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Loving this playful teasing, he met Severus' eyes and tried to keep his voice as light and unthreatening as possible as he answered, "Well, if you're right, that means I'll be able to convince you that I love you. Once I put that Burke bastard down, I'm going to spend 24/7 working on that goal."

Even with the care he took, Harry could see that his words threw Severus.

Severus seemed to mull over his statement for a time before addressing what was perhaps the easier issue. "You intend to go after Burke, then?"

Severus didn't sound surprised.

Harry held that dark gaze. "Is there anyone else that has a chance of taking him down?"

Severus gave a slow, negative shake of his head. "Still, it is not your responsibility to rid the world of every dark wizard who rises to power."

Harry considered Severus' words. He knew he'd be risking a lot in this encounter. Providing he were powerful enough to actually defeat Burke, there would be no hiding his abilities from the public anymore. "Maybe if Ron hadn't been with those Aurors yesterday, I might be able to stand back a little longer, but . . . the bastard's made this too personal. First Carl, then framing you, now Ron . . . I don't want to wait around to see where he'll strike next."

Once again, Severus confined his response to a nod. After a few moments, Severus said, "I would like to stand with you when you face him."

The part of Harry that loved Severus wanted to deny the request to keep him safe. But he knew Severus would no more stand for that than he would. Mastering his protective instincts as best he could, he answered, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

It seemed to Harry that their eyes were having the kind of conversation that neither of them ever managed well when attempted with words. He didn't know how he knew, but he was sure that Severus was aware of his hesitation to expose him to danger, and he was equally certain that Severus felt the same way.

Taking a deep breath, Harry said, "We'd better get moving if we're going to get to the hospital any time this morning."

"Yes, we should," Severus agreed, appearing equally disinclined to break the moment.

Eventually, they managed to pry themselves away from the table to get dressed.

Flooing was its usual stomach-churning event. Harry staggered out of the hearth in St. Mungo's main hall, shook off the inevitable ash, and then turned to steady Severus as he arrived.

Side by side, they made their way to Ron's room.

Harry wasn't sure how to approach Alice McGregor to suggest that he try to heal her brother. He barely knew the woman at all, and didn't particularly like Tom, but it seemed important that he do everything he could to undo Burke's damage. He had no idea how Alice would feel about his horning in on her efforts.

Harry froze in his tracks as he stepped into Ron and Tom's room.

Ron appeared to be sound asleep with Hermione drowsing in a chair beside his bed.

The other bed on the far side of the room was glaringly empty.

"Oh, hi, Harry, Severus," Hermione said, starting awake with a sleepy smile. She was still in yesterday's clothes. Harry knew she probably hadn't left Ron's side for more than a trip to the loo.

"Hi, yourself," Harry said. Glancing meaningfully to the empty bed, he asked, "Tom?"

Hermione gave a slow shake of her head. "It happened about two hours after you left. Poor Alice was devastated."

Harry bit his lip. He was too late, then. Not that he could have done anything to prevent Tom from passing last night. He'd been so drained from healing Ron that it had been all he could do to stay on his feet long enough for Severus to get him safely in bed. Nevertheless, he felt . . . cheated by Tom's death. He mightn't have liked the man personally, but McGregor had been working on the side of Light.

There'd been a time right after Voldemort's demise when he'd been naïve enough to believe that such designations would no longer be necessary. But Evil never truly died. It merely slept until it emerged in its latest incarnation.

Harry forced his mind away from the depressing thought, concentrating on what good had been accomplished. "How's Ron?"

Hermione's face lit up. "Stronger by the minute. It's amazing, Harry. He's just . . . weak. You would have thought he'd just been down with the flu, instead of . . . . Well, it's just amazing. They're talking about releasing him this afternoon."

"Really?" Harry asked, unable to believe it himself.

"Really," Hermione confirmed.

"They'd better," a familiar grumpy voice declared from the bed.

"Ron!" both he and Hermione chorused, turning to grin down at Ron.

"'lo, Harry, Professor," Ron said, sounding very much himself, if extremely tired.

"You're a sight for sore eyes, mate," Harry said with a chuckle.

"Don't I know it," Ron replied, his smile fading. "There was a moment there when I thought I'd never see any of you again. Thanks again for what you did yesterday, Harry. You, too, Professor. Hermione told me that you brewed the potion that saved me."

"You are most welcome," Severus replied, pausing in Harry's personal space as he stepped closer to the bed. "I must, however, insist that there be no unwarranted emotional displays when you are back on your feet again. Your thank you was quite sufficient, if unnecessary."

"Huh?" Ron questioned, seeming confused.

Harry laughed. "I think Severus is saying that he doesn't want you to give him a kiss to thank him when you're feeling better like Hermione did yesterday."

Ron's heartfelt, "Merlin, forbid," left even Severus' lips twitching with amusement.

They fell silent for a time before Ron softly asked, "You heard about poor Tom, then?"

"Yes," Harry said. "I'm sorry. I know you worked together."

Ron looked over towards the window, his face darkening. "I worked with them all. All seven of them gone, Harry, with a single spell."

"I'm just glad it wasn't eight," Hermione interjected, leaning over to give Ron's forehead a kiss.

Bless her, Harry thought, recognizing that she knew exactly how to handle Ron. After her kiss, his upset friend turned back to face them.

"I've never even heard of the spell he used," Ron said. "It wasn't mage fire, though. He used his wand."

"It was probably Corpus Accendio," Harry said, recalling a curse he'd read about in some of his extracurricular reading when he'd been teaching Dumbledore's Army. "It's rarely even mentioned anymore because its results are so . . . ."

"Yeah," Ron said, the agony he'd endured clear in his haunted eyes. "All of them are gone, Harry . . . with one spell . . . ."

"I know," Harry said, feeling his throat tightening up at the misery in Ron's face. "But we're going to get the bastard, Ron. He won't get away with this."

"How?" Ron questioned. "Eight of the Ministry's best Aurors couldn't stand against the fiend. How are we going to stop him?"

Harry glanced over at Severus' solemn face before answering Ron. "No more of your men are going to die, Ron. I promise you."

For a second, Ron seemed confused, but then his face tightened with understanding. "No. You can't. This isn't your job."

"Maybe not, but I think I'm the only one who can manage it," Harry offered softly.

"Harry -" Ron protested.

"Let's not worry about this now, all right?" Harry pleaded. "I brought you some of those muffins you like so much. I know what the food is like here."

Harry reached into his robe pocket, withdrawing a parcel of wrapped muffins that hadn't been there a second ago.

"Do you think you can buy me with muffins?" Ron questioned, still sounding ready for an argument.

Harry met those mutinous eyes as he opened his package. As the scent of blueberries and strawberries wafted through the room, Harry lightly answered, "Yes. I know I can. Now, dig in."

Ron looked at him, looked at the muffins, and made the choice Harry had hoped he would.

