the words out around his laughter. "Go on. Get in there and bathe."

Severus couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Harry laugh like this. The sound was oddly healing.

For the first time in forever, there wasn't even a shadow of strain between them. Things weren't normal by any stretch of the imagination, but there wasn't any hostility or contention tainting the air, only the reek of his unwashed body.

As he rose from the couch and headed to the bedroom to retrieve fresh undergarments and clothes, Severus couldn't help but wonder just what kind of magic Harry had used on him last night. He knew Harry hadn't violated his mind, but he felt so entirely transformed that he couldn't help but suspect that Harry had performed some kind of manipulation beyond simply providing him some much needed sleep. Twenty-four hours ago, he'd been convinced his world was ending. Minerva had all but told him she was going to pack him off to St. Mungo's. The situation with Harry had seemed hopeless. It felt like everything was crashing down on him. But now . . . .

The situation with Harry didn't seem quite so hopeless. That was the one, true difference, Severus recognized. There was no chance that they would ever be lovers again or regain the closeness they'd lost when he'd betrayed Harry's trust, but Harry really seemed to have forgiven him enough to be his friend. That unexpected boon was enough to lessen even the threat of St. Mungo's.

He was getting his shirt from the drawer when he heard a house elf's high-pitched voice ask, "Harry Potter called Dobby?"

"Hi, Dobby," Harry said in the cheerful, friendly tone he always used with the strange little creature. "Could you please prepare Professor Snape and me some breakfast?"

"Is Harry Potter staying with Professor Snape again?" Dobby asked, his curious voice carrying through the open door.

Severus froze, his breathing even seeming to still as he awaited Harry's response. He knew Harry wouldn't berate the elf for its impudence in asking such a personal question, but he fully expected Harry to put the elf straight.

The pause before Harry answered seemed to last an eternity, then Harry's soft voice drifted in with an unperturbed sounding, "Yes. You will bring us some of that marmalade Professor Snape likes so much, won't you?"

His world mightn't be crashing in on him this morning, but Harry's words really made him feel as if someone had tugged the ground out from under him.

Severus caught hold of the dresser as he swayed and took deep breaths. His eyes were stinging and he felt like he might break down at any moment, but . . . for the first time in months, it wasn't misery causing that reaction.

Finally getting a hold of himself, he extracted a crisp white shirt from a drawer full of identical garments, eased the drawer closed, and slipped from the bedroom into the nearby bathroom unnoticed as Harry conversed with the house elf.

After the events of January, he'd thought he'd never feel good again, but at the moment, he felt . . . almost blessed. He had no idea what he'd done to deserve this boon, but it certainly beat yesterday's utter desolation hands down.

*~*~*

"Do you have a minute?" Harry asked, sticking his head in Minerva's office door after she'd responded to his knock.

The spring morning seemed to be reflecting the change in his life, Harry thought as he took in the bright sunlight streaming down behind Minerva's desk. Last night's storm had passed, and winter was finally beginning to loosen its hold on the world.

"Of course, Harry. Come in," Minerva said, putting aside whatever she'd been writing.

Harry entered the Headmistress' office, giving a smile and "Hi," to Professor Dumbledore's waving portrait as he took a seat before her desk.

"What can I do for you?" she asked.

Harry met her pale blue eyes and decided not to waste time with small talk. "Severus told me that you want to commit him to St. Mungo's."

She didn't seem surprised by the topic. Taking a deep breath, she said, "You can't pretend to tell me that you think he's improving. He's had six shouting matches with students this week. And I think you must have heard about the entire fourth year Gryffindor class getting a month's detention."

"Minerva, he's had shouting matches with students for years. We used to have them on a daily basis."

"Yes, but these incidents are different. He isn't stable. He's -"

"He's been through hell," Harry cut her off. "You know what Burke did to him. Teaching is the only thing holding him together right now."

"Harry, I have to think of the students' well-being. He isn't behaving rationally right now. He isn't even managing his hygiene. I've had three teachers in here complaining about the state he's in and dozens of students complaining about how abusive he's become. I can't continue to ignore this. I've been hoping since he returned to work that he would pull himself together, but that hasn't happened. A stay in St. Mungo's . . . ."

"Will only finish what Burke started," Harry said. "You know he wouldn't last a week there. I appreciate your concerns, but I'm asking you as a personal favour to please not do this to him."

"Do you think I want to? I've known the man thirty years. But I can't ignore what's happening to him," Minerva said.

"I know. I realize that Severus has been incredibly stressed lately, but he slept for the first time in months last night. I can't say that he's cured or perfect, but he's better than he was yesterday. I think the tide is finally turning for him. If you could give him another chance . . . ?"

She seemed to study him for a long moment. "You're saying he's better than yesterday?"

Harry held her gaze and nodded. "He slept the night through, ate both breakfast and lunch, and showered this morning."

"And you feel this is some kind of turning point?"

Harry couldn't blame her for the scepticism she couldn't quite hide. Severus had scared him last night. Doubtless, he'd had the same effect on Minerva earlier yesterday. Nevertheless, he held her gaze and said, "Yes. I'm willing to take responsibility for him. If you'd just give him a week -"

"What kind of healing can take place in a week?" Minerva asked. Harry's hopes plummeted, but her subsequent words shocked the hell out of him. "No. I'll give him another month. If he hasn't shown a marked improvement by then, I'm going to have to insist that he seek professional help for his own sake, as well as that of his students."

Stunned by her generosity, he stumbled for words, "Thank you, Minerva. I hardly know what to say."

"He's my friend, too, Harry. I pray you're right. It's painful seeing him this way," she said.

Harry nodded. "I know, but . . . he's the strongest person I know, Minerva. He'll get through this."

Her smile was bright as the spring sun shining through the window at her back. "I think you just may be right about that." Her blue eyes roved over his face before she commented, "You're looking markedly better yourself, if you don't mind my saying."

Harry grinned. "Thanks. I feel better. I'll, er, let you get back to your paperwork."

"I'll see you at dinner," she said as he rose to his feet.

Back in the corridor, he abruptly felt at loose ends. He knew he could go up to Gryffindor tower and hang out with Hermione and Ron for the rest of the afternoon, but everything in him was pulling him towards the dungeons.

The change last night's sleep had wrought on Severus was nothing short of miraculous. A part of him was afraid if he left Severus alone too long, he'd suffer a relapse. But more than that crazy fear was motivating his urge to see Severus. He really wanted to simply spend time with the man. Hoping he wasn't going to try Severus' nerves, he headed for the Slytherin end of the castle.

His knock was answered after a short pause. Harry could read Severus' surprise as he opened the door.

"Er, hi," Harry nervously greeted, trying not to let his eyes feast too long on the sight of the clean, rested man before him. There were still dark bags beneath Severus' eyes, but they didn't look nearly as sore as they had the past few months.

"Hello," Severus responded, seeming confused rather than annoyed at his interruption. "Did you leave something behind?"

Harry shook his head. "I, um, wanted to . . . I mean . . . . Could I come in, please?"

Yesterday, his request would have met with automatic refusal, but this afternoon, Severus opened the door wider and stepped wordlessly aside to allow him entry.

Stepping into Severus' familiar sitting room, he couldn't help but note the towering piles of parchments covering the breadth of the long coffee table between the couch and hearth. They hadn't been there when he'd left this morning. "What's all this?"

A chagrined expression crossed Severus' face. "Three weeks worth of ungraded homework. I . . . hadn't realized how much had accumulated. It's little wonder Minerva was so alarmed yesterday."

"Speaking of Minerva, I just had a chat with her," Harry said. Feeling the tension in the room increase tenfold, he quickly continued, "She's agreed to give us another month before revisiting the St. Mungo's issue."

"A month?" Severus appeared stunned.

"She doesn't want you gone, Severus. She wants you better. We all do."

Severus' gaze dropped. "I . . . must have made quite a spectacle of myself these last few weeks to have inspired so much concern."

Harry didn't know how to answer that. He wanted to refute the 'spectacle' suggestion, but he hadn't lied to Severus yet. "No one could be expected to bounce back as if nothing happened after what you went through in January. You survived something that would have killed anyone else. Just because you can't pretend that it didn't happen doesn't make you weak."

Those dark eyes rose to meet his gaze. "I . . . feel worse than weak. I feel . . . shattered."

Severus' uneasiness at having voiced that was palpable.

Harry could hardly believe Severus had managed to be that open about what he was experiencing. Recognizing the honour that had just been paid him, he moved closer. Laying his hand on Severus' tense arm, he said, "Of course, you feel that way. You were an inch from death. Who wouldn't feel broken after what you went through? But you got through what Burke did to you, and you're going to get through this."

There was no missing Severus' complete disbelief.

Stepping closer, Harry gave Severus' back a gentle nudge, inviting him into his arms.

Severus resisted for a moment. Harry could see the internal war raging behind those troubled eyes. Their gazes held, and then Severus seemed to collapse into his embrace, clinging to him as if for dear life.

Realizing that this simple hug could be that momentous an event in this haunted man's reality, Harry pressed closer and let his hand rub over the warm brocade jacket covering Severus' back. After a long time of simply hugging Severus, he whispered, "I know you must feel like everything is falling apart right now, but I promise you, that's not going to happen. We're going to get through this."

