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Courtship Rituals

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"Ssseverus, my most loyal servant," the Dark Lord said, his lipless mouth repulsive as it formed what might have been a smile. "I understand you have withheld information from me?"

Oh, what now, he thought, still on his knees from his obeisance, the hem of the Dark Lord's robe in his hand. A prickle of unease went through Snape. "My Lord?"

"You did not inform me of the recent turn of events with the little monster you teach." The Dark Lord stared down at him, his impassive gaze more frightening than any glare.

Frantically, Snape searched his mind, trying to come up with what he'd missed. Or more likely, failed to report. All the while making sure only the proper thoughts of fear and puzzlement came through in his mind for the Dark Lord to read. "My Lord?" he said again, shaking his head slightly.

"Do not tell me others have noticed Potter's attachment to you, and you have not?"

"Attachment?" Snape had no idea what he was on about. "Potter's feelings for me are as they have always been, My Lord."

"They have changed, Severus." The Dark Lord sounded very sure about it, too. "Have you not noticed that he seeks you out after class?"

"His behavior in class has not changed." Snape had made sure that Potter bore the brunt of his bad temper as much as possible. They worked together too closely and for too long to chance any kind of closeness.

"I have been assured that his misbehavior is to gain your attention."

Snape bowed his head, wondering if he'd actually missed something that important. Then he scoffed, remembering Potter's fury as he yelled at him that very afternoon. No affection there. Especially not after he'd taken twenty house points and given the reckless child another detention with Filch. "With all due respect, my Lord, I think I would have noticed."

"You are not the most observant person, I have found."

That's because you are a fool, Snape thought, but bowed lower, putting his head nearly to the ground. "Yes, my Lord," he murmured obsequiously.

"Potter has feelings for you. I'm quite certain of it."

Well deserved hatred was the only feeling Potter had for him, and Snape knew it. "I do not--"

"Do not contradict me!" The Dark Lord's tone said he was an inch away from Cruciatus.

Snape placed his forehead on the ground and held his breath, refusing to acknowledge the trembling in his limbs. "Yes, my Lord."

"You will encourage this affection," the Dark Lord laughed. "Most assuredly, you will do so."

"Why, my Lord, would I change my feelings for the brat?" Snape asked, daring to raise his head a bit, and trying to hide his horror at the very idea. Why would the Dark Lord ask this of him? It made no sense and Snape had to wonder if he were being tested in some way. That made no sense, either. His stomach twisted unpleasantly.

"His feelings for you have changed. Are you not flattered?"

Snape wasn't sure what the Dark Lord wanted in the way of a reaction and so he said nothing.

The Dark Lord sat back and regarded him. "You will encourage his interest, spend time with him. Seduce him."

Before he could stop himself, Snape's head snapped up. He could not believe that the Dark Lord would even suggest such a thing. But unless he could convince him otherwise, Snape would have to play it out as if it were real. "Dumbledore will not allow --"

"You will see that Dumbledore does not interfere with my plans." The Dark Lord fingered his wand ominously.

Gulping back his horror, Snape frantically searched for reasons why not. "My Lord. Potter is a student. I can't seduce him and hope to retain my position."

"No?" The Dark Lord was silent for a moment and Snape knew it was futile to hope that he was giving up this ridiculous idea.

The Dark Lord laughed again. "You'll court him. Yes...yes that's what you'll do. You'll formally court him."

Oh Merlin, he was serious. There would be no getting around a formal courtship. Snape closed his eyes and breathed out slowly, forcing himself to calm. He managed a wan smile. "Very wise, my Lord. Dumbledore will be unable to move against me. However, formal courtship will take months, even if it's accepted."

"You will see that it is accepted. Or you will explain to me why it was not. You must convince the brat that you have come to care for him as he has for you."

The only problem with that, Snape thought, was that, "I detest the insolent child and have never made a secret of it. I am not sure how I could convince anyone otherwise."

He didn't have to shield his mind against the Dark Lord's probing. He wanted him to know just how much he could not stand Potter and how much the idea repulsed him.

The Dark Lord's red eyes met his and Snape was smart enough to be terrified.

"You will convince him. We have time for your courtship. You have until the spring. At that point, you shall lead him to me."

Snape felt his stomach roil as he lowered his head back to the stone floor. "Yes, my lord. It will be as you wish."

Behind him, he heard someone snicker. Malfoy, no doubt. Snape was nearly sure this had to have come from him, probably thinking it was a great joke - setting him against Potter. For a moment, Snape considered that the Dark Lord might be in on it as well, but dismissed it. He didn't have the imagination.

"May I offer you some tea?" Dumbledore asked as he motioned for Snape to take a seat in front of the fire.

"Thank you, Headmaster." Snape sat down and took a long sip from the cup, enjoying the feel of the hot liquid in his cold insides. There was no use putting it off, so Snape took a breath and said, "I've been told to formally court Harry Potter."

Dumbledore choked on his tea. "Excuse me?"

Nice to know he could still shock the old man. "I'm afraid that someone informed the Dark Lord that Potter has amorous...intentions towards me."

"Does he? I hadn't heard that and really, I think that I would have."

As much as Snape would have liked to have told Dumbledore that he didn't know everything, the awful truth was, he did know a great deal. Snape let out a frustrated sigh. "I rather seriously doubt Potter has any gentle feelings for me. The boy is as insolent and bad mannered as he has ever been. More so, I would even venture to say."

"However in the last year, you've spent a great deal of time with him, helping him, training him. It is possible that he's --"

"I had considered that, but as I've said, I have not noticed any appreciable change in his behavior. I doubt that Potter would spit on me were I on fire."

"Now Severus, that's rather harsh," Dumbledore admonished, but he was smiling. "Perhaps he's looking for some attention."

"The boy is surrounded by his sycophants. He does not need more attention." Even as he said it, Snape knew it wasn't true. If nothing else, the last two years of Occlumency lessons had shown him how little Potter cared for that type of notoriety.

"I shall speak to the lad, and see if I can gain his cooperation." At least Dumbledore did not automatically assume that Potter would do as he wished.

Snape glared at him. That last thing he needed was to have to deal with Potter any more than he already did, which given the defense lessons on top of advanced potions was too much already. "Must you?"

"If you wish to court him, you will need his agreement to do it," Dumbledore said.

"Do I need to remind you that he's a student and I am a teacher? Are you actually going to allow this to take place?" Snape sincerely had hoped he wouldn't.

"Voldemort knows that a formal courtship will not violate school rules. Indeed, it would be lauded as the proper way for a teacher and student to proceed in this circumstance." It was also clear that Dumbledore did not approve.

Just as well since Snape didn't approve either. "What circumstance? It's not as if Potter and I actually have any feelings for each other, other than negative ones, of course." While he might not detest the reckless boy as intensely as it seemed sometimes, that did not mean that he actually liked him. "I will not make a mockery of one of our most time-honored rituals, not even for you."

"This isn't about me, Severus, and you know it. We need the information you're providing us with. For as long as you can safely provide it." Dumbledore met his eyes and there was nothing of the sparkling-eyed old man in his direct gaze.

Unfortunately, Dumbledore's ideas on what was safe were elastic. "Yes, sir," Snape said, resisting the urge to bow his head. "It shall be as you wish."

"Now, Severus," Dumbledore chided, "simply follow the ritual. I shall speak with Harry."

He didn't care that he was being paranoid, but he insisted, "Not without me present."

"As you please. After dinner I think."

Snape stood. "Yes sir."

Harry stopped eating and looked up. It hadn't taken him long to realize that someone standing over him was never a good sign, especially a teacher, and most especially one with that look on her face.

"Mr. Potter," McGonagall said, her tone more stern than usual. "The Headmaster would like to see you in his office after supper."

"Yes ma'am," Harry said politely, dropping his fork back to his plate as she walked away. His appetite left with her.

"What have you done now?" Hermione asked, looking after McGonagall. Her tone was pure Head Girl.

"I've haven't done anything. I haven't even been out after curfew." Much, he added silently. Sometimes his defense lessons ran late, and Snape never gave him a pass.

Ron gave him an understanding look, but wisely said nothing.

"Well, if the Headmaster wants to see you, then you must have done something," Hermione said, tartly and a bit too accusatory for Harry's taste.

Already on edge, her tone annoyed Harry even further.

"Not necessarily," Neville put in with a blush. As he'd got older, Neville had started speak his mind a bit more. "I mean, it could be --"

"I know what you mean," she cut him off and Neville shrank back.

Of course, Harry reflected, that didn't always work with Hermione.

She turned her bossy look on Harry. "You're gone so much. We never know where you are. It's no wonder you're in trouble."

Usually, Hermione's bossiness didn't bother him, but after McGonagall, and the sinking feeling Harry had in his stomach about it, he didn't want to deal with it. He glanced at Neville sympathetically before scowling at Hermione. "I don't know. But I guess I'll go find out." He stood up and turned his back on her.

"Harry." Hermione's tone was contrite. "I didn't mean --"

He was not in the mood to be placated. "I'll see you all later."

Harry marched off in the direction of the gargoyle.

The Headmaster was waiting for him at the bottom of the steps. "Come along, my boy. We've much to discuss."

"What exactly?" Harry asked, trying to tamp down his vibrating nerves. He stepped onto the stairs and they started up with a lurch. "I mean--"

"No, you're not in trouble."

Relieved, Harry remained silent as the Headmaster waved him to a seat and held out a candy dish. Harry shook his head, his stomach rebelling against putting anything else into it before he knew what was going on.

A moment later, the door opened again, and Snape walked in. Harry let out a sigh. Snape was about the last person he wanted to see. His presence usually meant something unpleasant was about to happen, usually to Harry.

"Have you told him yet, Headmaster?" Snape sat down without direction.

"No, Severus, Harry, and I have only just arrived. Why don't you explain the situation to Harry?" Dumbledore asked as he sat down behind his desk.

Harry breathed out. He wanted to scream that they should just tell him already, but instead he waited, his nerves jangling even more.

Snape looked at Harry and sneered. "I've been given to understand you have ...." Snape paused for a beat and his lips curled into a snarl. "Certain, shall we say, amorous feelings for me."

"What?" Harry couldn't believe his voice cracked, more than that, he couldn't believe Snape had actually said that. "You're joking."

"I most assuredly am not joking, Potter." Snape's expression got more unpleasant by the second. "I've been assured by the Dark Lord that it is true."

It might even be worth the points, Harry decided, to laugh in Snape's face, but he controlled the impulse. "Well, I can assure you that it's not. And I would know."

"I've no doubt." With a bitter sounding laugh, Snape leaned back in his chair. "However, it does pose a problem."

Harry ignored the warning his gut was giving him and sneered back at Snape. "And what would that be? It's no skin off my nose what Voldemort believes."

Snape pushed his greasy hair out of his face and snapped, "Ten points from Gryffindor. Your insolence amazes me, Potter. It's a wonder you're still alive."

Bastard, Harry thought. If he were going to lose points anyway, he should have laughed at Snape. "So, what's the problem?"

"The problem is that the Dark Lord believes you to...have feelings for me." Snape pronounced, as if the very words had left a foul taste in his mouth. "Therefore, he has ordered me to court you. Formally."

"Court me? As in date me? As in you and me going out on a date? As in, not a chance in hell." Harry forced out a laugh, but his stomach tightened unpleasantly.

"Ten more points for your disrespect."

"That's not disrespect. It's the truth. You can't make me date you. It's got to be against some rule somewhere." Harry looked pleadingly at Dumbledore.

"How ironic, the greatest Gryffindor rule-breaker --"

"-- Severus." There was a warning in Dumbledore's tone.

"Once taken, points can't be returned." Snape sounded quite smug about it, too. "It's not a date. I would not deign to date someone as ignorant as you."

Harry gritted his teeth and counted to ten. Then, backward from ten. "If it's not dating, then what is it?"

"There is a vast difference between formal courting and dating as you put it. They are not in the same realm of behavior. If you knew anything at all about the culture you lived in, you would know that already." Snape looked down his considerable nose at Harry, ten kinds of superior and condescending.

"Severus," Dumbledore said, his tone commanding attention. "That isn't helping Harry understand."

Yeah, thought Harry, it's not helping at all. All it was doing was giving Harry a reason not to do what he was now pretty sure they were going to ask him to do. "What is the difference?"

For one second, it looked like Snape might not answer, but then he sighed resignedly. "The difference is that Formal Courtship ends in Marriage. It's one of our most hallowed rituals."

"I don't follow," Harry said, honestly confused. "How can an engagement be more important that a marriage?"

"This is a wizarding Courtship." Snape put emphasis on the words, as if that answered the question.

It didn't. As much as the non-answer annoyed him, Harry wasn't going to ask again. He was sure that he'd get the same irritating answer. "Why would you want to court me, even to placate Voldemort?"

"I don't. Not in the slightest. Not for any reason. Believe me when I tell you it is just about the last thing I wish to do." Snape's tone made that very plain and Harry could not agree more.

"And trust me when I tell you that the idea doesn't do much for me either." The very idea of dating Snape made him want to give back his dinner. He literally could not think of anything worse. Well, maybe Lucius Malfoy or Voldemort himself. Harry was glad he'd refused the sweets.

Dumbledore cleared his throat, his patience seemingly at an end. "Nevertheless, Harry, we will need you to cooperate--"

Even half expecting it, his stomach roiled at Dumbledore's words, and Harry cut Dumbledore off before he could finish. "I am not getting engaged to that Professor Snape. I'm sorry. I'm not."

"No one is asking you to actually accept the suit --"

"-- Merlin forbid--" Snape spat out.

"I'd like you to seem to be considering it." Dumbledore made it sound like a request, but then he always did, even when it wasn't one, like this.

Despite his best effort to contain it, resentment bubbled up inside him. He could see he was going to have little choice about this. "Define consider," he said. If he had his way, he wouldn't be going anywhere near Snape in any capacity that didn't involve class or defense lessons. Last year's Occlumency lessons loomed large in his mind for a moment and he shuddered. Definitely not going near Snape without a good reason.

"If you disparage me in any way when I approach you, I shall hex you into next month." Snape met his eyes and his belligerent sneer got more so. "I will also give you so many detentions that you'll never see your housemates. And that's just to start with."

Some part of Harry wanted to rail that he already didn't see his friends, especially Ron and Hermione, but it occurred to him that if Snape were making threats already, perhaps this might work to his advantage. "You know, that's not the way to get me to consider your suit, Professor."

Snape's face flushed and he looked ready to explode. "I don't actually plan to--"

"Yes, you do," Dumbledore corrected. "If I'm going to allow this at all, it has to be a Formal Courtship with all the accompanying ceremony."

"What exactly is so special about a formal courtship?" There were times when Harry felt his lack of knowledge of Wizarding culture very acutely.

"Figure it out for yourself." Snape sounded furious that he didn't know. "You'll need the information when you choose some unlucky boy or girl to become involved with."

There were times when he didn't hate Snape nearly as much as he once had, times when Snape had worked with him on defense, teaching him what he needed to know to survive what was coming, and Harry could forget what a greasy bastard Snape was. Those times were rare and right now he couldn't even remember them. Right now, he hated Snape every bit as much as he had in fifth year.

Harry sneered back for all he was worth. "At least if I went after someone they'd say yes. I don't have to have them pretend they like me."

"Were someone to choose me, I would know it was for myself rather than some other reason." Snape's tone was awful and his expression repulsive.

What was worse, Harry knew he was right. He felt his shoulders start to slump and he had to fight to hold them up and meet Snape's flat eyes. "If you could even get --"

"Gentlemen." Dumbledore's voice cut through their animosity. "You will at least seem to get along for the duration."

"That's so not going to happen," Harry assured him, glaring back at Snape. "I can't lie that well."

"Try to be civil to each other in public, that is all I'm asking," Dumbledore said. He didn't sound like he expected them to be capable of even that.

That was a good thing, since Harry wasn't sure he could manage it. "Yes, sir."

Dumbledore glared at Snape until he nodded.

"I should not need to tell either of you that you should mention this to no one." Dumbledore's expression was firm.

So much for asking Hermione or Ron for advice. "All right. What should I do?" Harry asked, his stomach dropping a bit further.

"I know it will be nigh on impossible for you, but follow my lead. There are a few public rituals, and you must seem receptive to them."

As much as he would have liked to say something scathing, Harry sighed instead. This was going to be hell, he could tell already. "Yes, sir."

Snape prepared himself for the first ritual with a long bath, cleansing himself thoroughly, trimming both his hair and his nails. He slipped a simple, loose robe over his naked body. Try as he might to deny it, he felt a sense of anticipation washing through him.

Before he'd reached adulthood, and in a fit of youthful optimism, he'd made the necessary symbolic items for the Ritual Table. As he'd matured into adulthood and the realities of his life battered down his earlier hopes, he admitted to himself that it was unlikely that he'd ever use them. So, along with the tattered remains of his childhood hopes, he'd packed the ritual set away, and gone on with his life, trying hard to forget they had ever existed. That he needed them now surprised him almost more than for whom they were needed.

Even knowing it was a charade, he would not allow himself to profane the ritual with disrespect. As much as it mortified him to admit it, and despite his best efforts to kill it, some small part of his heart still had hope.

He gathered the items required for the ritual, stopping at his best potions stores for the herbs he'd need, before going to the Great Hall. The ritual needed to be performed in public, but with no one to witness it. Most people did it in their parent's garden or hall, and there were parties and dinners so that guests would see the table and the Intended could make the appropriate response.

Snape had no parents or hall, so he would make do with what he did have.

His bare feet made no sound on the cold floor as he moved across it. He conjured a low table at one corner and set his things on the floor beside it.

For a moment, he stood with his hands at his side, in respect to all those who had performed this ritual before him. He tried to imagine his Intended but since it was Potter, he had trouble keeping his thoughts as respectful as they should be.

He picked up a white candle and set it on the table. It signified a purity of mind, body, and spirit that he could no longer claim, but if he wished it were so, then it would be so. Or at least, that was the theory. Would that it were. Even in his mind, he would not snort at the idea.

An earthen bowl of aromatic herbs was placed carefully next to the candle. The scent of the herbs signified home and hearth, which he was to offer to his Intended. A galleon was laid beside the bowl to symbolize his worldly goods.

The last item was a glass cylinder with a rod next to it. He conjured a small flame inside the glass, setting the spell to burn for a fortnight's time.

Tomorrow, he would move on with the Ritual of Declaration. He could only hope that Potter would keep his word and not laugh in his face.

When the time allotted for Declaration had expired, he would take down the small table and pack his things away. There would be some satisfaction in knowing he'd done the ritual properly, even if he were rejected.

After that, he was free to report to the Dark Lord that he had done all he could and Potter had not responded. The Dark Lord's response would no doubt be swift and sure. Snape tried to push it from his mind.

Snape closed the door to the Great Hall and leaned against it for one moment. He pushed all thoughts of what the Dark Lord might do to him if he failed out of his head and savored the remaining flavor of the ritual. Even if it never came to anything more than tonight's ceremony, the warm feelings generated from the rite were too lovely to let go right away.

He was being a fool, and he knew it. This was a farce. A trick to fool the Dark Lord into thinking he was complying. It was not real.

Pushing himself off the door, he took a step towards the corridor, wanting nothing more than to go to bed.

As luck would have it, he saw Professor Vector coming towards him. He groaned. She wasn't the very last person he wished to see tonight. Indeed, on most occasions he found her conversation intelligent and her wit amusing. Tonight, however, making conversation with anyone did not appeal to him.

"Severus, what are you doing up so late?" She looked him up and down and pointedly stared at his bare feet for a moment.

"I was unable to sleep," Snape lied. He shivered as a cold draft came down the corridor and found its way up his robe, pimpling his bare skin with goose flesh.

"It's far too cold to be walking around the halls like that." Vector nodded to his thin robe. "Why on earth would you do something so silly? You'll catch your death that way."

Being reprimanded like a recalcitrant child did absolutely nothing for his temper. Snape scowled at her. "I don't believe it's any of your business--"

Again, Vector seemed to study him, her head tilted to one side and her eyes narrowed. "You look like you're dressed for a ritual."

"If I were, it would not be any of your concern," Snape spat out in a tone most of his students would have known to be wary of.

Vector, of course, ignored the warning. She straightened up and regarded him, cautiously. "It is my concern since I'm a teacher at this school and anything that happens here affects both me and my students."

"Be that as it may, it was private. Therefore, not of any concern of yours." Snape was getting very tired of this conversation.

"So, it was a ritual." She smirked, her eyebrow furrowing. "It's the wrong time of the month for a moon ritual, and really, you're the wrong sex for most of those anyway."

How did he shut her up, he wondered. He took a step forward, looking down at her menacingly. "Vector--"

"And it's the wrong time of year for any of the solstice rituals," she said absently as if she were going through the various wizarding rituals in her head.

Maybe she was. That didn't mean he had to put up with this nonsense. He growled, "Vector--"

"Come now, Severus, you've piqued my curiosity." She actually laughed at him.

Although he tried hard not to be overly rude to any of the teachers on staff, she was fast approaching the end of his tolerance for stupidity. "As I said, it is none of your concern."

Something in his tone must have carried through because she looked up at him, her eyes filled with trepidation. "It's not the dark arts, is it?"

"Don't be an idiot. You can't practice dark arts at Hogwarts. The wards won't allow it." Snape wondered how she could be so smart and yet so foolish at the same time.

"Really. I didn't know."

"How could you not know that?"

Her look hardened and now she seemed truly angry. "Since I've never practiced the dark arts, I've had no need to worry about the wards."

She was serious.

"And no one thought to mention this to you? How long have you taught here?"

"Again, why would they?" Vector sneered at him. "And you know quite well how long I've taught here."

She was Muggle born and raised, he supposed that might have something to do with it. Another cold draft made him shiver. "I'm sure this would make a very interesting conversation on some other night. However, I'd like to retire now."

He bowed slightly and started to turn.

Vector put a hand on his arm. "You haven't told me which ritual you performed."

"No. I haven't." Snape shook off her hand. Giving her a sneering look, he turned and started down the corridor.

"What's that?" Harry asked the following morning, nodding towards the table with a candle on it that nestled in one corner of the Great Hall.

Ron and Hermione both looked at it, but it was Ron's eyes that widened.

"I think it's a courtship table," Ron said, still heading toward their table.

Harry started to veer in that direction, surprised that no one else had gone to look at it, but Ron put a hand on his arm. "Don't."

"Why not?" He was curious. Especially since he now knew who had put it there and what it must be about.

"Because it would be rude. The table is personal." Ron said it as if Harry should already know it.

"Then why is it in public?" Hermione asked. She didn't sound as if she knew anything about it. That would be a first.

"You don't know?" Ron's expression was at first incredulous and then overjoyed. "There's something that I know and you don't?"

"There are many things I don't know, but I'm not afraid to admit it or look it up." Looking quite exasperated, Hermione folded her arms over her chest. "I've had no cause to know wizarding courtship rituals. I'm not likely to need that information any time soon."

Ron gave her a smirk. "You never know when you'll need that information. You might want to look that up."

"I won't need it by tonight. I'll do it after dinner." She glanced curiously back at the table. "So why is it in public, if it's private?"

"It's a Ritual of Recognition. Which is done alone. But it's put in a place that your Intended can get to so that if they wish to accept the Recognition; they can put their own candle on the table and light it."

"How does the person know it's for them?" Harry asked.

"That's where the Ritual of Declaration comes in. The person who puts up the table approaches his or her Intended three times."

Harry wanted to ask more questions, but he didn't think drawing attention to himself or to Snape would be a good idea.

"O-kay." Hermione had a way of splitting word in half when she didn't quite understand something and it annoyed her that she didn't know.

"Let's eat," Ron said, moving ahead of them to the table.

"Do you ever feel like you'll never know everything you need to know about the wizarding world?" Harry asked.

"No. I'll research it and then I'll know." She said so matter-of-factly, as if it were the answer to everything.

Maybe it was for her, but Harry was more and more disheartened by expectations without explanations. It drove him mad. "There are so many things that we don't know and they all just assume we do."

"If you had read..." Hermione trailed off as she saw the expression on his face. "I don't let it bother me."

She was lying. Harry knew it bothered her. It was why she almost always had a quote to come back with. But he wasn't going to call her on it. It bothered him, too.

With a sigh of reluctance, Harry opened the door to the Room of Requirement. After fifth year, Dumbledore decided his Occlumency lessons should be held someplace other than Snape's office. It made sense, since neither he nor Snape wanted to be associated with each other. It also gave them neutral ground to meet on, which Harry very much appreciated.

By the end of last year, he'd mastered Occlumency, and they had moved on to Defense.

Now that they were supposed to be seen together, Harry wondered if they would go back to Snape's office. Since Snape hadn't said anything about it, he had come to the lesson as scheduled.

The room was bare to the stone walls. That was never a good sign. While he and Snape had worked on various defensive techniques, they hadn't done much one-on-one dueling. Harry wasn't sure he wanted to face Snape, now.

Without a word to him, Snape attacked, sending a fire hex his way.

Harry smirked and stepped out of the way and it hit the stone wall behind him.

"You will not always be able to do that," Snape said firing off several more in rapid succession.

As Snape no doubt expected, Harry wasn't fast enough to dodge them all. One clipped his shoulder, burning a hole in his robes.

"Git," Harry complained, irritated. "Try not to ruin my clothes."

In answer, Snape sent more fireballs his way, another one taking out his entire sleeve this time.

"Fine," Harry growled, furious. He took off his smoldering robe. "You've made your point."

By the look of Snape, Harry had a sudden insight that he had not begun to make his point. He felt his stomach twist and tried to remind himself that Snape wouldn't kill him, especially not now that he needed Harry for something.

"Do you even know how to create a shield?" Snape's expression was condescending and superior, making it clear that he thought Harry incapable of even the simplest spell.

"Of course I do," Harry snapped, his temper on edge, and his fear starting to increase with it.

"Do so." Snape's tone was silky and dangerous.

Harry tried to put his shield up and Snape's first hex went through it as if it did not exist. Fuck, thought Harry, revising his earlier belief that Snape wouldn't kill him. He wasn't going to have to worry about Voldemort, it was now obvious that he wasn't going survive his training.

"Useless. Just as I knew you would be." Snape looked down his nose and sneered.

"Thank you for stating the obvious." Harry glared at the greasy bastard. "Why don't you do something useful and tell me how to fix it?"

Snape's sneer got more condescending. "Always looking for an easy answer, aren't you? Ten points from Gryffindor."

"That is not very useful." Harry tried to sneer back, but even as angry as he was, he couldn't pull it off nearly as well as Snape did.

"Use a different shield." Snape said it as if everyone should know several. "What other shield spells do you know?"

"None. That is my one and only." Oh, how he hated to have to ask, but he was backed into a corner and they both knew it. Harry folded his arms over his chest. "Can you teach me another one?"

Snape let out a sigh that sounded like Harry had asked for something he had no right to know. Damn, it annoyed Harry.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, here, but aren't you supposed to be training me? Isn't that why we're here? Isn't that why I'm putting up with this crap from you? Harry knew he'd stepped over the line before Snape's expression turned to stone.

"Putting up with this, are you? You stupid, insolent boy. You should be grateful I'm willing to spend my time teaching you."

Harry scowled at that. "You don't have a choice any more than I do. Dumbledore's making you do it."

"It's Professor Dumbledore to you. Ten points for disrespect," Snape snarled at him. "And you should be doubly grateful and take advantage of it. You do know how to read, don't you? Of course, you never thought of looking it up? Did you never consider that you might be required to know how to shield yourself?"

Harry could feel his temper fray. "Why would I know? It's not as if I've ever had a decent defense teacher to teach me. Well, except third year."

"You think too much of the werewolf's abilities." Snape's tone was scathing. "He clearly didn't teach you enough."

"At least he taught me something, which is more than I can say for the rest of the lot, including this year's entry." Harry also knew that Snape could learn a thing or two from Professor Lupin, but he was wise enough not to say so.

"Be that as it may, it will not help you now," Snape said, his tone changing slightly. "Most shields are a variation on one of three types." Snape went on to explain what each one was. And then how each worked. "I'll give you some books to read. Right now, however, we're going to work on the shield spell you do know." Without giving him time to think, Snape struck.

Harry's shield held out for one minute and then dissipated. "Aren't you going to show me how to do this before you attack? Or you do you get off on hurting me?"

"Concentrate, you fool. Brace your power against it. That's how you do it." Snape sounded both furious and frustrated.

But Harry was more so. "I am doing that, damn it." His shield held for two strikes before falling.

"Concentrate!" Snape seemed to take it as a personal affront that Harry couldn't master the shielding.

Sweating and breathing hard, Harry tried to put his power behind it, and couldn't quite manage it. Again, his shields failed when hit more than once or twice. In sheer frustration, he lobbed off a couple of hexes at Snape. See how he liked being attacked.