Hermione giggled as Ron truculently took possession of a blueberry muffin. Harry passed a strawberry muffin to Hermione, and then performed a little more instantaneous magic as he handed his latest creation to Severus.

"I don't eat either blueberry or strawberry -" Severus began.

Harry cut him off, "But you do eat nutbread."

"You didn't bring -" Severus looked down at what was being handed to him. "Well, since you didn't bring any muffins, either, I suppose I'll take a piece of the nutbread. I don't expect that you didn't bring butter and tea as well?"

Grinning, Harry reached into his robes again and produced a tray with a steaming teapot, four mugs, and a butter dish.

"You know, I saw a bloke on Muggle telly do that when I was at my mother's last summer," Hermione commented.

Laughter filled the room as Severus and he sat down to enjoy their tea.

*~*~*

"Two more days until the dunderheads return." Severus attempted to suppress his sigh as he finished yet another private breakfast with Harry at the table beside his hearth. He honestly didn't know where the time had gone. Christmas break was usually interminable, but this year it had passed with frightening speed.

Harry had spoilt him these last two weeks. His young lover hadn't even made a pretence of returning to his rooms. They'd spent the entire leave together, and now that it was drawing to a close, Severus knew that he'd miss having Harry around full time.

"Yeah," Harry said in a tone that seemed to capture Severus' encroaching melancholy as he sipped his morning tea.

Harry was sitting there across from him, wearing a light blue dressing gown that was barely belted closed. His chest and abdomen peeked provocatively out of the open folds. He looked like every erotic fantasy Severus had ever had, too good to be real.

Severus could feel those beautiful green eyes watching him, seeming to evaluate him. He braced himself, for things were never good when Harry had to think beforehand about what he was about to say.

The tentative "Severus?" that followed blew a chill down his spine.

Severus couldn't help but wonder if this were it, the moment he'd been dreading since the first time he'd kissed Harry in the forest. These last few weeks had been wonderful in his estimation. Harry had seemed to enjoy them, too, but he knew that everyone tired of his company eventually. Dreading that he was right, that his time was up, he gave a hesitant, "Yes?" in response.

"I've been thinking," Harry began and seemed to falter.

His nervousness making him want to snap, Severus forced himself to joke instead, "Granted, it's a novel pastime for those of your house, but nothing to be alarmed about. I'm sure the aberration won't last long."

"Very funny. Anyway, like I said, I was thinking . . . ." Harry persisted and halted at the same point.

"And?" Severus impatiently prompted.

Severus heard Harry gulp and then continue in a nervous tone, "I really, really enjoyed spending all this time down here with you over the Christmas break."

"And?" Severus braced himself. The words weren't ominous in themselves, but he knew that an 'and the close contact has opened my eyes to how completely incompatible we are,' could very well be following it. Unlike Slytherins, Gryffindors always believed in letting the other person down easy. He just wished Harry would hurry up and get to his point.

"I, er, don't want it to end," Harry seemed to force the words out.

It being the holiday, Severus translated.

Years of spying allowed him to hide his relief. The warmth he felt for Harry Potter that was more than affection suffused him as he gently pointed out, "All holidays must end, Harry."

"Must they?" Harry questioned, apparently at a loss for words after that. Harry's eyes seemed to be begging him to understand something he couldn't vocalize, but Severus honestly didn't have a clue as to what Harry was leading up to.

"What is it you're trying to say?" Severus encouraged in as non-threatening a tone as he could manage. Harry clearly wasn't planning on ending it; that was all that mattered.

"I want to live with you," Harry blurted out. His expression made it quite obvious that he expected disaster to follow his candour. This issue being something Severus had never even considered as a possibility, he could only stare as Harry stumbled on with, "I was going to ask you to move up into the tower with me, but I know that as head of Slytherin, you have to be available to the students twenty-four hours a day. And, I also realize that Hermione and Ron's breezing into the bedroom in the morning would drive you insane, so . . . I thought, if you were agreeable, then I might move some of my stuff down here later today? We could try it out . . . see how it works. You don't have to give me an answer right now," Harry rushed to assure. "Think about it, if you need to."

"You want to move into the dungeon . . . to live with me?" Severus repeated, as if to get his facts straight. He still couldn't quite believe what he'd thought he'd just heard.

"Yes," Harry answered, holding his gaze, for all that Harry clearly anticipated a refusal.

Severus carefully set down his tea mug before he spilt it in his shock. Harry wanted to live with him?

"I know it's a really big move," Harry said in that quick, nervous tone. "And that you probably haven't given the idea any thought at all -"

"The concept isn't something I ever even imagined possible," Severus quietly confessed when Harry faltered again. Every doubt he'd ever had was screaming for him to retract those words or add something scathing to them, but . . . Harry had left himself terribly exposed with that request. Although it had thrown Severus completely, he was unwilling to play the coward's part when Harry was so generously offering something he hadn't even dreamed was within his reach. He just couldn't believe that Harry was serious; even though he knew that Harry would never joke about something like this.

Severus drew a deep shaky breath and asked, "You seriously want to . . . live with me?"

Harry nodded. That cleft chin always made him appear strong, but Severus could clearly see how worried he was as he replied, "Yes. I know you're not comfortable with me saying it, but . . . I love you and I don't want to live apart from you unless I absolutely have to. I realize that we're all but living together now, I just . . . wanted to make it official."

The panic that flared through Severus was completely instinctive, but somehow he managed to beat it down enough to croak out, "Make it official?"

"Well, as official as we can. I realize that there's no legal means to -" Harry paled and stopped talking. His expression made it plain that he feared he'd said too much.

Great Merlin! Make it official . . . legal means. . . . Harry was making this sound like a marriage proposal!

Stunned, Severus recognized that that was how Harry was looking at it. He knew how romantic his lover was. Harry would have to be the most hopeless of romantics to see the things in him that he did. Harry wasn't suggesting that they shack up to make fucking more convenient. As his lover had said, they already spent most of their off duty time in each other's company. Even if they'd tried, they probably couldn't shag any more than they were doing now. What Harry was asking for here was something different; something that Severus had never believed could be his.

Wishing he had some frame of reference, Severus drew in another of those shaky breaths and searched his brain for the right words to say. The situation was completely beyond his ken, but the dawning defeat in Harry's expression made it imperative that he respond, and respond correctly. Open declarations were still beyond him. He had neither tact nor grace. He knew he barely managed civil, and that with work. He was constitutionally unsuited for this type of love scene, but . . . he did love, even if he was too afraid to admit it out loud.

Stumbling over the words with something like blind terror, Severus finally rasped out, "You're right. Perhaps it would be . . . a good idea for you to move some of your things down here this afternoon."

Severus knew how inadequate his response had been when compared to the gift Harry had just bestowed upon him, but Harry didn't seem to mind. His face lit up bright as the morning star.

"R-really?" Harry stammered.

Were the situation not so serious, their awkwardness might have been humorous, but Severus couldn't even attempt a smile as he answered, "It's long past time. Don't you think?"

There. He hadn't said it, but Harry was good at inference.