Severus lifted his face from where it was squashed in the hollow of Harry's neck far enough to look down at him and softly question, "We?"

"You're not alone. We'll do it together," Harry promised. He couldn't help but remember the last promise he'd made to Severus, that he wouldn't let anyone hurt Severus. He'd failed miserably at keeping that promise, but as this one was solely dependent upon his own actions, he felt more sanguine about keeping it.

Harry expected to see doubt or suspicion in Severus' face. He knew how hard it was for Severus to trust under the best of circumstances. But Severus seemed more bewildered than sceptical as he said, "I don't understand why you don't hate me for what I did to you that night on the quidditch pitch."

Harry felt his muscles tense as Severus brought up that explosive issue again. Sensing that Severus wasn't going to be able to relax until he had an explanation, he softly offered, "Love doesn't disappear just because people mess up."

"Love . . . ?" Severus appeared pole axed.

Harry had hoped to avoid this issue completely until Severus was on more stable emotional footing. He hadn't wanted to introduce anything into their fragile relationship that could worry or threaten Severus. It didn't take a genius to know that a man who'd been brutally raped mightn't be comfortable hearing that another man had feelings for him.

Only, Severus wasn't looking scared or threatened. Taking heart from that, Harry answered, "Yeah, I, er . . . still feel that way about you." Knowing that he probably shouldn't have said that while Severus was still so messed up, he quickly added in a rushed tone, "You don't have to worry. I know you're . . . not up to doing the things we used to do, and . . . I understand that you might never be. I just . . . care. I'd never force you or -"

"Harry," Severus interrupted his panicked rush.

Something in Severus' tone and expression stopped his babbling. Not sure what Severus was feeling, Harry responded with a nervous, "Yes?"

It seemed to take Severus a moment to phrase his thoughts. When he spoke, it was in that careful tone with which Severus used to voice his responses to Harry's own avowals when they'd been lovers. "While Burke might have destroyed my . . . belief in my own character, there was nothing he could do to shake my belief in yours. And he did try."

Reading truth in those totally unnerved eyes, something seemed to break inside Harry. Shaking all over, he mumbled, "God, Severus," and wrapped his arms back around him.

They were both shaking. The closeness seemed to help, though. This felt like what they'd been needing all along. After a time, the trembling stopped.

Harry didn't try to hold on when Severus retreated from the hug, for all that he didn't want to let him go.

They stared awkwardly at each other, neither one of them seeming to know what to say.

Finally, Severus broke the silence with, "I need to start grading all that homework."

Harry looked at the daunting mounds of work. "Can I help?"

He interrupted Severus' automatic, "You needn't -" with a cheery, "Come on. Two pairs of eyes will get through this twice as fast."

To Harry's intense relief, Severus gave a nervous nod. Side by side, they moved to the couch to begin the daunting task.

*~*~*

Harry Potter still loved him.

That was all Severus could think about as he followed the handsome young man at his side back to his couch.

The part of him that had never been able to believe himself worthy of any form of regard was struggling to refute what Harry had just said to him. Even if Burke hadn't mucked with his mind, he knew what he was. He knew that people only used him. But . . . Harry never had, not once, ever. While his nature demanded that he suspect the worst of anyone who involved themselves with him, he simply couldn't in Harry's case. Every bit of empirical evidence denied the possibility that Harry was helping him for any nefarious purpose. In every instance where Harry could have taken advantage of him, he hadn't.

If he needed any proof, he need only remember last night.

Severus knew he'd sunk to his lowest levels yesterday. He'd never felt as completely hopeless as he had standing on that freezing lakeshore, contemplating his grim future.

It had honestly seemed as if there had been nothing left to him. He knew if he were sent to St. Mungo's, that it would be the end of him. Minerva would have to find a replacement for him, and, once the new teacher was installed, what chance would he ever have of reclaiming his position? Were he any other Potions master, it might have been possible for him to secure a new position once - if - he recovered from his breakdown. However, former Death Eaters weren't exactly in high demand in any profession these days, and after October's public accusation of being a child molester, there was utterly no chance of him finding another teaching position.

His prospects had seemed as cold and uncaring as the sleet and wind ripping at him. There was no way he could fix these problems. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't eat. He was utterly ruined. There was nothing left for him but St. Mungo's and a slow, humiliating end. That was the only future he'd been able to see as he'd stood there in that savage weather. Then, at the darkest moment, when the icy water roiling in front of him had seemed his only true salvation, Harry Potter had appeared out of that brutal storm

With the state he was in, Harry could have done anything to him, but all the man had done was fish him out of that raging storm and use his magic to guarantee him the first decent night's rest he'd had in months. And today . . . Harry had spoken to Minerva and convinced her to give him another chance. In his whole life, no one had ever gone to bat for him like that, especially at a time when he himself was so uncertain of his ability to function. Severus knew he wouldn't have been able to promise Minerva that he'd be better in a month, but somehow, Harry had enough faith in him to do so.

And Harry had said he still loved him. Of everything that had happened since he'd rescued him last night, that was the most extraordinary event. He didn't understand how Harry could have forgiven what he'd done to him. Severus had felt that kind of betrayal and knew how deep it went. But, somehow, Harry had found his way through his disappointment to be here for him.

Severus knew he shouldn't accept this kindness. His pride was demanding that he send Harry away. Nothing had changed. Harry still knew what he'd done in school, what he'd been. Everything that had made him break it off with Potter in January was still true. Only . . . the sin he'd committed against Harry the night he'd manipulated Harry's mind weighed heavier on his soul than Harry knowing about his childhood indiscretions. What he'd done to Harry was insane and unforgivable. It was absolute proof that he was not in his right mind. That terrible wrong he'd committed had been eating at his conscience these last few weeks like acid, haunting him as much as Burke's tortures, weighing heavier than some of the things he'd done as a Death Eater before he'd come to his senses and joined Albus.

That Harry could care enough to help him after that kind of transgression was as astonishing as the fact that Harry had ever been interested in him at all. And, pride notwithstanding, Severus had never needed help more than he did right now. The sleep Harry's magic had given him last night was the greatest healing he'd ever experienced. He knew he wasn't cured or anywhere near normal, but his mind was clearer and his mood . . . well, for the first time in months he didn't feel like flinging himself off the Astronomy Tower or into the frozen lake. Harry had done that for him.

"Severus?"

Severus started as he realized that wasn't the first time Harry had called his name. "Yes?"

"Can you make me an answer key for each of these?" Harry pointed at the towering mounds of unmarked homework on the table in front of them. "That way we won't have to stop every half hour for you to make one up for me."

Severus nodded. Reaching for the nearest pile, he pulled out the most gifted student's homework, corrected the few points that needed fixing, and placed it on top of the pile for Harry to use.

The next half hour was spent doing the same for the rest. Just going through the papers, Severus was nearly cowed by the sheer volume. Seven classes a day, fifteen days of unmarked homework . . . there were literally hundreds of parchments that needed grading.

The trials of the last few months must have left him disgracefully transparent, for Harry softly promised, "We'll get through it."

"I'm sure this is how you enjoy spending your Saturday afternoons," Severus remarked, his guilt biting at him. He was the one who'd ignored his responsibilities this last month. Harry shouldn't be slugging through this mess he'd created.

Harry gave him a sheepish smile and answered in a self-conscious sounding tone, "Actually, I think I'd enjoy chopping toad hearts if it meant we could sit here together like this."

The scathing comment that sprang to his lips died there unvoiced as he read the truth in Harry's eyes. He might be insane, but even when completely unhinged, he knew how rare and undeserved this gift was. He would not make light of it.

Recalling how . . . abusive he'd been towards Harry since January, he realized how completely unfair this entire situation had been to Harry. All Harry had ever tried to do was love him and make things better for him, and he'd done nothing but punish the man. There wasn't anything he could do to make up for his past transgressions, but . . . insane though he might be, he could try to be less antagonistic in the future.

Harry obviously knew him well enough to have been braced for whatever he'd been about to say. When Severus made no caustic response to his admission of wanting to spend time with him, the tension left Harry's face, something very gentle taking its place.

"Here, you start with this pile," Harry said, passing him the nearest mound of homework. "I'll do this one."

Settling down to the task at hand, Severus began to work his way through the papers.

One problem that came from teaching the same subject for more than thirty years was the fact that he knew the topics so well that there were rarely any problems when it came to grading tests and homework. Normally, his familiarity with the subject was a plus, for it allowed him to get through his work faster than most of the other teachers did. But the more familiar a topic was, the harder it was to hold one's interest. Last night was the first true rest he'd had in weeks. His body and mind were still bone weary. Before Severus knew it, he found himself fighting to keep his eyes open as he marked the fifth years' work.

Despite his best effort, his heavy eyelids kept sinking shut as the words on the page blurred together. He forced them open several times, but finally his lids felt too heavy to lift. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to keep them closed for just a few moments . . . .

Severus started awake an unknown time later. The first thing he noticed was that his papers were no longer in his hands and that he was flat on his back on the couch. Turning on his side to get a better look at his surroundings, he saw Harry Potter sitting on the rug in front of the couch reading a Muggle thriller.

Seeming to sense the observation, Harry looked over and smiled. "Hello, there. How are you feeling?"

"How long have I been asleep?"