With an ease that frankly amazed Harry, Snape raised a shield and Harry's fireballs bounced off it with no visible effect. "You are a foolish boy." He struck again with several different kinds of hexes.

His anger fueling him, Harry held off most of them, failing only at the last one. The fireball burned a hole in his shirt and scorched his arm.

"Damn it. That hurt." Harry's fury intensified with the pain and he could feel himself start to spiral out of control. He fired several hexes back at Snape, all of which failed miserably against his shields.

"Again," Snape said, with no more warning or mercy. He bombarded Harry with one painful, burning hex after another.

Harry ended up in a corner, not even able to raise his wand in defense, screaming for Snape to stop. Humiliated, he knew if he retaliated, Snape would start again, but his anger needed an outlet and when Snape got to close enough, he stood up, ready to attack physically.

"Do not try it. I outweigh you, and I will not hesitate to confine you." Snape glared at him, looking as if he were on the same cusp of fury that Harry was. Snape stepped back. "Take a deep breath and let your anger go."

Harry stared at him in disbelief. "You can't be serious. How? I could kill you right now."

"I'm sure you think you could. Let your anger go. Do it."

Having run out of other options, Harry obeyed.

Snape's tone was hard and low when he spoke again. "In your arrogance, you assume you shall be able to kill the Dark Lord. Look at you, you can't even defend yourself. He will kill you, Potter. He will take great joy in it."

"You're not teaching me anything this way."

"I've taught you that you are helpless, that without proper training and practice, you will die. I guarantee that the Dark Lord or one of his Death-Eaters will not stop when you ask. They will laugh while you scream." Snape looked at him and sneered. "I've taught you that you must master your temper."

As much as he hated Snape at that moment and he did with all his heart, he knew that Snape was absolutely right and that infuriated him even more. God, how he hated to ask, hated to have to be beholden to Snape, but he didn't want to die. "Are you going to help me?"

"Will you help yourself?" Snape asked, and his tone had backed off from its earlier ugliness. It sounded almost human. "Will you do the readings I assign you? Will you practice with that little club of yours?"

Harry looked up sharply. "You know about...."

The look on Snape's face was so amused that Harry knew he'd asked a really stupid question. "Don't be an arse, boy. Of course, I do."

Harry nodded, he was too tired to care anymore.

"I think that's enough for tonight." Snape waved his wand and the worst of the burns were healed.

Unfortunately, Harry's clothes were still a loss.

"It's past curfew," Harry said, focusing on staying on his feet.

"Don't expect a pass from me."

"Of course not." Harry felt his anger rise again. Snape could never be decent about anything, could he?

As if he knew what Harry was thinking, Snape looked right at him. "If I have never given you a pass, why would I now? Think about it."

"You might now, given everything." Most of the time, Harry made it back to the tower without incident since most of the teachers knew what he was doing out.

"Perhaps later." It sounded like Snape actually meant that. "Right now, no one knows to whom the table belongs. And we shall keep it that way."

"I'm not likely to mention it to anyone. Ron told me about it." Harry collected his books and tried not to think about the whole courtship thing.

"See that you don't. Not right now, anyway."

As he was about to leave, Snape handed him two books. "Read these. We shall work more on your shielding in a week or so."

Harry stuffed both books into his backpack and left the room without another word.

"Potter, a word with you, if you please?" Snape said as Harry was about to leave the hall after dinner the following night. It was not the first time Snape had stopped him for something after dinner, but usually he looked much angrier.

With a glare that said how annoying it was to be called out by Snape when he knew he hadn't done anything wrong, Harry moved towards him. "Yes, Professor?"

"Take a walk with me, Mr. Potter." Snape's tone was low and soft and there was ever so slight a deference in it.

Enough to startle Harry. Before he could say something scathing that would put him in detention, he remembered what Snape was on about.

He managed a weak smile. "Yes, sir."

Silently, he followed Snape out of the hall and across the entrance hall. In the courtyard, Snape's long legs ate up the ground until they were on the bridge that led across the campus. It was dark, but glowing lights bobbed in the air along the length of the span and created enough heat to make standing outside at this time of year tolerable.

"Well, this is as close to privacy as we can get and still be in public." Snape sounded tired and resigned.

"Is that necessary?" Harry asked. He was quite curious about the whole process.

For a moment, Snape looked annoyed, and he opened his mouth to say something scathing, Harry was sure, but instead he just said, "Yes."

" you want to tell me why?" A trickle of irritation started to slide through Harry. Snape made things so damned difficult.

"You have no idea, do you?" Snape's tone was not quite a sneer, but it looked like he was holding it back.

That trickle was fast becoming a river and Harry had to fight not to snap at him. "I wouldn't ask if I knew."

Snape's jaw tensed for a moment and, then surprisingly, he sighed. "Asking you for a walk in public is declaring my intentions, so to speak."

"What about the candle and bowl and such? What does it mean?" Harry asked, and even though Snape's look became more resigned, he wasn't going to back down.

"I'm surprised Miss Granger hasn't told you." Now, there was the familiar sneer in his tone.

"She didn't know." At Snape's surprised look, Harry laughed. "She had to look it up and she hasn't said anything to me yet. I think she's probably still researching it."

"The know-it-all doesn't know something. How amusing," Snape said with a snicker.

"Insulting my friends is not a way for you to endear yourself to me," Harry said through his gritted teeth.

After a glance around the bridge, Snape leaned close. "I shouldn't have to tell that this isn't real. And as such, I'm hardly concerned. I must appear to be going through the motions."

He pulled away abruptly, Snape's warm breath was making him shiver. In disgust, Harry told himself. "Since it's not real, can I leave now?"

"You make it sound as if you want it to be real."

"Not a chance of that," Harry said with all the animosity that he could muster. "May I go?"

Snape checked his watch. "Give it another minute or two. And try to keep a respectful tongue in your head."

"Yeah. Right. I'll do that." Harry danced back and forth on his the balls of his feet, counting the seconds before he could escape. God, why did things like this always happen to him?

"Go." Snape waved a hand at him, seemingly disgusted, but definitely dismissive.

Harry took what he could get, and fled.

"Your potion should be bright pink, not this icy pink." Snape looked in his cauldron and shook his head in disgust. "This is a NEWTs required potion. You will return tonight and brew it again. And most likely again after that, until you get it right."

While Harry would have liked to protest, he knew it was futile. Besides it was an important potion and he had no idea what he'd done wrong. "Yes, Professor."

In the back of the class, he heard Malfoy snicker. Snape said nothing to that.

"Even Mr. Longbottom has managed to brew it properly." He pointed a long stained finger at Neville's caldron. After years of exploding caldrons, Neville had sucked up his fears and started to, if not excel, then no longer fail so miserably, at potions.

"Adequate, Miss Granger." Snape said as he passed her and didn't even look in her cauldron.

"It was perfect," she said, sounding annoyed as she had every right to be.

"What was that, Miss Granger?" Snape asked, his voice smooth and dangerous. "Did I hear you say something?"

"No, sir," she said, not looking up at Snape.

Harry wanted to defend her, but she put a hand on his arm and shook her head. "Sorry," he muttered when Snape moved on to terrorize someone else.

"It's okay. I'm used to it." She started to bottle up her potion.

As if to add insult to injury, Snape asked him to take a walk after dinner that night.

For a second, Harry hesitated, thinking about laughing in his face and walking away. Despite the satisfaction that might have given him, he knew he couldn't do it. He nodded and followed Snape out of the hall. They walked to and across the bridge in silence.

"I hate it when you treat Hermione like that," Harry said, still furious about what happened in class. "She doesn't deserve it and you know it."

Surprisingly, Snape raised an eyebrow, but didn't explode as Harry had expected.

"How exactly should I be treating her, Mr. Potter?" Snape asked, his tone oily sounding like he was playing with Harry.

A cat with a mouse, Harry thought morosely. Any minute now, he expected to be eaten alive.

Harry clasped his hands into fists. With a concentrated effort he forced them open, telling himself to relax, to not let Snape goad him. "She's the best student in the class."

"She's a know-it-all looking for approval. You would do well to remember that, boy."

"That doesn't make her any less right or any less of an excellent student." It was a losing battle and Harry knew it, but that didn't mean he could let it go without a fight. Snape's unfairness had to be answered. He didn't expect it to help, not really, but to let it go unremarked upon was against his nature.

"Perhaps not, but it makes her all the more difficult to deal with." Snape's tone had softened, sounding nearly amused, markedly different from the one he'd been using.

Surprised by the admission, Harry glanced at him, not quite trusting the conversation or Snape. There were sharp claws on Snape and Harry was smart enough to be very wary. "She's hard to keep ahead of, I'd imagine."

For one second, Snape looked like he might pull back, but he chuckled quietly and whispered, "You have no idea."

"You don't have to treat her so shabbily." Even as he said it, he realized that there might be more to it than just Snape being a bastard.

"You forget for whom I work." And was that a faint note of regret in Snape's voice?

Harry found it hard to hide his shock, but he managed to keep his voice low. "You can't be seen being nice to her."

"Perhaps you are not as hopeless as I thought. However, I would not be nice in any case."

"Why not?" Harry asked, still not quite believing they were having this conversation.

"A nice teacher does not maintain discipline and the class runs wild. They don't learn anything. A nice man will be taken advantage of quite frequently and ends up with nothing."

Harry thought about that for a moment, and decided that maybe Snape had a point. "You could at least try to be fair."

"If things were different, perhaps. As they are not, I would not hope for it. Miss Granger will do just fine. She always does," Snape said, sounding more like himself.

"What about the rest of the students?" Harry asked. He found it amazing what a difference an explanation made and wondered if he should have thought of it himself.

"Even Mr. Longbottom has learned to brew a passable potion." Snape looked at his watch. "It's time for your detention."

"How can you court me, and give me detention at the same time?" Harry complained, even knowing this detention wasn't about scrubbing caldrons.

Snape smiled again. "Oh, I don't find it hard at all."

"Greasy bastard," Harry muttered under his breath, but thinking maybe he was being just a bit unfair.

"What was that, Mr. Potter?" Snape's lips twitched.

"Nothing, sir." Harry thought Snape actually seemed amused, or what passed for it with the greasy git.

"Well, I expect that shade of pink is closer to the correct color than the previous ones," Snape said, looking over Harry's shoulder, his tone quite scathing. "Spill it out, clean the caldron, and begin again."

Harry's back stiffened, fury washing over him. He'd been trying so hard to get it right and Snape had done nothing to help. "I don't have time before curfew."

"Do you want to pass your NEWTs?" Snape's tone said he didn't believe Harry could pass.

"At this point, I'm too damned tired to care." Dealing with Snape was enough exhaust him at any time and he couldn't do it any longer tonight.

However, Snape wouldn't let it go. "I would care if I were facing my NEWTs in a short time."

"It's months away. I've done this three times today. I'm tired." Harry sounded whiny even to himself.

Snape's look was more annoyed. In fact, he seemed to be holding on to his temper by a thread. "You've yet to do it correctly."

"If you'd bother to help me, rather than just sitting there--" Harry snarled at him. Snape could not have been more useless if he tried, which he probably did.

His lip curled up in a vicious sneer. "I have let you use my resources three times and for no good reason it would seem --"

That was the most asinine thing Harry had ever heard. "If you're worried about it, I can--"

"What, Potter? Pay for it? What about my time?" Snape's face was red, his outrage obvious.

"Wouldn't it be a better use of your time to help me?" Harry said, trying again to reason with the unreasonable bastard.

Snape's jaw tensed and he took a breath before he spoke. "If by that you mean I should simply give you the answer, think again you lazy brat."

"Of course not. Teaching me something might ruin your reputation." Harry hadn't meant to lose his temper, but Snape drove him mad at the best of times. "Tell me what I've done wrong."

"You get enough free rides. You'll do this one correctly. By yourself," Snape said, his expression going darker, more remote.

He couldn't stand another moment of that superior attitude Snape always had. "Just tell me, damn it!" Harry screamed at him.

Snape went white with rage. "You want to know where you failed? And you're too lazy and too stupid to figure it out for yourself. Continually expecting to have a free ride. Just like your father."

Harry drew in a gasp. "Leave him out of this, you greasy bastard!"

Snape's sneer was a new definition of cruel. "Ten points from Gryffindor. Watch your mouth Potter. I've been far too indulgent with you."

"Indulgent? You don't know the meaning of the word." Harry was no longer thinking, all he wanted was to give Snape back some of the unfairness he'd dished out for so long.

"And you don't know when to keep your mouth closed. You're just like him. Every bit as arrogant and self-serving."

Clenching his fist, Harry wanted nothing more than to smash it into Snape's ugly face. "How dare you even speak of him?"

"Because I can. I knew him," Snape roared, his face crimson, his eyes buldging. "I knew him and I hated him. I hated everything about him and his miserable clique. And you show all the evidence of being just like he was."

He grabbed the front of Snape's robes and got right up into his face. "Well, I didn't! I never knew him," Harry screamed and let go, horrified that he'd almost hit Snape.

Snape staggered back, breathing hard, his face a mask of outrage and fury. "Who do you think you are? How dare you touch me -- I could have you expelled."

"How dare you keep bringing my father up? Why can't you let the past go? Why are you always so fucking horrid and unfair?" Harry fought for breath, fury making him shake.

"Oh, that's easy, Potter. I enjoy making you see yourself for what you are. I enjoy taking you down a notch. You deserve it. You're nothing but a whiney spoilt child."

"You don't have that right," Harry said, trying to calm himself before he did something they would both regret.

"Oh, but I do. I have every right to tell you exactly what and who you are." Snape laughed that miserable sneering laugh.

Harry's rage exploded and he slammed the cauldron across the table. Fuck that hurt, he thought, rubbing his throbbing hand. The pink liquid had splattered over the counter, the floor, and the walls. It also caught the edge of Snape's robe.

Snape froze and very slowly lifted the edge of his robe, glancing down at the stain. "Fifty points from Gryffindor and you have a week's detention. You will clean up that mess. Then you will redo the potion." His voice was as quiet as death.

Still holding his injured hand, Harry stepped back, mortified by his display of temper and not a little intimidated by Snape's fury. He wondered what was it about Snape that made him so out of control? "Yes, sir," he said.

After unsuccessfully brewing the potion a fourth time, Harry cleaned up and left without a word. He was too tired think properly. With his mind in turmoil, he knew he would not sleep. It was tempting fate if he were caught, but he walked out on the bridge to think.

It bothered him terribly that Snape believed he was that much like his father. Since fifth year, and the pensieve incident, his view of his father hadn't been as sterling as everyone else's. As much as he still loved Sirius and his father, he didn't want to be thought of as being like either one of them.

A voice asked him why it mattered so much what Snape thought. Harry didn't know. He only knew that it did. He also knew he'd have to apologize. Not that he expected Snape to accept it, but he had to do it for himself.

Weary to the very soles of his feet, Snape shuffled his way up the stone steps of the castle. He leaned against the great wooden doors for a moment to catch his breath, before he pushed them open and went inside.

Each step hurt. He'd been called just as Potter had left, and his meeting with the Dark Lord had been a painful experience. Though not nearly as painful as it could have been, he supposed. Right, he could have been tortured to death by Cruciatus, rather than just until he screamed his voice hoarse.

He croaked out the password to the Headmaster's office, and rode the stairs to the top. Dumbledore met him there and held the door open, waving him to a seat. "Come in, Severus. Can I offer you some tea?"

"No thank you," Snape said, his voice starting to come back from the dead. He glanced at the chair in front of the desk. If he wanted to make it out of this office any time in the near future, he'd better stay on his feet.

"Are you all right?" Dumbledore asked, a gratifying amount of concern in his tone.

"As well as I can be after...." He cut himself off. Dumbledore knew by the look of him what had happened at the meeting. Discussing it would mean reliving it, and really, he'd rather not go through that again.

"Was there a reason this time, or simply your turn?" Dumbledore didn't take the seat behind his desk, instead he leaned on the front.

"My fault, I'm afraid. He asked about the Courtship and I made the mistake of telling him that Potter might not accept my Declaration. He was not pleased." Snape had to wonder why the Dark Lord was so intent on having this happen.

It was an interesting idea to have Potter in his thrall, but it didn't necessarily mean that Potter would fall in line with the Dark Lord's plans. The amount of anger directed at him over Potter's predicted non-compliance seemed out of line with even the Dark Lord's worst temper tantrums. Even Malfoy had been surprised by the level of anger directed at him over this.

Dumbledore gave him a hard look. "Are you certain that Harry will not accept?"

"Since I'm sure he does not know he has to accept anything, yes, I can be fairly certain that he will not do so."

"Why haven't you told him?" Dumbledore sounded annoyed now.

At least, he wouldn't erupt violently about it, Snape thought, grateful for small favors. "I have no wish for him to accept it. It would be a travesty." Snape was not about to explain that it was already becoming too real. That his utter disdain for the reckless boy would not survive much longer. He needed this over and done with, one way or another. The Courtship had the potential to matter too much too him.

"Let me remind you that the whole point here was not to enrage Voldemort. I think that you should consider telling Harry what he must do." That wasn't a request, not in that tone of voice or with that look on Dumbledore's face.

"No. In a few days, this will all be over. Let it be." Snape swayed as a wave of fatigue swept down over him. He put a hand on the bookcase to steady himself.

"I'm afraid that won't be possible. The Dark Lord is likely to kill you if you don't comply."

"Be that as it may, I should think it's my decision whether or not to continue the Courtship."

"Actually, at this point, it's Harry's."

"Then we'll leave it to him." Snape smirked, folding his arms across his chest. He was not going to tell the dunderhead and Snape doubted he'd bothered to look it up.

"You have until the end of the week to inform Harry, and if you don't do it by then, I will."

"Headmaster, you are being unreasonable. I won't have it." Snape knew it was a bad idea to annoy Dumbledore. The truth was he had only the faintest hope that he could convince him to let it drop.

Dumbledore straightened up from the desk, and looked at Snape, his expression unyielding. That nice old man act fooled a lot of people, but a person only had to see Dumbledore like this once to know enough to be wary. "Tell him. Or I will."

With a sigh of resignation, Snape nodded, his exhaustion bearing down on him harder than before. "It shall be as you wish."

"I've told you not to use that tone of voice with me." Dumbledore's eyes narrowed and he seemed ready to say something else.

After a moment more, he sighed too. "Was there anything else of interest?"

"The Dark Lord has three or four raids planned in the next few months. Nothing of any real importance. They are on Muggle businesses in wizarding towns. Scare tactics mostly, I think. He does not seem to have anything significant planned until the spring. I'm still not privy to that information."

Dumbledore nodded, stroking a hand along his beard. "Nothing else?"

Snape shook his head. He was dead on his feet and wanted a hot bath. Pushing off from the bookcase, he managed to stand straight. "If there is nothing else?"

"Go to bed," Dumbledore said kindly, but then ruined it with another hard look. "Do not forget what I said about Harry."

With an irritated glare, Snape put a hand on the door knob ready to leave. He'd had enough of this. "I'm not likely to forget."

He stalked out of the office and down the stairs.

Merlin, Dumbledore annoyed the hell out of him. He knew that he was simply a pawn in some grand chess match that Dumbledore was playing, but Snape hated having the knowledge shoved down his throat in quite so blatant a fashion. Dumbledore had to know what the Courtship Ritual meant to him, indeed to most wizard-raised people and still he expected Snape to simply use it as if it were a tool, as if it were meaningless.

What was worse was that Snape would. Because it was every bit as necessary as Dumbledore said it was. How he hated his life sometimes.

"Professor?" Potter's tentative voice as much as anything made Snape focus on him as he came through the door of his office.

Before Snape could say a word, Potter closed the door and cast a silencing charm. "I wanted to apologize for last night. I was wrong to blow up like that," he said, looking down and Snape was sure he was going for contrite.

"Very prettily said. Now, what do you want?" Snape said with as much sarcasm as he could muster. And given how angry he was about the encounter that was quite a considerable amount.

Potter's head snapped up and an outraged look flittered across his face before he could blank it. "I am trying to apologize."

"Why? You're not going to get out of the detentions, if that's what you're hoping." The boy was clearly trying to get away with something... but what, Snape wondered, and sighed.

"I didn't expect to. I deserved it." Potter looked down again.

That shocked Snape. Potter was not acting true to form and an unpredictable Potter was dangerous. It made him edgy and he resented it. "I don't understand why you feel the need to come begging for forgiveness."

"I wasn't thinking of it in those terms, but if it makes you feel better, then go ahead. I'm sorry. If you don't want to accept that, I'll just go." His tone had become resigned, sounding almost hurt. Potter was staring at the open doorway with some longing.

Snape had the feeling he was missing something and that annoyed him even more. "Potter, explain to me why you are here."

"You mean aside from the fact I was wrong and should not have spoken to you like that?" Potter's look said he didn't understand what Snape wanted from him.

"Why? You never felt the need before." Snape saw that he did seem repentant. "I can't quite fathom why this matters so much to you." He softened his voice ever so slightly. "Tell me."

"Will you believe me?" Potter asked, and for some reason it seemed to matter to him.

"Not without knowing." As much as Snape wished he could deny it, his curiosity had been piqued.

Potter looked right at him, without arrogance or defiance. "I don't want you to think that I'm like my father. I make my own mistakes. I don't want to be blamed for his."

Snape stared at him for a moment not sure what to say, but knowing that what he said next would be very important to both of them. "Why would that matter to you?"

"Because James might have been my father, but --" Potter looked away, his face a dull red, and then he shook his head and did not finish.

Snape waited a moment. After that incident, Snape had wondered if Potter had seen his father in a different light, especially when neither Potter nor any of his friends had ever referred to it in any way.

"All right. I'll concede, you're not like him."

"Right," Potter said, as if he wasn't sure he believed it. "I'm sorry I was rude."

Snape inclined his head. "Accepted."

"Thank you." Potter pulled out his wand, presumably to take down the silencing spell.

"Potter," Snape said. "You need to add the thistle needles one by one rather than all at once. It's in the reading I gave you last week."

For a moment, Potter's expression was shocked. "Thanks," he said, smiling that bright smile that he had.

Despite his better judgment, Snape allowed himself to be charmed by it. Then, he scowled to cover his momentary lapse. "You can brew it again for your detention tonight."

Potter nodded. He waved his wand, and then left, closing the door quietly behind him.

What was it about Potter that evoked so many more emotions that had nothing to do with anger and hatred, Snape wondered with a sigh. More importantly, when had Potter started to grow up and why hadn't he noticed before?

"You've been almost nice out here," Potter said, sounding half-surprised.

Snape straightened from the slouch he'd allowed himself to affect as they stood across from each other on the bridge. "Whatever gave you the idea I was nice?"

"Perhaps nice isn't quite the word. More like, you're less horrid to me than you usually are." Potter smirked at him.

With a glare of irritation, Snape bit back the urge to say something scathing or take points.

Potter seemed to take that as tacit permission to continue. "It's the ritual, isn't it? You believe in it, so you're not being a bast--"

"You do not want to finish that sentence," Snape assured him with a flat stare.

"Got it. Still, you've been... well pleasant isn't any better than nice. I don't have a word for it." Potter looked at him expectantly.

"I am constantly amazed by your lack of eloquence with the English language. One would never know you were a native speaker."

Potter laughed at that. "See. That's what I mean. You just insulted me, and it was as if your heart wasn't in it."

He thought seriously of taking house points for insolence, but he could not quite bring himself to do it. For reasons that Snape didn't want to examine too closely, he would not profane what he was doing by being nasty, no matter the provocation. Gritting his teeth, Snape glared, but said nothing.

"Tell me about it. The Ritual, I mean. I know it's pretty complicated." Potter actually looked like he might be interested.

Or he could just be leading Snape on, looking for a new way to ridicule him. Snape wasn't about to take that chance. Not with Potter. "Ask Granger. I'm sure she'll have much to say about the subject."

In a few days, when Potter failed to accept the Declaration, it would all end. He told himself that he was looking forward to that. Being with Potter under these circumstances was draining as well as testing his patience to the absolute limit of his tolerance. The only thing that made it worthwhile was at the end, he would have the satisfaction of having done the Ritual properly.

Potter's brow creased. "I would ask her, but she hasn't said anything to me about it in a week. Of course, she has no reason to let me know if she's found something else."

"Why haven't you told her?" Snape was surprised that Potter had managed to keep it from his friends.

"Dumbledore told me not to," Potter said, giving him an irritated look.

"And you always follow the rules so well, don't you Potter?" It was too good an opening to pass up, Snape thought with a smirk.

"I try," Potter prevaricated without looking embarrassed in the slightest. "Or at least when I don't have good reason not to do so."

The boy was created to drive him mad. "Just who is to decide what a good reason is?"

It was so clear what Potter was thinking. "I need to do what I think is right."

"Regardless of the rules?" Snape asked silkily.

"Yes." He sounded so sure of himself and so righteous.

Annoyed beyond words, Snape took a step away from the side. "Enough for tonight. Go away."

Potter smirked again, no doubt thinking he'd won this round. "Yes, sir."

"Harry," Hermione caught up with him at lunch the following day. "I've been researching the Wizarding courtship ritual."

"So you've said. Did you find out anything else that was interesting?" Harry asked, trying to sound a lot more casual than he felt about it.

"I've learned quite a number of things, actually."

He'd expected that she'd have that self-satisfied air to her, but she seemed puzzled instead. That worried him.

"Is there something else important?" Harry asked, a prickle of unease going through him. It would be just like both Snape and Dumbledore not to tell him something that was essential.

"I don't know. I think I'm missing a reference somewhere." Hermione seemed both irritated that she'd missed something and perplexed about what it was.

"Let me know, okay?" Harry hoped he didn't sound as worried as he felt. He hated not having the information that he needed, and he hadn't had time to do more than cursory research on the Ritual.

She stopped and looked at him, clearly hearing what he wasn't saying as she always did. "Are you going to accept his suit?"

"What?" He sucked in a breath, knowing already that he'd given himself away.

The passing students caught his attention, and he grabbed her arm, leading her away from the crowd. "Why do you think it's me?"

"Who else could it be? You and Snape. He's asked you to take a walk three times in the last two weeks."

"He gave me a week's detention and took seventy house points, as well. That doesn't sound like courtship to me." Harry tried to think of something else. "Besides, he always wants to talk to me about the defense lessons or Order business."

"Except that there is a Courtship table in the great hall." She did sound like a know-it-all sometimes.

Harry wasn't sure if he should be amused or annoyed. He tried to put her off one last time. "What makes you think it's him?"

This was Hermione and she never gave up. "Give over, Harry. He's going through the motions of a Formal Courtship. The question is why?"

"I don't suppose you'd believe I've fallen madly in love with him and him with me?"

Hermione shook her head very slowly. "Not in a million years."

"Thought not." With a deep sigh, Harry let his shoulders slump. "Voldemort thinks I'm crushing on him and Snape's supposed to court me. Then he's to lead me to Voldemort at the appropriate time."

"And you just agreed to this?" She sounded about as horrified as Harry felt about it.

But he nodded. "Dumbledore asked me to. I think Voldemort is going to do something awful to Snape if I don't do it."

"I can see that." Hermione nodded, her brow creased. "If you don't accept his Declaration and do a Recognition Ritual of your own, then it's all going to end in a couple days."

Harry wanted it to end. Although their private conversations hadn't been as acrimonious as he'd expected and he had to admit the potions help during the detentions was welcome, he didn't like Snape, and didn't want to have any more to do with him than he already was forced to have.

The problem was that since Snape was doing this because Voldemort told him to do it, the possible consequences to Snape were probably dire. As much as he mostly couldn't stand Snape, he didn't want to see him tortured or killed. Not if he could do something to stop it, even if that something was fairly inconvenient, and disconcerting in the extreme.

"What's involved in the ritual?" he asked with a sigh of resignation.

A couple of second years went past them, and Hermione shook her head. "Not here."

Late the following night, Harry entered the hall carrying a candle he'd made to the specifications Hermione had given him. After everything, he couldn't quite believe he was going to continue the charade. Unfortunately, he knew that it was necessary. And, it wasn't as if he had to marry the greasy git, just allow the courtship to continue.

"What are you doing out of bed at this hour, Potter?" Snape swept across the hall, robes flaring dramatically. He stopped when he saw the candle in Harry's hand.

"I'm told I need to do this privately." Harry couldn't look at him. His hands were starting to sweat. Nervously, he clutched the candle tighter.

Looking a bit startled, Snape raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised you're doing it at all."

"Well, if you'd told me it was necessary, I would have done it sooner," Harry said with more bravado than he felt. He wished he could get rid of Snape and get this over with before he thought better of it.