Harry sagged back against his chair, a grin seeming to claim his entire face as he nodded his agreement.

Their gazes met and held. Harry's grin dropped away. In that moment of utter openness, Severus could see every one of his fears reflected in Harry's eyes.

"It is a big move," Harry acknowledged at last.

Sensing that something of the commonplace was needed to offset this daring decision, Severus attempted to reply as matter-of-factly as he could, "But one we're more than ready for. So, what are your plans for the day, aside from lugging your quidditch cups and owl down here?"

Harry's eyes warmed with appreciation. "Well, I'm going to sit with Ron for a few hours. Then I thought that after dinner, you and I might check out another one of the estates on Ron's list of Burke's holdings. Will that work for you?"

Severus nodded. In the two days since Ron had returned from his hospital stay, Harry and he had investigated four of the three score Burke holdings. The man had more land to his name than a Malfoy.

"Great. What are you going to do while I'm getting on Ron's nerves?" Harry asked.

"I have to restock some potion ingredients. I thought I'd stop in at Slug & Jiggers later this morning," Severus replied.

"Bring me something from Mr. Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour?" Harry begged, batting his eyelashes outrageously.

"You want me to go into an Ice Cream Parlour?" Severus didn't even attempt to disguise his horror.

"Well, how else are you going to get me some of his ice cream, and, no, you may not summon it," Harry ruled out before Severus could even voice the suggestion.

Feeling ridiculously happy, Severus held Harry's laughing gaze and complained, "This is some kind of Gryffindor 'prove you love me' test, isn't it?"

Harry couldn't quite hide his surprise.

Severus couldn't blame him. He couldn't believe that he'd actually voiced those words himself, even while joking.

To Severus' great relief, Harry didn't make a big deal of his slip, answering instead with a semi-serious, "Maybe."

Severus contemplated Harry's reply for a moment, weighed his dignity against the possibility of being seen in such an embarrassing establishment, decided that he'd rather eat Hagrid's latest pet than set foot in the place, and finally asked, "Were I to find myself in that establishment, and, mind, I say were, what flavour do you fancy?"

The expression on Harry's face made Severus realize that he might just as well give the man those three bloody words that he'd been avoiding like the plague.

Affecting a nonchalant attitude that was totally belied by the ludicrously inappropriate level of excitement in his eyes, Harry answered, "Chocolate, with lots of chocolate sauce, and cherries, tons of cherries."

"Anything else?" Severus inquired, attempting to keep his lips from twitching. Harry sounded all of four at the moment.

"No nuts," Harry said.

"No nuts?" Severus echoed, bemused by this entire exchange.

"No, unless you're gonna eat them," Harry said.

"I'll keep that in mind." Feeling as though he were about to drown in those sea green eyes, Severus looked away. Fixing on practicalities, he said, "I'll transfigure a new dresser in the bedroom for your things. Everything else should fit in the available space. Move whatever you need to."

It felt rather surreal to be discussing the details of Harry actually moving into the dungeon.

Harry gave him a soft look and a quiet, "Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet. We both might be regretting this by daybreak," Severus warned.

But Harry simply smiled at him, his attractive face shining with the impossible Gryffindor confidence that had won its way through every one of Severus' guards. "No chance."

Extremely unnerved, Severus quickly said, "Yes, well, I'm going to prepare for my trip now."

"Want some company?" Harry winked at him as Severus stood to flee to the loo.

"You can't be serious. It's been less than an hour since we -"

"Come on," Harry persuaded, shifting his slouch in his chair a little so that his open robe revealed a bit more than just his snowy white abdomen. "You know you want to."

"You have an appointment with Ron and I have to -" Severus persevered.

"I'll just tell him that I lost track of time while we were doing it in the shower," Harry said.

"You'll do no such thing," Severus said, having no difficulty imagining Harry doing just that. "I am taking a shower, alone, and you are going to summon your house elf to remove that mess."

"You know, you can be quite the dictator at times," Harry said with a laugh.

"Thank you," Severus said.

"That wasn't a compliment," Harry protested.

"It is in this end of the castle," Severus reminded, unable to hide his smile this time.

Harry made a face and then said, "Well, we'll just have to have incredibly hot missed-you sex when you get back."

"Missed-you sex?" Severus repeated, bewildered. "I'm only going to Diagon Alley. I'll be gone no more than an hour."

Harry's reply was strangely serious, "Hell, I'm so gone that I'll be wanting to have hot missed-you sex by the time you get out of the shower."

Reading the truth of it in those laughing eyes, Severus said, "You are utterly and completely deranged. You do know that?"

Harry simply laughed harder. "Good thing I found such a conscientious keeper, then, isn't it?"

Shaking his head, Severus made his escape to the bathroom.

Harry's reminder of, "Don't forget my prove-you-love-me ice cream!" was ringing behind him as he finally closed the door.

*~*~*
Two hours later, following some undeniably satisfying and hot missed-you-while-you-were-in-the-shower sex, Severus found himself standing in Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour watching as the old man put together a disgustingly huge chocolate sundae. His potions ingredients purchases were shrunken and stored safely in his pocket.

"It's not for me," Severus disavowed all interest in the ice cream for the third time, wanting it clear that he was not here on his own devices. Fortunately, the shop was empty, so there was no one here to witness this ignominy.

Fortescue, who now appeared nearly two hundred, looked over at him and mildly enquired, "Who's it for, then? Your little one?"

"As if," Severus huffed. "Although his maturity is probably comparable to that of a four-year-old, it's actually for a full grown man. Harry Potter, to be precise," Severus said, thinking that Harry could bear the embarrassment.

Fortescue froze. "This is for Harry? Why didn't you say?"

"I just did," Severus snapped, barely keeping back the 'you doddering old fool' that his tone implied.

"So you did," the old man good naturedly agreed.

Severus gaped in horror as the normal sized container into which Fortescue was shovelling ice cream tripled in size. The thing now looked more like a large cauldron filled with ice cream than a dessert.

"He'll be wanting cherries, I take it?" Fortescue asked.

Severus gave an appalled nod and stood speechless as the man dumped what had to be a pound of the candied fruit onto the growing mountain.

"No nuts, right?" Fortescue checked.

Severus was tempted, but as this was a prove-you-love-the-mental-Gryffindor statement of intent, he shook his head 'no'. "No nuts. Believe me, the man is deranged enough."

The old man could barely lift his creation when he turned to bring it to Severus at the counter.

"What about you, lad? What can I get you?" Fortescue asked.

"The bill will do," Severus answered. He opened his change purse, thinking that the thing would now cost every galleon he had on him.

"Oh, no. There's no charge for Harry Potter."

"Don't be absurd, man. How do you know it's really for Potter?" Severus demanded.

"A nice lad like yourself wouldn't lie to an old man," Fortescue answered with a bright grin.

"Clearly, you were a Gryffindor," Severus tried not to sneer. He really did. But such utter stupidity was unpardonable in his world.