"About six hours," Harry answered.

Six hours? Recalling the chore that would have required him to be working on grading homework all day both Saturday and Sunday to complete the task by Monday, he bolted up on the couch. "The homework -"

"Is done," Harry assured.

"Done? You got through that pile alone in six hours?" Severus knew Harry wasn't that fast. For all that he might be the mightiest wizard the world had seen, academics were not Harry's strong suit.

"Well, not by myself. Hermione and Ron helped."

"What? They were here?" Severus couldn't believe that he'd been so out of it that he would have slept through the Weasleys crossing his wards.

"No, I firecalled them," Harry said.

Swinging his legs over the side of the couch, Severus struggled to get some perspective on the situation. His resolve to be less contentious was fading fast. Everything inside him wanted to explode at the idea of Harry advertising how negligent he'd been by requesting help. When he thought he could speak without screaming, he tightly said, "It wasn't . . . appropriate for you to inflict this upon the Weasleys. It's bad enough that you're helping me without everyone -"

"Severus," Harry cut into his rising diatribe. "It wasn't everyone. Just Hermione and Ron. They care about you, too. This was something they could do to make your life a little easier. I told them when I asked that they could say 'no' if they'd rather not. They really wanted to."

"Nevertheless, you shouldn't have -"

"Please, let it go? The papers are graded. You got some more sleep, and you have all of tomorrow to rest without this burden hanging over your head."

"It was my responsibility. I was the one who was derelict in my duties."

Harry's expression hardened. "You weren't derelict in anything. You're recovering from tortures that would have killed most people. For God's sake, stop being so hard on yourself. I know how proud you are, how difficult it is for you to let anyone do anything for you, but this really isn't a big deal."

"I might be insane, but I refuse to be an object of either pity or charity," Severus insisted.

"Oh, for . . . you're not insane. And it wasn't pity or charity, okay? Whether you like it or not, you're part of our family now. Families help each other. That's what they do."

Staring into those impassioned eyes, Severus felt completely out of his depth. He knew as little about families as he did of love. Finally, he said, "I gave up that right when I violated your trust."

"Who says?"

"None of you spoke to me for more than a month. That's a fairly clear indication that a situation has changed," Severus said.

"We were angry at you, with reason. But that was last month. That's in the past now."

Harry meant it. Severus could see from his exasperated expression how tired he was of the subject.

"Look, if either Hermione or Ron were badly hurt and needed help grading homework, you'd do it for them, wouldn't you?" Harry asked into the silence a short time later.

"Ron isn't a teacher."

"That's not the point. Just answer the question. If you could help either of them with a couple of hours' easy work, would you do it?"

Remembering all the times the Weasleys had visited him in infirmary, he gave a reluctant nod.

"Then why can't you accept that they feel the same way? We've been watching you suffer for months now, unable to do a thing to help you. This was something we could do, and it wasn't any great effort, so, please . . . don't be angry about it. Please?"

He'd never had any resistance to that beseeching expression. Taking a deep breath, Severus slowly nodded again. Realizing how . . . ungrateful his reaction had been, he softly offered. "I do . . . appreciate what you and your friends have done for me -"

"Our friends," Harry corrected. "And there's no need for appreciation. This isn't about debts and owing people. So, please try not to worry over it, okay?"

Severus didn't know how to accept this. Harry was acting as if what he and the Weasleys had done was of small importance, but he'd never had anyone do anything like this for him in his whole life, especially not people he'd disappointed so bitterly. How Harry and the Weasleys could still care about him was a complete mystery, but, faced with the solid evidence of their continued support, he could no longer doubt it.

Something in him needed to point out his unworthiness, but . . . Harry knew what he was, and was still here. Overwhelmed by it all, he just stared at the incredible man sitting at his feet.

"Are you hungry?" Harry asked when the silence started to stretch. "Dobby said he'd bring us dinner when you were ready. Should I call him?"

Realizing how ravenous he was, Severus gave a soft, "Yes."

Three hours later, Severus found himself yawning over the Potions journal he was reading, struggling to keep his eyes open.

"Are you about ready for bed?" Harry asked from the other armchair.

"Bed? I've only been up three hours."

"You've got a lot of missed sleep to catch up on," Harry said in his usual easygoing tone. "I'm knackered myself."

Remembering that Harry was the one who'd stayed awake and graded that intimidating mountain of work, Severus could well understand why the man would be tired.

"Nine p.m. could be considered late, if one were a toddler," Severus said, trying for something like normality.

"Well, let's toddle off to bed, then, shall we?" Harry responded with a smile.

It felt almost like old times as Harry and he rose from their chairs and moved towards the bedroom. Harry extinguished the wall sconces with a thought and lit the ones in the bedroom the same way when they stepped through the door. As he watched the fire in the hearth spark to life as well, Severus was surprised by how much he'd missed these little indications of Harry's tremendous power.

Harry seemed to stop dead in his tracks at the sight of the bed. "Er . . . ."

Severus recognized that he clearly wasn't operating at anywhere near full mental capacity yet, for he was genuinely confused by Harry's reaction. "What is it?"

"Do you want me to, um, transfigure a cot near the bed?" Harry asked with visible self-consciousness.

It was obvious that Harry was completely willing to humour him.

Severus debated the offer. The rest he'd achieved last night had done wonders for him, but he wasn't up to sex. Not that he was even sure Harry was suggesting they re-establish such intimacy. Harry had said he still loved him, but there had been nothing threatening in that statement. In fact, Harry had gone out of his way to assure him he wouldn't pressure him for things he wasn't able to give.

He knew that he'd hurt Harry deeply if he said 'yes' to the cot suggestion. He didn't want to do that. But, by the same token, he didn't want to give him any wrong ideas.

The whole situation suddenly felt frighteningly complex.

"Hey," Harry's soft voice called his attention from his incipient funk. "I'm okay with the cot idea, Severus."

He knew it would be less complicated if they were in separate beds. It would feel the same as it had when he was in infirmary. Only . . . he'd been out of hospital for nearly two months now.

Finding his nerve, Severus softly countered, "I'm not."

"You're not what?" Harry asked, visibly confused.

"Okay with the cot idea, as you put it. I'm not . . . I can't allow fear to rule me."

"True enough," Harry answered. "But there's no reason to cause yourself undue distress. This is a small thing. We don't have to stress over it. I'll just transfigure a -"

"No," Severus said. "Last night, you asked me if I trusted you. My answer hasn't changed since then."

"This isn't about trust," Harry said. "You were hurt and you have a right to take whatever measures are necessary to feel comfortable."

"Whether you sleep on a cot across the room or on the other side of the continent, the issue is still going to be there. Coddling these fears isn't going to help either of us."

"It's not coddling," Harry protested.

"No, it's . . . worse than that," Severus said. Searching the tumultuous mess that was his heart and mind at the moment, he tried to explain, "It's . . . giving him power over me for the rest of my life."

"I guess I don't have to ask which 'him' you're referring to." Harry's hesitation to even speak Burke's name for fear of what it would do to him was palpable. "But sleeping in separate beds until you feel better isn't giving him power over you. It's just giving yourself time to heal."

"I beg to differ," Severus said. He didn't know why he was pushing this. All he knew was that he was tired of living under this crushing weight. After what he'd endured, it mightn't make any sense, but having Harry near . . . helped. From the instant he'd opened his eyes in infirmary, he'd always felt better when Harry was present. It was his own insistence on pushing Harry away that had brought him to the straits he'd been in last night, he realized.

"Severus . . . ."

He interrupted whatever Harry was about to say with something he felt he had to voice, before he lost the nerve. "I . . . am not who I was. I don't know what's left of me, but there are some things I do know. Burke was a monster who . . . committed unspeakable acts upon my person. You are the man who killed that demon and healed the wounds he left on my body. There is no way I could mistake you for him. Now you are trying to heal the wounds on my soul. I don't know how you can still care, but somehow you do, and . . . that matters."

He'd never felt so vulnerable in his life as he did at this moment.

He could see how deeply his words had affected Harry. For a moment, it seemed Harry couldn't find his voice. Then he rasped out, "You don't have to -"

"Yes, I do. For the last three months, you have endured . . . extreme emotional distress because of what Burke did to me. That stops tonight. I might be insane. I might never get back what was taken from me, but . . . I don't have to hurt you."

A strange brightness flashed through Harry's eyes as he protested, "Sleeping on a cot for a while won't hurt me."

"Won't it? Is that where you would prefer to sleep?" Severus challenged. He'd never been in a relationship where he felt confident enough to make that kind of demand. In the past, his lovers had always tired of him first and moved on. The insecure portion of his nature that Burke had capitalized upon was whispering that Harry might prefer to bunk on a cot rather than be so close to him, but everything Harry had done for him over the last few weeks indicated that he still had deep feelings for him.

Harry's innate honesty wouldn't allow him to dissemble. After a long pause, in which Severus could nearly feel Harry's shock, he said, "That's not the point. This isn't about what I want. This is about what we need to do for you to feel better."

Love . . . this was love. Even an insane lunatic such as he could recognize that fact.

Holding that concerned gaze, Severus gulped around the lump choking his throat and said, "We have done things my way for the last three months. It has brought me to the brink of destruction. I . . . want to try it your way." Sensing Harry's resolve weakening, Severus reminded, "We can always transfigure a cot later if things don't go well."