"It isn't." Snape looked right at him with that intense, penetrating gaze he had. "Necessary that is."

The look made Harry shiver. He knew it was necessary. He rather thought they both knew it. "What is Voldemort going to say when you can't keep courting me?"

"He won't be pleased." From Snape's tone it was clear that was an understatement.

Thinking about what Voldemort would do to Snape made Harry's stomach tighten with dread, and it served to strengthen his resolve. "We need the information you're getting from him. This has to continue. So, why don't you get lost and let me do this."

"Ten points from Gryffindor for your disrespect." Snape said it with a sigh in his voice almost as if it were a burden rather than a joy.

"Bastard," Harry hissed through his clenched teeth. Here he was, trying to help the greasy git and Snape was taking points. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all.

"Twenty points." This time there was more force behind the words. He'd finally succeeded in annoying Snape.

"Tell me again why I'm trying to make your life easier?" Harry snapped. He looked at Snape and saw how pale he was. It occurred to him that perhaps Snape was scared of what might happen, too. And being Snape, he was taking it out on the one person who was trying to help him.

"I can't imagine why you would want to, Potter." Snape gave him a slightly less unpleasant look. "I have no idea what you hope to gain from this...display."

"At the rate I'm losing points, clearly I'm not going to gain anything." He didn't want all of his sympathy for Snape to dissipate or he wouldn't do this. "Will you leave now?"

Snape looked at him for one more minute, as if trying to gauge what he was thinking, but then shrugged.

"Do not leave here after you've finished. I'll return and you will watch me perform the Acceptance Ritual," Snape finally said.

"I thought I was doing the Acceptance Ritual." Harry held up the candle as a visual aide.

"Do as I've said." Snape stalked away.

With a sigh of resignation, Harry stepped up to the table and put his candle beside Snape's. He took the glass rod and touched the flame, then lit the candle. Stepping back, he muttered the few words he was supposed to say. A curiously warm, safe feeling invaded his chest. Closing his eyes for a moment, he savored it.

When it faded, he sat down at the end of the Hufflepuff table. It was late and he wasn't crazy about waiting in the cold hall for Snape to show up.

About half an hour later, Snape finally re-entered the hall, barefooted, with damp hair. Wearing a loose fitting robe that looked like he had nothing on underneath it, Snape strode quickly to the small table. He motioned for Harry to join him and they both stood in front of the shrine. Snape bowed and glanced meaningfully at Harry. Taking the cue, Harry bowed, too. Snape picked up Harry's lit candle and lit his own with it, muttering the Latin too quickly for Harry to catch it.

He took two steps back, bowed again and Harry followed suit.

Another moment or two passed and Harry felt a tingle of magic slide down his spine. Harry glanced at the table again, and was surprised to see there was only one large candle where there had been two smaller ones before. That warm feeling was back in his chest, too. Harry would have liked to have asked what it was about, but Snape's eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply.

When the feeling faded this time, Harry was very tired. Snape nodded once and then turned around, walking out without another word.

Harry wasn't sure what to make of any of it.

"Why is everyone around the table now?" Harry asked as he and Hermione and Ron came into the hall for breakfast the next morning. "I thought it was private."

"Well, whomever it is has accepted the suit. So, we'll all know who it is soon enough." Ron sounded very eager to know. "Their names should be inscribed over the table."

"What?" Harry was appalled by the squeak in his voice. Their names hadn't been there last night. He looked at Hermione. "You didn't tell me it would happen like this."

"Why would she tell you--" Ron's eyes widened. "Who?" He glanced over at the table, and Harry's eyes followed him. Both his full name and Snape's were lit up over the table for everyone to see.

Ron went pale and then red. "No. No. I can't believe he asked and you accepted. You don't have time for us now. Are you mad?"

It was like a nightmare from fourth year, watching Ron back away from him, horror and outrage turning his face red. Harry felt like he'd been stabbed, but he was determined not to let it show. "Ron," he said coolly, hoping his tone would convey his exasperation rather than potential hurt. "Think before you say anything."

"Ron, don't make a scene. Let Harry explain," Hermione pleaded, her voice pitched so that it would not carry beyond them.

"You've got five seconds to tell me why you accepted a suit from Snape. What could he possibly give you that would make you want him? You could have anyone...anyone." Ron was literally shaking with rage.

It never occurred to him that Ron would create such a scene, at least not in the middle of the Great Hall. Everyone was watching them. As much as he would have liked to tell Ron the truth, he'd just been pushed into a corner and now he was trapped. Harry squared his shoulders. "I did it because I wanted to. Maybe, just maybe, someone wants me for me -- rather than the bloody Boy Who Lived."

Ron's face was so red that he looked like he might have a stroke. Instead of raging as Harry had expected, Ron sucked in a deep breath and seemed to get a hold on his temper. "I'm quit of you," he said quietly and walked away.

"Ron! Don't say that," Hermione said, sounding horrified. She went after him, leaving Harry alone.

"You and Professor Snape?" Malfoy's tone was so incredulous that Harry could have laughed. If he hadn't just declared that he was going to.... Oh, God what was he doing? Fighting back the urge to laugh maniacally, Harry took a breath and then another.

Calm, he told himself, go sit down and be calm. He met Malfoy's eyes and grinned. "As a matter of fact, yes."

Malfoy's face went red and he sputtered out something Harry didn't catch, then walked way.

The entire length of the Gryffindor table was in an uproar. Hermione and Ron were yelling at each other. There was more yelling and some swearing coming from other parts of the table as well as the rest of the hall.

As odd as it was, no one said anything to him as he sat down and ate his breakfast. After a few minutes, he glanced up at the head table. Snape nodded to him and he nodded back. Harry could tell already, it was going to be a long day.

"Mr. Potter." Professor Vector's voice stopped Harry in mid-step as he left the Great Hall after breakfast. "A moment of your time, if you please?"

So, it's going to start already, Harry thought as he turned to watch her advance on him. "Yes, ma'am?"

"I hadn't realized you were so close to Professor Snape." She didn't seem entirely disapproving, for which Harry was quite surprised, but nonetheless grateful.

Looking down, Harry felt awkward, and wished he wasn't blushing. He had no idea what to say to her. "Well, you know...."

"No," she said, speaking to him as if he were slow to comprehend. "I don't know. As I was given to understand, the two of you did not get on at all."

"Not in class." Harry still didn't meet her gaze, but something in her tone surprised him. "But you know, we worked together...." He wasn't sure how much to say. Vector wasn't a member of the Order, and even if she were, he didn't know what Dumbledore had said to anyone on this. He supposed he'd better ask Snape what to do. "Professor Snape has been helping me with Potions."

"Ah." Her expression was curious and mild, but she was still waiting for something more.

Harry tried not to squirm. "When we're alone, working together... it's..." He thought frantically for something that would be believed. "He's different. He understands me." He met her eyes. "He knows what I need."

"And because of that, you've developed feelings for him?" she finished for him.

"Yes, ma'am." Harry was relieved she seemed to accept that.

"Well, congratulations then." Her smile did not reach her eyes.

As she walked away, Hermione came out of the hall still arguing with Ron. He walked past Harry as if he weren't there, and Hermione stopped, looking after him and then sighed. "He's being such a prat."

"This is different from any other time in what way?" Harry knew Ron was going to feel like an idiot when this was all over, presuming they all survived it.

"Did I see you talking to Vector?" Hermione asked.

"Yeah, she didn't seem to believe that I could have feelings for Snape." Harry laughed and looked around, relieved to see there was no one who could have heard him. "I think people are too smart for this."

Hermione nodded, her look sympathetic. "You have to admit it's pretty far fetched. I'll bet you have people asking you about it all day."

"I reckon that you're right. We probably should have thought of a reasonable explanation before this." Actually, they should have not done this at all. Harry sighed. It was too late to take it back now.

"Come on, we've got class." Hermione waved him ahead of her and they both started down the corridor.

"Severus, Are you busy?" Filius Flitwick's voice startled Snape out of his concentration on abysmally bad first year potions essays.

"Yes, Filius, I am. What is it you want?" Not that he was ever in the mood to deal with the perpetually pleasant Flitwick, but this morning in particular he was singularly ill-equipped.

"Only to offer my felicitations on Mr. Potter's acceptance of your suit." Surprisingly, Flitwick appeared pleased about it. Although, Snape conceded, that could be simply good manners on Flitwick's part. "I must say that I'm surprised to find that the two of you were so close."

Snape resisted the urge to grimace at the idea of being that close to Potter, but he nodded without returning Flitwick's smile. "Obviously, you haven't been paying enough attention."

"Quite the contrary, Severus. I pay a great deal of attention. I think someone would have noticed a softening of your attitude." Flitwick didn't seem quite so jovial. Indeed, he seemed overly concerned about it.

What did he think, Snape wondered, that he'd somehow coerced Potter into agreeing?

Whatever Flitwick thought was neither here nor there to Snape and he returned the look with a glare. "I believe that what is between Mr. Potter and myself is just that, between the two of us."

"You're right, of course. Forgive my rudeness. I meant only to offer congratulations." Flitwick smiled again, but his good-humored disposition had dissipated, leaving him with a displeased look on his face that no doubt rivaled Snape's own.

Snape sighed. He was not in the mood to be even remotely polite. This whole arrangement was starting to give him a sour stomach. "Thank you," he said coolly, hoping Flitwick would take the hint.

He didn't, continuing to stand at Snape's desk, regarding him, silently.

"Was there something else you wanted to discuss with me? As you can see, I am rather busy." Snape waved a hand at the pile of essays. He didn't have the time nor the patience for this.

Flitwick looked as though he might say something, but then thought better of it. "Nothing at all. Good day."

Snape nodded. He supposed that it would be rather awkward as people got used to the idea. Merlin knew, he would need time to get used it.

As Flitwick left, Potter came in.

"What do you want?" Snape was not in the proper frame of mind to deal with any more problems and Potter was always a problem.

Potter made a show of looking around and then came close to his desk, leaning over a bit. "I was wondering if the headmaster has told anyone about..." He looked around again.

"No." Snape felt his annoyance rise. Potter had been told not to mention it to anyone and had promised not to. "Whom have you told?"

"No one, except Hermione. But no one seems to know that it's not--"

"Potter," Snape said warningly. "Never presume anything."

At least the boy understood that and nodded. "But I thought --"

"That is a problem for you, isn't it?" Snape couldn't help the smirk. "You always assume."

Potter's jaw tightened and he looked as if he were going to say something that would land him in detention.

Snape was almost disappointed that he managed to pull it back. "About the other teachers --"

"Has anyone you've encountered been rude to you in that regard?" Those kinds of poor manners would require that Snape do something about it.

"Not rude. But they all seemed to want to ask about it. No one knows."

"Of course they don't know. How would anyone have known this was coming?" Snape heard a faint noise outside his office door. He flicked his eyes in that direction and then back to Potter.

Even if he weren't the most intelligent wizard on earth, Potter could take a broad hint when he had to. He kept his eyes on Snape and added a bit of whine to his voice. "You're right, sir. It's just I expected everyone to know how we felt. I thought it was obvious."

Snape shook his head and produced a fond but exasperated look. "I assure you it was not obvious at all. In fact, I'm sure we've shocked quite a number of your professors as well as your classmates. You must let me know if someone, especially a teacher, is rude to you."

"Going to protect me, sir?" Potter had the audacity to bat his eyes at him.

Torn between wanting to hex the reckless fool and laughing out loud, Snape managed to do neither. "I've always protected you."

"So you have." Potter met his eyes and surprisingly, there was no amusement in them. "I have Transfigurations now."

"I'm sure your head of house will have something to say to you, as well."

Potter nodded.

Harry hurried towards McGonagall's class room, thinking about the bizarre scene with Snape. He hadn't seen anyone lurking in the halls when he'd left the office, not that he'd expected to. Deep into his own thoughts, he nearly tripped over Mrs. Norris as she came out of a darkened corridor.

"Watch yourself, boy," Filch said, his voice as unpleasant as he was. He picked up the cat and smirked at Harry. "Wouldn't want to hurt my cat, now would you?"

"No. I'm sorry. I need to get to class." Harry tried to sidle past them both. Even after all these years, there was something about Filch that still made Harry queasy with unnamed dread.

"Smart of you to attach yourself to someone like the Professor." Filch actually sounded like he approved.

But Harry could never tell with him and didn't care to stick around long enough to find out. Besides which, Filch's approval was about the last thing Harry wanted. "I've got to get to class."

Filch laughed and let the cat down. "Go. Wouldn't want you to be late."

With a shiver, Harry hurried away.

"Mr. Potter," McGonagall's voice stopped him before he reached the edge of her classroom after class. "I'd like to speak to you, if you would?"

Even phrased like that, he knew it wasn't a request. He turned slowly, assuring himself that he'd done nothing wrong. "Yes, ma'am?"

"I understand you've accepted Professor Snape's Declaration." She seemed more disproving than his other teachers had been.

Harry supposed that he could understand why. What surprised him was that Dumbledore hadn't told her, of all of them, what was going on.

Yes ma'am," he said, keeping his tone mild and polite. He didn't want her angry with him, too. The rest of his housemates were going to be enough to deal with.

"May I know why?"

If Dumbledore hadn't told her, it wasn't his place to do so. He felt trapped, and was irritated with Dumbledore for having put him in the position with his head of house. "I think the answer should be self-evident."

The expression on her face hardened and she looked as if she'd eaten something foul. "Don't get smart with me, young man. If you don't want to answer, have the courage to say so."

"I don't want to answer, ma'am," Harry said, looking her right in the eyes and daring her to make an issue of it.

"If you are in need of assistance with the ritual ahead, please let me know," McGonagall said stiffly, dismissing him.

"Thank you." Harry closed his eyes and tried to find some calm. It would be a very bad idea to leave her aggravated with him. "He's..." God, he couldn't think of anything plausible, hell implausible, to say about him and Snape. "I know you're worried. Don't be, okay. I know what I'm doing."

McGonagall raised an eyebrow and did not look convinced. "Do you? Or are you grasping at the first person to offer you something you think you're missing."

Harry opened his mouth to deny it categorically, but she cut him off before he could get the words out.

"Mr. Potter, can you honestly tell me you have feelings for Professor Snape? Especially given how he's treated you over the years."

"Yes ma'am. I can." It was true. He did have feelings for Snape. They just weren't the ones that she was talking about.

"All right. You're of age. There is nothing I can do about it." The displeasure in her voice made it clear that if there had been, she would have acted upon it.

"You don't approve?" Harry asked. If he let her say it she might feel better and less inclined to take it out on him later.

"Not in the slightest. He's your teacher." She stood up straight and prim. "If he had feelings for you, he should have waited until you left school."

"I was told this type of courtship was allowed between a student and teacher." Not that Harry understood why. It seemed somewhat improper, but that was the wizarding world.

"It is. But that doesn't make it right."

There was nothing he could say to that. "May I go?" he asked, knowing a losing situation when he was in one.

"Yes. Remember what I said."

With a quick nod, Harry made his escape.

Harry entered the common room that night to a sudden, but expected silence. Quickly, he looked around, hoping to find Hermione, but she wasn't in the room. "What?" he asked, when no one would make eye contact with him. It was obvious what they all were thinking and he wondered how good his acting was.

"Congratulations on your acceptance of Professor Snape's Declaration. I wish you all the best of luck with your Courtship," Neville said, a bit more formally than Harry would have expected. If he'd expected anyone to say anything positive, which he hadn't.

"How could you?" Dean asked, moving from the sofa to stand in front of Harry with his arms folded over his chest, looking betrayed and furious. The revulsion on his face less of a shock than Neville's pleasantness.

"Dean!" Ginny's tone was sharply disapproving. "Do you know how rude that is?"

"She's right," Neville agreed, giving Ginny an approving look. "It's terribly rude to question the Intended's acceptance."

"How can you say that?" Dean looked simply appalled. "He's agreed to let Snape court him. I can't believe it. Fucking Snape -- the greasy bastard who's made our lives hell for the last seven years." He looked from Neville to Harry. "How could you do that? What were you thinking? Man, that is so sick."

Harry hadn't come up with a plausible explanation yet and he tried to wing it. "I got to know him --"

Lavender moved from her perch on one of the large chairs by the fire to join their circle. Harry expected her to berate him as well, but she surprised him by saying, "If you can't offer congratulations, then you shouldn't say anything at all."

"Got to know Snape? How?" Dean asked, ignoring Lavender. He shook his head as if he did not believe it was possible to know Snape.

Something about that annoyed Harry and he said, "I've worked with him on...stuff"

"What stuff?" Dean asked accusingly.

Harry wasn't about to go into the Occlumency lessons, nor the defense lessons, even if he was in the DA. Besides, Dean was one of the worst gossips in their class, second only to Lavender. For help, he looked at Neville. "Why was it rude?"

Dean sputtered and opened his mouth to say something else, but Ginny's glare cut him off. He closed it again without uttering a word.

"The Courtship Ritual is one of the wizarding world's oldest traditions, dating back to the time of the founders." Neville looked at Dean, annoyed. Or at least as annoyed as he ever got. "It's never entered into lightly."

Lavender gave him another disapproving look. "You should apologize, Dean."

To Harry's utter shock, several of the other people standing around, including Seamus and Parvati, also nodded in agreement.

"Why?" Harry finally asked. He'd expected to be ostracized - that no one would talk to him after this. He'd been preparing himself for it all day and trying hard not to regret his decision to cooperate.

"Traditionally, this type of courtship was done with arranged marriages, so that the participants could get to know each other. Nowadays, couples do it to show respect for the old traditions and their Intended." Ginny smiled, seemingly taken with the idea, though Harry had no idea why she should be.

Harry's confusion must have showed on his face.

"It's a way to get to know someone slowly, courteously. It shows the Suitor's respect for his or her Intended. It's also so romantic to be courted like that," Lavender said in a breathy kind of tone that said she too was taken with the idea.

That was a laugh, Harry thought. Snape had no respect for him at all and took a great deal of delighting in telling him so at every opportunity. And the thought of anything romantic with Snape turned his stomach.

Ginny nodded, smiling briefly at Neville. "That's why it's acceptable for a teacher and student. If either were just interested in sex, they wouldn't go to all the trouble. This is about deeper feelings. It's about permanence."

Under other circumstances, Harry would have liked to have something permanent and stable with someone who respected him, but that would not be Snape.

"Why?" Dean asked, and now he looked more puzzled than mean-spirited.

"It's true. My uncle Raul and aunt Sterilia had this kind of courtship," Neville said, with a nervous laugh. "I think that's why they did it that way. Even though Gram hated aunt Sterilia, she couldn't force uncle Raul to divorce her."

"I didn't know that." Harry was so appalled that his voice cracked. He reminded himself that he wasn't going complete the courtship, let alone actually marry Snape. "I meant about the no divorce."

"The spells that bind the Courtship are woven into the two people so intricately, they are impossible to break. Especially after they have been consummated. Signing the marriage document is only a formality at that point," Neville said.

Harry forced a smile, hoping it didn't look as sick as he felt. "I guess I hadn't thought of that. It's not like it would matter anyway."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude to you Harry." Offering his hand to Harry, Dean's expression looked more outraged than accepting, but clearly he was going to try to accept it.

"It's all right." Harry shook his hand, and smiled weakly. He wanted to tell Dean that he understood completely how he felt, that he felt that way himself. Instead, he let go and stuck his hands in his pockets, feeling awkward with the acceptance he'd received.

Before anything else could happen, the portrait opened, and Ron walked in. The temperature in the room suddenly dropped past the freezing point, and everyone looked away. With a fierce scowl, Ron said nothing and went up the stairs to the boys' dormitory.

Harry sighed, relieved that he hadn't had to defend his choice -- even if it weren't his choice.

"Professor," Potter called to him as Snape was about to leave the Great Hall after dinner.

He turned and remembered at the last moment, not to glare at the insolent boy. "Yes, Mr. Potter?"

"I was wondering," Potter said softly, his face flushing. "If you'd care to walk with me for a bit?"

Surprised, but pleased that Potter had shown some initiative to do this properly, Snape bowed slightly. "I would."

Potter held out his arm for Snape to precede him, and Snape did so, wondering what Potter was going to want for his cooperation. "The bridge?" he asked as they started down the corridor side by side.

"Might as well." Potter walked beside him in silence until they reached it. "This seems to be our hang-out."

He wasn't quite sure why, but Snape found the term amusing. "Our what, Mr. Potter?"

"It's a Muggle term meaning a place where we spend time together." Potter gave him that insolent smile he had.

Instead of it being annoying, it was something else entirely, but Snape refused to consider what it was. He leaned against the ledge, looking out over the darkened lawns of the school. "I'm surprised you are still willing to participate, given everything."

"Ron's a prat, if that's what you mean." Potter sounded rather sure of that.

It wasn't what he'd meant. However, Snape was more than willing to let him think so. "You could simply tell him the truth."

"I would have, if he hadn't made that scene. Now, if he changes how he acts it will look suspicious. He needs to be angry for a week or two, and then come round. Seems to be his pattern whenever he's angry about something."

Snape sighed, impressed with Potter's assessment of the situation. "You don't seem unduly upset."

"I've been friends with Ron for years. I know how hot his temper runs. He's going to feel pretty stupid when this ends." Potter seemed to find that amusing.

"Yes, I imagine he will. After you ask me to walk twice more, we'll begin the Negotiation Ritual."

"Which means?"

"Unfortunately, it means that we will be required to spend more time together." Snape couldn't quite put enough annoyance in his tone to make it sound as if he hated the idea. "There will be some discussion required."

"Of what, exactly?" Potter looked at him suspiciously.

Snape decided he didn't want to go into the exact nature of the negotiations with Potter in public. He couldn't be sure that Potter would not throw a tantrum when he heard the details. "We'll discuss it in detail when we start."

"Why not now?" Potter glared at him and Snape had to wonder if some of that defiance wasn't fear.

"It won't be awful. I promise you that. It's simply time consuming." It was not in his nature to be reassuring, but he didn't want Potter to be overly concerned.

"Oh, great. As if I've got time for anything else," Potter muttered, sounding slightly less insolent. "I've got exams coming up this month. After that I have to start revising for my NEWTs."

"I may be of some assistance with your potions NEWT." Snape could not believe he'd just made such an offer. He wanted to pull the words back as soon as he'd said them.

Potter looked up, seemingly shocked at the idea. "Would you?"

His first thought was to smack down the half-hopeful expression on Potter's face, but he bit the impulse back. "It will be a way to spend time together that will be within the parameters of a student-teacher relationship as well as the Courtship Ritual."

"We already spend a lot of time together, but that will help me out, too." Potter actually smiled at him.

Snape didn't like the way that smile made him feel, not at all. He sneered to cover his discomfort. "I'm sure that is my highest goal."

As if he knew what Snape were thinking, Potter laughed. "Thanks. It's good to know that you care so much."

At Snape's scowl, Potter laughed even harder, and Snape couldn't hold onto his ire.

"Maybe I'll have a hope in hell of passing," Potter said, sounding like he was pleased with the prospect.

Snape, however, was well aware of Potter's potions abilities. "Even with my help, I wouldn't count on it, were I you."

"You needn't have asked me a second night in a row," Snape said leaning against the opposite wall of the bridge, regarding Potter. He'd been pleased that Potter seemed eager until he remembered that it was ignorance driving him, not enthusiasm.

Potter flushed and looked down at his scuffed shoes. "Was it wrong?"

"Not wrong," Snape tried to sound reassuring, something he seemed to be doing too often with Potter. "But you don't want to seem too eager. Or your Intended might take it incorrectly. Think that you were more involved than you actually are."

"I'm not worried about that." Potter looked like he didn't believe it were possible. Stupid boy.

"Wait a few days before you ask the last time," Snape advised, willing to let him believe as he chose.

"Do we want to draw this out?" Potter asked after a moment more of silence.

"As far and as long as possible." Snape let out a deep breath. "Within the time limits of the Ritual, of course."

"How long is that?"

"I was hoping to draw this stage out until the Spring." Snape looked at Potter trying to judge his mood. "The Dark Lord is planning something for then."

"Involving me?" Potter's expression became troubled. Perhaps he was not as stupid as Snape thought he was.

"I suspect so." He'd never approved of Dumbledore keeping Potter in the dark about what was going on. If Potter couldn't see what was coming for him, how could he possibly be prepared for it? "I am unaware of any details."

"Would you tell me if you were?" It was fairly obvious that Potter did not trust him to be honest.

That bothered Snape. Indeed, he disliked the thought intensely. "I would tell you if I knew anything."

"Since you don't, that's not much of a help." Potter had an annoying whine in his tone that grated on Snape's already frayed nerves. "Everyone always knows more than I do about what's going to happen to me. Why should I even bother studying for my NEWTs. I might not live to take them."

As much as Snape would have liked to disagree with the assessment, he knew that he couldn't. "It's not fair to you, but life is not fair."

"Big revelation there, Professor." He laughed, sounding every bit as bitter as he had a right to sound.

"I'm sorry." Snape could not believe he was trying to comfort Potter. He had no idea why it should even matter to him at all.

Potter's eyes went wide, and he snorted. "I can't believe you just said that."

"Neither can I." Snape chuckled, amused with Potter's reaction, despite himself.

Potter took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "What should I do?"

That Potter would ask surprised him. He gave it a moment's thought before he replied, wishing there were some easy answer and knowing, disappointingly, there was not. "Study, train, continue to live your life as you have done."

"Continue to let you court me?" There was no disrespect or mockery in Potter's tone, or his expression.

"If you choose to. You may stop at any time." He told himself that he wanted Potter to call a halt to the charade, but some small part of him knew it wasn't wholly true anymore. "We'll move on to Ritual of Negotiation next."

"Are you going to tell me about it or make me ask Hermione?" Potter still sounded amused.

"When we meet again, I'll explain what happens next."


"Don't thank me yet, Potter. You have no idea what it shall entail."

", let me see if I have this right," Harry said still not quite believing what Snape had just said to him. "We, as in you and I, are supposed to negotiate the details of our married lives together?"

"You do occasionally pay attention, don't you? I'm quite shocked to discover this." Snape's tone was sarcastic, but it wasn't vengeful or mean-spirited.

Harry had to smile at that. It hadn't taken him that long to realize that not every mean thing Snape said was intended to do harm.

He and Snape were sitting across from each other at Snape's desk, with the office door open. There was a length of blank parchment between them, and a dictation quill hovered above it.

"We shall negotiate the typical household details." Snape tone had gone back to the slightly edgy sound he used when dealing with Harry over something about the ritual.

Harry snorted. "As if I grew up in a typical household and have any idea what that would be."

Snape's brow furrowed and he frowned. "I did not either."

"At least you had a mother and father."

"Such as they were." Surprisingly, Snape did not sound half so bitter as Harry expected.

"You also had relatives," Harry pointed out and then remembered, "I did too, didn't I? Of course, yours weren't as foul as mine. At least, they didn't seem that way."

"How much of my life do you know?" Snape had that uneasy look on his face again.

It made Harry very uncomfortable to think about the carelessness with which they had plundered one another's minds during the Occlumency lessons. "We were both a little too good at attacking by the end, weren't we?"

Also looking discomfited, Snape nodded. "Though I suspect we know less than we think."

"Don't tell me you don't know all about my growing up with the Dursleys." Harry looked right at him. "I know you were the one who told the Order to have that little chat with Vernon Dursley."

"What makes you think I had anything to do with that?" Snape's tone was perfectly flat and if Harry hadn't known him better, he would have believed the denial.

"Who else knew?" He'd tried never to say anything, except to Dumbledore, who'd ignored him in favor of the supposed protections of his mother's family. The Order had shown up at Kings Crossing Station the end of his sixth year as they had the end of fifth year. Vernon had been puce with rage, but had also been wise enough not to say or do anything at all last summer.

Not that the summer had been pleasant by any means, but it hadn't been anywhere near as horrid as it could have been or as bad as Harry had feared it would be.

Snape looked as if he were fighting some kind of internal battle and then he sighed. "You must remain alive long enough to defeat the Dark Lord. It would not do if your Uncle were to take it into his head to attempt more than verbal abuse."

"He's not going to kill me." Harry was nearly sure of that. Vernon had never raised a hand to him, except to threaten. Of course, Dudley had beaten the hell out of him for years and the last two summers he hadn't dared touch Harry. "Thanks."

"It doesn't matter anymore." Snape sighed again. "You are quit of them."

"So," Harry said, wanting to be off the subject of the Dursleys. "About the typical details? What are we talking about here?"

"All manner of domestic details." Snape was silent for a moment. "How such chores as cooking and cleaning and shopping are handled. Household finances. The laundry." He paused and then met Harry's eyes. "Sex. Children."

Harry looked away and couldn't understand why he was blushing. "We're two guys, I'm thinking that children are not going to be an issue with us."