"Funny you should mention that," Fortescue laughed, pushing the mountainous monstrosity towards him.

"Really, I must insist that you allow me to pay for -" Severus tried again.

"No. Harry's a friend. Just give him my regards," Fortescue said.

Severus gave a nod and a frustrated sigh. Who was he to protest if the man wanted to bankrupt himself?

"I suppose even with an impervious spell on it, this thing wouldn't be safe to shrink and carry?" Severus asked, eyeing the ice cream cauldron suspiciously.

"I'm afraid not. It won't melt until you get it to Harry, but I can't promise its integrity if it's bouncing about in your pocket," Fortescue said.

"Prove you love me, indeed," Severus muttered under his breath, tempted to abandon the thing here.

"What was that, lad?"

Severus gave the old fool a glare that would have had first years wetting themselves and answered, "Nothing. Good day to you."

"And to you," Fortescue said with an insipid smile.

Resting the ice cream on the counter, Severus removed his wand from his pocket. Old habits died hard. Even though he was no doubt perfectly safe on the Wizarding World's most trafficked street at this time of day, he hated to be unable to defend himself if the need arose. Shifting his wand, he reached out and lifted the ice cream. It weighed a ton, and was freezing to boot.

Shaking his head at his own foolishness, Severus adjusted his hold on the awkward, oversized container. Unless he wanted to brace it against his robes and risk staining them, holding it required two hands, just as he'd anticipated. Normally, he would have levitated this kind of burden, but since he had to apparate back to Hogwarts' gates, he would need to be in physical contact with whatever he was transporting. Most stores had anti-apparation wards on them to prevent after-hour theft, so he was going to have to move this frozen horror outside to transport home.

The charmed door opened as he stepped out of the shop onto the busy Diagon Alley. Severus paused in front of the store, preparing to apparate to just outside Hogwarts' gates.

Severus had no sooner stopped when a voice sounded behind him, "Petrificus Totalus!"

Cursing himself ten times a fool, Severus felt his body stiffen. Even in the crowded Diagon Alley, it was never wise to let down one's guards, but he'd become complacent over the years, and, beyond that, his mind had simply been on other things, namely Harry's reaction when he returned to the castle with this monstrosity.

Harry's treat and his wand fell from his paralysed hands as he toppled face forward.

His wand! Severus did all he could to catch his wand, but his hands wouldn't budge. Then that failed, he tried to use the wordless, wandless magic Harry excelled at to summon his wand to him as he fell forward, but it was useless. His ebony wand had just begun to wiggle under his efforts when a rough hand caught his shoulder. Severus never hit the pavement in his fall. That clawlike hand dug painfully into his shoulder and the next thing Severus knew, he was apparated away.

Still frozen by the petrification spell, Severus watched his new surroundings take form around him. The shadowy, crumbling, grey stone walls that were dripping water and dark with mould could only be the dungeon of an ancient keep. The dank, foul-smelling place was utterly freezing, but Severus suspected that would be the least of his worries.

The hand that was all that was holding him up left his shoulder, and Severus found himself falling face forward onto a filthy stone floor. Fortunately, his head had been turned to the side when he'd been hit by the spell, so he didn't break his nose in the fall. However, his right cheek and the side of his head hit the stone so hard that he saw stars.

Severus regarded his environment from his new perspective. All he could see now was the floor and the far wall, which had a human skeleton chained to it. Charming.

Bracing himself mentally for what was to come, he waited for his captor to enter his sight.

As retreating footsteps sounded behind him and he was abandoned helpless in this loathsome place, Severus tried to tell himself that the chill shivering through his blood was due to the cold alone.

*~*~*

Harry moved his bishop to take a white pawn that seemed innocently exposed. "I know I'm going to regret that. I'm just not sure how."

Ron chuckled and moved his knight.

Harry groaned as he realized that he'd just boxed in his queen. He could save either the queen or his bishop, but he was going to lose one of them.

"You're just not devious enough, Harry," Ron remarked.

"Like you are?" Harry questioned.

The curtains on the window were pulled way back. They were sitting at a small table by the bevelled windows in the Weasleys' sitting room, bathed in winter sunlight.

"Well, I must be. I keep winning, don't I?" Ron said with his usual cheek.

Harry was glad to see Ron's spirits returning. He knew that his squad's deaths were weighing heavily on Ron's mind.

"I wouldn't be too sure of that. Severus claims you're an idiot savant when it comes to chess," Harry reported, biting his cheek to keep from grinning.

He was disappointed, however. Ron merely pulled a face and said, "That's only because I beat him that one time he played me."

"Be careful, mate," Harry warned. "Pride goeth before a fall."

"Does it, now?" Ron asked in a teasing, mild tone and took Harry's queen with a rook Harry hadn't even noticed laying in wait. The pawn Harry had taken two moves back, had, of course cleared the path for Ron to take his queen.

"Ugh!" Harry groaned.

From the other side of the room, Hermione lifted her nose from the book she was reading long enough to say, "The actual quote is Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."

Ron and he stared at each other in horror.

"You know this – off the top of your head you know this?" Ron questioned.

"Well, of course," Hermione answered in a 'Doesn't everyone?' tone.

"Is 'an haughty' even proper English?" Ron demanded.

Hermione's sigh sounded clear across the room. "It's from the Bible, Ron. Most of -"

A knock on the sitting room door interrupted whatever Hermione was going to say.

They all exchanged a look. Most of the students were still on holiday, and the majority of the ones that had remained were out playing in the fresh fallen snow.

"Maybe it's Severus with my ice cream," Harry said.

"Snape is bringing you ice cream?" Ron appeared stunned.

Harry gave him a grin and said, "If you leave my knight alone for four more moves, I'll share," as Hermione called out, "Come in."

The opening door revealed Minerva McGonagall. Harry tensed immediately at the grim expression on her face.

"Ah, Harry, I'd hoped I'd find you here," Minerva said.

"Is everything all right, Minerva?" Hermione asked, rising to her feet, though it was clear to everyone that something was far from all right. Minerva had the same expression on her face that she'd worn the day Carl Westfield had been assaulted.

"No, I'm afraid not," Minerva said. "Ron, your boss just firecalled me to inform me that Severus was . . . abducted from Diagon Alley less than an hour ago."

The black knight in Harry's hand fell to the board. He was too shocked to speak.

"What?" Hermione and Ron chorused together.

"Apparently, Severus was assaulted from behind by a Petrificus Totalus spell when leaving Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour," Minerva reported, sending a chill right through Harry's soul. "I must admit to some confusion as to why Severus would have been there. He never takes sweets, but there's no mistake. His wand was found on the pavement in front of the store."

"Oh, my God," Hermione whispered.

It was Ron who asked the question whose answer Harry was dreading. "Do they know who did it?"

If possible, Minerva's already pinched and worried face became even more lined. "Mr. Fortescue witnessed the entire exchange through his window. Chief Lawrence's men showed him the images of possible suspects and . . . well, Fortescue picked out an old picture of Burke. He said the man who kidnapped Severus looked much younger, though."