"All right," Harry finally conceded. "If you're certain that's what you want."

"It is." Aware that he would probably be sitting in a high level security hospital cell in St. Mungo's right now were it not for this man's intervention, he added a soft, "Thank you."

That incomprehensible gentleness was back in Harry's eyes as he said, "Nothing to thank me for. Do you want the loo first?"

On that blessed note of normality, Severus nodded and fled to the bathroom.

He was nervous as a first year late on his first day of class when he stepped out of the lavatory in his nightshirt a short time later. The tension in his gut let up when he saw that Harry was wearing his blue pyjamas as he sat on his usual side of the bed reading his thriller.

Harry looked up from his book as he entered the room and smiled at him. "Hi. I'll take my turn now."

It was all so wonderfully ordinary and unthreatening that Severus couldn't muster up any alarm when Harry passed close to him on his way to the loo.

Climbing onto the bed, Severus lay down on his back under the duvet and waited for Harry to return.

Harry was back a few minutes later, easing into the bed beside him as if he expected the mattress to explode.

Harry's nervousness helped lessen his own anxieties somehow.

As Harry settled down in the bed beside him, it felt almost comforting. Harry's familiar scent and warmth were certainly reassuring. Severus couldn't believe how good it felt to simply feel Harry's heat. For the first time in months, his bed didn't feel like an arctic wasteland.

Not that it felt the way it used to by any stretch of the imagination, Severus could almost touch the worry emanating from the other side of the bed.

When nothing untoward occurred, Harry released a shaky breath after a few minutes and gave a nervous chuckle as he turned on his side to face him across the white expanse of his pillow. "I keep waiting for something to explode."

Too shaky to even pretend at superiority, Severus nodded. "Me, too."

"I think we're going to be all right. Are you okay with this?"

Thinking that he was comfortable for the first time since Harry and he had parted outside the infirmary when he was released, Severus gave another nod.

"Good. I'll turn out the wall sconces and leave the fire going, okay? Or we can leave them all on if you feel more comfortable that way." Harry offered.

Harry had used his wordless, wandless magic to douse the wall sconces every night that he'd slept here, but Severus appreciated that he gave him the opportunity to ask that the lights be left on.

"The hearth fire should suffice," Severus answered.

The wall sconces were doused immediately, leaving only the flickering flames by which they used to make love.

"Good night, then," Harry said.

Closing his eyes on the firelight and all the memories it inspired, Severus answered, "Good night."

He felt Harry's magic embrace him. It wasn't the same wild, passionate exchange that they'd had when making love, but its warmth and potency soothed him with their inherent protectiveness.

Daring to hope that things might actually be turning around for him, Severus allowed sleep to claim him as he floated safe in Harry Potter's magic.

*~*~*

The torchlight glistened on the blood coating the corpse shackled to the rack. The word 'corpse' was perhaps too generous a definition. The grisly remains before him looked more like pulp than flesh. His tongue had sampled every inch of that body, but now, the mere sight of it made the contents of his stomach lurch.

Too late, always too late. Severus . . . .

"Potter . . . Harry!"

The horrible vision in front of him shook as . . . well, as he shook. As the nightmare faded, Harry's eyes snapped open to stare around the dark room in complete confusion. Where? What?

There was still some light coming from the dying gold embers in the hearth. By its feeble illumination, he could just make out Severus' familiar, strong features. It was Severus who was shaking him, he belatedly realized.

His entire body sagged with relief as he reached out to grip his companion's nightshirt-covered arms. "Severus?"

Alive. Severus was alive.

The external shaking stopped.

It was hard to judge expression in the low light, but much of the tension seemed to leave Severus' face as he asked, "Are you all right?"

"God, I should be asking you that," Harry said. He was here to ensure that Severus got the sleep he needed to recover. "I'm supposed to be keeping you from having nightmares, not waking you with mine."

"It's of no matter. Are you all right?" Severus repeated.

As he took stock of himself, Harry realized that Severus had reason to be concerned. He was soaked to the skin with perspiration and shaking from the cold, even though he was under the heavy duvet. There was an embarrassing trail of hot tears running down his cheeks that he knew had to be visible even in the poor light.

"I'm okay. Sorry I woke you," Harry said, releasing Severus and settling back against the soaked sheets. Chagrined by how slimy they felt, he performed a silent drying spell on himself and the bedclothes.

He could feel Severus watching him out of the darkness. Turning, he met that ink-black gaze across the pillow.

Severus was lying on his side, facing him. They weren't touching, but were close to do so if necessary. The setup was oddly familiar and pulled at Harry's heartstrings.

"Was it one of Voldemort's nightmares?" Severus questioned.

Harry thought that of all the things he missed about being close to Severus, this was the one that topped the list. Most people would probably have picked the sex, for they'd had a fantastic sex life, but, hokey as it might be, he missed having someone there in the night when he woke in a panic. There was just something so calming about that deep voice that the mere sound of it soothed away his anxieties.

That Severus could reach out of himself to ask meant a lot to him. The week he'd spent bunking in with Severus had done wonders for the man, but his friend was still far from normal.

Taking a deep breath to try to calm his racing heart, Harry gave a negative shake of his head. "No. It was the new one again."

"The new one?"

Harry wasn't sure if he should even tell Severus. They were working so hard to get Severus past what had been done to him that he hated to refer to anything that brought up those dark memories. But Severus had asked, and that was something of a milestone in itself.

Holding Severus' gaze, he softly explained, "The one where I don't get to you in time."

He'd told Severus about the dream the night they'd met prowling the halls last month when they were still completely estranged, but there was no reason Severus should remember that.

"You dream about that regularly?" Severus surprised him by asking. His tone made it clear that he remembered that particular conversation.

Harry nodded. "Not as often as I used to have Voldemort's dreams, but they're fairly regular." Admitting that made him feel strangely exposed. Trying to lighten the mood, he joked, "I warned you I was mental."

Even in the dying firelight he could see the tension that claimed Severus' features. After a long pause, Severus said, "I . . . I'm sorry."

"Sorry? What have you to be sorry for?" Harry asked. "I'm the one who should be apologizing. It took me so damn long to find you -"

"You shouldn't have found me at all," Severus replied.

Harry hated it whenever Severus voiced the sentiment that he would have been better off dead. Trying to get a handle on the anger raised upon hearing Severus say that, he said, "I know what you went through was awful, but you're going to get better. I really wish you wouldn't say things like that."

"Like what?" Severus asked.

"Like I shouldn't have found you. That whole 'it would be better off for everyone if you'd died' line. It . . . really hurts me when you talk like that."

A couple of weeks ago, Severus would have voiced a 'tough luck' type of response, but tonight, he answered in a strained sounding tone, "I didn't mean it that way."

"What did you mean then? It's the same thing you've been saying for months." Harry glared across the pillow. There was nothing he hated more than being lied to. Severus didn't usually dissemble with him, but there wasn't a Slytherin born who didn't excel at the art of evasion.

"While I can understand where it might have sounded like that, I honestly didn't intend my comment in that vein. What I meant was that every Auror in Britain searched for Burke full time for nearly four months. You located him in two days. That was an extraordinary feat. His confounding and unplottable spells were the most intricate I've ever seen." Which was saying a lot, as Severus was a renowned expert in both. "I still don't understand how you did it."

Harry realized that this was the first time Severus had enquired about the details of his rescue. "I, um, didn't find Burke. I found you."

"I don't understand the distinction. I was a prisoner in his keep. I should have been as untraceable as he," Severus said. Although his voice was as carefully controlled as usual, Harry could read how tense Severus had become at this topic. Before, Severus had been lying on his side, relaxed. Now, although, his position hadn't changed, Severus appeared stiff as a corpse.

"You would have been – to anyone else," Harry explained.

"So it was the greater strength of your powers that allowed you to circumvent his spells?"

"Only his security wards. It was actually Hermione who came up with the idea that allowed me to locate you. It wasn't something I would have thought of on my own."

It abruptly occurred to him that Severus mightn't be comfortable hearing about the mental link that existed between them.

"You intrigue me," Severus said, watching him across the pillow. When Harry didn't say anything else, Severus asked, "Is there some reason you aren't telling me how you did it?"

"I, er, don't know if you're going to approve of my methods," Harry finally said.

Clearly, Severus was feeling much better, for instead of hounding him, he suggested in a nearly playful tone that Harry had never thought he'd hear again, "Are you about to tell me that you sacrificed a student to some dark power in exchange for my release? Granted, I haven't been myself of late, but I haven't noticed that any of the monsters have gone missing."

Harry chuckled at the outrageous suggestion. "No, I didn't make a human sacrifice. And you shouldn't sound so hopeful about it."

"Pity," Severus answered in that same long-missed tone. "So what did you do?"

"It, um, had to do with your helping me with Voldemort's nightmare curse. Hermione had read some ancient book about Legilimency and Occlumency which proposed that when wizards use those powers on each other over the long-term, that a . . . subconscious link is formed between their minds. It appears we have one."

"A mental link?" Severus' tone revealed that he was fully as unnerved as Harry had feared he would be.