"Wizards can have children." Snape looked at him in that way that made Harry think he'd missed something. Again.

He considered the options. "We could adopt, I guess."

"It is possible. Many Muggle children are abandoned or mistreated once their magic starts to manifest. There are also a fair number who are simply left at Hogwarts after their first year."

The very idea made Harry feel sick to his stomach. "How can people do that to their own children?"

"You know this only too well. Fear."

"Would you want to adopt children?" Harry wasn't ready to have children yet, but adoption was probably their best bet for the future. He hoped Snape didn't have any objections to that.

"I'd rather have children of my own." Snape had a weird faraway look in his eyes that did not give Harry a warm feeling.

"Well, at least we don't have to negotiate that."

Snape looked pointedly at him and raised an eyebrow in that way that let him know he wasn't going to like what Snape said next. "You do realize that two wizards can have children together."

As his stomach roiled at the idea, Harry shook his head emphatically. He stood and backed away quickly. His heart pounding wildly. "No. I'm not a girl. You can't force me to do that." He looked towards the open door, his mind screaming escape now!

"Calm down, Potter. No one is asking you do anything you don't want to do." Snape's voice was sharp. "And please remember that we are negotiating a contract that shall never be used. Beyond that, has none of your classmates told you they had two fathers or two mothers?"

Harry shook his head. "Not that I remember. But even then I wouldn't have thought of it that way. I'd think they were gay."

"Exactly so. They would be. It's not a secret that Blaise Zabini has two fathers."

Harry sat down again, breathing deeply and evenly. He felt like an idiot for overreacting. After a moment, he debated making a nasty comment about Zabini, but decided that Snape would not appreciate it and as much as he might get some satisfaction out of doing it, it wasn't worth the points. "I didn't even know that such a thing was possible."

"I'm not sure why you've had such a strong reaction. As I understand it, it's possible in the Muggle world as well."

Even spending his summers with the Dursleys, Harry had been isolated from the rest of the greater world. "I don't have much idea what is possible or not possible in the Muggle world. I didn't know."

"It's still quite rare, but I've read some of the research on the subject. Muggles are not nearly so advanced in their sciences as we are in our magic. It's been possible for many hundreds of years in our society."

"But how?" Harry could barely take in the concept of it. "And why would a man want to?"

Snape looked faintly disgusted. "You're still thinking like a Muggle. A witch and wizard, who want a large family, might also have the wizard carry a few of the children."

The idea of Arthur Weasley pregnant made Harry giggle nervously.

Snape seemed to know exactly what he was thinking. "Six pregnancies so close together would not have done Molly Weasley's health much good at all. Even as strong as she is."

"How does it work?" Harry had a weird sense of curiosity about it, despite horror at the very idea.

"There are several ways to do it. The most common and the safest is to magically attach a birthing pouch to the front of the male's abdomen--"

"Kind of like a kangaroo?" Harry thought that actually made some sense.

"Somewhat similar. I believe the kangaroo is actually born and then crawls into the pouch to finish growing to viability. The wizard's fetus develops completely against the male's body, getting what it needs from magical ingestion tubes rather like a regular fetus. But because it is external rather than internal, the demands of pregnancy are less on the body, at least in the beginning. Generally, a male has to go to bed after the seventh month. Our bodies are not designed for the drain that the growing fetus puts on them later in pregnancy."

"They look like they have a pot belly?" Harry thought about the fat wizards he'd seen around and wondered if they were actually carrying a child. "What are the other ways to do it?"

"Spells and potions can create temporary female organs in a male. Also there are spells and potions to change a man into a hermaphrodite, temporarily. Both are much more dangerous since the body doesn't always change correctly and sometimes can't change back."

Harry shivered and felt a little queasy. "It sounds like you think this is normal."

"It is normal. Not every male will do it, but it is an option for those who wish to have a child and do not wish to also have a wife. Or for those who wish to have a very large family.

"Not me," Harry assured him. He could not imagine doing that, not for any reason.

"Are you against the idea of carrying children or do you object to children in general?" There was something about Snape's tone that made Harry look at him, but his face gave nothing away.

"If I didn't so completely prefer men to women, I would have loved to have had a huge family with lots of kids to raise and love." Damn, that sounded depressingly wistful, Harry thought, bracing himself for Snape to make a scathing comment.

Snape looked like he was considering something and cleared his throat several times before he spoke. "I would be willing to bear the children."

What? Did he just say... Harry's thoughts trailed off in shocked disbelief. He choked back a snort of astonishment. Even if that did not connect with his knowledge or image of Snape at all, he could see Snape was serious. "I thought you hated children."

"I dislike disrespectful, stupid, and unmanageable students. I do not hate children in general and I'm quite sure my own would be wonderful. How could they not be?"

Harry opened his mouth to say something to that and found that he could think of nothing to say that wasn't insulting. And somehow, that didn't fit right now. "Okay."

"You needn't seem so surprised. The idea is not abhorrent to me at all. Indeed --"

"If this were real negotiations, I would say that I would be honored to let you do it." Harry meant that. He wanted children. "How many would you consider having?"

"How many do you want?" Snape had a calculating look in his eyes.

Harry wasn't sure he trusted it. "How about six?"

Snape looked like he might choke. "I think that is excessive."'

"Then two? I don't want to have an only child if we can avoid it."

Snape nodded. "Three?"

"Yes. That would be great." Harry frowned as something else occurred to him. "What about your age?"

"I'm old enough to bear children, Potter."

"No, I mean, that you must be pushing forty." Harry saw his look of confusion and thought perhaps he should drop it. "A Muggle woman doesn't generally have an easy time of it after forty. I heard Petunia going on and on about the length Vernon's secretary went to while trying to get pregnant in her late thirties. I hope it won't be difficult for you."

"I am neither a Muggle nor a woman. As such, I may have as many children as I please." Snape's voice was tart with his obvious amusement.

Harry was relieved that he hadn't insulted him. "I'm having a pretty hard time imagining you barefoot and pregnant."

"Suffice it to say, you know precious little about me." Snape's tone lost some of its previous amusement.

As much as it bothered him to admit it, Harry had to agree with that assessment. That he wanted it to change disconcerted him even more. "You'd think for all the time that I spent barging through your mind, I would know more about you."

Snape shook his head, looking quite exasperated. "That isn't the way to learn anything."

"I reckon you're right." Harry hated thinking about the private images Snape had seen and probably misinterpreted. No doubt, just as he had done. "So, three children then?"

"Acceptable. Perhaps two to three years apart, however not more than five years between them."

"That sounds reasonable." Harry realized what he'd said, and what they'd been talking about. "Did we just agree to have children together?"

Snape looked stunned as if he hadn't actually considered what he'd been doing either. "Yes, I believe that we did."

"I'm... damn, I'm not sure what I am aside from astounded." He wasn't going to marry Snape, but he felt good about what they'd just done. That was wrong on too many levels to even contemplate.

"I will admit that the conversation has been surreal." He glanced up at the clock. "It's time for you to return to your common room."

Harry stood, relieved. He needed some time to think about this. "Yes, sir."

They met every few days to work on the contract. Harry sat at Snape's desk, waiting for him to finish up a potion for Madam Pomfrey. It had surprised Harry how much he'd liked the negotiations so far. Well, liked might not be precisely the right word, he decided, more that they turned out to be interesting in and of themselves. Indeed, he was eager to continue.

Snape came in and sat down. "Not all the negotiations are about serious matters such as children and division of chores."

Harry raised an eyebrow and waited. If he'd learned nothing else about Snape, it was that he liked to say and do things in his own way and time. Which unfortunately for Harry didn't always agree with his way and time.

"We might, for instance, negotiate the type of bed we'll sleep in --"

"Bed?" Harry wasn't sure he liked the context of that at all. His mind didn't want to go there yet. Or maybe not at all.

"You needn't look quite so horrified. I realize you're too mentally impaired to understand everything we talk about, but you might try to remember that these negotiations are not real. That we are doing this as a matter of form. No one is asking you to do anything." Snape met his eyes and smirked.

Anything Harry could say was going come out wrong and he knew it. He gulped and looked away, deciding that this was one of those times when keeping his mouth shut was his best survival option.

Snape seemed to appreciate what he'd figured out and continued, "We will decide on the size of the bed, the bedding color, curtain color, perhaps fabrics if you have a preference beyond cotton?"

"That is the silliest thing I've ever heard. Why would it matter?" Harry blurted out before he could stop himself. So much for survival options.

"So you won't mind sleeping on green wool sheets with silver snakes on them?" Snape's tone was serious enough for Harry to wonder if he didn't sleep on that himself.

"Those would not be my first choice, no." Harry shuddered in mock horror. "First off, wouldn't the wool be really scratchy? We'd never get any sleep."

"Indeed not. I'm not even sure they make wool sheets. I prefer cotton myself."

Harry nodded as if he had an actual opinion on the subject. "What about in a nice burgundy and gold color?"

"Not a chance."

"Thought not. What about neutral colors, like brown or tan or something?"

"Acceptable. I'm partial to greens, as well."

"No surprise there. But it would depend on the green. I actually like dark green. And I don't mind snakes either."

"If you were ten, perhaps. Dark Green is fine."

As Snape started to say something else, Harry's scar flared with pain and he winced. Snape grimaced as well.


"I must go," Snape said, standing and rubbing his arm.

An unlikely flare of worry went through Harry. "Can I --"

"No. But if you would be so kind as to inform the Headmaster, it would save me some time and I would appreciate it."

"All right." Harry stood too.

"Go, now." Snape moved towards his desk.

Harry started for the door and then stopped, looking back at Snape. He was pulling a mask and robe out of the bottom drawer. As he looked at Harry, his expression was carefully closed.

"Be careful."

Looking startled by his words, Snape nodded. "I always am."

Harry hurried off to inform Dumbledore. As he moved through the mostly silent castle, he told himself that he wasn't really worried. Snape had done this many, many times without a problem. He'd be fine. The trouble was that it mattered now. Somehow Snape mattered now. And that didn't bear thinking about.

Peter Pettigrew stood beside Voldemort's high-backed chair, looking smug in his place at the Dark Lord's side. As much as he might like to wipe that look off Pettigrew's face, Snape wasn't stupid and he approached them with caution, his face carefully blank of emotion.

"Did you brew the potion as my master asked?" Pettigrew stepped down from the dais and held out his hand.

Snape said nothing. He hated being called to brew something he knew would be used to hurt or kill people. This one at least, he had also been able to create an antidote for. As soon as he returned to Hogwarts, he'd see that Dumbledore distributed it. Without a word, he handed the bottles over to Pettigrew.

He stood still, waiting for Pettigrew to return them to the Dark Lord.

Merlin, how he hated Pettigrew. The reasons were many. Part of him would like nothing better than to kill the bastard for his crimes, not the least of which were the ones he'd perpetrated against Harry's parents.

That thought brought Snape up short. Since when did he even care about Harry, let alone his parents? In fact, he still hated James Potter. And while Lily wasn't nearly as awful as James had been, he hadn't liked her much either.

"You may approach us, Severus," the Dark Lord said as if he were the King of England.

That tone really grated on Snape's nerves. But he bit back his annoyance and kept his face carefully blank as he sank to his knees and lifted the hem of the Dark Lord's robe to his lips. He was smart enough to keep his eyes down and his mind carefully screened.

There was little in the world he hated as much as he hated this. But he knew he deserved it, knew that debasing himself was hardly atonement for the crimes he'd committed.

"When will you be ready to move on to the next phase of the courtship?" the Dark Lord's hissing voice demanded.

"I do not know, my Lord. It is up to Potter to accept or decline." Snape was horrified that the Courtship had gone on as long as it had. In truth, he would have thought that Potter would have grown bored with it by now. Instead, being the contrary boy that he was, he seemed more and more fascinated by the negotiations. Snape could only hope that he would not fool himself into believing in what they were doing. As much as he might not like Potter, he didn't want to see him hurt and if he believed in what was happening between them, he would be.

"Have you not discussed the matter with him?"

"Of course not, my Lord. It's forbidden for the Suitor to speak of such things with their Intended." And if the Dark Lord actually knew anything about the ritual he would know that already. Snape ground his teeth in frustration.

"Then you must guide him more subtly, Severus. I want this to move more quickly than it has up until now."

Except that it had already been moving quickly for a Courtship. "Yes, my Lord. The brat does not understand the significance of the Ritual."

"You should not refer to your Intended in such a tone." The Dark Lord's tone was angry, as if he were offended. "Potter must accept it."

Snape looked up. The Dark Lord sounded a bit too desperate for Snape's taste. "Do you actually want me to..." Snape couldn't say it.

The Dark Lord looked down at him and sneered. "Of course you will complete the ritual. How better to control and conquer him than to have him bound to one of my faithful servants."

Something in the way he said that sent a flash of fear thought Snape's whole body. "I understand, my Lord. But the Courtship itself does not have any controlling bonds. He would be free to decline to follow me, should he so choose."

"Do not think to contradict me on the courtship. I have been well informed of it. And I know the aspects of it," the Dark Lord snapped, fingering his wand.

But it was clear to Snape that while he might know about it in general, he didn't know the specifics. Snape bowed his head. "Yes, my Lord."

"You will see that he accepts it."

"We are not through the negotiations phase. Indeed, we've only begun it. You told me I had until the spring. It's not yet Yule."

What was the rush, Snape wondered, lifting his head again. There was no one among the inner circle whom he could ask without suspicion falling on him. He would stay a while after the gathering and see if there was any information to be had. Unfortunately, he could not stay long. He had class in the morning and had to see Dumbledore about the antidote.

"I wish to see this concluded more quickly, and Potter in my control. You will see that it happens as I wish it." He sat back in his chair.

Snape put his forehead to the floor. "Yes, my Lord. It shall be as you wish."

"Are you enjoying your negotiations with Potter?" Coming from anyone else, Lucius Malfoy's words, in that perfectly pleasant tone, might have been mistaken for an opening to friendly conversation.

Snape, however, knew Lucius and knew better. He straightened up and glared at him. "You are joking, aren't you?"

"Not at all, my friend. I've heard that Potter spends quite a bit of time in your office these days."

That was a good thing, Snape supposed. He wondered briefly which of his students, beyond Draco of course, reported back to Lucius. "Unfortunately so. The brat does seem enamored of me. I find it most appalling."

"I'm sure you do. And, no doubt, it will be worse to be married to him." Malfoy shuddered.

"I am not looking forward to it." Snape made a point of looking disgusted by the thought. In truth, he could not think of it at all without horror.

"Poor Severus. The sacrifices we must make." Malfoy grinned, like a snake about to strike. "Though bedding him might not be so awful. As long as you gagged him first."

"And made sure the lights were out," Snape said, grimacing. His stomach tightened at the thought of Potter's lean body in his bed, and he promised himself that it was disgust. "Indeed. Be grateful it isn't you."

"Oh, I am. Thankfully, I'm already married."

"I do hope our Lord will arrange that my marriage is short-lived." Snape forced out an evil laugh.

"Of that, I have no doubt." Something in the way he said it made Snape look at him.

Since it had come up, Snape calculated he could ask. "Why is he pushing so hard to move things along? The ritual can't be rushed."

"I suspect our Lord does not care much for the ritual itself, only the results."

"You know as well as I do, were I to push, I would violate the ritual."

"Do you think Potter actually knows the ritual or anything at all about the wizarding world?" Lucius' scorn was evident in every word.

"I believe his mudblood friend has informed him of the particulars." It seemed harder to manufacture the contempt that needed to go with the words.

"Pity. You'll have to play it out."

Snape nodded. "I expect you are right."

"You do care about the ritual, don't you?" Lucius gave him and odd look.

And Snape was not sure how to interpret it. "As much as any wizard performing the rite would."

"Yes, of course." Malfoy's tone was superior.

It made Snape wonder what Malfoy was up to. "I must return to Hogwarts."

"Go then," Malfoy said.

With a slight bow, Snape turned and left the hall, relieved to be out of their dark presence.

The Yule holiday was approaching and to Harry's continued dismay, Ron still was not speaking to him.

He and Hermione went to Hogsmeade to buy presents. Harry was going to stay at school and Hermione had decided to go home to see her parents.

"Well, well, well," Ron said coming out of a store with Neville and Dean as Harry and Hermione were passing by.

"Ron--" Hermione said, her tone carrying a definite warning. "Don't start."

"I just wanted to ask Harry, here, if he'd got a present for his beloved Professor Snape, yet." Ron's tone was filled with innuendo.

Every time Ron spoke to him, he implied there was something unsavory about the Courtship. Harry could have understood sheer anger, but the insinuations confused him. He tried not to let it anger him. "Can't you just let it go?"

"No. I want to know." Ron turned to Neville and Dean. "I'm sure your other mates want to know, too. Don't you?"

Both of them looked uncomfortable, and refused to meet Harry's eyes.

"Ron," Harry said, his temper was starting to stretch thin. Ron knew how much he hated a scene and that had to be the reason he was doing this.

"So, how much did you spend on him?" He looked more than angry and Harry finally recognized what else was in his expression.

By that point, Harry was too furious to care about Ron's reasoning. "Oh," said Harry with mocking brightness. "I must have spent a small fortune. You know those potions books, they can really cost. Nothing but the best for my Professor Snape."

Ron's face went pale. He probably hadn't expected that Harry respond in kind. "I'm sure he'll enjoy it. And you as well."

Sneering to hide his blush, Harry refused to give into his discomfort. "Oh, I'm sure he will too. Especially when I give it to him after dinner on Christmas night."

"I thought my mum..." Ron turned and walked away.

"What did his mum do?" Neville asked quietly, looking after Ron.

Harry almost snapped to him to mind his own business, but managed to pull it back at the last second. It wasn't Neville's fault that Ron was being an arse. "She asked me to come to dinner Christmas night."

"She asked me, too. Said it being our last year and all," Hermione said. "Were you going to go?"

"I'd been thinking it might be a chance for Ron and me to talk, but...." Harry shrugged. There wasn't anything he could do about Ron and he knew it.

"What about Professor Snape?" Neville asked. He seemed to have a strange fascination with his relationship, or supposed relationship, with Snape.

"I need to go back to the bookstore before we go back to school," Hermione announced before Harry could answer the question. "I forgot something."

Neville made a face that said he knew he'd been put off, but walked away with Dean anyway.

"Thanks," Harry said, glad that he didn't have to make up another lie. The whole thing was starting to wear him down. "I guess I'd better go with you."

"Yes. I'd guess you'd better. Especially since you'll need me to pick out that expensive potions text." Hermione smirked at that.

"How much do you think something like that might run?" Harry mentally went over the galleons he had left in his pocket.

"How much do you have in Gringotts?"

Harry choked. "You're joking, right?"

"Only a little." Hermione held open the bookstore door and waved him in.

In the front of the store, there was a display table of children's books, he'd barely glanced at it when he'd been in earlier. Now, one of the brightly colored books caught his attention and he picked it to leaf through it.

"What did you find?" Hermione came to stand beside him, looking down at the book.

He showed it to her. "Maybe I can learn something from it."

"Wizarding Holidays and Rituals? I really think that the adult version would be more helpful." Hermione shook her head and started down the long isle.

"Perhaps you're right," Harry said, putting the book back and following after her.

After putting the potions book -- which did cost a staggering amount of galleons -- away safely in his trunk, Harry headed down stairs. Along the way, it occurred to him that he didn't know where Snape's private quarters were and he wasn't sure how appropriate it would be for him to go there anyway.

Thankfully, Snape was in his office. "Come," Snape called after Harry knocked. "Potter," Snape didn't look all that surprised to see him. "What do you want?"

"Um...." Harry stopped. Despite the fact that they had spent quite a lot of time talking and negotiating their contract, as well as defense lessons, and the detentions that had turned into extra potions lessons, Harry found himself reticent to ask Snape for anything. Snape did the asking, the explaining and, the teaching.

Squaring his shoulders, he told himself he was being silly. "I was wondering what you're doing for Christmas dinner?"

"So, you've got yourself in a bit of a jam, didn't you? Perhaps you should consider asking before you make an announcement." At least, Snape looked and sounded amused, rather than angry or insulted.

"You've heard about it?" Harry felt a flush start.

"Of course, I did. At least three of my students saw fit to inform me that my Intended was fighting with a Weasley in public over me. Would you care to explain?" Snape didn't sound very pleased now.

"Not really. Ron still hasn't accepted it. So there's nothing I can do about it. I'd been thinking of going to the Burrow for Christmas dinner, but now I can't."

"So, settling for second best, are you?"

Harry supposed that Snape was trying to make a joke with that, but it came out flat, and Snape's tone held ever so slight a note of something that Harry couldn't quite identify. Or maybe he didn't want to.

"Not exactly. I mean, we're not --" Harry felt a blush steal over his face. "I mean... Bugger, can't I buy you dinner in Hogsmeade or something?"

"Your language is appalling and it would be most inappropriate for you to buy me dinner. However, you may come here that night. I shall cook." Amazingly, Snape smiled at him and Harry wasn't sure whether to trust it or not.

"You can cook? That's amazing. I never thought of you as the type."

"What type is that, Potter? Use what little brain you have. How do I make my living?" Snape glared at him, but his lips twitched as though he were trying not to smile.

Harry looked down, feeling like an idiot. "Sorry, sir."

"6:00 on Christmas night," Snape huffed.

"Great," Harry said, both relieved and nervous. "I should let you get back to work, shouldn't I?"


Dismissed, Harry left.

At 5:55 on Christmas night, Harry made his way down to Snape's office. As he lifted his hand to knock on the door, Snape pushed it open, wearing a nicer set of robes than Harry had seen him in before. He liked the matte black and shiny silver trim and was glad that he'd dressed nicely, too.

"Come in, Potter." Snape led him through the office to another door, one that he'd not noticed in all the times he'd been in the office.

The door led to a short corridor with a door at the other end. Harry followed him inside without a word. The room was bigger than his dorm room, with a door at the far end and another on the same wall.

Along one wall several tall, well-packed bookcases stood on either side of a wooden desk. A large stone fireplace with a fire burning merrily was across from a sofa and two comfortable-looking armchairs. And, to Harry's surprise, a small Christmas tree sat on the floor beside the fire. Under the tree, a few nicely wrapped presents lay on a decorative rug that looked both old and well cared for. After staring at it for a moment, he realized that the snowy scene was moving. Delighted, Harry smiled at that.

"Don't gawk. It's impolite." Snape's tone was hard, but it sounded like there might be a bit of nervousness in there as well.

It made Harry feel better to consider that Snape might be as nervous as he was. "I'm not sure what I expected, but this is nice." He waved a hand around at the comfortable furniture and the thick carpet.

"I'm so glad you approve." Whatever trepidation Snape might have felt was clearly gone and his tone was as sharp as Harry could ever remember it being.

Harry felt stupid for his nervousness. It was just dinner, he told himself. "I'm sorry. I--"

"Don't compound it, Potter." There was little sympathy in Snape's voice. Not that Harry expected any consideration.

With his frustration starting to mount along with his discomfort, Harry snapped, "Fine. What do you want me to say? That I expected you to live in a dark hovel?"

"At least it would be honest." Snape smirked at him.

"What's for dinner? It smells wonderful." Harry wasn't going to allow Snape to bait him.

"Glazed ham. Put the package under the tree, and sit down." Snape walked away, presumably back into the kitchen.

Harry made himself at home on the sofa, watching the fire dance and drifting in the warmth and comfort of the room.

Dinner was another surprise. First, Harry hadn't expected anything as elaborate as the meal that was served. He also hadn't expected it to taste as utterly delicious as it turned out to be.

Snape had gone to a lot of trouble for him, Harry realized. As much as it pleased him, he couldn't help but wonder why.

With a replete groan, he pushed back from the table, and smiled for all he was worth. "Thank you. That was..." he paused to search for an appropriate adjective and found that," fabulous," was all he could come up with and didn't seem adequate at all.

"You sound as if you've never had a meal prepared for you." Snape had a touch of that sneer in his voice as if he wasn't willing to believe it.

Although he didn't want to break the companionable mood, Harry said, "I haven't. Ever."

"Oh, come now," Snape said, his voice taking on an edge of disbelief. "Surely, there has been some occasion in your life where someone --"

"Actually, not." Harry had always wondered just what any of the teachers knew about his life with the Dursleys. "As you well know, I was usually lucky to get fed at all in my aunt's house. And while I've been to the Burrow for many meals, none of them have been specifically for me."

Snape tilted his head a bit and regarded him closely. It seemed like he was weighing what Harry had said. "I didn't realize they hadn't fed you."

Harry was getting tired of this. "You weren't paying enough attention when.... Sometimes, they didn't feed me at all."

"It wasn't readily apparent that you were hungry. The images I got spoke of isolation, and general mistreatment, but not starvation." Snape was silent for a moment. "For how long?"

"The longest was almost four days. Most of the time, they gave me something to keep me from starving, but it was never enough." Harry tried to swallow back the bitterness he felt before it could burn a hole in his stomach.

"Why did you never tell the Headmaster? He might have been able to do something for you." Snape's jaw tightened and his eyes flashed as they did when Neville had done something particularly messy.

"To what purpose? He knew I didn't want to go back there. Everyone saw me at the beginning of the school year. Do you think I'm always so thin on purpose?" Harry held back his temper. The teachers hadn't seen because they hadn't wanted to see. "It's not like it matters now. I'm not going back there." And there was no power on Earth who could make him.

"You should have said something." Snape looked uncomfortable and was silent for several moments. "There is pudding, if you'd like?"

"Not right this second. I doubt I could eat anything else." The strained silence between them continued until Harry couldn't stand it anymore. "We haven't negotiated cooking yet."

Snape looked up, clearly surprised by his boldness, but thankfully not displeased. "We have not."

"You cook a lot better than I do, so this should be easy." After life with the Dursleys, Harry doubted he'd ever enjoy cooking.

A look of distaste crossed Snape's face. "If I were to do it nightly, I would not be so fond of it as I am."

"I reckon you have a point there. What about a house elf? I'm pretty sure Dobby expects to work for me when I leave school and settle down."

"Be that as it may, right now, neither of us has a house, so a house elf does not seem practical."

"I always planned to have a house, once I left school." It was one of the promises he'd made himself early on and one of the things that kept him going at the Dursleys' the last few years.

"With what funds do you plan to purchase this house?" There was ever so slight a sneer in Snape's voice, as if to remind him of his place in the scheme of things.

It seemed that Harry had a few surprises for Snape. "My parents left me a vault at Gringotts. I'm sure there's enough there to pay for a house." A manor house, Harry added silently. "And there's also the land at Godric's Hollow."

"I had not realized there was that much." Snape looked pretty surprised by that.

"Is that going to be a problem?" There was nothing he could do about it if it were.

"Don't be ridiculous," Snape said, but he didn't seem displeased. "If you acquire a house, then you may have your house-elf. If not, we shall take turns with the cooking. Is that acceptable?"

Harry thought about asking about Snape's finances, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. "Yes. That's fine. What about cleaning?"

"The same, I think." Snape waited until he nodded his agreement. "We can divide the chores when...if we move in together."

If he were going to marry, he expected his spouse to live with him. "I expect that most married people live together. I'm hoping that we will."

Snape was silent for a moment, looking very uncomfortable with the topic. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply as he opened them. "I think this might be postponed until we are more certain of our plans."

"Very diplomatic answer, professor."

"Would you rather I pointed out again that we will likely never need to follow through on any of this?"

"No. I'd rather you didn't." Harry wasn't about to consider the whys of that.

"Do you wish to have your present?"

Harry couldn't help smiling. "I like getting presents."

"I'm assuming that you did get some?" But he didn't sound as if he were so sure anymore.

"I got my first real Christmas presents first year." He smiled remembering the warmth in his chest when there were presents for him on Christmas morning. "Mrs. Weasley gave me a jumper she knitted just for me."

Snape nodded, saying nothing. He waved his wand and the dishes all went into the kitchen.

They both moved into the sitting room.

Snape knelt in front of the tree, and handed him a package. "Here," he said, and there was a vague nervousness in his voice.

The package was heavy, and nicely wrapped in silver foil paper with green snakes on the surface. Harry watched fascinated as the snakes slithered around the paper. Carefully, he unwrapped the present and gasped, "Bloody hell!"

Snape had bought him a dragon hide cloak, lined in some kind of soft fur. He stood and shook it out, gaping. It was splendid.

"Don't be too flattered Potter. It's an appropriate gift for a courting couple." It was clear that Snape was pleased by his reaction.

"This is still the nicest present I've ever received. Thank you." Harry wanted to express how thrilled he was by the magnificence of the gift, but the words caught in his throat and he could not dislodge them.

He put it across his shoulders, wishing he had a mirror to see how it looked, even though he knew it had to look good. "I can keep it, can't I?"