"Damn," Ron said.

The chill that had gripped Harry's soul wasn't thawing enough to allow him to react. He just sat there bathed in the winter sun's incongruous warmth, staring at the woman whose news had turned his blood to ice.

Burke had Severus. His mind could go no further than that thought.

"I, er, thought you should know," Minerva said, her gaze sympathetic as it met Harry's.

Shaking himself out of his fugue, Harry forced himself to say, "Thank you, Minerva."

"Chief Lawrence gave me Severus' wand," Minerva said. "Would you like to keep it for him?"

The last was a kindness. Everyone in the room knew that the chances of any of them seeing Severus Snape alive again were astronomical. Harry wouldn't give odds on his lover being alive even now.

Something breaking inside, Harry forced himself to his feet and moved across the room to accept the wand that Minerva was offering him. Although he was too upset to acknowledge it, he knew she was paying him an honour here. Normally, a wizard's wand was only turned over to his spouse or parents.

The ebony wand felt strangely cold in his palm as he closed his fist around it with a murmured word of thanks.

"The Ministry has sent out twelve teams of Aurors to find Severus, more than eighty men," Minerva said. "Chief Lawrence assured me that they are doing everything they can to locate him."

"Yeah, well, they were doing everything they could to locate Burke before that," Harry couldn't keep the words in.

"Harry!" Ron chided.

"Sorry, Ron. But . . . you more than anyone know how useless their efforts will be. Even if they find the bastard – sorry, Minerva." Stopping himself before he said too much, Harry slipped Severus' wand into his robe pocket.

"You're all welcome to wait in my office. Chief Lawrence promised me he'd call as soon as they learned anything," Minerva said.

"Thanks, Minerva, we'll be all right here," Harry said, refusing her offer as gently as he was able.

"As you wish," Minerva said, her eyes nearly haunted. "I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything. And, Harry, I'm truly sorry."

Harry nodded and reached out to squeeze her hand. Her eyes were bright with tears as she withdrew from the room.

The silence after she left was thick enough to cut with a knife.

"I, er, I'll see you two later," Harry said, knowing what he had to do.

"You're not going alone, Harry," Hermione insisted, quickly moving to take his arm as though she feared he would apparate away without her.

"Hermione -" Harry began.

"Not alone!" Hermione answered. Her attention moved quickly to Ron, who was now struggling up out of his chair. The blanket on top of his brown house robes fell to his feet as she demanded, "What do you think you're doing?"

"You don't think I'm just going to sit here waiting for the two of you to get back, do you?" Ron argued.

"You can barely stand on your own, Ron," Hermione relentlessly pointed out. Ron's energy levels were still dangerously depleted.

"Maybe, but I can use my wand. That's all that counts," Ron said.

Harry thought that last claim was sheer bravado. He hadn't seen Ron so much as summon a teacup since he'd been released from hospital.

Both of his friends turned to stare at Harry, as if expecting him to sort the argument out. Harry didn't want either of them in the line of fire, but he knew how useless it would be trying to dissuade them.

"All right. We'll all go," Harry said. "I think we should start at the top of Ron's list and work our way down."

"There are going to be eighty Aurors traipsing over those same places," Ron pointed out.

"Don't worry. They won't see us," Harry promised.

"We're bringing your invisibility cloak?" Ron asked. "I don't think we'll all fit under it anymore, Harry."

"No, no cloak, but . . . we won't be seen," Harry assured.

Ron asked, "How?"

Harry sighed. He knew Hermione understood the scope of his powers, but Ron could sometimes be frustratingly obtuse, even though he saw demonstrations of his freakish abilities every day. "Don't worry about how. Just know that we won't be seen or heard."

Surprise filling his blue eyes, Ron nodded. "All right, then."

"We should floo to the Three Broomsticks and then apparate from there," Hermione suggested.

"We don't have time for that," Harry said. "Give me your hands."

"What?" Ron asked, even as he was offering his hand. Hermione held hers out without question.

Harry took hold of their hands, closed his eyes, and did the near impossible, whisking them through Hogwarts' previously impenetrable security wards quick as a lightning strike.

Hermione gasped as they materialized on a snow-covered lawn outside a rambling mansion. Even from where they stood, looking through the curtainless windows, red-robed Aurors could be seen searching the place. The grounds were practically crawling with them.

"They'll never know we're here," Harry assured, casting a potent invisibility charm of his own creation over them all. "Just stay close to me, all right?"

Both his friends nodded and fell silently into step beside him as Harry approached the mansion's towering mahogany doors.

*~*~*

Two days and sixty holdings later, they were no closer to locating Severus and Burke.

Harry didn't know what was eating at him worse – the worry or the guilt. Although he knew on a mental level that Severus' abduction wasn't his fault, he couldn't help but feel that he should have been there to prevent it from happening. He'd promised Severus that no one would ever hurt him again, and less than a week later, Burke had snatched Severus right off the street. Logic wasn't any help here. In his heart, he still felt it was his fault.

"How is he?" Harry asked as Hermione emerged from the Weasleys' bedroom.

Ron had finally collapsed at the last keep they'd investigated, but he'd held out until they'd searched them all.

Hermione ran a hand through her rumpled, bushy hair. "He's asleep, thank God."

She came to sit in the other armchair beside where Harry sat staring into the dancing flames in the hearth. They'd searched every damn one of the estates on Ron's list and come up with nothing. He honestly didn't know what to do next.

"I think we should try dowsing," Hermione suggested.

"What?" Harry looked over at her, surprised in spite of his terror and exhaustion. Hermione was always the rational one in their group. Dowsing was more Trelawney's bailiwick than true magic.

"It worked before during the war with Voldemort, Harry. We found Tonks that way, remember?" Her face fell as she, too, recalled that they'd found Tonks dead. But the dowsing had worked.

"All right," Harry agreed. At this point, he was almost willing to consult the old dingbat up in the Divinations tower for advice.

They both moved to the table near the window. Hermione cleared the chessboard from it with a flick of her wand, levitating it over to the book-crowded coffee table. A moment later, a map of Great Britain floated over.

"You think he's still in England?" Harry asked, not sure of that himself now.

"Well, I know Burke is an extremely powerful wizard, but taking a passenger when apparating creates a tremendous power drain. I'm thinking that Burke would have used a portkey if he were taking Severus really far," Hermione explained.

Harry didn't suggest that Burke could have simply apparated Severus out of Diagon Alley to a less crowded location where the portkey was waiting. Trying to keep at least the semblance of hope, he said, "That makes sense. You should have been an Auror, you know. You'd've been brilliant."

Hermione gave him a tired smile. "And be competing with Ron? No, we all chose the best paths. Here, I have some string, and there's a pebble in the tray on the mantle there."