"It's not conscious," Harry swiftly assured. "Even when I was actively searching for it, I could barely find it. It was like a fine thread of power leading from you to me. I just followed it to its source. I can't even feel it now. Can you?"

Severus closed his eyes. After a long moment of silence, he reopened them and gave a negative shake of his head.

"I know you're not comfortable with any form of mental contact," Harry said, barely able to believe how nervous he felt. It would be just his luck that this link would make Severus shut him out again. "How freaked out are you by it?"

"With this link, would I even know if you were monitoring my thoughts?" Severus asked.

"I . . . honestly don't know. I've never felt like I'm . . . reading what you're thinking. Like, right now, I haven't got a clue how you're feeling about any of this. Have you ever . . . felt like you were unintentionally reading my thoughts?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head.

"Then maybe it isn't something we have to worry about?" Harry hopefully suggested.

The mentally unstable man he'd been dealing with for the last few months would have blasted him for what he knew to be a pathetically transparent effort to minimize the importance of this disturbing development. But tonight Severus simply watched him in silence for a nerve-wrackingly long period before saying, "As I am the one who suggested and initiated the mental contact, the fault is mine."

"I don't think it's a question of fault," Harry protested.

"Are you telling me that you are . . . comfortable knowing that I might have open access to your mind after what I did to you?" Severus demanded with the first trace of asperity he'd shown since Harry's nightmare had awoken them.

"Why do you have to keep bringing that up?" Harry all but whined.

Severus seemed to take extreme care in choosing his words as he slowly replied, "Because it was an unforgivable transgression that will always be between us. No matter what, it will never go away."

Severus really felt that way. Harry could tell by his tone how deeply it still upset him.

What Severus had done that night had angered him, but a month's distance had helped him get some perspective on the event. When he considered what could have happened had Severus really had evil intent, what Severus had actually done didn't seem quite as terrible. Not that he could excuse it, but . . . he knew how hard he'd been pushing that night and how fragile Severus had been. The situation had been rife for disaster, and he was hardly innocent.

Tired of the whole sorry mess, Harry sighed and said, "Do you really want it to go away?"

"What I want is hardly significant."

"In this case, what you want is the only thing that matters. If you really want it to go away, say you're sorry."

"What? You can't be serious," Severus said.

"I'm totally serious. If you're sorry you did it, then say so. You never have. I know it's been weighing on your mind, but you've never actually come out and said you're sorry you did it," Harry pointed out.

Severus stared at him as if he were as crazy as he often felt. After a tense pause, he said, "No one could forgive that kind of betrayal. How could I possibly apologize for what I did?"

"Just say the words," Harry answered. "But only say them if you mean them."

Severus' expression seemed to indicate that he feared he was being mocked, but he nonetheless soldiered on and haltingly offered, "Harry Potter, I am deeply sorry for the grievous offence I committed against your mind and heart the night I manipulated your memories."

It was more than he'd thought Severus could ever give him. Hearing the sincerity in that troubled tone, and seeing how, even now, Severus looked as though he were anticipating laughter, Harry quickly responded in turn with, "And I'm sorry I pushed you so hard that night. I'll forgive you if you forgive me."

"It can't be that easy," Severus protested.

"Yes, it can. Do you forgive me?"

"There is nothing to forgive. You were the victim."

"I disagree. You were at your wits' end and I pushed you over the edge. You snapped and did something you would never have done if I weren't pressuring you so hard. So, do you forgive me?"

Severus gave a slow nod.

"Fine. I forgive you. Can we get past this now?" Harry begged.

"How can you just let this go? Who could forgive something like that?" Severus questioned. From his attitude, it was obvious that forgiveness was as far outside his experience as someone loving him was.

It wasn't any big surprise to Harry. Everything Severus had ever said indicated that no one had ever given a damn about him.

"We were both out of our heads that night," Harry said. "We both made mistakes. We can spend the next year or decade angsting over it if we want to, but I don't see how that's going to help either of us. We need to heal, Severus. We can't do that if we're living in the past and blaming each other for things neither of us could help doing."

"But -"

"That sadistic bastard doesn't get to win," Harry interrupted before Severus could take on any more guilt. "You're not losing everything because of him. He told me himself that he messed with your head. For all we know, he could have brainwashed you to do something like that."

"As much as I'd like to place the blame on Burke, the idea was all mine," Severus said. "I . . . wasn't thinking clearly that night."

"Neither was I. But we're both doing better now, aren't we?" Harry asked, working hard to change the topic and mood.

"I . . . never thought I could feel anything like hope again," Severus offered in an uncertain voice. "It felt like a dementor had sucked all the life out of me."

Thinking that this was a real breakthrough, Harry softly commented, "You, um, never talk about what you went through. It might help to talk about it."

The sudden tension in the bed was almost a palpable entity.

He could feel Severus watching him, searching his features.

After a long pause, Severus asked, "What is there to say? You . . . saw what was done to me."

"You must have been very frightened," Harry said in that same quiet tone. He didn't know if Severus would respond to the opening. For that matter, he didn't know if Severus could respond.

"Even for a former Death Eater, it was . . . an illuminating experience."

Harry couldn't imagine how much it took for Severus to voice those words in the normal tone he'd just used. The tension in those stark features told him how tightly Severus was controlling himself.

"Illuminating isn't the word I'd use," Harry said. "I think if it had been me there, I would have been out of my mind with terror. I know I felt that way just looking for you, imagining what you must be going through. But . . . I never imagined anything as horrible as what he actually did."

"Burke was . . . quite inventive," Severus said in a low tone. "Even Voldemort could have learned a thing or two from him."

Reading everything Severus wasn't saying in those haunted features; Harry reached out to lay his hand on Severus' tense forearm. "I know you probably don't feel that way, but you're the bravest man I've ever met."

Severus' face scrunched in a distasteful expression. "Bravery had nothing to do with it. I assure you. Do not delude yourself. I . . . begged most cravenly."

Harry didn't even have to work to read how much that upset Severus. Carefully choosing his words, he answered, "What man wouldn't beg when tortured like that? That doesn't make you a coward; it makes you human. What I meant by brave was that you had the resiliency to hang on. Poppy told me what a miracle it was that there was any life left in you at all. The blood loss alone was staggering, not to mention the shock. You shouldn't have survived it, but somehow you did. And you've had the courage to put your life back together."

"I would hardly call my life 'together'. You are sleeping here to keep me from cracking up. I . . . will never regain what Burke stole from me."

The absolute despair in those words chilled his soul. This wasn't the first time Severus had said something like that, Harry realized, remembering a few other discussions where Severus had voiced a similar sentiment. Swallowing hard, Harry asked in the gentlest tone he could manage with his throat tied in this painful knot, "What is it you think he stole from you?"

"Aside from my dignity and self-respect?" Severus questioned. After a pause, he continued with, "I might have been able to manage, even without those. But he destroyed something that . . . I couldn't stand to lose."

"Torture shakes everyone's dignity and self-respect. I've had a little experience with it myself, Severus," Harry offered, remembering the night Voldemort had killed Cedric and tortured him with Cruciatus. He knew that, though terrible, those events hardly compared to the level of what had been done to Severus, but he remembered feeling exactly the same way afterward. "But they come back in time."

"The other won't. That's . . . ruined."

"What 'other'?" Harry questioned.

Severus' face abruptly became guarded, as if he'd thought better of his candour. "It's . . . not important. I shouldn't have run on as I did."

"Severus, please talk to me. I'm trying to understand what you're going through. I can't do that if you won't tell me what's bothering you. What could be more important than your dignity and self-respect?"

He could almost see Severus' honesty vying with his need for self-protection. After an extended pause, Severus vented a weary-sounding sigh and said, "I suppose speaking about it doesn't make any difference at this point. Not to sound melodramatic, but the day Burke . . . abducted me, I was probably the happiest I've ever been. You'd given me a gift that morning that I'd never imagined within my reach and . . . for the first time in memory, I was . . . optimistic about my future."

A gift? It took Harry nearly a full minute to figure out what Severus was referring to.

"You're talking about our plan for me to move down to the dungeon?" Harry asked, that knot in his throat extending down to his stomach. That was more important to Severus than the loss of his self-worth?

Severus gave a tight nod.

Stunned, Harry tried to find the right response, but he was so shocked by Severus' words that he could barely think. He'd always felt like he needed Severus more than Severus needed him. He knew Severus loved him, but it had never occurred to him that he could matter this much. Although it was probably the worst time for this kind of disclosure, the discovery turned his world upside down. His emotions were so overwhelmed by what Severus had just admitted that he could barely hold onto a coherent thought, let alone speak. Finally, he managed, "How is any of that 'ruined'? I'm here in the dungeon with you now. I . . . I've told you I still love you. I wasn't lying."

"I recognize that you still have . . . feelings for me. But I'm not the man I was before January. I'll never be that man again. What we had -"

"Is still there waiting for you," Harry interrupted before Severus could say something to choke the very life out of him. "You were almost killed. But you're healing now. Every day you're growing stronger."

"The worst of the damage wasn't physical," Severus objected, a cornered expression crossing his shadowed face.

"I know," Harry said in a soothing tone. "I know you've been going through hell these last few months. I also understand that you were hurt so badly that we might never be able to do everything we used to do, but . . . what we had was about more than just sex. When you're better -"

"What if I'm never 'better'? What if I can't ever . . . ."