At Snape's confused look, he stammered, "I mean...if...when...."

"You will show it to everyone who asks. But yes. If...when we end this charade, you will keep the gifts I've given you and I shall keep the ones you've given me."

That sounded fair to Harry. "Open my gift." He nodded toward the package he'd placed under the tree. For some reason, and he didn't want to think too much about it, he wanted Snape to like it

Snape ripped into the wrapping with childlike enthusiasm. Enough to make Harry wonder just how many presents he might have got in his life.

"Oh," Snape said softly. He ran his hand over the cover and then opened the book carefully, reverently almost. He spent several minutes flipping through the pages before he looked up and his eyes for once were not clouded. "Thank you."

Relieved, Harry let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. That look was worth every one of the galleons he spent on the book. "I'm glad you like it."

"Very much, so. I will find this extremely useful."

Snape smiled at him.

And Harry forgot how to breathe.

If he were honest, he would have admitted a while ago that he didn't hate Snape anymore. He'd just never considered that he might feel anything else. Not friendship or camaraderie or anything else that he couldn't let himself consider.

Snape wasn't good looking, even when he smiled, but it took years off his age and he seemed... Harry didn't know what he seemed or why he was reacting to it. He had to consider some unlikely possibilities and that was utterly disconcerting.

He coughed to cover up his nervousness. "I think I'd like that pudding, now."

Snape looked at him for a moment, and then nodded. "Do you wish to have tea as well?"

"Yes, please." Anything to get rid of the awkward feeling inside his gut, Harry thought following Snape back to the table.

"I can't believe you gave me a detention and took points from me in class today." Harry sat down across from Snape. Their contract draft, all four feet of it, sat on the desk between them. A dictation quill hovered over it.

Snape gave him an annoyed look. "I've told you more than once that I will not allow discipline in my class to suffer. If I am too soft on anyone, my authority will be compromised."

That was all well and good for him, but, "Ten points and a detention for being five minutes late to class? That's kind of excessive, even for you." While Harry didn't expect favors or special treatment, that kind of blatant unfairness infuriated him. He was disappointed that Snape had treated him that way.

"If I will penalize my Intended for an infraction, then most will think twice about doing it themselves." Snape's expression was merciless.

He was such a bastard sometimes, Harry thought, ready to walk out for a while. But he'd only come back. Better to stay and fight it out. He gave Snape an annoyed glare. "It's not fair to use me like that--"

Looking singularly unimpressed with him, Snape's thin lips curled into a snarl. "I know you are dense, but you should have learned by now that life --"

"Is not fair," Harry finished for him, his anger starting bubble up in his gut. "It wouldn't kill you could treat me decently, though."

"Why should I?" Snape's look was dictatorial and superior, as if he were dealing with a recalcitrant child.

It fed Harry's anger. "You're so damned difficult all the time."

"Yes, that's quite true. You must realize that you're not nearly as special to me as you'd like to believe."

Harry jerked back. He'd known what Snape thought of him, of course, but hearing it said out loud in that vile tone made Harry's stomach tighten as if he'd been kicked. Closing his eyes, he pushed the words away, pretending it didn't matter. "Of course not."

For a long moment, Snape stared at him, and Harry forced himself to look back, hoping that nothing of what he was feeling showed on his face. After another moment, Snape let out a long breath and looked down at his hands.

"Harry, I must maintain discipline in my classroom. It would be foolish and dangerous not to." Snape's tone had softened, sounding nearly conciliatory.

That was as close to an apology as Harry was likely to get. Even that shocked him, and he wondered at Snape's motivations.


Snape sighed again. "There are other reasons for not seeming to favor anyone."

"I'm not asking for favors. Just to be treated decently. To have my friends treated decently."

"I treat everyone unfairly. Accept it."

"Except Sytherins," Harry said, bitterly. "You go easy on them."

"Someone has to. They don't get much of a break with everyone else." Snape had a way of sounding very reasonable, even when he was saying something that wasn't.

What he'd said was not at all reasonable to Harry. "If your Slytherins weren't so arrogant all the time, they might get more sympathy from others."

"Arrogance often hides other insecurities, you might remember that. Most people don't want to seem weak."

Harry supposed he could understand that, though he had to wonder just how much of Snape's own arrogance was hiding something else. It didn't matter. And Snape's explanation had mollified him enough to finally let it go. He'd never change Snape nor the way he acted. Most time, he didn't really want to.

"What's on the negotiating agenda for tonight?" Harry asked. Even if he found it impossible to believe he was actually doing it at all, the negotiations were fascinating. He'd learned more about Snape than he'd ever expected to know. In the knowing, he'd come to understand Snape, at least a bit.

"I don't believe that we've spoken of finances yet."

"Money?" Harry blinked, surprised. It wasn't a topic he'd thought much about.

"In theory at least, we shall have a household to run, domestic details, food, clothing, and children to buy for, all manner of other expenses."

"I reckon we'll need to divide all that up and figure out who pays for what. I know nothing about doing that."

"There are several ways with which we can handle this sort of thing."

Sharing equally was the only thing that came to mind for Harry. "How?"

"If one person posses much more money, then he or she might pay for everything --"

"What if the other person wants to be equal?" Harry didn't like the idea of someone being expected to pay for him. Not when he knew what kind imbalance of power that wielded. Living with the Dursleys had taught him that in vivid detail.

Snape was silent for a moment. "It's not a matter of equality. If one person has the means to pay for expenses, and the other person does not, then it would be foolish to live at the lower standard of living because one person cannot afford the higher one."

That reminded Harry too much of his previous life. "Isn't there some way to make it all even out?"

Snape gave him an exasperated look. "We are speaking hypothetically, however, would you want your children to live in poverty because I could not afford to keep them in luxury?"

"Of course not. But I can afford it. I told you before I have money." He'd actually thought Snape was the one who wanted to pay for everything and thereby keep Harry under his control.

Snape gave him a sly look, his head tilted slightly. "How much money do you possess, exactly?

He felt much better about the conversation now, and had to laugh at Snape's interest in his money. "Enough so that my seven years at Hogwarts did not make an appreciable dent in the contents of the vault my parents left me."

Snape looked like he might choke on that bit of information. He cleared his throat. "I hadn't realized it was so sizable a legacy."

It occurred to Harry then that he had no idea as to Snape's financial status, either. Not only that, but it troubled him that he didn't know. "Do you have money? Does it bother you that I have so much?"

"My family was quite poor. So no, I have nothing but my salary. And I am certainly not bothered by the thought of a spouse with a fortune. Rather the opposite, in fact." A faint red flush moved across Snape's pale cheeks.

Harry was relieved to hear that. "Good. I'd really hate for you to be uncomfortable."

"With a proper budget, we could have easily lived on my salary. Indeed, I expected that I would support you for a time after you finished school."

"You expected to support me? Really?" The idea that Snape would be willing to do that for him, pleased Harry immensely. Indeed, he could hardly believe it.

"I had thought I would do so at least until you finished at University or whatever apprenticeship you chose. I would not see you starve." Snape said it as if it were a forgone conclusion and not something he minded at all.

Harry's mind boggled that Snape did not consider it a burden. He grinned, a warm feeling stealing through his chest. "Thanks. But it won't be necessary. I'm sure I have enough for both of us to live on."

"We should decide how we wish to deal with expenses," Snape said, sounding uncomfortable.

"I don't like the idea of not paying my own way. But I don't mind paying yours." Especially given that Snape had been willing to pay for him.

"Be careful what you offer, I might take you up on it." That tone might have worked better if Harry hadn't got to know him.

"Since you're going to have the children, the least I can do is support you while you're doing it. Especially if you're not going to be able to teach the last couple of months." Saying anything dealing with having children was still disconcerting to Harry. But he wanted his willingness to take on the task said out loud.

"Make no mistake about it; you'll be doing that anyway." Snape's laugh was gleefully evil.

A sudden vision of a bad-tempered, pregnant Snape appeared in his head, and Harry shuddered. The entire thing did not bear thinking about, at least not until he was faced with the reality. "What are the rest of the options?" Harry asked.

For a moment, it looked like Snape might make a nasty comment, but he seemed to think better of it "When two people of equal worth set up a household, they generally pool their resources into a single account and then share in all the costs."

"I like that option."

"Be that as it may, the most sensible solution for our situation would be to set up a household account and both of us contribute to it on a monthly basis. We keep our finance separate except for that account."

"That sounds like less of a commitment than one account for both of us."

"It is not about commitment, you silly boy. It's about practical finances."

"Insulting me is not going to change the fact that it is about being committed," Harry insisted. "I don't like the idea of keeping things separate. If we're going to do this --"

" -- which has not been established as of yet. You're being stupid with your fortune. It's not an insult for me to point it out to you." Again, Snape sounded as if the comment were more obligatory than something he actually believed.

Harry let that go. Snape could be so bloody irritating at times. "Are you opposed to having one account?"

"Not in theory, and not if it were in both of our names."

"What else would it be?" Harry could not imagine having the account in his name alone, but by the look on Snape's face he thought that was a possibility. "We'll have one account and put everything in it."

Snape's expression changed to ominous. "You should think carefully about that."

"I don't want to keep things separate, so if you have no objections, and I'm the one with the fortune, let's do it my way."

"You do realize I would like nothing better than to have access to your fortune for my own nefarious purposes. I could get used to living in luxury." The evil look Snape cast his way was completely negated by the fact that Harry knew he was an honorable wizard.

"As long as you're doing it with me, I'm not going to mind luxury. I'm sure I could force myself to get used to it." Harry didn't bother to mention what a novel concept that would be.

"All right. I'll concede to doing this your way."

"Wait, the world hasn't stopped spinning. I can't believe you said that. You're going to do what I want. I'm glad, though." Harry laughed at the look on Snape's face.

"When I've spent all your money, you may not be so glad."

"You won't. If you do, we'll have to live on your salary."

"Grand," Snape said and shut off the dictation quill.

On the first Hogsmeade weekend of the winter term, Harry finally got a chance to wear his new cloak. It was silly he knew, but he was unreasonably proud of the thing and he couldn't wait to wear it.

As he came down the steps from the boys' dormitory, Harry could feel the eyes of everyone in the common room on him. Ron looked like he was about to explode and Harry's stomach clenched. Maybe his idea of showing off wasn't such a good one.

"Where did you get that?" Ron asked, his voice as scathing as Snape's worst classroom voice ever was.

Harry opened his mouth to answer him and never got the chance.

"Oh, of course," Ron said in a sing-song voice, batting his eyelashes at him. "You got it from your beloved potions master, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did. He gave it to me for Christmas. Isn't it nice?" Burying his hurt, Harry turned completely around on the last step. "It's lined with fur." He flipped over the bottom edge to show him.

"I'm sure it will keep you warm. But not as warm as his arms around you, right Harry?" Ron put his hand on his heart and leered for all he was worth.

"You know very well that we're not allowed to do that," Harry said, primly. He smirked at Ron. "So, you see I don't know how warm his arms are. But I can't wait to find out." Harry forced a laugh and hoped it sounded anticipatory rather than aghast.

"How can you even think of touching that greasy git?" Ron's face had taken on a grayish-green hue.

Until that moment, Harry hadn't actually thought about touching Snape or letting Snape touch him. The idea startled him, but not at all unpleasantly. Despite the implications, he knew he couldn't even begin to consider it now. Now, he had to deal with Ron and meet Hermione at the library so that they could go to Hogsmeade for the afternoon.

"He wants me, Ron." Harry tried to put a conviction that he didn't feel into the words. "You know what? I want him, too."

With his face rivaling his hair for brightness, Ron shook his head. "You could have anyone. How can you choose him?"

"I want him," Harry said again, knowing it wasn't as big a lie as it had been just a few weeks ago. "I was pleased that he chose me." And shocked and insulted, and mortified, and.... Harry cut himself off before he could go too far along that track.

"That is so damned sick and disgusting." Ron turned away, walked out of the common room.

Everyone was staring at him, expressions ranging from outraged to sympathetic. He found it quite odd how accepting so many of his friends were about this.

"Show's over," Harry said, feeling sick to his stomach. Disconcerted and uneasy about it, he left the room as quickly as he could.

Once outside, he saw Ron leaning against the wall. Even knowing it was a bad idea, Harry went over to talk to him.

Ron's eyes were hard with outrage. "I'll never accept it, Harry. I can't. He's too awful. And I can't bear to think of how awfully he must treat you."

If he'd thought it would do any good, Harry might have protested, might have said in all honesty that Snape did not treat him poorly, that he'd been enjoying the time he spent with Snape, especially the negotiations. The truth was that he doubted Ron would believe him and that made him angry as well as sad. "Did you ever think that maybe you didn't know him or his motivations at all?"

Almost as if he could read Harry's mind, Ron snarled again, "I don't care. He'd treated me and everyone in my family like shit for years. I wanted to be an Auror and he was such a bad teacher--"

"No," Harry said, furiously. "You can't blame him for the fact you didn't pass his class. Yes, he's a harsh teacher, and not always fair. But Neville made it into advanced potions with an O on his OWLs, just like I did."

"How can you defend him? I don't understand that." Ron sounded insulted, as if saying Snape wasn't an ogre offended him.

Disappointed in Ron and angry at himself for letting Ron get to him, Harry had had just about enough of this. "You don't have to. If you were really my friend you'd accept my choices."

"I was your friend. But you've chosen him over me." Ron stopped, clearly hearing what he'd just said, and his face went red. "I didn't mean it like that."

Harry didn't believe him. He looked at Ron, wondering what he'd missed and for how long. "I always thought that you and Her--"

"It doesn't matter," Ron cut him off. "I can't accept this and I won't."

"It's your choice, Ron. I will always be your friend." Harry took a deep breath and found his courage. "But Severus is the man I'm going to spend my life with."

Ron looked horrified at that. "He's a greasy, ugly git. How can you even think of letting him touch you like that?"

"You're starting to repeat yourself." As much as he wanted to resolve things with Ron, his gut said it wasn't going to happen. Not now, disappointingly, and perhaps not ever.

Without another word, Ron turned and walked away.

Harry put his head against the wall and sighed. Why did everything in his life have to so damned hard?

"I thought you were going to meet me at the library," Hermione's voice cut through his thoughts.

Startled, Harry looked up. "I'm sorry. Ron and I --"

"Had another row? With a sympathetic smile, Hermione put a hand on his arm and squeezed comfortingly. "I would have thought he'd come around by now."

"Me, too. I don't know why he's being so difficult." Harry hoped to hide the sting of Ron's betrayal, but the look in Hermione's eyes told him he hadn't. He looked out at the lawns, trying hard to ignore the ache.

"Well, it is Professor Snape," she said, but it sounded more resigned than mean-spirited. "Do you still want to go to Hogsmeade?"

"Yes. I need to get out of here for a while." He also needed to think about why the thought of touching Snape didn't bother him. It wasn't as if he were attracted to Snape. With another sigh, Harry followed Hermione out of the courtyard.

After the argument with Ron, Harry was in a foul mood for the rest of the weekend and into Monday. He had potions in the afternoon.

"All of the nuances of this potion are covered in your readings over the last two weeks." Snape pointed his wand at the black board and the ingredients appeared. "You have forty-five minutes to identify the potion, brew it correctly, and bottle it."

From Snape's tone, Harry already knew there was some trick that he'd missed. It did not help his mood. "Hermione?" he whispered, hoping that it might be something she could tell him quickly.

She looked at Snape and shook her head, but she wrote page 453 on her parchment and then waved her wand so it disappeared just as quickly. Harry pulled out his book. Snape hadn't actually said they couldn't use it.

"What do you think you're doing, Mr. Potter?" Snape hadn't use that tone with him in a long while.

It grated on his already strung tight nerves. "I'm looking something up. You didn't say that we couldn't."

"I said you'd have to identify the potion from memory. Which you should be able to do, if you'd done the readings." Snape's expression was hard and there was real anger in his eyes. "Did you read the assignments?"

Feeling sick at the question, Harry knew he was in trouble. He'd skimmed the chapters that morning before class. "Yes, sir."

"Can you identify the potion?" Snape's voice dropped into a silky whisper that anyone who'd ever taken his class knew to be weary of.

With a grimace, he shook his head. "No."

"Then I don't think you're going to be able to brew it." His mouth turned up cruel smile, and Snape snickered. He was joined by several of the Slytherins scattered around the classroom. "Since you can't be bothered to do your assignments, you've got a detention tonight and another tomorrow. Perhaps scrubbing floors will convince you that you are not so special that you can get away with not doing your assignments."

"Yes, sir," Harry said through his gritted teeth, as furious with himself as he was with Snape.

"Were I you, Mr. Potter," Snape continued in the same acerbic tone. "I would have my reading done before you come to class again. Or we shall have a replay of this scene on Friday." Snape sneered at him. "We wouldn't want that, now would we?"

Several students, mostly Sytherins, but not all, laughed.

With his blood pressure rising and his face burning, Harry was shaking with the need to lash out, but stubbornly he refused to say anything.

Unfortunately, Snape didn't know when to leave well enough alone. "Did you not hear me? I expected an answer to that question, Mr. Potter."

"I'm getting damned tired of this," Harry snapped, livid at the humiliation, and at Snape's obvious enjoyment of it.

Beside him, Hermione gasped. "Harry--"

Neville looked appalled and started cutting up his ingredient, studiously ignoring Harry. Even a couple of the Slytherins looked aghast.

"I've spent so much time in detention that I never have time to study." That was unfair and Harry knew it. At that moment, however, he didn't care about that, his anger was looking for a target and he wanted to make Snape as miserable as he was.

"Don't blame me for your own incompetence." Snape looked right at him, as if he could read Harry's thoughts. "Don't blame me for you own stupidity."

Harry's temper was about an inch from snapping. "If I didn't have to--"

"Watch yourself, Potter," Snape said, leaning close to him, menacingly. "You don't want to say something that you will regret."

"I don't fucking care anymore!" Harry screamed at him, his voice cracking. "I'm so tired of this. And you."

"You ungrateful brat," Snape yelled back at him. "You've never taken the opportunities you were given. Twenty points from Gryffindor and a week's detention."

"Fine." Harry gathered up his books and walked out.

As soon as he was outside of the dungeons, he dropped his bag and leaned his head against the wall, taking deep, unsteady breaths, trying to dispel some of his rage. Fuck, what had he done?

"Are you all right, dear?" Professor Hooch's voice startled him out of his stupor.

"What? Oh sorry." Harry took a breath as he turned around to face her, the anger and humiliation of what just happened still simmered through him.

"I asked --"

"Yes, I'm fine," Harry said with a forced smile, leaning back on the wall for support. Dealing with anyone right now was not something Harry thought would be a good idea.

She gave him a hard look, her yellow eyes sharp on him and it almost felt as if she could see through him.

"Did something happen to you? You look upset," Hooch said.

"No. Nothing happened," Harry snapped, his temper getting the better of him for a moment, even as he tried to pull it back.

He wondered if she were looking for more gossip. That would be just his luck, wouldn't it? Everyone, including the teachers, seemed to find the subject of him and Snape utterly fascinating. He supposed that it wasn't fair to paint her with the same brush. In all these months, he'd never heard her say anything. Sinistra and Vector on the other hand were as bad at gossiping as Lavender and Dean.

He sighed.

Hooch looked taken aback by the sharpness of his tone.

Before she could reprimand him, Harry said, "I'm sorry. I've had a bit of a row...."

She raised an eyebrow and waited. He knew she could wait him out. Hooch was tenacious like that.

Still, he liked her well enough to give in. It was going to be all over school in a matter of hours anyway. "Sna...Professor Snape and I argued in class."

"Ah, so a lovers' quarrel, then." She seemed to find that amusing.

Harry felt the heat rise in his face, but forced himself not to look away. He wasn't embarrassed by Snape, only by what happened. "We're not--"

"Of course not. I didn't mean it like that."

Right, Harry thought. Like everyone else didn't mean it like that, either.

"You'd do well to take that expression off your face, young man. I know well the rules of the Courtship." Her voice was tart, but not as annoyed as he might have expected.

"Sorry," Harry said again, looking down and trying for contrite. The very last thing he needed was another teacher angry at him.

"I'm sure whatever happened will work itself out."

Harry was still too angry about it to think straight, so he nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"I think you should get to class."

"Yes ma'am." Harry pushed himself off the wall and headed towards his next class.

By the time Harry had finished his detention that night, he was exhausted. He'd been too livid to speak to Snape before he'd started, but several hours of scrubbing bathroom floors had burned off most of his anger and given him too much time to think. He knew he'd been a total prat. As mortifying as it was, he had to apologize to Snape again.

Disappointingly, Snape's office was dark under the door. He knocked anyway in the small hope that Snape might hear in his quarters. Even though he knew where Snape's private quarters were, it didn't feel quite appropriate to bother him there.

As he was about to walk away, Snape answered, wearing a long black dressing gown. He looked about an inch away from screaming at Harry for the interruption.

"What do you want?" Snape barked, glaring at him.

Harry looked down and didn't have to manufacture the contrite expression. "I came to apologize."

"Come in." Snape's expression didn't change, but he sounded like he might not hex Harry for the attempt. He moved across the room to his desk and sat down.

His heart pounding, Harry stood before the desk, not looking at Snape. "I'm sorry. I was rude in class. If you want me to, I'll apologize in front of everyone on Friday."

"That would be a novelty, wouldn't it?" Snape didn't sound as angry as he had in class or even when he'd opened the door.

"All right." It would be humiliating, but he reckoned he owed Snape for his bad behavior. He turned to go.


"Professor? Was there something else?" He knew he'd got away too easily.

"Why didn't you do the readings?" Snape looked as if he cared about the answer, as if it actually mattered to him.

For a second, Harry thought about lying to cover his guilt, but Snape deserved the truth. "I was in a snit all weekend and didn't think about it until this morning."

"I know that Weasley has not come around as you hoped he would." Snape sounded almost sympathetic. It startled Harry.

"Ron hasn't been this stubborn since fourth year when he didn't believe me about the Goblet of Fire." Harry could hear the hurt in his voice, and by the look of him, so could Snape.

"Weasley is a stubborn child." Snape was silent for a moment, his brow creased. "Why have you not told him the truth?"

Harry sighed. The continued friction between him and Ron was like a long shallow cut. It wouldn't kill him, but it hurt like hell at times. "I can't now. He's jealous. And--"

"What exactly is he jealous of?" Snape asked, raising an eyebrow, looking surprised by the idea.

Harry could feel a blush start to creep across his face. "You. He said that I'd chosen you over him."

Snape made a choking sound. Obviously that wasn't the answer he'd expected. "You haven't corrected him? Why not?"

"How can I without saying this is all fake?" Saying the words out loud startled Harry. He wasn't sure he believed that anymore. It was starting to feel much more real than pretend. Harry wondered why he wasn't more worried about that. He looked at Snape. "It is all pretend, isn't it?"

Snape hesitated a moment too long, but then cleared his throat. "Yes, of course it is." He paused and met Harry's eyes. "You don't think it's real, do you?"

"No," Harry said, but he could tell there wasn't as much conviction in his voice as there should have been. There were other things to consider, too.

"We shall go on as we have been."

Harry shocked himself by nodding readily.

While nothing would make Snape nice, he'd been more tolerable as things had progressed. Actually, now that Harry thought about it, "You've been very understanding. That's not like you."

"As I have said many times already, do not presume to think that you know me, Potter." Snape's tone was unyielding. "You know precious little about anything and even less about me."

Given everything, Harry granted that he might have a point. "I do know you, though. I've been inside your head--"

"You've seen my memories -- some of them -- that does not mean you know me." Snape sounded like he was glad of it.

That didn't settle well with Harry. "You're wrong. Maybe the memories don't mean much by themselves, but we've spent a lot of time together."

"This is not real. Do not find things because you wish them to be there." The words lacked conviction.

"Are you actively lying to me then?" It occurred to Harry, even as he asked it, that Snape rarely, if ever, had lied to him. The thought cheered him immensely. "Otherwise, you've given a lot away."

Snape didn't look like he was happy with that assessment. "While I am not lying per se, I also--"

Harry could see his discomfort, and knew that he was going to try and negate it. "Don't make it worse."

"Don't involve me in this game you wish to play. Do not believe in this or in me. You will be disappointed in both."

That was the trouble with this. The more he got to know Snape the more Harry did believed in him. "Why? I believe I know who and what you are. I've spent the last few months learning it."

"What about the previous six and a half years? Let us not forget that." There was the familiar Snape sneer.

Except that Harry was starting to understand it for what it was and so the impact was lessened considerably. "You spent a lot of that time trying to save my arse."

"Or kicking it," Snape said, sounding like he enjoyed doing it. Except...except that Harry knew better.

Harry laughed. "It's too late, sir. You've blown your cover with me."

For a second, it looked like Snape might deny it, but he shook his head. "Get to bed," Snape ordered.

Holding back another snort, Harry nodded. "Yes, sir."

Two nights later, Harry was on the verge of sleep when a vision hit him. He had not had one since he'd mastered Occlumency the previous year.

He saw Snape kneeling before Voldemort. It wasn't like his visions before, when he actually saw through Voldemort's eyes. Now he was watching the scene separate from either of them.

Seeing Snape on his knees in obeisance to Voldemort made Harry sick to his stomach. They were asking a lot of Snape to continually debase himself like this.

"Severus," Harry heard Voldemort's hissing voice say. "You have displeased me."

There was a flash of fear, and then resignation on Snape's face before it went blank. "My Lord," he said, bowing his head. "How can I make amends?"

Harry shivered at the acquiescent look and the subservient tone.

Voldemort snickered, raising his wand. "You are not to alienate your Intended. Screaming at him in class will make him less likely to love you."

Snape closed his eyes, and seemed to be bracing himself for the worst.

"Crucio," Voldemort said with obvious relish.

Snape started to scream.

With a flash of fury, Harry wondered which of the Slytherins had betrayed him and what he could do about it. Unfortunately, he knew that there would have been nothing to betray had he not acted so poorly in class. For a second, he couldn't breathe.

Snape's screams distracted him. As much as he wanted to shut out the sight, to hide from it and from the fact that his bad temper had caused it, he forced himself to watch.

Voldemort raised his wand and smiled. "You will be kind to your Intended or pay the consequence."

"Yes, my Lord," Snape gasped, but he didn't lift himself off the floor.

Before Harry could wonder why, Voldemort cast Cruciatus again. As Snape started to scream, Harry felt his heart squeeze hard. No matter what he did, Harry could never make this up to Snape. No amount of apologies, or points, or detentions would ever be enough to counter what Voldemort was doing to Snape. And Harry knew it was his fault.

Voldemort stopped and then started several more times, torturing Snape until he had rolled into a ball, his screams had become hoarse and dry. Harry didn't know how Snape could stand it. Of course, he had no choice but to endure it. It was that, or die.

Finally, Voldemort stopped. Snape lay there panting, his face covered with sweat, his body shaking visibly.

"You will reconcile with your Intended, Severus. You will see that you do nothing to displease me so again."

"Yes, my Lord." Snape's usually rich voice was hoarse. "It shall be as you wish."

The vision ended and Harry sat very still, trying to catch his breath and willed his stomach to settle. Closing his eyes, he took several more deep breaths, hoping to regain his equilibrium enough to walk. He needed to alert Dumbledore.

He literally ran to the gargoyle. "Let me in, damn it!" Harry yelled, his eyes stinging and his breath ragged. He couldn't believe this was happening. When he was so frustrated that he was about to kick the stupid statue, the door finally opened, and a sleepy looking Dumbledore stepped out. He ushered Harry up with a wave of his hand.


Dumbledore cut him off shaking his head sternly. "Not until we are in my office. And then you may explain to me why you've awakened me at this hour."

You have to do something!" Harry said as soon as the door closed. "It's Snape--Professor Snape. He was being tortured by Voldemort."

Dumbledore gave him a disbelieving look. "I thought you'd mastered Occlumency."

"I have, but I've had a vision--" Now that he had time to think about it, Harry wondered where it had come from. He didn't think it could have been from Voldemort, but he could not be sure.

"Are you sure it wasn't a vivid dream?" Dumbledore asked, giving him an intense look, as if he could see through him.

Harry hated that. It always made him feel as if he had no privacy, even in his own mind. He reinforced his Occlumency just to be sure. "Yes sir. I am quite sure I can tell the difference. For one thing, I wasn't asleep."

"Ah, definitely not a dream then. All right, tell me everything you remember." Dumbledore sat down and stroked his beard.

Shaking inside, but trying to keep his voice steady, Harry told him about the vision in as much detail as he could remember. Dumbledore was quiet for a long time after he stopped talking.

"Aren't we going to do something to help him?" Harry asked, vibrating with the need to help Snape in some way, rather than sitting about doing nothing.