Harry retrieved the little round white stone and handed it to Hermione, who had a spool of black thread in her hand. He watched her tie a foot or so of string around the pebble. Muttering a locating spell, she held her hand straight out in front of her, dangling the hanging pebble over the centre of the map. The pebble began to swirl in quick circles in a moment.

When they'd done this while trying to locate Tonks in seventh year, the pebble had tugged and moved itself of its own accord over the location where Tonks had been held. This time, the pebble stayed depressingly centred.

After several minutes, Hermione vented a tired sigh. "I'm exhausted. Maybe you should try it."

Harry took the end of the string from her. He muttered his own locating spell, putting enough power into it to find a needle lost in a haystack on another continent, but once again, the pebble didn't budge.

"Burke's probably in an unplottable location," Hermione said at last. "That would make sense."

Harry gave a grim nod. He'd expected nothing else.

Two days. That sadistic bastard of a rapist had had Severus for two days. Every time Harry sat still without a task before him, gruesome images of what could be happening to his lover would crowd his mind, like now.

"All right," Hermione, ever the optimistic Gryffindor, said, "we've searched Burke's holdings. We've searched Voldemort's old haunts. We've tried dowsing. What haven't we done?"

"Consulted Trelawney?" Harry suggested in a dead tone.

"You're not serious, are you?" Hermione asked.

"Almost. I . . . I don't know what I'm gonna do if -"

"We're going to get him back, Harry."

"You know how vicious that bastard is. Do you really think Severus is still alive?" Harry asked, his despair welling up inside him. He'd been trying to keep it down, because he was afraid of what would happen if he gave into it and allowed the madness to overwhelm his controls. Only, the more time that passed, the harder it was to believe. Even hope was fading in him now.

"I think if Burke wanted Severus dead, he'd have cast Avada Kedavra on him right there in Diagon Alley. The fact that he took Severus alive is . . . encouraging," Hermione said, the last word a little flat, no doubt due to her knowledge of why the bastard would have taken Severus alive.

"How long do you think he can last?" Harry heard himself ask. He hated the weakness that forced him to voice his fears. He wasn't a child. He knew, knew, knew what was no doubt happening to Severus while they were sitting here in this comfortable room, but he needed the solace. He needed to hear someone else say that Severus could still be alive.

"He's tough, Harry," Hermione said. Her tone told him that she understood exactly what he was asking for, and she knew him well enough to know precisely what she needed to say to get him back on the job again. "And he's counting on us to find him. So we have to find him. That's all there is to it."

She made it sound like there was absolutely no possibility that they'd fail.

"I'm out of ideas," Harry said. That sleep preventative potion of Severus' that they'd been taking for the last two days wasn't helping his mental clarity any, either.

"There must be something we're missing," Hermione said. She leaned over to pour them both a mug of tea from the magical teapot that was steaming on the end table between their chairs.

Harry gave a negative shake of his head as she offered a mug to him after preparing it to his tastes.

"You've had nothing all day. You have to keep up your strength," Hermione insisted.

Finding it easier to humour her than fight with her, Harry took the mug. In spite of his insistence of not wanting any, he found himself absently sipping at the cup while they gazed into the flames.

"This whole thing feels like one of those goddamned nightmares of mine," Harry said.

"Wait a minute!" Hermione cried out, jolting up in her seat so abruptly that she spilt tea all over her blue robes. "What did you just say?"

Thinking that he wasn't the only one suffering from sleep deprivation, Harry repeated, "Just that this feels like my nightmares."

"That's it, Harry! My God, that's it!" Hermione exclaimed, bouncing up out of her chair.

"What's it?" Harry echoed, utterly confused.

"I think we can find Severus. I read a number of books on Occlumency and Legilimency several years ago. One of them was very old, more than four hundred years. It was the journal a wizard kept while learning the arts. He didn't say much on how to work either Occlumency or Legilimency – they never do – but he did detail some of the unexpected side effects that he experienced."

"What kind of side effects?" Harry asked, unable to imagine anything that Hermione could have read as being helpful in their present situation.

"He said that a link formed between his mind and that of the wizard he practiced with. The book said that they could read each other's thoughts without trying and sense where each other were, even over great distances," Hermione enthusiastically explained.

Harry sighed. "I'm unconscious when Severus helps me with the dreams. There's no link."

"You don't know that," Hermione insisted. "Your minds were joined. It doesn't matter if you were awake during the union. It still happened. The link could even be subconscious."

Harry considered her suggestion. "How . . . how could I find out if we've got that kind of link? I mean, I've never been able to read Severus' thoughts, no matter how close we got. But . . . he is very reluctant to join our minds when I'm conscious." Sensing her curiosity, he softly explained, "He had some bad experiences with this kind of thing when young."

That much he could say without violating any confidences.

"Then he'd probably be very shielded against casual contact. But from what I read in this book, I don't think the link is something he could choose to deny. The wizard said it just happened, even though both men fought it," Hermione said. "Severus mightn't be consciously aware of its existence, either."

Feeling something like hope spark within him for the first time since Severus was grabbed, Harry asked, "All right, let's say the link exists. How do I use it?"

"How do you make contact when you first touch someone's mind?" Hermione countered.

Feeling slightly self-conscious, Harry tried to explain the process he barely understood, "I relax and reach out with my mind from the inside. It's hard to explain."

"Okay," Hermione said. "Lean back and close your eyes."

Harry did as instructed, willing to try anything at this point, including reading tea leaves. As if in response to that desperate thought, he felt her take the tea mug from his hand.

"Now, reach out for Severus, the way you would if he were here in the room. Don't think about how far away he is. Just think about . . . touching his mind," Hermione added, in a tone that seemed to indicate that she was making this up as she went along.

He wished their positions were reversed, that he was the one missing and that Severus was looking for him using these mental skills, for Harry knew his own abilities were miniscule when compared to Severus'. Only, according to Hermione, the link was there and he need only follow it.

Harry relaxed as best he could, emptied his mind, and reached. There was nothing. He could feel Hermione, Ron in the other room, the newly returned students sleeping in the Gryffindor dorm above them, and . . . something else . . . something amorphous that was barely there . . . a fragile trail of magic leading from Harry himself to . . . .

Harry mentally followed the nearly nonexistent, fragile thread, reaching out to touch . . . .

PAIN . . . AGONY . . . ABSOLUTE DESPAIR . . . .

Harry gasped, feeling as though he'd just tumbled into a vat of acid. Every cell throbbed with such intense pain that it almost felt like each and every atom were undergoing Cruciatus. He had never experienced anything like it, even in his worst nightmare.

Severus? he cried out mentally.

There was no reaction. No thought. Simply animal response to the physical stimulation of pain . . . as though Severus had endured so much torture that there was nothing of himself or his amazing mind left.

Latching on to the suffering man at the other end of the magical trail, Harry didn't withdraw to tell Hermione what he was doing. There wasn't time. He might already be way too late to save Severus' mind. Without hesitation, he once again overruled Hogwarts' security wards to apparate out. He heard Hermione call out his name as he vanished, and then felt equally strong security wards at the other end, plus unplottable spells, and several dozen powerful confounding spells.