The fear Severus had voiced was a very real possibility. Harry knew that. Some damage a man never recovered from.

Reaching out, Harry laid his hand on Severus' tense forearm. "Then you never can, and I'll still be here."

Harry didn't make the offer lightly. He knew what he was taking on here. He'd never been any good at seeing more than one person at a time. If he were with Severus, then he was with Severus – exclusively.

It was a lot to give up, even for love.

He could almost feel Severus' utter astonishment.

After a long silence, Severus softly questioned, "You . . . you would stay? Even without . . . ?"

Harry felt something like triumph that his declaration wasn't questioned or discarded out of hand. Severus clearly believed he'd meant what he'd said. If nothing else, the last few weeks seemed to have given Severus some faith in him.

Taking heart from that minor victory, Harry nodded.

"Why?" Severus didn't seem able to keep the word in.

Harry took a chance and reached up to stroke the sleep-rumpled hair back from Severus' face. To his intense relief, Severus didn't flinch or push his hand aside. His expression was wary, but no more so than usual.

"Because just being here with you like this is better than the best sex with someone else," Harry softly admitted. "I love you, not just what we used to do together."

The Severus he'd known his whole life would have voiced some scathing comment on how pathetic his sex life must have been to date, were what he said true. Harry braced himself for the put-down.

But when Severus spoke, his voice was rife with anxiety, not disdain. "But if I can't ever -"

He'd been believed! It was so monumental a development that Harry could barely process it.

"Ssssh," Harry soothed, pulling himself together and trying to get things back on a normal footing. "Let's not worry about any of that now, okay? Let's just try to get back to sleep, all right?"

Severus gave a slow nod. The movement jostled Harry's hand, which was still resting in his companion's dark hair. Thinking that its presence might be making Severus uncomfortable, he reluctantly withdrew his fingers from the thick warmth.

Severus caught his hand in a tight grip before he could pull completely back.

Harry could feel how Severus' entire body was shaking. "What is it?"

"I . . . ."

It was too much for him. Harry could see it in Severus' bewildered expression. But once again, Severus' courage was showing through. He wasn't balking.

Trying to meet it with his own, Harry asked a question he hadn't had the nerve to voice since Severus had left him standing confused on the stairs outside the infirmary in January, "May I hold you?"

Harry knew it might be too soon for this. He'd been so careful the last week to keep everything absolutely platonic and non-threatening. But every instinct he owned was insisting that Severus needed something solid to prove that he'd meant what he'd said.

The uncertainty that Severus couldn't mask told him that Severus was as aware as he was that accepting the offer would irreparably alter their fragile status quo. After a pensive moment, in which Harry fully anticipated a polite refusal, Severus shifted closer in the bed.

Harry opened his arms and Severus settled carefully against him. The hesitation with which Severus moved told him that his friend wasn't sure he was making the correct decision.

It felt like heaven as Severus' warmth and scent surrounded him. How he'd missed the closeness. As his arms slipped around that slim form, his whole body seemed to rejoice at the contact.

As Severus rested his head in its familiar position on his shoulder, Harry found a lot more sharp bones than he remembered. A little shifting fixed that. Before he knew it, Severus was cuddled around him.

Harry settled his hand on Severus' nightshirt covered back and began to rub in gentle circles. He could feel the tension slowly seeping out of that tight-held body, but Severus was still awake. After a few minutes of quiet savouring, Harry whispered, "I've missed this so much."

Severus' response was muffled by the pyjama top his face was resting against as he answered, "My . . . foolishness has hurt us both."

"It wasn't foolish," Harry quickly protested, a fierce protectiveness blazing through him. "No one could bounce back like nothing happened after what you went through. You need to be more patient with yourself."

"And, yet, it is your patience that has been tried the most by . . . my behaviour," Severus said. His arms tightened around Harry as he softly whispered, "I . . . truly regret all the hurt I've caused you."

Unable to help himself, Harry lowered his lips to the crown of Severus' head and pressed a kiss into the warm hair there. Lifting his lips, he answered, "You don't ever have to regret anything with me, okay? We're here together. That's all that matters. Let's not worry about the past anymore, okay?"

"And yet it is the past that has all but ruined me," Severus noted. "It's . . . with me all the time."

Appreciating the honesty, Harry gave Severus what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. "Is it with you right now?"

He could almost feel Severus evaluating himself.

After a long pause, Severus finally replied, "Not as much. It makes no sense after what was done to me, but . . . when you are close to me like this, the darkness isn't as overwhelming."

He wondered if Severus had any idea how much those words meant to him. That knot in his throat had gotten so tight, he could barely breathe around it. It took a while, but when he felt he had enough air that he could trust his voice to work without breaking, he said, "Then we'll have to make sure we stay close like this as often as possible."

"It . . . is not a burden?" Even now, after everything he'd said to Severus, Severus was still uncertain.

Harry wished he could get his hands on the people who had done this to Severus. While Burke could be blamed for their current crisis, he knew that the bastard had played off Severus' existing insecurities.

"You could never be a burden to me," Harry swore. "This week is the first time I've felt . . . better since January. Just know that . . . if you're in my arms or by my side, I'm happy, okay?"

Trust had always been hard for Severus, especially when it came to anything that concerned his desirability or capacity to inspire true affection. Harry could sense how Severus was struggling to find an answer. He fully expected Severus to make some comment that would question either his sanity or veracity, but whatever he'd done over these last two weeks to convince Severus of his sincerity, it was apparently enough to carry them through this.

Rather than scoffing at his ridiculously emotional admission, Severus responded with a low and shaky sounding, "I will try."

"That's all anyone can ask. Do you think you can get back to sleep now? I'll try not to wake us again before morning."

Severus nodded into his shoulder.

Reaching out with his magic, Harry formed the familiar channels between them that his nightmare had interrupted. In a surprisingly short time, Severus' breathing deepened to that of peaceful slumber.

His mind still whirling from what Severus had said, it was a long time before sleep claimed him.

*~*~*

Early May sunlight spilled through the windows in the Great Hall, creating a dazzling display of dancing dust motes while catching the highlights in everyone's hair and showcasing the grain of the highly polished oak tables. Spring had finally arrived. Everyone at Hogwarts had a touch of spring fever after the long, hard winter. This perfect, sunny Saturday was like a gift from the gods, following all the rain they'd had this week.

Harry smiled as he watched Severus finish off the last of his soup. This past month had done wonders for the man. While Severus would never be hefty, steady meals and rest had put back most of the flesh his ordeal had flensed from him. Looking at that strong-boned, sun-dappled face, he couldn't see a trace of the purple bags Severus had carried from January through April.

Hermione's voice interrupted his musings from his other side as she said, "Ron and I are going to Diagon Alley for dinner and a Muggle movie this afternoon. Would you two like to join us?"

Harry looked to Severus. He was surprised to see that Severus actually seemed to be considering the idea. After a moment, Severus gave a negative shake of his head and said in a voice that seemed genuinely disappointed, "Thank you for the invitation, but I have several potions brewing that will need supervision."

"Maybe next time, then," Hermione said. Looking over at her, Harry could see that she was as startled by Severus' reaction as he'd been. Seeing that she had his attention, she asked, "Harry?"

"Thanks, but I think I'll hang out here and get on Severus' nerves."

"He seems to have a natural propensity for it," Severus offered in the droll tone that Harry loved. For so long, it seemed Severus' depression had all but killed his sense of humour, but lately, that dry wit had been surfacing occasionally.

Once she'd stopped chuckling, Hermione said, "Well, we'll see you later then. Come on, Ron. We have to change."

Ron looked up from the cake he was finishing to give a glum, "We do?"

"Yes. Come along," Hermione ordered.

Harry watched as the Weasleys left, then turned to Severus to ask, "Do you really have potions brewing?"

He'd been with him all morning, and didn't remember Severus visiting the lab.

"I will by the time they get back."

Harry grinned at the very Slytherin response.

"Do you think I could persuade you to postpone the lab for a while?" Harry held his breath. Severus had been a lot better about socializing these last few weeks. They'd been to the Three Broomsticks a couple of times, but he could never be sure from one day to the next how Severus would respond to his overtures. Their interaction wasn't quite dating, but it was more than just two friends stopping in to a pub for a drink. What they'd been to each other was between them all the time. In deference to Severus, he'd tried to ignore it, tried to interact as platonically as possible, but he felt like iron filings trying to resist the pull of lodestone. There was something that drew him to this man. He couldn't tell if Severus felt it the same way. The whole thing was very confusing.

"What did you have in mind?" Severus asked.

"It's a beautiful day outside. I thought we might go for a walk, if you were up to it."

He knew Severus didn't care for bright sunshine at the best of times, so he was fairly sure he'd get a polite refusal. When they'd been sexually involved, Severus had often accompanied him out into the fresh air, but he knew that his lover had done so only to indulge him.

Severus' expression was the same as when he'd contemplated Hermione's invitation, so Harry was pretty sure he was going to get some version of the 'brewing potion' spiel.

To his complete surprise, Severus gave a nod and said, "All right."

"Brilliant!" Harry knew he sounded like a kid about to be let loose in Zonko's for the first time, but he couldn't hide his delight.

Side by side, they left the Great Hall.