"I do not believe there is anything we can do. The damage is already done. Severus carries a Portkey that should return him to his quarters and alert me," Dumbledore said, quietly, maybe even a bit sadly.

Before Harry could protest that that wasn't good enough, a beep sounded over Dumbledore's desk.

"That is he is now." After a moment, Dumbledore frowned. He went to the fireplace and called, "Severus?"

There was no answer. Dumbledore looked worried now, which did not make Harry feel any better.

Dumbledore picked up more floo powder and called Madam Pomfrey. "I think Severus is in need of your services."

"I'll be right there," she told him and blinked out.

"I want to see him," Harry said, his nerves strung taut. He needed to know Snape was alive before he could relax.

"It's very late. I think you should return to your dorm and go to bed." Dumbledore's tone was firm, as if he expected Harry to obey him without question.

For a moment, Harry considered flying off the handle and demanding to stay, but he needed Dumbledore to agree. "I couldn't sleep without knowing that Professor Snape was all right."

"Why do you care so much?"

There were a number of answers he could give, but none of them would please Dumbledore and Harry was certain he didn't want to contemplate them himself. Now, wasn't the time. "Because I do."

The answer obviously didn't satisfy Dumbledore. He gave Harry a hard look. "You haven't started to take the Courtship Ritual seriously, have you?"

"Of course not," Harry said too quickly. He knew that the Courtship wasn't supposed to be real, but when he was with Snape and they were working on something, or talking or negotiating...well, it didn't feel anywhere near as forced as it should have been.

One look at Dumbledore and he knew he'd better say something more convincing. "It's just that if I hadn't argued in class, he wouldn't have yelled at me in front of everyone. It's my fault he's been hurt. I just want to make sure he's okay."

Dumbledore seemed to consider it for a moment. "All right, come along."

He followed Dumbledore to Snape's rooms and pretended not to hear when he said the password. Madam Pomfrey was already there. She shooed them to one side as she worked. Harry felt helpless without anything to do.

After what seemed like a very long time, she turned to them and her face was grim. "He's sleeping. He'll need to be moved upstairs for a few days."

"He's that bad?" At least, Dumbledore sounded as if he were actually worried about Snape.

"Is he going to be all right?" Harry asked, wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers.

"I think so, dear. He needs rest and proper care," Madam Pomfrey said, her tone faintly patronizing.

Dumbledore nodded. "I'll move him." He turned to Harry. "Are you satisfied enough to go to bed?"

He wasn't, but knew he couldn't ask for more. Seeing Snape had eased his mind somewhat, just not enough. "Yes, sir."

"Good. You have classes in the morning." Dumbledore's tone said he'd better comply this time.

Without another option, Harry nodded and returned to his dorm. He tossed and turned all night, never finding a comfortable position in his bed.

Late the following evening, Harry went up to the infirmary to see Snape. Even though he'd been assured several times that Snape was okay, Harry wasn't going to believe it until he saw Snape in person. It wasn't that he didn't trust Dumbledore, McGonagall, or Pomfrey, but... It wouldn't be the first time any one of them had stretched the truth to protect him.

When he got to Snape's room, which thankfully was private, he was disappointed to find Snape asleep. Harry sat down in a quiet huff. After a minute or two of watching Snape's chest rise and fall rhythmically, Harry's mind started to drift.

He hadn't realized he'd dozed off until he felt fingers carding through his hair. Without thinking about whose fingers they must be, he leaned into the caress, murmuring softly as he did so.

"Potter, what are you doing here?" Snape asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.

"What?" Harry's eyes opened and his mind woke enough to realize what was going on. He stiffened, mortified, expecting a biting comment from Snape.

Except Snape didn't look as though he was going to say anything awful. Indeed, he had a funny half-smile on his face that Harry had never seen before.

"I snuck up here to see how you were doing, but you were asleep." Harry realized how lame that sounded, and waited for Snape to call him on it.

Snape opened his mouth, probably to do just that, but then he tilted his head as if he couldn't remember what he was going to say. "So let me understand this," said Snape, in an amused voice. "Instead of sneaking back down to your dorm, you decided to take a nap? That wasn't very bright of you, now was it? What if someone saw?"

At least for that, Harry had an answer. "Isn't that the point? I think people would have been more suspicious if I had stayed in the common room tonight instead of coming here."

"I'm glad you came to see me." Snape closed his eyes, and looked like he couldn't believe he'd uttered such a thing.

That made two of them. "You're joking? You didn't just say that, did you?"

Snape shook his head. "I think I may have done. It must be the potion Madam Pomfrey gave me."

"It has to be something. I wouldn't have believed you said that if I hadn't heard it myself." Actually, he knew he'd heard it right, but he still didn't believe it. "How drugged are you?"

"I don't know. This is the first time I've used the potion. It counteracts the effects of Cruciatus."

"How well does it work? How do you feel?" Harry felt awful about him needing the potion in the first place.

"It relaxes the muscles, and I suspect my brain as well. I'm quite sure I'm not thinking as clearly as I should be." Snape had the most perplexed expression on his face and Harry thought it would be really cute on anyone else, but Snape and cute could not go in the same sentence or his mind might explode.

"This could be very interesting," Harry said with a smile.

Snape didn't seem overly concerned about it. "You're too much of a Gryffindor to use it against me."

"Oh, I don't know about that." As much as Harry might have liked to explore the effects a bit more, and certainly to tease Snape about it later, there was something else he needed to say before he lost his nerve completely.

He moved from the chair to the bed, and took Snape's hand. "I'm sorry about what happened. I know it was my fault and you have every right to hate me."

Smiling softly, Snape looked first at Harry's face and then at their joined hands, squeezing comfortingly. "Don't fret. You can't be held accountable for what that madman does to his followers."

"I shouldn't have got so angry in class." His guts twisted as he thought about the pain that he'd caused Snape. If he'd just been able to control his temper, it wouldn't have happened. He stroked his thumb over Snape's palm in what he hoped was a comforting manner.

When Snape started, Harry thought he'd pull away, but Snape didn't. Surprisingly, he continued to let Harry hold his hand.

"Maybe you should have exercised more control, but this wasn't your doing. It was the Dark Lord's."

"Still --" Harry frowned, biting his lip. He hated that Snape was being nice about it when he really should be yelling and protesting.

"Don't pout," Snape ordered, his mouth quirking into that amused half-smile he had. His eyes seemed to be focused on Harry's mouth.

"I don't pout and I'm certainly not doing it now." Harry glared at him.

Snape shifted, sitting up further, and adjusting the pillows behind him.

As Snape continued to look at him, Harry wondered if Snape wanted to kiss him. He dismissed the idea. Snape wouldn't want to do something like that with him.

"Potter...Harry. You've seen that I'm fine. You should return to your dorm." The words were perfunctory. Snape did not sound like he wanted Harry to leave.

Harry didn't want to go either. If felt good to just sit with Snape. "I've had the feeling you wanted to see me all day."

"I did. But I've seen you and you've seen that I'm fine. You should return to your common room." There was no force at all behind Snape's words.

"You don't sound like you want me to leave." Harry wondered if Snape simply didn't want to be alone. When he was in the infirmary, he always wanted company.

Snape was still looking at his mouth and Harry felt the breath leave his lungs. He tried to tell himself that he should leave before Snape tried to kiss him, but he couldn't. As amazing as it was to admit, he wanted Snape to kiss him.

The thought startled Harry and he shook his head to clear the image. It wouldn't go away. Now that he'd thought of it, it was suck in his mind. When had this happened? He poked the idea, needing to make sure it was right. Because…wow, he didn't think it could be.

He looked at Snape's mouth. It was thin, true, but it wasn't ugly. At least when he had some other expression on it aside from a snarl. His bottom lip was a bit fuller, and Harry wondered what it would taste like. He could not believe how much he wanted to find out.

"You know, this is a very bad idea," Snape said, his voice like liquid honey, as he leaned forward just a bit.

Harry nodded. Oh, he knew it would cause all kinds of trouble for both of them. But he couldn't bring himself to care. It had become wholly important that Snape kiss him right now.

"I should not do this." Snape lifted a hand to Harry's cheek, his thumb stroking softly. Harry sighed into the touch.

Leaning forward the last bit, Snape very slowly brushed his lips across Harry's. He pulled back slightly and then leaned in again, kissing Harry more fully, making the caress deeper, wetter, harder.

Bloody hell, Snape could kiss, Harry thought, melting into it, making a soft sound of approval in the back of his throat. Snape's lips were soft and warm as they moved against his, oh so perfectly.

Snape pulled back, looking as though he expected Harry to scream for Madam Pomfrey or do a runner, or reject him in some other way.

But that was the last, the very last, thing on Harry's mind. "Yes, you should keep doing it." Harry was surprised at how breathless he sounded.

He couldn't take his eyes off Snape, couldn't believe what had just happened, couldn't believe how good it tasted, couldn't believe that he wanted it to happen again. This was Snape, a voice inside him yelled, but he already knew that and he knew that if Snape didn't kiss him again soon, he'd die of the wanting.

Harry lifted his hand to his mouth and sighed. Snape smiled at him. Really smiled. In a full out pleased way that Harry would have bet few people, if any, had ever seen. And he looked... well, not good exactly, since nothing could make him that, but something that made Harry's heart beat faster. Something he could not deny. Something he didn't want to deny.

A wave of desire pulsed through Harry. He shivered. Please, he thought. Or maybe he actually said it because Snape leaned forward and kissed him again. His eyes shut slowly. Leaning into Snape's kiss, his lips clung to Snape's and someone made a pitiful whimpering sound. Harry was pretty sure it was him. His hand caught in Snape's hair and held him as they leaned together.

There were many soft, slow kisses after that and Harry was lost in them, reveling in a sweetness he'd never expected to find in Snape. Harry would not have associated sweet with Snape, but there was no other way to describe how good kissing him felt. If he had his way, they'd go on doing it for a very long time.

His tongue had a will of its own and despite telling himself he shouldn't, he slid it into Snape's mouth and then it was Snape who moaned, opening his mouth wider, allowing the exploration.

A noise in the hall pulled them apart, but when Harry glanced towards the end of the room, no one was there. He took several shaky breaths to calm his racing heart, but the truth was, he didn't care who saw them.

"I always thought it was supposed to be like that," Harry said softly. A wonderful languid feeling slowly easing through him.

"What was supposed to be like what?" Snape's eyes slowly opened and he looked content for a change.

"Kissing. I've --"

"Please don't tell me you've never been kissed before." Snape's sweet mood of only a moment before had changed and he sounded perfectly horrified by the very idea.

"I'm seventeen, of course I've been kissed. In fact, I've been kissed a lot. You should know that," Harry said, indignantly. Why Snape would even think such a thing? Was he that bad?

"Perhaps I should have done. What have you done?" Snape didn't look very apologetic. Indeed, he looked amused. And curious, as if he'd wanted to ask the question earlier and probably thought it was inappropriate.

"You mean sex?" Harry was surprised by the question, but snickered to hide his discomfort. "Are we going to negotiate that now?"

A faint blush moved across Snape's face. "I think not."

"Too bad. Who knows what concessions I might win from you in your present state." There was a certain appeal to that.

"You sound nearly Slytherin. Perhaps there is hope for you after all," Snape said, approvingly.

"I almost was."

"I vaguely recall being told something about that, but the details escape me at the moment." Snape blinked at him, looking as if he were trying to remember something. He met Harry's eyes. "Are you a virgin?"

If the previous question had shocked him this one blindsided him. He couldn't hide his surprise and Snape laughed. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to."

"No. It's not that. I'm just... I didn't expect...." Harry's voice trailed off, and he looked down, hoping to hide the blush he knew was on his face. "And no, I'm not a virgin. Either way."

Snape's brow creased and he looked quite puzzled. "I was under the impression there was only one way."

Harry had to laugh at that. He leaned forward to kiss Snape. Not only did Snape not stop him as Harry half feared, but he moaned appreciatively as the kiss deepened.

Reluctantly, Harry pulled back. "I thought there were actually lots of ways... to do it."

"Variations on a theme, perhaps, but you said both ways?"

"You know, being fucked and fucking."

The conversation finally seemed to penetrate Snape's rather muddled mind and he pulled back a bit. "I think this is a highly inappropriate discussion."

Harry grinned. "Yeah, I suppose it is. But since I don't mind and you don't mind, and there's no one else here. How much experience do you have?"

"Enough." Snape's face turned red. "We should not be discussing this."

"Too late. Define enough for me." Because that could mean anything. Harry half-hoped that he wouldn't be any more experienced than Harry was, which was to say not much.

Snape looked away.

Harry wondered if he'd hurt him in some way. "I --"

"I supposed you have a right to know. I've never had a long term relationship. But I've had many short term ones with both men and women."

"I thought most people prefer one or the other."

"I prefer anyone who will have me." Snape's laugh sounded bitter and then he must have realized what he'd said, because he looked appalled.

That was sad beyond words, Harry thought. "I've only had one relationship at all."

"Mr. Smith, last year?"

"I didn't realize teachers paid that much attention to those sorts of things." But Harry was pleased that he had.

"Where you are concerned, Potter...Harry, everyone pays attention." Snape's tone was not ridiculing or mean. He sounded as if he were simply stating a fact.

"I guess they all know we broke up rather badly." Although it wasn't his fault how things had ended with Zach, Harry couldn't help the way his face heated when he thought about the scene they'd acted out on the lawn.

"It was all over the school within an hour of it happening. It was not at all well done of Mr. Smith to date two people at one time."

"Neither one of us were dating him after that."

"Were you terribly heartbroken?" Snape sounded curious and surprisingly, there was no condescension in his tone at all.

"Not really. I was more hurt by the betrayal of our friendship than by losing him as lover. I first went out with him because he kissed so well."

"And that is important to you? Kissing well, I mean?"

"I've always thought that a kiss should feel a certain way. You're the first person to do it perfectly right. It felt real." Again, Harry looked away, embarrassed by saying it, even if it were true.

"It was real. Wasn't it supposed to be real?" Again, Snape seemed to be confused.

"You tell me." Harry looked hard at Snape, wondering if he were telling the truth or if he were confused from the drugs.

As if he knew what Harry was thinking, Snape said, "I'm quite drugged."

"You've said that, more than once in fact." Harry leaned forward, sliding one hand into Snape's hair. "I think we shouldn't worry about that."

Snape smiled and leaned forward until their mouths were only a centimeter apart. "What shall we worry about?"

"We should make sure the kisses are completely real." Harry's heart started to pound with anticipation as they swayed closer.

"Just one more." Snape slid his hand onto Harry cheek and moved in to kiss him tenderly.

"Maybe a couple more," Harry whispered against Snape's mouth.

"I saw you," Ron said as Harry came through the portrait hole an hour later. "With Snape."

"Ron, please. I don't want to fight with you now," Harry begged, not wanting to lose the warm feelings Snape's kisses had given him.

"I don't want to fight, either." Ron's tone was more conciliatory than Harry had heard it in months.

"Then can we do this tomorrow?" The thought of another row with Ron made his stomach twist and he knew he didn't have the emotional fortitude for that tonight.

"All right, if that's what you want. It won't be bad. I promise." Ron smiled a little and was clearly trying to show he was sincere.

"Okay. Tomorrow." Harry tried to smile back, but part of him was thinking he could not believe that Ron was going to just accept things now, as if all the aggravation, and hurt and bitterness hadn't happened. Just like that? But Harry knew Ron and knew that was his way. The question was now: did Harry want to forgive him that easily? It only took a second and his decision was made. He looked up at Ron and smiled back.

Ron gave him a tentative smile that seemed to know just what Harry was thinking. "Are you going to accept the second stage of the Ritual?"

"Is there a reason I would do that now?" Harry asked. As far as he knew the negotiations could continue for quite some time, months before they reached any kind of deadline.

"After you kiss your Intended, it usually means that you're ready to move on to the next phase." Ron didn't try to hide his blush.

"I thought I was Sn...Severus' Intended, not the other way round." Harry forced a laugh, still feeling awkward, not only about Ron and his turn around, but the whole subject.

"After a certain point in the Ritual, it doesn't matter anymore. You must create a bowl to represent home and hearth. You'll join it with Snape's. I can help you, if you'd like."

"Why would you want to? I mean, given how you feel about me and Snape."

"That's what you don't want to talk about." Ron smiled smugly, clearly waiting for Harry to ask. Harry wasn't up to it, even if he could guess that Ron was more okay with things now.

"When would you like to help me?"


Even though it was late, and Harry was tired, he didn't want to let this agreeable Ron go quite yet. "Sure. Let's do it now."

It was very close to dawn when Harry put his bowl next to Snape's on the Courtship table and said the correct words. He intoned the second spell, accepting for both himself and Snape. As he raised his head from his bow, the bowls merged.

A moment later he was surrounded with a warm feeling that permeated his whole body. He closed his eyes, savoring the feel of comfort, and permanence and promise. Harry reveled in it. When it faded, he was ever so slightly aware of Snape in the infirmary. He could also tell that Snape was very pleased by what he'd done.

For one of the few times in his life, Harry felt wholly contented.

The following morning, Harry woke feeling warm and secure. He smiled to himself as he turned over in his bed. The feeling faded somewhat when he realized that Snape was less pleased with him this morning than he had been the previous night. When he found it harder to pinpoint where Snape was, Harry thought that Snape must be blocking him out in some way.

Maybe he should be upset, but he wasn't. Snape had kissed him and it had been as close to a perfect kiss as Harry had ever had. He wanted more.

By lunch, Harry had the feeling that Snape wanted to see him, but before he could slip up to the infirmary, Hermione stopped him on the way out of the Great Hall.

"Let's go for a walk." She sounded very worried, and practically dragged him out of the hall.

"I need to go up to the infirmary." Harry knew that if he talked to Hermione now, he wouldn't get back to see Snape before dinner.

"I think this should come first." Hermione put a hand on his arm. "It's important."

"Okay." Harry led them out, and instead of going to the bridge, he went towards the lake. "What's the problem?"

"You've accepted the Negotiation stage and moved on to the final stage of the courtship." Hermione made it sound like he'd done something dreadful.

"So. It's not like I can't break it."

Hermione's look was pitying. "Don't you understand that it's infinitely harder to break now?"

"It's just an engagement and it's not even complete yet." Harry suspected from the look on her face that she knew more about it now.

"Harry, it's a Wizarding Engagement. You're obviously thinking in Muggle terms. Wizarding Engagements are very hard to break," Hermione said.

"I know all of this." He took a deep breath and forced himself to think clearly. "I've read all the stuff you gave me. I've looked it up on my own as well."

"Clearly not well enough," Hermione snapped.

Feeling suddenly helpless, Harry hung his head. He had no idea what to say to her to get her to understand. "What do you think I should do?"

"Why did you do it in the first place?" Hermione's tone was two steps away from panic and that didn't help Harry at all.

"Ron offered to help me with it. It meant a lot to me that he would offer. It was important to me." From the look on her face, Harry knew that he wasn't saying enough to convince her.

"Ron? I thought-- What made him change his mind?"

Even as he felt a blush heat his face, Harry met her eyes. "He saw Snape kissing me in the infirmary last night."

"Snape kissed you! How could you let him do such a thing?" Hermione sounded horrified.

"For your information, he does it very well," Harry said, an appallingly note of breathlessness in his voice.

"You're starting to like him, aren't you?" Hermione had that Head Girl disapproval of something tone down pat.

For a moment, Harry thought about lying, but this was Hermione and she deserved the truth. "He's so different when I'm alone with him. He... well, nice is probably not the right word, but maybe understanding. I don't know." He couldn't believe he was actually trying to justify his relationship with Snape to her.

"Do you love him?" Hermione's tone could not have been more incredulous. "Do you want to...marry him?"

"I don't think so." God, that didn't sound anywhere near as definite as it should have done.

"You're about this close to it right now." She held her thumb and forefinger up about a centimeter apart. "I'm not sure what you can do to break it."

"I'm sure there is something I can do, if I want to break it." Except that he wasn't sure that he wanted to do anything about it.

She looked at him as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. "I think you should talk to Snape about breaking it off."

"I'll do that after supper. I've got class right now."

"Me, too." Hermione nodded, looking relieved to be off the subject.

At least as much as Harry was.

"Severus," Dumbledore's voice woke Snape from the light doze he'd fallen into.

Snape forced his eyes open, knowing whatever Dumbledore had to say would not be what he wanted to hear. He'd refused the pain potion this morning and his muscles were cramping in protest of the abuse they'd received. "What is it?"

"Harry has accepted the second stage of the Courtship ritual." Dumbledore's voice held none of its usual cheer. Indeed, he looked less than pleased.

"You do realize there was no way I could not have known that, didn't you?" Snape let the annoyance he was feeling permeate each word.

"Yes, I rather thought you'd know. What I don't understand, and wish to, is why he did this at all?"

Snape could have lied, he supposed, could have made up something that was legitimate, enough to satisfy Dumbledore, but that would have denied Potter's importance. And for some reason, he couldn't bring himself to do that. "Potter came to see me last night, and I'd had a full dose of the Cruciatus pain potion."

"You were drugged?" Dumbledore looked scandalized and let out a breath that sounded very resigned. "What happened?"

"I kissed him," Snape said frankly.

"And?" Dumbledore looked expectant as if there should be more sordid details coming.

"Isn't that enough?" Snape asked. It was enough to get him sacked in most cases, though probably not in this one, he admitted with a bit of relief. He wasn't ready to leave yet, and not on those terms.

"Not for me to believe that Harry accepted the second stage of the engagement courtship. There must have been something else."

"Sorry to disappoint you, Headmaster, but all I did was kiss him." Several delightful times. Snape was sure that Dumbledore did not need to know those details. Indeed, he wanted to keep them to himself so that he could savor them when this fell apart. As he knew it would.

"Has he developed feelings for you?"

As far as Snape knew it was the opposite problem that was true. Not that he was going to discuss that with Dumbledore, either. "I have no idea what the brat feels for me. I suspect that he didn't understand what he was doing last night."

"I cannot see him doing that without knowing what he was committing himself to." Dumbledore shook his head. "No. Harry would not be so foolish."

Snape had to snort at that. "Oh, I would believe it of him in an instant. I've seen him do a great many foolhearty things without giving them any thought at all."

"Not binding himself to you." Dumbledore was starting to sound quite annoyed. "Are you sure nothing else happened?"

"Quite sure." Snape smirked a little. Thankfully, Harry hadn't pressed or he might have got much more than he bargained for.

"Perhaps despite everything, he has developed feelings for you." Dumbledore made that sound as if it were the worst thing Harry could have done.

Although Snape knew in his heart that it was true, he was still irritated that Dumbledore found him so wholly unworthy of Harry. "I can try to discourage him."

"I do think it's rather too late for that," Dumbledore said, tartly.

"Then why on earth are we discussing it?" Snape had many other things he'd rather be doing, like trying to go back to sleep, for instance.

"Do you plan to complete the engagement?" Dumbledore's disapproval of that was apparent.

"If I do?" Snape wasn't sure what he was going to do about the Engagement or Harry.

"There is nothing I can do about it, is there?" Dumbledore's tone said quite clearly that if there were something he could do, he would do it. "I do hope you'll consider that you will be tying that child to you forever."

In theory, Snape did not have a problem with that. "Potter has never been allowed to be a child."

"As true as that might be, do you want responsibility for him?"

Snape didn't know what he wanted. Beyond that, all he did know was that his feelings for Harry had changed. He wanted some time to think about it without interference. "Given that the Dark Lord expects me to continue to Court him, I would say that it would be in my best interests to do so."

Dumbledore nodded, looking like he'd just been reminded that there was actually a reason behind all of this. "See that you drag out the final stage as long as possible."

"I'll mention it to Potter."

"I'll also remind you that sexual congress between students and teachers is strictly forbidden," Dumbledore said, primly.

His whole attitude was starting to grate seriously on Snape's nerves. "Except when they are married."

Dumbledore's face went pale. "You not planning --"

"Of course not," Snape snarled. He managed to tamp down his fury only by reminding himself of who this was and what he owed him. "I assure you I have no plans marry him or to sleep with him for that matter." Not yet, anyway. He wanted Harry to be out of school before anything of that nature happened.

After dinner, Harry tried again to get to the infirmary to see Snape, but this time Ron stopped him.

"I want to talk about you and Snape." Ron took his arm and led him out onto the bridge. "I want to apologize."

Harry sighed. He couldn't tell Ron the truth out here. Anyone could be listening. More than that, he had no idea what the truth was anymore. "Was that all you wanted to say?"

"I just never expected it to be like that between the two of you." There was a note of surprise in Ron's tone. "It was so real."

"Real?" It wasn't real, a voice that sounded too much like Snape's said in Harry's mind, and damn, it was amazing how much it bothered him to think it.

"When he was kissing you...." Ron blushed. He took a deep breath and continued, "I could see how much he cared about you."

Harry felt like he'd been hit with something blunt. "How could you see that? From across the room? It was dark in there, too."

"That's just it. I could see. He held you so tenderly, not clutching you or pawing you or trying to push you into the bed. He held you like you were precious and like you meant something to him." There was awe in Ron's tone and a certain amount of envy in his eyes.

It floored Harry. He couldn't believe that Ron would think such a thing. Beyond that, Harry wished that it was true, that Snape actually felt that way about him. "Ron--"

"I can see why you want to be with him. I'd want to be with someone who touched me like that." Ron's expression was so sincere, and then he laughed and it sounded a little forced. "Even if they did look like Snape."

Harry didn't think about how Snape looked, not anymore. "He's not so bad. I guess I've got used to him."

"They say love is blind. I'm thinking it's got to be true in your case." Ron scrunched up his face, and then laughed, sounding good natured rather than mean.

"It's not like I'm in love with him," Harry said, looking away and feeling somehow disloyal for saying it.

Ron's expression went dark and then taken aback. "Then why? Why go through this? I thought you must have fancied him. What with the lessons he's been giving you and all."

"I respect him. I care about him. I need someone in my life who is steady, and dependable, someone who will cover my back." It occurred to Harry that all of it was absolutely true of Snape.

Ron was silent for a moment, clearly considering it. "It's not a reason to marry someone. Especially not --" He cut himself off. "You're almost married to him."

"I know, I am. It's okay. I do know what I'm doing."

"Can you feel him? I've heard that sometimes powerful wizards can feel their Intended after the second spell."

"I can. I think he's blocking it right now." It bothered Harry that Snape was constantly blocking him and he wanted to get up to the infirmary to make sure he was all right with what Harry had done. Not that there was much either of them could do about it, if he weren't.

Harry felt vaguely unsettled by the whole conversation. Something was missing and he knew it. But what? "What brought this on? I mean, it wasn't just seeing us kiss was it?"

For a second, Ron looked puzzled and then he blushed. "I've been thinking about it for a while. Before I saw you together, actually."

"And?" Harry prompted.

"And at Yule, my mum was less than pleased with me. She had a few things to say about the way I should have been acting during the Courtship."

Harry waited because he knew that wasn't all of it.

Ron cleared his throat and ran a hand through his hair. "Fred and George met me in Hogsmeade last weekend and they both had a few choice words to say about what friendship was really about. I've never seen them so angry at me." Ron took a breath. "I know I treated you badly. I hope you'll forgive me."

For a second, Harry's chest felt tight and he took a shaky breath. "You know I will."

"I thought I would lose you to Snape."

"You won't, I promise."

"I'm sorry. I really am." Ron looked down, contritely.

The apology helped. And Harry saw no point in telling Ron how hurt he'd been, so he forced a smile. "I'm glad you're okay with it now."

Ron laughed. "Well, it's still Snape, you know."

"Speaking of him, I need to go see him."

"You'd better get going then. It's almost curfew." Ron waved him off.

Despite his best efforts, it was still after curfew when Harry made it up to the infirmary, and found that Snape wasn't there. Madam Pomfrey caught him staring at Snape's empty room, but instead of reprimanding him for being out after curfew, she smiled and told him that Snape had demanded to go back to his quarters earlier that evening.

Grateful, Harry went back down stairs and then to the dungeons.

He was hesitant about seeing Snape. As much as he had enjoyed their kisses, and wanted more of them, and other things as well, Snape constant blocking him out bothered him. It didn't bode well for Snape's acceptance of what had happened.

When he reached Snape's door, he knocked, wondering if Snape was feeling up to answering or if he should use the password. Snape opened the door, wearing the same black dressing gown Harry had seen before.

Snape stood aside to let him in, waving him to a seat by the fire.

Trying hard not to show how nervous he was, Harry settled onto the sofa as Snape sat in the chair opposite. The silence between them stretched out, and Harry couldn't even look at him.


"You called me Harry last night," Harry said, a collection of butterflies taking up residence in his belly.