But Harry wasn't about to be misled by a confounding spell. He wasn't focused on finding Burke, which was the intent that all the confounding spells thwarted. He was fixed on Severus, and when he pushed at those monster wards, they gave way exactly as Hogwarts' had.

Harry stumbled on the slippery stone floor as he manifested inside a dungeon cell that could have been drawn whole cloth from his worst nightmare. There was a single torch flickering on the far wall, casting a wavering light over the gruesome chamber. The place reeked of human waste and decay. There was a skeleton dangling from chains on the wall in front of him, and when he turned to his right . . . .

The rack was ancient, something that the Inquisition might have employed. Despite its age, it was still effective. Harry's entire being screamed 'No!' as he interpreted what his eyes were showing him. The figure lying so still and naked face down on the device was Severus, but no version of Severus he recognized. There didn't appear to be a single inch of skin that hadn't been pierced or burned.

The bit of tea in his stomach lurched upwards as Harry gaped at Severus' right arm. It ended in a bloody stump above his manacled wrist. The wound had been cauterised. He could see the blackened skin where the stump had been burned. It was Severus' wand hand that had been amputated, he realized, sick inside.

He searched the floor, hoping to see the hand lying there, for magical healing could reconnect a severed limb even if decomposition had set in, but all Harry could see on the floor was excrement, dried blood, and dirt.

Forcing himself to move, he staggered to Severus' side.

If possible, the damage was worse up close. Severus' face, which was turned towards him, was unrecognisable. His eyes couldn't be seen; the discoloured tissue around them was so swollen. His long nose was broken in several places. There were so many cuts and bruises on Severus' face that there was barely any white to his skin.

That was true, everywhere, Harry realized, taking stock. His lover's back and buttocks looked like a whip had been taken to them. Long, bloody rills criss-crossed Severus from neck to knee.

Staring down that no longer familiar body, Harry realized from the unnatural angle of his arms and legs that Severus' shoulder and hip joints had been pulled out of their sockets by the rack. His legs were splayed in an exaggeratedly wide V. Hot, murderous fury swelled in him when he saw the blood leaking from between Severus' buttocks, clear indications that he'd been brutally raped on top of everything else.

The only good news was that Severus' back was shallowly rising and falling. He lived, just barely. The damage wasn't as bad as what had been done to Ron's body, but it was far crueller, for he would take longer to die this way.

Afraid to touch for fear of inflicting more hurt, Harry lightly rested his hand on Severus' blood-soaked, sticky hair, whispering, "Severus?"

There was no reaction, so Harry forced the word out again, a little louder this time.

Severus' face contorted as the swollen, purple mass that was his left eye laboriously parted. Harry supposed that sanity was too much to be hoped for, but something like recognition sparked in that hardly visible eye.

Severus' bruised lips opened and a harsh, guttural grunt emerged, followed immediately by a quick stream of blood.

Panicked, Harry leaned down, terrified that Severus was haemorrhaging. Not sure what to do, he gazed into that open mouth, turning quickly to the side to throw up. With the mess of blood, urine, and excrement on the floor, his vomit was barely noticeable.

Standing back up, Harry pulled in a deep breath of the stinking air as he accepted what his eyes had just shown him. Severus' right hand wasn't the only thing missing. His tongue had been ripped out as well.

Closing his eyes, he cast the strongest summoning spell he'd ever attempted to call the grisly body parts to him, but nothing appeared.

"A fitting punishment for a betrayer, don't you think?" A not-unpleasant voice enquired almost mildly from behind him.

Harry whirled, his wand slipping into his hand, even as an amused "Expelliarmus," sent it flying across the room.

His host had entered through the door on the far side of the rack. Severus' bloodied form lay between them, exposed and vulnerable.

"You must be the great Harry Potter," the man Harry recognized from Carl Westfield's rape memory greeted with what might have been a winning smile in other circumstances. Burke was a physically handsome man, with broad shoulders, dark hair, and grey eyes. He looked about forty now. Merlin alone knew how many deaths it had taken to reverse his age that far. Burke was dressed in a dark suit that seemed more suitable for a dinner party than a torture session. "I'm surprised that someone powerful enough to locate us and slip through my wards would be disarmed so easily, but you are a rash Gryffindor, after all." The smiling fiend gestured with his chin towards Severus. "He knew you'd come. He called out your name through it all."

"Burke," Harry snarled, letting the hate and anger amplify inside him, feeding it. He needed the focus it would give him now, more than anything. Although he hadn't duelled since Voldemort, he knew that he was powerful enough to take down any number of wizards. His magic was uncanny, its power eclipsing even the most seasoned of Aurors. But he could feel how strong Burke was. He didn't think that even Voldemort had projected this kind of power. The sheer malevolence of Burke's magic was terrifying. This man made Voldemort feel wholesome.

Harry thought it might take everything he had to best him.

He would have felt more confident with his wand in hand, but he didn't need it now. All he needed was enough focus to target the demon in front of him. Severus was between them. He wasn't going to risk his lover getting caught in the middle of this. He knew what he was capable of, and, looking down at what was left of Severus, he also knew what Burke was capable of.

"He's quite fond of you, you know. If I thought either of you were going to survive this night, I'd tell you to beware. He was quite fond of me as well once, but that didn't stop the snivelling mudblood from selling me out to Voldemort. But, this is amusing. You'll appreciate this. He wasn't afraid of dying. He wasn't even afraid of the torture at first. When I reacquainted myself with that tasty mind of his, I found that the only thing he truly feared was your learning the truth about him."

Harry's gaze dropped to Severus' face, which was still turned towards him. He'd hoped that Severus might have lapsed back into unconsciousness, but that massively swollen eye was still parted. Severus seemed to be following Burke's every word.

Trying to block out the sadistic bastard that had done this to Severus, Harry concentrated on his hate, building it, focusing it, but it was hard not to listen to what Burke was saying.

Like most megalomaniacs, Burke obviously loved the sound of his own voice. For, even though Harry hadn't responded to a single one of his conversational overtures, Burke continued with, "He'd rather die than have you know that he was Malfoy's whore. Did you know that from his first week in Hogwarts, he was on his knees in front of Lucius every day for his first four years at school, and when Lucius left, he gave his arse to any upperclass Slytherin who wanted it? When I joined the Death Eaters, the most powerful among us used to pass him around like a pack of Muggle smokes. I saw from his more recent memories that he still loves to be buggered, and believe me when I say that I gave him a good fuck or two, for old time's sake. What I don't understand is why someone like you would taint yourself -"

Still concentrating on the nuclear level explosion building inside him, Harry tried not to listen. His gaze was fixed on Severus as he used his injured lover's horrible condition to fuel his hate.

Severus had seemed to be staring unblinkingly at him when Burke began to talk, as though he, too, were attempting to block out the man. But when Burke began speaking about Severus' time at school and all that bullshit about being Malfoy's whore, Severus winced, and the one eye visible to Harry squeezed shut.