The day was just as beautiful as the sunlight streaming through the windows had promised. Professor Dumbledore's rose garden was bursting with colour and scent as they passed through it. The grass was so green that the colour almost hurt the eyes, and, everywhere they looked was awash with wildflowers, bees, and butterflies as they made their way towards the Black Lake and Forbidden Forest.

There were students all over the place, some playing Muggle football, some soaring overhead on brooms, while many of the older ones were stretched out in the grass. The last group all separated with amusing speed as Professor Snape's dark figure came into sight. To Harry's relief, Severus didn't stop to hand out detentions, even though several of the couples they passed were so dishevelled that Harry himself would have felt compelled to say a thing or two about public snogging. But, since Severus refrained, he let it pass as well.

"It seems everyone had the same idea," Severus commented as yet another pair of guilty sixth years scurried up from under an oak tree, wild-eyed as startled rabbits.

Sensing that Severus wasn't enjoying the crowded grounds, Harry suggested, "Would you care to visit the section of the forest you charmed last fall? Do you think it's winter there now?"

"I don't know," Severus answered. "The charm was tied to the life cycle of the cicadas. I'm not sure what would have happened to the flora once the insects' cycle was complete. It would be interesting to see."

So, together, they headed for the woods.

Apparently, the dangers of the Forbidden Forest had scared off the students, for they finally seemed to have lost the noisy crowds of adolescents.

They were crossing the field behind Hagrid's hut, headed towards the trail that would bring them into the forest when Severus said in a low, careful tone, "I think we should discuss what's been happening at night lately."

Dread clenched Harry's stomach in a tight knot. He'd hoped that he'd have another week or two before Severus would tackle the subject, but, obviously, Severus was feeling much better these days. Taking a deep breath, he tried to answer in a normal tone as they strolled towards the woods, "I was wondering when you were going to bring it up."

"You haven't had to use your magic to stop my nightmares for nearly three weeks now, have you?" Severus questioned.

Harry gave a negative shake of his head as he softly answered, "No, you've been sleeping the night through on your own lately."

He knew he should be overjoyed about that. Severus was finally getting better. They should be celebrating the event. Instead, it made him feel as if he were living on borrowed time.

Severus' next words were, of course, the ones Harry had been fearing for weeks. "Perhaps it is time we dispensed with the monitoring?"

"I suppose you're right. You're doing much better." Harry tried to sound happy about it, but he could barely meet those dark eyes in his disappointment. If Severus were better, there would be no reason for him to stay down in the dungeons. They mightn't be having sex, but he didn't want to lose being so close to Severus.

"Thanks to you."

The softness in that deep voice brought Harry's gaze to that sun-bathed, strong-boned face. They had stopped at the edge of the woods. Severus was looking right at him. He couldn't help but wonder what Severus was reading in his face. Finding his voice, he offered the words he needed to say. They were true, if tinged with regret. "There's nothing to thank me for. It was my pleasure."

"I beg to differ. I have you to thank for my sanity. That was no small gift you gave me."

"I don't want your gratitude," Harry quickly denied, afraid of falling into the same category his dad had all those years ago when he'd saved Severus.

"I know," Severus surprised him by saying. "I just wanted you to know that your efforts are . . . appreciated."

Recognizing how hard it was for Severus to openly speak of his feelings, Harry quickly repeated, "Like I said, it was my pleasure." He knew what the logical progression of this discussion would be. Part of him wanted to avoid the issue entirely, make Severus address it if it were going to be dealt with, but . . . he knew how hard Severus was working to regain his mental and emotional stability. It wasn't fair to lay that burden on him now. Deciding to make it easy for Severus, he brought up the difficult topic himself, "I, er, guess you're going to want me to move back up to Gryffindor Tower now."

They'd reached the forest path and were now out of sight of the school and Hagrid's hut. The shade of the huge trees was obscuring most of the sunlight.

Harry's gaze dropped to the well-worn trail underfoot. He could see a line of black ants marching over last year's dried leaves beside his right trainer.

"Harry?"

There was a quality in Severus' voice that he'd rarely heard before. It was almost tender. His gaze drawn by that anomaly, he met those dark eyes. "Yes?"

"I didn't bring this subject up to throw you out," Severus said.

"You didn't?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head. "No."

"Oh . . . ." Relief swamping through him, he muttered, "Er, thanks. I was afraid you'd want me to clear out as soon as you were better."

"You should. We both know that it would be better for you," Severus said, something very like guilt in his eyes.

Maybe it was the fact that they were outside in natural light for a change, but Harry truly felt he could read everything that had motivated those words in Severus' troubled gaze.

"Nothing could be better for me than being with you," Harry gently countered.

"You are a young man with a healthy sexual appetite. You are tying yourself to a virtual eunuch through our association," Severus said.

"You're not a eunuch," Harry swiftly corrected. "You've been horribly hurt, and it's taking a while to heal, but you're getting better every day."

"And you are once again viewing this situation through rose-coloured, Gryffindor glasses," Severus accused. "I am . . . damaged. There is every possibility that I'll never -"

Unable to bear hearing that bilge wash one more time, Harry took the kind of gamble that had left him sitting on his arse in the dirt more than once. He reached up, hooked his hand around the back of Severus' skull, pulled his head down, and covered those 'damaged' lips with his own.

He didn't know what to expect. Although he'd often kissed Severus' head, brow, or cheek when they were in bed together, he hadn't kissed his lips passionately like this since before Severus was abducted. His conscience was shrieking at him, warning him how selfish he was being here. He knew Severus was nowhere near ready for sex. This was . . . dangerous. He could set his lover back months with this grandstanding.

Only . . . Severus wasn't freaking. His mouth was frozen with palpable shock during those first few seconds of contact, but then all resistance seemed to crumble. For a moment, Severus kissed him back.

It was . . . perfect. Harry's entire being seemed to pulse with power and reach for Severus as he sampled his sweet flavour. So long, it had been so fucking long. His whole body ached to be closer, to surround Severus and show him how much he was loved.

Harry felt the instant Severus' mind caught up with what was going on. Every muscle in that long body seemed to turn to stone.

Before any true panic could set in, Harry pulled back. His own breathing terribly unsteady, he said, "You're not a eunuch and you're not damaged, at least not permanently so. Right now you're not ready for what we used to do, but the day will come when you will be. I'm going to be right here beside you when that happens."

Too tempted by the stunned expression on Severus' face, Harry started to quickly walk towards the part of the forest Severus had enchanted. His heart and conscience were at odds with what he'd just done. He knew Severus was still terribly fragile, but . . . Severus needed to know that what Burke had done to him hadn't destroyed him. He only hoped he hadn't been too rash with that kiss.

While he could see on a daily basis how uninterrupted rest was healing Severus physically, he really didn't know what Severus was going through emotionally. His lover had never been a talker at the best of times. Words had never really worked for them. Harry knew he could offer verbal reassurance until he was blue in the face and Severus still wouldn't believe that he'd ever get better, that they could ever go back to what they'd been. But the emotions that kiss had stirred, that was something Severus wasn't going to be able to ignore.

When Severus joined him a minute or so later, Harry took a surreptitious survey of his face. To his intense relief, Severus didn't appear to be undergoing any great trauma.

When those dark eyes caught him looking, Harry gave a sheepish smile and said, "I, er, probably shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry. Are you upset with me?"

"No," Severus answered.

"That's good. Thank you."

"For?" Severus sounded genuinely puzzled.

"Not running screaming in horror?" Harry suggested. "I really shouldn't have taken that kind of chance."

Severus was quiet a moment. When he spoke, he sounded as if he weren't sure he should. "No one in their right mind would run screaming in horror from your kiss. I know I'm not exactly in my right mind these days, but . . . ."

"You're getting there," Harry said, laying his hand on Severus' back as they walked through the forest. He felt like a teenager again, his heart buzzing at the compliment Severus had just paid him.

There was no path to Severus' out-of-season wonderland, but Harry was achingly familiar with the route. They'd been here dozens of times before January. He couldn't count how often they'd made love amidst the fragrant ferns on the damp forest floor. The woods were covered with them at the moment.

The entire forest looked like that charmed section now, green and bursting with life. As Harry walked through the sun-dappled shadows beneath the great trees, he breathed in the sweet scent of the pine needles and the crunchy carpet of dead leaves underfoot. The pines were massive here, as were the ancient oaks.

In a short time, they were at the section of forest Severus had enchanted.

"It looks no different from the rest of the woods," Harry commented, taking in the green oak leaves on a nearby tree.

"Yes, it's strange. The adult cicadas should have died some time in January. I'd expected the trees to still be leafless," Severus said.

"Maybe they lost their leaves in January and this is new growth," Harry suggested as he led the way to the fern-covered deadfall by the stream where they had first kissed. Though rife with bittersweet memories, it was still his favourite place.

Harry took a seat on the huge trunk of the dead pine nearest the stream, breathing the heady scent of the damp wood deep into his lungs.

Severus settled beside him on the log, his dark gaze on the nearly hypnotic movement of the stream a few yards in front of them.

When their eyes met, Harry thought he could see the same memories moving through Severus that were twisting him up inside with loss.

"This is where we started," Harry said. "We were standing right in front of this log when you kissed me."

"It feels very far away now, doesn't it?"