"Yes. About that...." Snape cleared his throat and his face had a slight reddish cast to it. "I hope you understand that I was not myself last night."

"So, you're claiming that it was all what... all drug induced? That you had no responsibility for what happened?" That annoyed the hell out of Harry. Who did Snape think he was fooling?

Snape's eyes flashed with irritation. "I'm saying, you insolent child, that I would not have done anything like that had I been in my right mind."

Harry was shocked at how harsh his tone was, but it sounded like he might be trying to convince himself as well as Harry. "Right then, you're saying that you didn't want to kiss me?" Harry smiled at Snape's cross look.

"Do try and pay attention. I would not have done it, had I been thinking clearly."

"Even if you wanted to?" If Harry wasn't reading this right, then he was going to make a huge fool out of himself.

"Even then," Snape said and looked away. Another minute more of silence and Snape asked, "Why did you accept the second stage?"

Even though he knew the question had to come, Harry felt unprepared to deal with the severity of Snape's tone. "Hermione already gave me a long lecture on this. So we don't need to go over it again, okay? It's done and can't be undone."

"That is not an acceptable answer." Snape's tone was clipped and cold.

Harry wanted him and everyone else to just let it go. "You know, I liked you better when you were nice."

"I'm not nice. That was drug induced--"

"Can I get you some more of that potion?" Harry moved to get up.

"Stop this right now." He glared until Harry sat back down.

"I can't believe you were stupid enough to accept something like that without knowing what you were accepting. Even for you, that is appalling."

Infuriated by Snape and his attitude, Harry took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Ron caught me as I was coming into the common room last night and I --"

"Merlin, you're not going to blame this on your disagreement with Weasley, are you?"

"No. But he showed me what to do, how to create the Hearth Bowl." Harry looked at Snape hoping for some understanding.

There was none in Snape's eyes. "Why would Weasley help you at all? The last few months all he's done is disparage you for your choices."

"They weren't my choices," Harry snapped, knowing that was vastly unfair and at this point, untrue as well.

"They are now." Snape sneered at him. "They are mine now as well. You do know what you have done, don't you?"

Harry fought not to get angry. "Yes, I do know. Even if I didn't have a clue, I've already been informed in no uncertain terms."

"Then I ask you again: why?"

Harry didn't have a reasonable answer. Not one he was ready to admit to, not yet. "Ron helped me." It had made Harry feel good to know that Ron had cared enough to help him with the ritual.

"That boy came to his senses and you let him talk you into binding us?"

Snape could be so damned difficult when he wanted to be, Harry thought. It was enough to drive him mad. "Will you listen? He saw us last night and he finally got it--"

"Got what, for Merlin's sake? There is nothing to get. And he saw us? Oh marvelous, the entire school knows I kissed you." Snape looked and sounded horrified.

It certainly told Harry how he felt, didn't it? It really shouldn't have hurt as much as it did. "If you didn't want anyone to know, you shouldn't have done it."

"I wasn't --" Snape stopped and looked at him, his eyes flat and hard. "Never mind. Why did you go along with Weasley?"

"He showed me as a kind of recompense for what a prat he'd been." Harry didn't like Snape's expression at all. "What are we going to do about this?"

Snape looked away and his face was flushed again. It didn't look like anger, either. "In theory, it is breakable."

"But in reality?" Harry asked, carefully. If there were any way to help it, he wasn't going to give away any more of what he was feeling.

"In reality, we are closer to married than not."

"I'm sorry. I--"

"We can take as long as necessary to complete the final phase. Certainly as long as it takes you to finish school. Perhaps in that time we can find a way out for both of us."

Except that Harry knew he didn't want a way out. The problem wasn't him, it was convincing Snape that he didn't want to back out either.

"I leave school in four months." Harry's voice rose a notch. "But Hermione--"

Snape was silent for a moment. "Perhaps I can give you some books for her to read."

"Why would you give the books to her? Why wouldn't you do the research yourself?" Confused, he looked at Snape, but could see nothing on his face.

"Miss Granger is as good a researcher as I've ever met. Besides which, she can get away with it without anyone noticing. Were I to do something like that, I run the risk of being caught, either by one of my Slytherins or by someone on the faculty. The Headmaster has seen fit not to tell anyone on the staff the truth of the matter."

"Just about every Professor spoke to me about it right after it happened, and it was obvious that even Professor McGonagall didn't know."

"To me as well." Snape's tone said his conversations hadn't been any more pleasant than Harry's had been.

"Perhaps we shouldn't risk it at all. I mean if it's going to be dangerous for Hermione...."

"That is entirely your choice." Snape's intense gaze bored into Harry.

His face felt hot and he wanted to tell Snape not to bother with the research, but couldn't get the words out.

"Harry, look at me. Do you want me to help Miss Granger? If it proves possible, do you want to break the engagement?" Snape's eyes were intense. "Or do we go on?"

Harry knew what he wanted, and wished that Snape wanted the same thing. "I think.... What do you want to do?"

"What I want isn't an issue," Snape said without giving anything away in his expression or in his voice. "Answer the question."

Feeling trapped by Snape's intensity, Harry knew he couldn't be the one to admit that things between them had changed. "You answer it first."

Snape folded his arms over his chest and waited.

The silence stretched out again.

He looked at Snape, really looked at him. Did he want to commit to this? There was no denying that Snape was ugly, with greasy, stringy hair, and a hard unpleasant expression on his face most of the time.

That said, in the last few months, Harry had come to know the other side of him. Snape could also be funny, and intriguing, and if not nice, then decent. And he was smart. And he'd spent a great deal of his time trying to teach Harry how to survive. It probably wasn't enough to base a relationship on, but he knew so little about relationships that he wasn't sure. Whatever it was, he was sure that it was a beginning.

It finally occurred to Harry that Snape was even less likely to open himself up than Harry was. Snape also had a lot more to lose, like his job, or even his life.

With a deep breath, Harry found his courage. "Do you think you could want me? I mean for real."

Snape's expression went from blank to incredulous to shocked, in the space of a few seconds. He closed his eyes and ever so slowly, shook his head.

While Harry hadn't actually expected that Snape would say yes categorically, he'd hoped for a chance. To be so summarily rejected staggered him, like an unexpected slap to the face. He wasn't prepared for it.

Without another word, Harry turned and headed for the door, his eyes stinging, and his breath catching in his chest.

Before he made it, Snape caught him from behind and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pressing his front against Harry's back.

"Stop. Harry, stop. Wait," Snape said, sounding strained and surprisingly apologetic.

"Let me go." Harry was appalled that his voice cracked and he tried hard to pull out of Snape's hold, but Snape held him fast.

"No. I didn't mean it like that." Snape's voice was soft in his ear, his breath warm against Harry's skin.

Harry tried not to shiver. "How many different ways are there to say no?"

"I didn't mean --"

With a savage twist of his body, Harry broke Snape's hold and turned on him. "Yes. You did. And that's fine. I'm going now."

"Harry --"

Humiliated, Harry pushed the door open and walked out.

As he hurried down the long corridor out of the dungeons, he half-hoped that Snape would come after him. He didn't.

Going back to the dorm was out of the question. Harry needed to think. Unfortunately, without his invisibility cloak, he ran the risk of being caught. Deciding to chance it anyway, he climbed the steps of the astronomy tower. Given the late hour, and that it was during the week, Harry hoped he could find a moment to himself.

It was cold and clear when he pushed open the door. Shivering hard, he eased himself down against the wall and drew his knees up.

Despite the ache in his chest, Harry knew he was better off finding out how Snape felt before he was too involved...except that he was involved. Fuck, he was such a moron to forget who and what Snape was. He'd buggered things up this time, for both of them. What the hell was he going to do now?

For a while, he sat in the cold, trying to think. It kept coming back to the fact he'd completely misinterpreted everything between them. He kicked himself mentally. What had he been thinking?

It didn't take long before his teeth were chattering and he was too cold to think. Stiffly he got to his feet. He had to go in.

The door opened and Snape came out. He took one look at Harry and removed his cloak, putting it around Harry's shoulders.

The warmth was lovely and he clutched it tighter around his trembling body. It smelled like Snape. "Thanks," Harry said, trying to smile, but his lips were too numb.

"I don't suppose I need to tell you how foolish you are to be out here like that?" Snape's tone was merciless, and there was no humor at all in his eyes.

Harry shook his head. He was an idiot. There was no arguing with that.

"Just what do you think you're going to accomplish with this display?" Snape folded his arms over his chest and glared at him.

Harry sighed. He'd had enough humiliation for one day; actually for several. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Too bad. That is exactly what we are going to do." Surprisingly, Snape's expression softened. "You can't simply spring something like that on me without warning. I dislike surprises."

"Is that why you came out here? To tell me that? Because really, I could have guessed it all by myself." And he should have done.

"Potter...Harry. I do not wish to undergo any more of the Dark Lord's bad temper. I need to be assured that you will behave in an appropriate manner."

The last bit of hope died in Harry. He couldn't meet Snape's eyes because he knew that what he was feeling was going to show. "I won't do anything to get you in any more trouble. Can I go now?"

The pause that followed was long enough for Harry to actually look up at Snape.

"Until I am free of the Dark Lord, one way or another, I can make no promises, and have no plans. Indeed, I can have no life." There was a note of pleading in his tone, as if Snape were trying to force him to understand.

Some of the tightness in Harry's chest eased and he nodded. "So what? Do we go on as we have been? You'll continue to court me, and I'll continue to seem like I'm interested."

"I think that would be acceptable." Snape stepped closer.

At the speculative look in Snape's eyes, Harry's heart beat picked up and he pushed off the wall. "Would you consider..."

Snape put a finger to Harry's lips. "Not now."

Harry licked his finger.

"Cheeky brat."

"The future?"

"Will take care of itself. However, we are now in the final stage of the Courtship, and we will need to be seen together more. Would you care to study in my office for a few hours a night?"

"Let me see, studying in a quiet office where no one is going to bother me or the crowded, noisy common room? Difficult question, that. I'll have to think about it."

"You do that, Potter. Tomorrow at 8:00? After the defense lesson?" Snape smiled at him.

While Harry still didn't think Snape was that good looking in general, he did like that smile, especially when it was directed at him. "Great," Harry said feeling much better.

Snape put his finger under Harry's chin and lifted it. Bending slightly, he bushed his lips across Harry's, and was leaning in to do it again when there was a noise on the stairs.

Startled, Harry jumped back. Snape took hold of Harry's shoulder tightly, fingers digging into the muscles for purchase. As Harry opened his mouth to protest, the door opened and Sinistra and three of her seventh years stepped out.

Without missing a beat, Snape said, "Potter, how many times have I caught you up here?"

Harry pulled away, and tried to conjure a sullen look. He couldn't believe this was going to fool anyone. "If you'd just let me--"

"Silence. Ten points from Gryffindor. Now, I'll escort you back to your dorm." Snape nodded to Sinistra as he took hold of Harry's shoulder again and pushed him towards the stairs.

As Harry went through the doorway, he caught a sympathetic glance from the three students, but Sinistra looked too knowing for Harry's taste.

Harry was back in the common room before he realized he still had Snape's cloak.

"Severus, I'm glad to see you are feeling better." Dumbledore held the door to his office open and ushered Snape inside.

Snape said nothing as he seated himself in one of the chairs in front of Dumbledore's desk. Unfortunately, his encounter with Potter was all over the school this morning.

It had played hell with the discipline of his younger students. Well, to start with, Snape thought with a smirk. None of those idiotic children made the mistake of sassing him twice. It pleased him how easily they were terrorized back into submission. But the damage was done. And he had Potter's class later on.

He focused back on Dumbledore. "You wanted to see me, Headmaster?"

"I'm sure you have heard the rumors." Dumbledore was not going to give him any quarter on this one.

Not that he needed it. Snape forced out a bark of laughter. "Surely you don't think I was molesting Potter in the Astronomy tower last night?"

"Were you?"

"Don't be ridiculous. If I were going to be indiscrete with a student, I wouldn't do it where I could be caught so easily." He'd have taken Harry to his room and a nice comfortable, not to mention warm, bed. That idea stuck him as far too appealing and he dismissed it.

Dumbledore relaxed, clearly reassured. "Of course not. I do want to know why you were both there, however."

The pause was nearly nonexistent, Snape was pleased to note. "We had a bit of a misunderstanding and H...Potter needed time to cool off."

"So, you gave it to him and then?"

Why did it always seem that Dumbledore knew when he was hedging, Snape wondered with no small amount of irritation. "I found him and sent him to bed."

Dumbledore stroked a hand down his beard and nodded. "He is becoming too attached to you."

"We are in the final stage of the Courtship, we are quite literally attached to each other."

"It can still be broken."

Snape's heart started to pound at the suggestion, and he took a silent breath, willing himself not to let the emotion show. "It can, of course. However, we both know it will not be easy to accomplish."

"Do you wish to continue?" Dumbledore sounded as if he really wanted the Courtship broken off now.

"As I have said, I have no choice but to continue." And the truth was that even knowing he was going to have to end it, he wasn't ready to do so yet.

"Do try and discourage Harry from becoming more involved with you. I would prefer not to see him hurt when this ends."

"I know what he needs. I'll see that it's done."

"See that you do." Looking deep in thought, Dumbledore waved a hand dismissively.

Snape was pleased to make his escape.

Snape shook his head and flipped his sweaty hair back, out of his eyes. It was an effort, but he managed to hold his shield against Harry's best effort. It was getting harder and harder to do so. Once Harry had learned some concentration, he'd become a formidable opponent. Snape was proud of the progress he'd made in so short a time. Not that he'd ever tell the boy that.

"Stop now." Snape dropped his shield just as Harry managed to send off one more hex. As exhausted as he was, Snape didn't turn away fast enough and he grunted as it seared into his arm.

"Damn, I'm sorry," Harry said, coming forward and touching his wand to Snape's shoulder, muttering a charm.

The sting of the burn disappeared, and Snape examined the wound. It was healed. "Where did you learn to do that?" he asked.

Harry smirked at him. "Necessity being the mother of invention, I looked it up and practiced on myself."

"Ah," Snape said, not showing that he was impressed with Harry's initiative.

"Shall we continue?"

Without transmitting any kind of warning, Snape sent several painful hexes Harry's way. Just as quickly, Harry raised his shield and they bounded off, harmlessly.

"Adequate." Snape could feel his lips twitch and he wanted to smile at Harry. But he didn't give in to the temptation. It was too dangerous, for both of them.

"It wouldn't kill you to say well done." Harry sounded more amused than annoyed.

Snape looked right into his eyes, conjuring his best disdaining glare. "What would it serve to tell you that? You should be aware of your own strengths and weakness without someone else pointing it out to you."

"It would be nice to hear."

"I'm sure you think so. Useless flattery. And don't pout." Snape sneered at him.

Harry's expression didn't change. "I'm not pouting."

"It's completely unbecoming of you to try and manipulate me this way. It will not work," Snape prevaricated. It irritated the hell out of him that he found that pout nearly irresistible. But he did resist it. "Stop it."

Harry laughed and then backed up to the wall, sliding down slowly. "I am so tired." He sat with his legs splayed in front of him. With his sweaty hair plastered to his head, and his drooping shoulders he looked like a sweat-soaked rag doll.

"It takes a tremendous amount of strength to hold a shield for any length of time and only the strongest wizards or witches can do so." Snape sat down beside him, also leaning heavily on the wall.

"Explains why this is so tough to master."

Snape nodded, looking at him and wishing he didn't find him so endearing.

"Do we have anything left to negotiate?" Harry's question broke the companionable silence between them.

Snape found it startling that they were still both treating the situation as if it were real. After the second acceptance, he had to admit that it was more real than not. "In any relationship, there will always be negotiations. We shall not be different." He looked at Harry and saw a blush come across his face. "Was there something that you were thinking about?"

"Well...." Harry looked down and blushed harder. "You mentioned sex."

Snape couldn't help but laugh at that. "You are no doubt hoping you shall be promised sex every night for the rest of your life?"

"I wouldn't say no to that." Harry, unsurprisingly, grinned cheekily at him. "Not what you meant, right?"

"I was speaking more in terms of fidelity."

Harry's brow creased. "I hadn't actually thought about that."

"You needn't worry about it. I will not expect it." Snape hoped he'd sounded insouciant and off-handed, rather than as forced and unwilling as he felt.

"Why not?" asked Harry, his expression disapproving.

Snape would have liked to have said something scathing, but he knew what he looked like. "You're very young, now. I will not tie you more than you are already tied."

"That's all well and good, but what if I want to be tied?"

"I think you're too young to be making promises that you have no idea if you'll be able to keep."

Harry had that belligerent look on his face that said he was going to dig his heels in. "I thought wizards married young."

Sighing inwardly, Snape was annoyed that Harry couldn't see this was for his own damned good. "I think they regret doing so for a long time afterward. Merlin knows, my parents did."

"I remember seeing those images. Did they fight?"

Snape could not believe that he was having this conversation with Harry of all people. He'd never really told anyone. "My father beat my mother. Until she finally ran away and then he drank himself to death."

"Is your mother still alive?" Harry asked, his voice soft with compassion.

Snape shook his head. "Sadly, no. She died a year or two later. Her family took her in, but her health was so poor there was nothing they could do."

"Damn, that's awful. I'm sorry."

Snape did not wish to speak of it. "From all accounts, you did not have an easier time in your own childhood."

"So, I do know how bad that can be." Harry was silent for another moment, and Snape wondered what he was thinking to put a frown so fierce on his face like that.

"I don't like the idea of you sleeping with someone else. Especially if you belong to me."

The possessiveness was a shock. Snape's heart jolted with pleasure before he could tamp it back down. "I do not believe you will have to worry about that."

Harry looked closely at him. "Why not? You're as likely to meet someone as I am. You're as likely to want to sleep with them."

Trust Harry to make it to make it so much more difficult than it had to be. Merlin, he hated having to say it out. "Given where I work most of the year, it's unlikely I'll meet anyone."

"You're evading me." Harry put his hand on Snape's wrist. "If you're mine, then you are and I don't want to share. I've had to share enough in my life."

"I sincerely doubt it will come up." Reluctantly, Snape pulled his hand out of Harry's warm grasp.

He had expected a bit of resistance to the no fidelity clause, but he'd believed that Harry would give in quickly. It was, after all, in his best interests. "There are few who find me attractive enough to offer for me."

Harry frowned. "It would still be an option if someone did."

"Not a likely one." Snape was starting to get annoyed by his doggedness. What did Harry want him to say?

"Don't you care that I would be with someone else?"

Snape minded greatly that Harry might be unfaithful to him. The very thought put an ache in his chest. "As long as you came home to me, I would not mind."

Harry either heard the prevarication or saw it on his face because he scowled fiercely. "I don't believe you. And I don't want you to be unfaithful to me. I'm willing not to be in return."

"Foolish Gryffindor. You're too young to make that decision for the rest of your life."

"Fine." Harry glared at him, his face closed and angry. "I'll make it for now and we can discuss it every year until you learn that I'm not going to change my mind. Is that good enough?"

It wasn't, but Snape had already learned to pick his battles with Harry. He couldn't win this one, at least not now. So, he'd bide his time. At some point, Snape knew that Harry would change his mind. He sighed inwardly. It was just that it would hurt so much more then, after having had Harry to himself, than it would going into it knowing he'd have to give him up eventually. "We shall discuss this later."

Harry looked like he was gearing up to argue, and Snape didn't have the strength to do it now. "Let it go, Harry."

"All right, but I --"

"Let it go." Snape stood up and held out his hand. "It's late, and you need to get back to your common room."

Harry took his hand and stood up, right next to him. Too close. Snape could feel the heat of his body and smell his sweat. He wanted to reach out and gather Harry into his arms, to hold him fast. But he didn't have the right.

Harry raised his hand and pushed the hair gently out of Snape's face. "If you're mine, then you should belong to me absolutely."

Closing his eyes in defeat, Snape couldn't resist. He leaned in and kissed Harry very lightly on the mouth. Under his, Harry's mouth opened and he moaned softly.

As much as he knew that he shouldn't, Snape slid his arms around Harry's waist and drew in closer, allowing the kiss to pick up intensity. Harry's tongue slid into his mouth and Snape was powerless to resist the lushness.

He moaned, pulling Harry closer still, breathing in the scent of warm, sweaty boy, and savoring it. Merlin, how he wished he could strip Harry bare and lay him down on the floor and .... Snape forced himself to let the image go before he could get lost in it.

With a heartfelt sigh, and not a small amount of reluctance, Snape stepped back. "No more."

Harry didn't look pleased, but clearly he too, knew when it was time to give in. "All right. For now."

"I'll give you a pass back to your common room." Snape pulled his wand out of his pocket and touched the air; a filled out pass appeared. He handed that to Harry.

"Thanks." Harry smiled. "It's been much easier now that you do."

"Lazy boy," Snape said, making sure it had just a bit of affection in it. "I've always considered your getting back to your common room undetected as part of your training in stealth."

"I thought you didn't like it when I broke the rules."

"Go away," Snape snapped at him, but his lips twitched ever so slightly.

With a laugh, Harry slipped out of the room.

A few nights later, Snape looked up when the leather sofa creaked. The t-shirt Harry was wearing had ridden up enough to leave a strip of bare skin showing along his back. Under normal circumstances, Harry would not be without his robe, but they'd dueled earlier and Snape had singed it badly enough that it could no longer be worn. It left Harry in a t-shirt and too large trousers. It left Snape wanting to run his tongue along that line of visible flesh.

Shaking his head, Snape tried to be appalled at where his thoughts were going, but couldn't pull it off.

In the privacy of his own thoughts, he allowed himself to consider the possibilities. On the one hand, Harry was young and good looking, and had many choices that should not include an ugly, half-broken, barely socialized, ex-Death Eater.

On the other hand, Snape was a powerful wizard, and had spent a good deal of the last seven years trying to teach and protect the reckless boy. He also had more common sense and practicality than Harry could ever hope to have. While he might not be good looking, looks faded with time and a relationship based on that would be doomed to failure.

All things considered, they were actually well suited temperamentally. It wasn't a bad match he conceded, and went back over his logic because clearly it was flawed.

Dumbledore would do his nut were he to realize what direction Snape's thoughts had turned.

Harry shifted again, into another contorted position that only the young and limber could achieve. His shirt rode up farther.

His throat suddenly dry, Snape swallowed hard.

Harry looked up and smiled. "I can almost hear you thinking."

"What am I thinking then?" Snape tried not to return Harry's smile, and failed. Harry's eyes lit as he did so and he felt the impact in his gut.

Harry's brow creased, and he seemed to concentrate for a moment. "Something that feels good to me."

Startled, Snape mentally pulled back, shoring up his mind against invasion. "Can you read my thoughts?"

"Not at all. I have a vague notion of what you're feeling. That you're okay or pleased or...." He trailed off and looked away.

The very idea that Harry would feel his emotions, however remotely, horrified him. "Don't push," he said.

"All right. I'm sorry. Can you feel me?"

Without reaching at all, he could feel Harry right on the edge of his consciousness, and that was quite disconcerting. "Vaguely. I can tell you are well, but I don't know exactly what emotions you're feeling, not specifically."

"It feels like you're blocking me in some way."

This was only the second stage. Snape was amazed that he could tell so much at this point. "I practice Occlumency at all times."

Harry grimaced. "Can Voldemort read you at a distance? Were you blocking him when you were drugged?"

Snape had already considered that. It troubled him that he wasn't sure. "I hope it's so much an automatic response that I continued to do it, even drugged."

"You're not sure, are you?" The tension in Harry's body was nearly palpable.

"No. I haven't been called since that night." Not that he was sure that anyone else had been either. "He is planning something in the next few weeks and I haven't been informed of what it was to be."

"Do you think he knows?" Now, Harry looked worried. "About you being a spy, I mean."

"I don't know. I assume that if he thought I was a traitor to him, he would call me and torture me to death." Despite the forced casualness of his tone, Snape's stomach roiled at the thought. "And all things being equal, I'd just as soon skip that part."

"I'd rather you took a miss on that as well." Harry shivered, and looked a bit sick. "Perhaps he's just too busy right now, what with planning to kill me and all. Maybe when he's done with me, he'll start on you."

"Thank you for those words of comfort, Potter." Snape sneered at him, trying to work up a bit of righteous annoyance. "I feel ever so much better."

Harry's eyes sparkled at Snape's acerbic tone.

"Do you think he knows? I mean, we've gone to a lot of trouble to go through the whole Courtship Ritual," Harry said, the mirth fading quickly from his face.

"I have considered that the Courtship might have been a test, but not of my obedience." He'd promised to tell Harry what he knew. "Perhaps our compliance showed that we were allied."

"Bloody hell," Harry breathed out sharply. "I never even thought of that."

"Nor did I, not immediately. By the time it occurred to me, we were too far into the Courtship to do anything about it." There was nothing that could be done now, anyway.

"I wonder if the Headmaster thought of that." Harry ran an hand through his messy hair and looked in the general direction of Dumbledore's office. "If he did, then why did he let us do this?"

That was a very good question and one Snape had contemplated quite a bit in the last few months. "I suspect that the Headmaster thought the Courtship would not progress as far as it has."

"But it's acceptable. Everyone, aside from Ron, has been good about it. And even Ron didn't have a problem with the Courtship as much as...." Harry paused and shrugged.

"You were expecting to be ostracized and you went along with it anyway?" Snape could not believe Harry would go to such trouble. He reminded himself that this was Harry and he was never sure what motivated him. "You really do have more courage than brains."

"Thanks," Harry said, his face lighting up, obviously thinking that was a compliment.

Disgusted, Shape shook his head. "I find it exceedingly hard to believe that you agreed in the first place."

"I can't believe it either, but you know, it turned out to be worth the bother."

"Do not assume anything," Snape said, standing, unable to defy the urge to be just a bit closer. Taking a seat on the sofa next to Harry, Snape slid an arm around his shoulder. Harry leaned into him. For a few minutes, Snape sat still, simply holding Harry, luxuriating in the feel of him by his side.

With his hands trembling, Snape touched his face, running a finger along his cheek and down his neck. Harry shuddered under his touch and raised his face expectantly.

Knowing he should resist and not able to do so, he leaned forward, brushing his lips across Harry's. Then closing his eyes, he pressed in for a longer taste.

"Is this allowed? Or part of the ritual?" Harry asked breathlessly when he pulled back.

"Neither. However, you are never one to follow the rules." Snape ran a hand through the strands of his hair, making the unruly locks even more so.

"Is this where I point out that you came over to sit next to me?" Harry snickered, but leaned in for another kiss.

Snape obliged him, kissing Harry deeply. "Not if you want me to stay here."

"My fault completely," Harry said, laughing. "I take total responsibility." He put his hand on Snape's jaw, moving him into alignment with his lips. "And since it is..."

Snape knew there was no refusing, no fighting, nothing but surrender was possible. He opened his mouth to Harry's tongue, moaning softly. Harry's hand found its way into his hair, holding him firmly.

He slid his hand under Harry's shirt at the back, his fingers splayed, stroking along the silken flesh. Moaning, Harry pushed back into his hand. His responsiveness thrilled Snape, made him want to touch more, evoke more response.

The kisses went on for a long time. Somehow, and Snape wasn't exactly sure when it had happened, he ended up stretched out on the sofa with Harry on top of him. Snape was painfully aroused, and Harry was actively pressing himself against Snape's thigh.

As much as it pained him to do it, they had to stop. Harry seemed to realize it, too, and he lifted his mouth from Snape's, peering down at him myopically. Where were Harry's glasses, Snape wondered.

"Do we have to?" Harry's tone had a most satisfying whiny reluctance in it.

"Yes, we must." Snape pushed up against Harry half-heartedly. He didn't want to move. He didn't want Harry to leave.

"If we've come this far, can't we finish it?" Harry moved his head back down to lick Snape's neck. "Are you sure?"

"Very. If we do, the Courtship will be finalized."

"What? You mean we'll be married?" Harry said, his voice a notch or two higher than usual.

Snape nodded.

"Oh. I'm not quite ready for that yet. Maybe we can just snog a bit more?"

"No. I do not think that would be a good idea at all." Snape wanted Harry so badly he hurt from it and what was worse, it wasn't completely physical. "I should never have allowed this to go on this long."

"It's not like you were alone here. I was helping out, as well." Harry leaned down and took another kiss.

Reluctantly, Snape pushed up against Harry. "I think it's time for you to return to your common room."

Harry moved off him, with gratifying reluctance, his hand trailing along Snape's side. "I reckon you're right."

He straightened his clothes and reached for his glasses which had migrated over to the table beside the sofa.

Snape walked him to the door, and leaned down to kiss him again.

When the kiss ended, Harry grinned cheekily at him. "At some point...."