Up until that moment, he hadn't even considered that Burke's accusations could be true, but suddenly, Severus' aversion to telepathic contact between them made perfect sense.

Harry didn't know how he felt about the things Burke had told him. The only thing he knew was that he had to get Severus away from this monster.

That this degenerate would torture Severus like this, and then so joyfully strip away his last bit of dignity was the last straw. Harry was finally where he needed to be both magically and emotionally to deal with this sadist.

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Harry shouted before Burke could spill any more filth about Severus' past.

"That isn't the wisest approach to take, boy. I have you at a marked disadvantage here," Burke laughed.

Totally focused now, Harry tapped those hidden reservoirs of power that he'd only touched that one time to save Ron. When he'd fought Voldemort, he hadn't had power like this at his disposal. It had taken Professor Dumbledore's death to raise the power levels to this potency. But that was ten years ago. Tonight, he was like a Muggle atomic weapon, all fire and explosive vengeance. He fed that payload of raw magical energy to his existing hate, felt it reach critical mass inside him.

While Burke laughed at whatever expression was on his face, confident that he had the upper hand now that Harry was without his wand, Harry tightened his intent and turned himself into the magical equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

Even an egotist like Burke couldn't ignore the rise in power for long. Harry watched the malevolent smile fade from Burke's face as the other wizard became aware of the growing energy levels in the room. The enclosed, foul-smelling torture chamber had the same kind of feel that the air would get before a summer lightning storm.

Harry raised his hands. He saw Burke's malicious grey eyes widen as the first blue sparks danced between his fingers, and then . . . Harry let the pent up fury inside him loose.

The contained blue lightning streaked right over Severus, leaving him completely unharmed, but the instant the mage fire touched Burke's chest, Burke's wand dropped out of his hand and the man ignited. It wasn't even a duel. Burke never uttered a word or lifted his wand. The bastard wasn't even able to raise his shields, let alone mount any kind of counterattack, before the blue lightning consumed him and he started screaming.

Harry watched with something between shock and awe as his mage fire lit Burke's flesh in eerie blue flames that were chillingly reminiscent of Avada Kedavra's green light. The torture chamber reflected that weird blue glow, looking even more sinister by that unnatural illumination.

As the mage fire consumed Burke whole, and his shrieks and the stench of his burning flesh filled the room, Harry looked inside himself for a reaction. There was a part of him that believed that there should be regret or sympathy at the death of another human being, but with Severus' brutalized body lying between them, he couldn't feel anything but satisfaction as he watched the other wizard die. This was the fiend who had hurt Severus and Ron, killed Ron's team, and raped poor Carl. Burke deserved this and more.

The bastard would never rape again, never kill, never maim. That was all Harry could think when Burke crumpled to the ground as the burning blue fire ate his flesh away.

Burke's ending was nearly anticlimactic; it was so fast. When the last blue flicker faded, all that was left was a scorched skeleton and the stink of burnt flesh, not that the last was all that noticeable in the reeking chamber.

Staggering a little at the power he'd just extended, Harry summoned his own wand from where it had flown to the corner, calling Burke's to him as well. He'd need proof for the Ministry that Burke was dead.

Even those simple actions were hard. His mind felt dazed, his body weak and drained. But he couldn't afford to fall apart now. He had to hold it together for Severus.

He put his wand in the robe pocket next to Severus', and Burke's in the opposite pocket. He didn't want anything of Burke's anywhere near anything that had to do with Severus.

Turning back to where Severus lay on the rack, Harry did his best to control his horror and panic. He wanted, needed to free Severus from those chains, draw him into his arms, and carry him back to Hogwarts, but even if Severus' height hadn't made the possibility of carrying him improbable, his physical condition made it impossible. Severus was simply too injured for touch.

With a thought, Harry popped open the manacles binding Severus to the torture device and gently levitated Severus up. Recognizing how cold the dungeon was, and how real the threat of shock, Harry manifested a blanket and used his magic to wrap it around his naked lover.

He took hold of a corner of the blue blanket to establish direct physical contact with Severus and then prepared to apparate them out of this hellhole.

He had no need to be subtle while apparating home. Burke was dead. There was no one else here to prevent him from rescuing Severus. He simply blew Burke's wards wide open.

Hogwarts was another matter. With barely enough strength to hold both Severus and himself in transit, Harry persuaded Hogwarts' wards to let him back inside the castle. He aimed them at the infirmary.

Due to the late hour, he didn't even try to circumvent the alarms. Everyone would be asleep and he was going to need help as soon as they materialized. He knew he'd never have the strength to actually go look for someone. He let the alarms go off, and prayed that someone would get there to help Severus before he collapsed.

When he and Severus materialized in the centre of the infirmary's main ward, claxons were sounding at a loud enough volume to wake the entire school. He winced as their deafening keen sliced through his pounding head.

The infirmary door flew open. Filch came barrelling in, a broad axe from one of the school's numerous suits of armour clutched in his arms.

"Get Madam Pomfrey. Professor Snape needs help. Please . . . . " Harry begged, sinking to his knees, using all his remaining power to keep Severus in the air where there would be no pressure on his injuries.

His long grey hair wild around his frightened, homely face, Filch nodded and turned to race in the opposite direction with just as much haste.

Less than three minutes later, the infirmary door burst open again. Dressed in a long white nightgown and pale blue dressing gown, Madam Pomfrey ran to them. Minerva was fast on her heels, also in her nightclothes, in her case a green nightgown and grey dressing gown. Hermione, still fully dressed, and Ron in nothing but his nightshirt joined the crowd in what seemed like seconds. Harry could hear more teachers crowding around outside the infirmary doors, but Filch appeared to have had the sense to have stopped them there.

"Oh, my God," Harry wasn't sure which one of the women spoke.

All he knew was that someone else's magic reached out to support Severus midair – Poppy, he recognized the gentle feel of her energy. He could feel Minerva's power all around him as she focused on Hogwarts' wards, and a moment later the horrible wailing of the claxons stopped.

Harry sagged as his burden was removed from him.

"Harry?" Hermione was at his side in a heartbeat, kneeling down to embrace him. "You did it. My god, you did it!"

They all turned as a gasp and exclamation sounded beside them. Madam Pomfrey had peeled away Severus' concealing blanket.

Hermione gave a choked back, "His poor hand -"

"His injuries are extremely severe, Harry," Poppy said, running her wand over Severus' form. Harry couldn't help but notice the blood that was dripping from Severus onto the infirmary's pristine stone floor now that his blanket had been removed. "He needs -"

"No. Not St. Mungo's," Harry denied before Poppy could finish voicing her suggestion. "He won't last a day there. Please . . . care for him until I . . . can heal him. Keep him alive. That's all I ask."

And then he was falling face forward towards the floor. He had the vague impression of a blue blur that was Ron in his nightshirt moving to intercept him, and then blackness.

*~*~*

 

 
 

 

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