Part of him had expected Severus to take issue with his comment. After that impulsive kiss, he knew any reference to their former relationship was pushing things, but Severus sounded as sad as he felt.

"Not so far away," Harry gently countered. He took comfort from the fact that Severus didn't expound upon how damaged he was again. Thinking that this might finally be the right time to broach some of the issues they'd both been avoiding these last few weeks, he said, "We've never really talked about the future. I know you're still not feeling up to par, but I was wondering . . . well, I guess what I was wondering was if you wanted things to be the way they used to be between us? I mean, obviously, not now, but . . . in the future. I realize that just because my feelings for you haven't changed, the reverse isn't necessarily true."

Till now, Harry had been afraid to voice this question, mostly because he knew there was every possibility that Severus would dash his hopes out of spite or out of misplaced concern for his wellbeing.

Severus released a long breath.

Stealing a glance at his face, all Harry could see was uncertainty.

"We don't have to talk about this now, if you'd rather not," Harry quickly offered.

"No, after all I've put you through, you have the right to know," Severus answered. "I recognize that this . . . limbo we've been existing in these last few months hasn't been easy for you."

The Severus he'd dealt with in March wouldn't have been able to look outside himself like this. Cheered by this example of how much healthier Severus was, he softly denied, "You haven't put me through anything. Burke put us both through hell. He's responsible, not you, not me."

"Nevertheless, you have suffered greatly on my behalf -"

"We've both suffered," Harry corrected him. "You don't owe me anything because of what we've been through. I'm here with you because that's where I want to be. I'm being selfish here."

"Selfish?" Severus questioned, sounding as if he'd never heard the word before.

"Entirely." Feeling as if he were going to fall into the bottomless depths of those black eyes, Harry said, "So, don't feel compelled to do anything you're not up to."

"I think I'm up to conversation," Severus said with that urbane edge that got to Harry every time. After a pause, he continued with, "You asked if my feelings towards you had changed."

Harry's gut tightened with dread. As much as he loved the man, he still couldn't read him. Finding his voice, he said, "Yeah."

"They have."

Harry tried to be brave, but he felt as if his whole world were crumbling around him, which, of course, it was. "Oh . . . ."

That was all he could manage. His gaze dropped to the ferns growing out of last year's leaves underfoot. He couldn't even think what this would mean to his future, not that there would be any future worth having without Severus.

"They have deepened," Severus said into that horrible silence, his voice soft and perhaps a bit contrite.

Harry's chin jerked back up. "What?"

"Please understand. In my entire life, there was never anyone who . . . loved me, including my parents. I honestly did not believe that anyone could, but . . . your behaviour has forced me to accept that you . . . truly do. I don't understand it. I probably never will, but . . . it is the saving grace of my life."

Thunderstruck, Harry could only stare at Severus. He hadn't expected that.

Seeing the nervousness edge its way into Severus' features, he quickly said, "You're still my miracle."

The huff of breath Severus released expressed his reaction perfectly.

Harry grinned at the astonishment Severus was attempting to hide. When his smile had faded, he asked, "So, does that mean you want us to be the way we used to be?"

He knew he sounded like a halfwit, but he still wasn't able to ask directly if Severus thought he might want to have sex with him again in the future.

Fortunately, Severus was a bit quicker at interpreting him than he was at understanding Severus.

"I don't know when or even if I will be . . . ready, as you put it before. But . . . I would very much like to regain what was stolen from me," Severus said.

It was like the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders with those words. Reading how worried Severus seemed about his ability to recover, Harry assured, "We'll get there." He could see in Severus' eyes that his lover had no such faith. When Severus made no protest to his optimistic assurance, he questioned, "Can I ask you something?" Once he'd received a nod, he ploughed ahead with, "When I kissed you before, everything seemed okay for a moment or so, and then . . . ."

Something that looked like shame crossed Severus' face before it stilled into its normal bland expression. "My body just . . . froze. I knew it was you, and that there was absolutely no threat involved, but I still couldn't control . . . ."

Harry couldn't fathom how much it was taking for Severus to try to speak about these issues. "I took you by surprise. It's only natural that you'd react that way."

"There's nothing 'natural' about it," Severus denied. "I don't know . . . how to get past that reaction."

"Time will probably help," Harry said. "And maybe we can take baby steps to ease past it."

"Baby steps?" Severus echoed.

"Well, you seem okay when I . . . hold you before we fall asleep," Harry pointed out, hoping that his speaking about it wouldn't endanger the privilege. "I mean, you freeze up when I first touch you, but you seem to be okay after a few minutes."

Severus seemed to consider his words. "Your magic usually surrounds me at that point. It is very . . . comforting."

Harry nodded. "I don't think that enveloping you in my power every time I touch you is the way to go, though. Do you?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head. His eyes looked bleak and lost.

"What if we agree that sex isn't on the program anytime in the immediate future? Do you think it would help if you know I'm not . . . after that?"

"I knew you weren't after that before," Severus said, seeming even more depressed.

That being the last thing he wanted, Harry quickly said, "Yes, but you weren't expecting me to kiss you like that. Of course, you were shocked. I was thinking if we took things really slow, with the understanding that nothing would come of it, that maybe you could get used to being physical with me again. If you don't think you're ready to try it yet, that's fine, too. There's no pressure here. It's just a suggestion."

Harry held his breath as Severus considered his idea. He wasn't a psychiatrist. He had no idea if this would help or hinder Severus' progress, but it seemed that the situation might never change if they didn't work on the problem

Severus seemed to come to the same conclusion, for he gave a quiet, "What did you have in mind?"

Trying to control the burst of euphoria that came from Severus' willingness to try, Harry said, "I thought that when we were alone like this, that maybe we could . . . . " Even now it was hard to ask for a cuddle. But that was what he was considering, so, finally, he managed, ". . . . sit close and hug?"

"Do you really think it will help?" Severus asked.

"I don't know. If it doesn't . . . exacerbate the problem, it probably won't hurt. Do you want to try?"

In answer, Severus rose to his feet and sat back down on the log, leaving next to no space between them.

The discrepancy in their heights made trying to lay his arm across Severus' shoulders a ludicrous proposition, so Harry slipped his right arm loosely around Severus' waist.

Even with an inch between them, he could feel how Severus' whole body seemed to stiffen with tension.

"Is that too much?" Harry checked. From his end, it felt incredible.

"No. It's just . . . ."

"Yes?" Harry encouraged, giving Severus a light squeeze.

"This must be incredibly tedious for you."

His heart almost breaking at those self-conscious words, he swiftly offered, "There's nothing tedious about it. Look at me." When those dark eyes settled hesitantly upon his face, Harry asked, "Do I look bored or put upon?"

Harry tried to make sure that everything he was feeling showed.

Slowly, the worry tightening Severus' features was replaced by something that looked like wonder.

Their gazes locked. Neither of them seemed able to look away. The pull towards Severus was nearly irresistible.

To his amazement, Harry saw Severus' face begin to lower towards him. He held his breath, waiting for reality to intrude and for Severus to halt the gesture. But Severus seemed as transfixed by his eyes as Harry was by his.

Severus' hands braced themselves on his shoulders, and then those thin, dry lips covered his own.

Harry liquefied. All resistance crumbled from his mouth as he kissed back for all he was worth. It was sheer heaven, even more wonderful than the kiss they'd shared at the edge of the woods.

His lips parted at the first swipe of Severus' tongue. That long-missed taste flooded him, filling his whole being. It was beyond wonderful. On a mental level, Harry knew it was just a kiss, that in the cosmic scheme of the universe, it was fairly insignificant, but it felt like it was transforming his whole world.

Instinct guiding him, he pressed closer to Severus, and felt the by now familiar freeze as their bodies crushed together. His better sense prevailing, Harry forced himself to pull back.

Severus' fingers clenched at his shoulders, holding him where he was, refusing to allow him to put any space between them. Severus' mouth wasn't moving against his with the same fervour it had moments ago, but he wasn't pulling away.

Harry's wrists were draped over Severus' shoulders, touching his neck. He could feel the panicked race of Severus' pulse where their skin touched. But Severus still seemed intent on not withdrawing.

Harry slipped his right hand around Severus and started rubbing his back in reassuring circles, hoping to ease him through whatever was going on.

Finally, Severus drew back, releasing a shaky-sounding breath.

Harry could sympathize. His own heart was racing like a hippogriff in flight and all the air seemed to have been sucked out of the Forbidden Forest.

Stunned by Severus' temerity, he could only stare at Severus' equally flustered-looking face. He could count on one hand the number of times Severus had initiated a kiss when they were lovers. For him to do so now was . . . earth-shaking.

"Like I said, still my miracle," Harry said when he could manage speech.

A totally engaging flush tinted Severus' cheeks. Those dark eyes shied away from his. Obviously, that kiss had been a bit more than Severus had intended.

Not entirely sure what he should do now, Harry slipped his arm around Severus' waist again and leaned a bit of his weight against him.

After a moment, Severus' arm settled across his shoulders.

Not saying anything, they just sat there with this newfound closeness thrumming between them, watching the creek water rush past. It might be a pale shadow of the passion they used to share, but right now, this simple contact was the sweetest gift Harry could imagine.

*~*~*
 

 
 

 

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