His body still vibrated with arousal and his mind screamed not to let Harry go. Snape stroked one finger down Harry's cheek. "At some point, but not tonight."

"Not tonight," Harry agreed, looking reluctant to leave, after another moment and a long look, he stepped back. He closed the door gently behind him as he went out.

Snape sighed and headed for a shower.

Just past midnight a few nights later, Harry sat up in his bed, crying out as his scar started to burn unbearably. His heart pounded hard against his ribcage and his stomach roiled. It wasn't a vision this time. No, this time it was the absolute and certain knowledge that Snape was in pain.

"What?" Ron mumbled across from him, also sitting up.

"Snape's in trouble. I have to find him." Terror riding low in his guts, Harry pulled his clothes on.

"You're not going to go after him," Ron said, stepping into his trousers. "I mean, not without me."

"Yeah," Neville said, climbing out of bed, and looked around, presumably for something to wear.

Harry didn't have time to argue. "Neville, go to the Headmaster and tell him that I said that Snape was in trouble."

"Where is he?" Seamus asked, also out of bed and stumbling into his clothes. "Do you know?"

Concentrating, he would feel Snape's fear, and his pain. "I think he's still in his quarters."

"How did You-Know-Who get in there?" Ron asked, buttoning his shirt rapidly. "I mean through the wards?"

"What makes you think it's him?" Neville's expression betrayed his fear.

"Who else would it be?" Dean asked.

"Anyone." But Harry knew it probably was Voldemort or at least one of his minions. He picked up his invisibility cloak. "We've got to go."

"I'm with you," Ron said, standing beside him.

"What about the rest of us?" Dean asked, looking ready for battle.

Good thing, too, Harry thought, since he expected this would be neither easy nor pleasant. "Go with Neville. The headmaster will know what to do."

He and Ron hurried down the stairs to the common room, their wands drawn. Hermione looked up from her book, and seemed to be about to ask what they were doing, when the fireplace flashed, and two Death Eaters stepped out.

Moving quickly, Ron cast a stunning spell on one of them as Harry cast it on the other.

"What's going on?" Hermione looked down at the two Death Eaters at her feet. "More importantly, how did they get in?"

Neville, Dean, and Seamus came down the stairs and stopped short.

"What happened?" Neville asked.

After a brief explanation, Dean asked the same question as Hermione had.

"I'm not worried about how they got in right now. We'll figure it out later. Now, I want you to stand guard over those two." Harry indicated the downed Death-Eaters. "Neville go to the Headmaster. Seamus go wake McGonagall."

They all nodded and Neville and Seamus went out.

With his heart pounding, Harry turned toward Ron. "We need to go, now."

"I'm going with you," Hermione said, folding her arms over her chest. She looked as if she expected an argument. Harry wasn't going to give her one. He needed all the help he could get.

"Fine," Harry said, moving towards the open portrait door. "Let's go."

The three of them slid under the invisibility cloak, which had been charmed to fit the bodies underneath it, and made their way down into the dungeons as fast as they could. Surprisingly, they encountered no one along the way.

"They probably know we are coming," Ron said as they paused outside Snape's quarters. His voice was low with worry, but he sounded determined nonetheless.

"I know. You should both wait here." Harry wanted them out of danger. He needed to be able to think and having them there meant worrying about them, but he also knew they would not let him go alone.

"No way," Ron said, putting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing comfortingly. "So, what's the plan?"

Harry laughed. "You mean we have one?"

"One can hope," Hermione said.

"I think we just go in and surprise them. On three." He held up one finger then a second and then the third. He said Snape's password and pushed open the door.

As soon as the door opened, Harry could hear Snape screaming. The sound tore at his heart. Resolutely, he pushed his fear and anger away. Six Death Eaters stood in the center of Snape's sitting room, all concentrating on torturing Snape.

As one, the three of them cast Petrificus Totalus and three of the Death Eaters fell over. One of the masks came loose and a fall of silver blood hair spilled on the floor. Using the shield spell, Harry pulled Ron and Hermione to one side, ducking behind the sofa which had been moved to make room for the Death Eaters to stand in a circle around Snape.

He couldn't look at Snape now or he would freeze. His training held and he focused his mind, dropping the shield to cast again. Disappointingly, he missed his target. As the shield dropped, Hermione cast and her spell caught one more of them. The Death-Eaters fired back with vicious hexes, but he got the shield raised in time and the curses bounced off.

"Don't kill Potter. He's mine." It was Voldemort, here at Hogwarts. Harry couldn't believe how disastrous the night had become.

With his scar on fire, Harry shuddered, sucking in a shaking breath. It took a considerable amount of energy to hold the shields, and he knew he was going to have to drop them or exhaust himself completely.

He signaled to Ron and Hermione that he was going to drop the shield and for them to be ready for it. When he did it, hexes flew from the Death Eaters, and they were ready for them.

Harry was scared and angry and wanted to kill that bastard once and for all. When the hexes stopped for a moment, he looked over at the other two death eaters. Hermione and Ron held them at wand point and he was facing Voldemort.

He cast Avada Kedavra and much like the first time he tried to cast the Patronus Charm, the green light sort of dribbled out of his wand.

How humiliating, Harry thought. It would have been funny, if it weren't going to get him and Snape and his friends killed.

Voldemort laughed. "Thank you for joining us. Severus was being most uncooperative about calling you to me."

Unconscious, Snape was lying on his stomach, naked. Blood pooled around his extremities. What looked like a sword pieced his right hand and pinned it the floor. It had a serpent handle like Malfoy's cane. For a second, Harry glanced down at the fallen Death-Eater thinking of killing him. Malfoy glared back impotently. Harry had more important issues.

"Drop your wand, Potter and I'll let him live."

"You don't expect me to believe that, do you?" Harry scoffed at him. He edged forward, keeping Voldemort in his sights as he knelt beside Snape, touching his neck to see if he were alive. Much to Harry's relief, Snape's pulse was sluggish, but there.

Harry knew all he had to do was stall long enough for Dumbledore to get here. Logically, he knew that Voldemort knew the same thing and probably had planned for it.

"You'll never be able to cast Avada Kedavra properly unless you hate," Voldemort explained in a nearly conversational tone, toying with his wand. "But you can't do that, can you, boy?"

"Oh, I hate you quite a bit." Harry knew it wasn't enough. He looked at Snape and felt so helpless. They were all going to die and there was nothing he could do about it. It infuriated him. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to summon the hate to kill the bastard.

He glanced at Ron and Hermione. They both were frozen in a stand-off with the other Death-Eaters. He could see they had assessed the situation and understood that he'd failed them. And he loved them both so much. And Snape as well.

It was then, when time stretched endlessly from heartbeat to heartbeat, that Harry realized he may not have enough hate to kill, but he certainly had more than enough love to do so.

With a renewed determination, he focused all of the love he had for Snape and for Hermione and Ron and all of his friends on the spell and cast again, crying, "Avada Kedavra". Holding in his mind his conviction that the destruction of this particular threat was the only way to save Snape and his friends, he transformed the curse as he cast with all of his power.

At the last second, Voldemort's smug expression changed and he tried to raise his wand to block it, but it was too late. He was completely engulfed in the green light of the spell.

Behind Harry, one of the Death-Eaters screamed, "No!"

Harry thought it sounded like Bellatrix, but he couldn't be sure.

When the light cleared, Harry held out his wand again and cast, "Combustus." Voldemort's dead body burst into flames and was completely consumed in seconds.

As the fire faded, Ron and Hermione took down the last two Death-Eaters. Dumbledore and the others came through the door. Although it seemed like hours since he'd entered Snape's quarters, it had only been a few minutes.

"Get a blanket," Harry ordered, wanting to get Snape covered and treated.

Everyone seemed to move at once. Neville brought the duvet from Snape's bed. Dumbledore went to the fire and called first Madam Pomfrey and then the Ministry. Ron pulled the sword out of Snape's hand and Hermione cast a quick spell to stop the bleeding.

Snape didn't move at all and that scared Harry. He leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Don't you even think about dying on me, you mean bastard."

Rolling onto his back, Snape groaned and whispered, "Ten points from Gryffindor for insolence."

"You can take a hundred points when you're feeling better." Harry was so relieved he'd happily have given up all of their points, if it meant that Snape were well enough to take them.

"Hey! Don't give him any ideas." Ron sounded relieved, too.

Harry forced a laugh. "I don't think he needs any ideas."

"Indeed not, Potter." Snape sounded weak and his eyes closed again. Harry felt a bolt of worry go through him.

Hermione put a hand on his shoulder. "He'll be okay."

Harry nodded.

"We did it," Ron said smiling. "We are finally rid of that blighter."

"We did," Hermione smiled back at both of them. "Finally."

"Yeah," Harry said, quietly. He wished he could be more enthusiastic, but with Snape lying unconscious at his feet, he could only push himself so far.

Madam Pomfrey arrived and floated Snape into the bedroom to work on him. She barred both Harry and Dumbledore from the room, saying that she'd work better without distractions.

The Aurors arrived right after that and took care of the ashes that had once been Voldemort and the bound Death Eaters. They interviewed Harry at the Hufflepuff table in the Great Hall, asking a bare minimum of questions on what happened. They also interviewed Hermione, Ron and the others who had helped.

After several hours, Dumbledore dismissed everyone back to their common rooms. When he tried to force Harry to go as well, Harry refused.

Madam Pomfrey hadn't come to tell him about Snape and he wasn't going anywhere until he knew Snape was okay. Or not. That possibility didn't bear thinking about. Snape had to be okay. Harry wasn't sure he could live with any other outcome.

Finally, Dumbledore ushered Harry up to his office, and nearly as soon as they were seated, Madam Pomfrey arrived.

"He's going to be fine," she told him.

The relief that washed through Harry was enough to make his knees weak. If he hadn't already been sitting down, he would have slid to the floor.

"Why did it take so long?" Harry asked. She should have been done with Snape hours ago and that made Harry even more nervous.

"He had some internal bleeding," she said, and her tone implied it was not a simple task to fix it. "As I'm sure you know, his hand was badly damaged."

Harry also got the impression she wasn't telling him everything, especially when she gave Dumbledore a significant look. As much as he would have liked to demand to know what was going on, he'd learned that rarely worked. While he was very relieved that Snape was going to be okay, he wasn't happy about anything else.

Madam Pomfrey left soon after and Harry turned to Dumbledore. "What didn't she say?"

"That he is weak and has lost a lot of blood and it will be a week, possibly two before he recovers completely."

"And his hand?"

"Will take a bit longer," Dumbledore said, sounding distressed.

That worried Harry. And filled him with a sense of helpless outrage. He glared at Dumbledore, who didn't meet his eyes.

When the silence had stretched taut, Harry couldn't take it any longer. "How did Voldemort get into the floo system? I thought the whole school was warded."

"It is. I'm not sure how," Dumbledore said, but it was clear from his tone that he had at least an idea.

"Are you going to tell me?"

"Not just yet. I do promise to tell you once I know for certain who it was. Does that satisfy you?"

Harry felt as if Dumbledore were looking inside him. It was a foolish idea. In all likelihood, Dumbledore would not do such a thing, and even if he did, Harry's shields were up and he doubted even Dumbledore could get through them without him knowing.

"How did you kill Voldemort?" Dumbledore asked, as he poured his tea.

"I told you and the Aurors and the Ministry people that already. I cast, Avada Kedavra and then Combustus, just to make sure he wasn't going to come back." Harry knew he sounded petulant, but he'd repeated the story at least twenty times as well as having lived it. He was tired of it.

"Avada Kedavra requires a tremendous amount of hate." Dumbledore looked at him skeptically. "I'm not sure how you brought that much to bear."

He wondered that no one else had asked before. "I didn't use hate at all."

Dumbledore's look became puzzled. "What then?"

"Love." Harry looked down and then back up with more courage and determination than he actually felt. "I used my love for Sn...Professor Snape. And for Ron and Hermione and for everyone else I care about."

"I..." Dumbledore trailed off, looking uncomfortable with that. "I hadn't realized you felt so strongly for Professor Snape."

He met Dumbledore's eyes. "Neither did I."

"You know that he'll wish to end the charade now that Voldemort is gone." Dumbledore didn't sound as if he were sure of that.

As much as Harry wished that Snape would want him, he wasn't sure either. Not enough to declare it counter to what Dumbledore had said. That bothered him tremendously. "The Courtship is in the final stage. It will be very hard to break now," Harry said instead.

"It will," Dumbledore said, his hard-eyed stare boring into Harry. "But I can help you do it if you wish to."

While he might not be sure of where Snape stood, he wasn't going to dismiss the possibilities, and he wasn't going to discuss them with Dumbledore until Snape had his say. "Thanks. I'll let you know if we need your help."

"Harry, don't think that this was anything more than a ruse for Voldemort. No matter how real it might have felt." Dumbledore's voice was soothing, and sympathetic, enough to make Harry feel like a fool for ever thinking that Snape meant it.

Except that Harry was hopeful that Snape had meant it, and that there was something between them. He didn't know what Dumbledore was on about, but he did know that he didn't like it. "Yes, sir," he said obediently, lowering his eyes.

Dumbledore seemed satisfied with his meekness. "Now that you know Professor Snape is all right, you should go to bed,"

"Yes, sir." Harry was glad to get out of there. He had some thinking to do and Dumbledore wasn't going to stop him.

Harry reckoned the celebration was supposed to be festive, and that he should be trying harder to enjoy himself. But he hated being on display. This was the third, and Harry fervently hoped last, of the dinners he was forced to attend this week. Next week, classes would resume, and life would get back to what passed for normal.

Ron looked up from playing with his Order of Merlin medal, and frowned. "Are you all right, Harry?"

"Yeah. Fine." Harry sighed. He had no reason to feel so out of sorts. "I wish they had waited for Snape to get out of hospital before they had all of these ceremonies. He deserved to get some recognition, too."

"You don't think they did it on purpose, do you?" Ron sounded like he believed it was a possibility.

"It would be just like them, wouldn't it?" Harry said, annoyed that it was all too likely that the Ministry was trying to slight Snape.

"You really do care about him, don't you?" Hermione's expression did not look at all pleased by the idea.

"Of course he does, Hermione." Ron's tone was sharp. "Where have you been for the last few months?"

Harry could feel a blush start as Hermione's gaze intensified.

"You never told him?" Hermione looked at Ron and then back at him, with a frown forming on her face.

Harry couldn't meet her eyes. He should have mentioned to Ron about the beginnings of his relationship with Snape and felt a bit guilty that he never had.

"Told me what?" Ron's brow creased. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Ron was not stupid. "No wait--"

"Ron," Hermione said, her tone telling him not to make a scene now.

Harry could only pray that Ron would take her warning. This would not be the place for Ron to let his temper get the best of him.

"What?" Ron's expression went from confused to understanding and then his face went red. "Oh, no. It wasn't...." Ron looked back at Harry and seemed to know he shouldn't finish that sentence. "Why didn't you say?"

"When was I supposed to say it? You threw a wobbly in the middle of the Great Hall."

"You could have said after," Ron said, sounding annoyed, but not nearly as much as Harry expected. Ron understood how unlikely it was for him to have spoken to Harry afterward.

"It was a secret. By the time you started to talk to me again, it wasn't the same circumstances." Harry looked down, his face heating.

"So, you do have feelings for him," Hermione said, giving him another puzzled, but definitely not-pleased look.

Harry didn't have words for an explanation, but seeing both of their expressions, he tried anyway. "When we're together, he is different than in class--"

"You've said that, but I can't imagine that he could be that different." Hermione sounded so sure that it annoyed Harry further.

"You weren't there, so you can't know. I was and trust me, he's...." At Hermione's look of disbelief, he changed tactics. "Besides, it's not as if I'm madly in love with him."

Hermione's expression got more disapproving. "Then why on Earth are you going to accept his Courtship?"

"Yeah, I'm curious about that, too." Ron didn't sound half as upset as Hermione did.

Harry tried not to squirm as they both looked at him, clearly waiting for an answer. "I want what he offered me."

"What? Do you want him, like that?" Ron seemed to be working hard to keep his tone neutral.

Harry didn't believe he could blush much harder. He was wrong. "I think that will be okay, too."

"There is no going back on this, Harry. At this point, you should be more sure," Ron said, chewing on his bottom lip, his concern evident in his eyes.

Hermione nodded, and she still looked like she could not believe he'd done it at all. "I don't think that you understand how unbreakable this contract is once it's set."

"First off," Harry said, irritated that they thought he was foolish enough to commit to something without a clue what it was. "I know it's unbreakable once the final spells are cast, but before that though, it's not. Dumbledore told me he could help me break the bond, if I wanted to."

"So, you do want Snape? That's what it comes down to, isn't it?" Ron asked and surprisingly there was no censure or bite to his words, but it was more than clear that he did not understand how Harry could possibly want Snape.

Put like that, Harry didn't have a choice except to say, "Yes, I guess that I do and yes, that is what it comes down to."

"I still don't get that," Ron said, looking a bit green around the edges.

Hermione didn't look green, but she did look unhappy with the idea. "I don't either."

"But," Ron said, "I'm not going to make the same mistake as before. If you want him and, for whatever reason, I reckon that you do, I'll try and support you in this."

Hermione nodded, too. "Yes. You're our friend and we might not understand, but if he makes you happy."

"And if he doesn't, well, that's another story." Ron's expression turned ominous.

A warm feeling crept through Harry's chest and he smiled at them. "Thanks. I'm glad you can do that." He felt a strange need to make them understand. "I do care about him. His kisses --"

"I don't want to know about kisses or anything else like that." Ron's face screwed up and he shuddered. "I can accept that you'll marry him, but no details. Please."

"Ron," Hermione said tartly. "Grow up."

He looked right at her. "I thought I had."

"Clearly, not enough."

"Hermione, let it go. Ron's right. He has grown up. Besides, Snape may want to break it off now that Voldemort is gone." He hated how afraid he sounded. But he understood all too well that Snape was free and he didn't need Dumbledore and he didn't need Harry.

Ron laughed loud enough to draw attention of those around him, and he blushed. "Sorry, mate. That is probably the most asinine thing you've ever said."

Also laughing, Hermione nodded. "For once, he's quite right."

"Hey, I'm right more than that," Ron complained, but he was smiling.

"Not that much." Harry smiled at him to take the sting out of his words. Besides as much as he appreciated their loyalty, they did not have any idea how difficult it was to live with him.

"Really, Harry. You have to know that Snape could not do any better than you." Ron patted his shoulder.

"That's nice of you to say, but --"

"No buts, Harry. Snape should be glad you accepted his suit, even if it wasn't real to start with." Hermione smiled at him.


Hermione held up her hand to forestall him.

You're not going to try and argue with her are you?" Ron laughed.

Harry shook his head. There was no arguing with either of them, and he loved them for their steadfastness. As Harry was about to say something else, Dumbledore sat down on the other side of Ron. He'd been gone for most of the dinner. Given the long winded speeches, Harry envied him the ability to leave.

"Are you enjoying your dinner?" Dumbledore eye's didn't have their characteristic sparkle and he sounded like he was forcing the good cheer into his voice.

"Yes, sir. Is everything all right?" He glanced at Ron and Hermione, and could tell they sensed something wasn't right too.

"It seems that we've discovered who opened the wards to allow Voldemort to floo in." Dumbledore paused a moment, no doubt to let the tension build. "I'm afraid that Professor Vector had certain elitist leanings that we did not know about."

"She was Muggle born!" Hermione looked appalled.

Harry knew that Hermione hadn't liked Vector much, even if Arithmancy was one of her best subjects.

"She was in fact a half-blood raised in the Muggle world. Just as Voldemort was. And I'm afraid, with the same fear and hatred that both you and Voldemort were raised with as well. She hated Muggles." Dumbledore seemed tired and sad.

Harry felt sick at the thought.

"It seemed she was also the one who reported the argument between you and Professor Snape."

"How did she know about it?" Harry knew her classroom wasn't any near the dungeon.

"Everyone was talking about it," Hermione said, and Ron nodded. "Nothing like that is ever a secret."

"We've kept the Courtship a secret." Harry had been glad not to read about that in the Prophet. "The papers never said a word."

Hermione shook her head.

"No respectable paper would report on a Courtship before it's publicly announced." Dumbledore said. "The Prophet has dropped some pretty broad hints."

One more thing he should have known, Harry thought irritated. "Of course. So, how long was Professor Vector with Voldemort? And why didn't Professor Snape know about it?"

"She'd been working for Voldemort since his return." Dumbledore looked troubled. "Professor Snape had been under suspicion since then as well. Voldemort didn't trust him."

"That's why you didn't tell anyone it wasn't real." It had made his life harder to have everyone think the Courtship was real at first, but now it would make the actual marriage easier. Well, if it happened, Harry thought with his chest tightening unpleasantly.

Dumbledore nodded. "Correct. I could not take the chance."

"Which is also why you never told me," Ron said, and sounded as if he might be all right with it. Harry sincerely hoped so.

"I thought that someone on the staff was involved, and I was not sure who." Dumbledore laughed humorlessly. "Frankly, I believed it was more likely to be this year's Defense Against the Dark Arts professor."

After sharing a look with Ron and Hermione, Harry had to laugh. They were six for seven on bad, incompetent or possessed Defense professors. "He is pretty bad, isn't he?"

"I'm afraid so," Dumbledore sounded tired, but his eyes sparkled a bit as he continued, "Thankfully, he's resigned for next year already. It seems teaching does not agree with him."

That pleased Harry no end, but he contained his glee. "May I take Professor Snape's Order of Merlin to him, sir?"

Dumbledore looked like he might refuse for a moment, but then he sighed and handed the box to Harry. "Remember what I said about breaking the spell."

"Yes, sir." Harry sincerely hoped it was not going to come to that.

Snape woke from a delightful dream of Harry running his fingers through his hair, to the reality of it. Without thinking, he leaned into the touch, and murmured his approval. Harry's soft laugh roused him to full consciousness, and he reluctantly pulled away. "What are you doing here at this hour of the night?"

"I brought your Order of Merlin." Harry held up the medal for his inspection.

A small thrill of pride went through Snape. Finally, he'd been accorded some of the acclaim he deserved. Not that he'd admit that it mattered to him, but it did. "Second class?"

"Well.... If you don't want it?"

Snape reached out automatically to grab it as Harry pulled it away, and groaned as a sharp pain shot through his right hand, up his arm and into his shoulder.

"Are you all right?" Harry was already on his feet, no doubt ready to run for Pomfrey.

Snape had seen enough of her for one day and he waved Harry back to his seat. "It is not necessary. If I move my hand too quickly, it is painful."

"Shouldn't it have healed already?" Harry sounded gratifyingly concerned.

That warmed Snape's heart. "I'm lucky Madam Pomfrey is as good as she is, or I might have lost use of it entirely, which I believe is what Lucius was attempting."

"I should have killed that bastard when I had the chance." Harry looked ready to do it now.

"I suspect he is wishing you had." Lucius' reduced circumstances gave Snape no end of pleasure.

"Being stripped of his magic and title is not enough punishment for his crimes." Harry sounded personally affronted by the verdict.

"He got what he deserved."

Harry's eyes flashed with annoyance. "I think they should have executed him. This way, he can still take revenge."

"How?" Snape asked. "He's an outcast without any power. His name is blacklisted. There is nowhere in the magical world he can go and be received." Snape smiled again. "It is truly a fate worse than death for one so proud as he."

"He's still alive," Harry said, doggedly. "He can still escape and take revenge."

Obviously there would be no arguing with him about this. Snape held up the velvet box. "Why did you bring me the medal?"

At that, Harry looked puzzled. "You were supposed to get it tonight with the rest of us. I thought you might like to have it. Don't you want it?"

"Idiot boy. Yes, I want it. But why did you bring it to me. Rather than allowing the Headmaster drop it off tomorrow morning, as I'm sure he would have done?"

"I asked him to let me. I wanted to make sure you got it," Harry said, ducking his head, but not before Snape could see his blush. "I also wanted to tell you about Vector--"

"Professor Vector," Snape said automatically and opened his mouth to take a few points for the disrespect.

"Not anymore. She's the one who let Voldemort through the wards."

That was something of a shock.

Harry went on to explain what he knew, which was precious little. "I'll have to speak to the headmaster in the morning. I can't make heads nor tales of that," Snape said, still trying to reconcile the colleague he'd known with the woman who'd betrayed him.

"And here I thought I did such a fine job of explaining." Harry pouted.

Merlin, Snape wished he wouldn't do that. He let out a sigh. "I'm sure you thought so. Never mind. Tell me about the ceremony."

With a laugh, Harry launched into another detailed account. While part of Snape would have liked to have had the acclaim, two hours of Fudge pontificating would have been more than he could have borne under the best of circumstances.

Indeed, before Harry had finished speaking, exhaustion had rolled over him and he could feel his eyes starting to close.

"Am I boring you? I can leave...." Harry's tone was slightly hurt.

It was an effort, but Snape forced his eyes open far enough to glare. "I am still easily fatigued."

Concern replaced the slight hurt on Harry's face. "Is there anything you need? Anything I can get for you?"

"Sleep perhaps," Snape said, keeping his voice as flat as possible, hoping to hide his desire to keep Harry close for a while longer.

"Shall I stay and watch over you for a while?" Harry's hand slipped into his uninjured one, and squeezed.

As appealing as that idea was to him, he felt it would be bad precedent to set, not to mention completely ridiculous. "Go back to your common room. Aren't they having a party tonight?"

"They've had a party every night for the last week. The whole school -- the whole wizarding world, for that matter, is having a party. You've missed most of them, being in bed." Harry sounded as though he would have liked to have given them a miss as well.

"I'm sure there will be more when I'm free to attend them." Not that he actually wanted to attend the crowded, noisy functions.

Harry nodded and leaned in to kiss him softly. Against his better judgment, Snape opened his mouth under Harry's lips and the kiss deepened. He raised his good hand to Harry's hair, carding his fingers through it. Harry's tongue made its way into his mouth, stroking wetly along his. He moaned.

After a moment more, he forced himself to push Harry back. "Go to your party."

"I'd rather stay here."

"Not now." Snape tried to sound stern, but clearly it wasn't working because Harry's smile widened.

"At some point," he said softly, leaning in to give Snape another quick kiss.

"But not tonight."

Harry nodded and slipped out of his room.

Monday came too quickly. Snape had only been back in his rooms for one day, but he'd insisted that he would teach his classes and so he would.

It was possible that had been a mistake. By seventh year potions, his strength was flagging. Thankfully the class was due for another pop potion assignment. He would be able to supervise most of it from his desk.

He waved his wand at the board and the ingredients appeared. "Identify the potion, brew it, and bottle it." With a pointed glare at Harry, he said, "You may not use your book."

Not looking at all worried, Harry smirked at him and nodded. Maybe he'd actually done the readings. Stranger things had happened.

With a look around the classroom, he was satisfied that everyone, Harry included, was working on their potion. He walked around, checking each student's preparations. They all seemed to know or at least think they knew what the potion was.

After a second pass, he moved to sit at his desk. He stifled a yawn. There was one more class after this, but he had enough of a break to get a pepper-up potion.

Perhaps he should have allowed the Headmaster to talk him into a few days off after all --

"Professor?" Harry's voice penetrated his reverie.

Snape looked up sharply, ready to flay the insolent boy. "What do you want, Potter?"

Instead of looking hurt, as he did half the time when Snape reprimanded him, Harry smiled at him.

"I think this might help." He pulled a bottle out of his pocket.

Snape was appalled that he'd looked so bad that Potter felt it was necessary to intervene. However, he couldn't deny, at least to himself, that it thrilled him that Harry cared that much.

"How --"

Harry leaned closer, and whispered, "Hermione helped me brew it after you told me you were going to teach today." His warm breath ghosted over Snape's ear and it was all he could do not to shiver in pleasure.

"How dare --"

Harry put a finger to his mouth. "Your Intended is allowed to take care of you. I looked it up."

A quick glance at the class showed all of the students studiously avoiding looking in their direction.

"This is most inappropriate," Snape said, keeping his voice down, but allowing his disapproval to show. "I should punish you for your audacity."

"Maybe, but you're not going to, are you?"

If Harry had smirked or been arrogant, or anything other than looking like the slightly worried fool that he was, Snape would have had to be truly harsh. As it was, he knew he couldn't let it pass unanswered. "Five points from Gryffindor for that assumption. Now, go sit down."

Harry looked like he couldn't believe Snape had taken the points. He gave Snape a wounded look, and silently returned to his seat as ordered.

Snape met Harry's eyes across the desk, picked up the bottle and deliberately opened it. After a quick examination, he decided the color and smell were right. Snape drank it. Immediately, he felt better. "Finish your potion, Potter. If it's wrong, I will not hesitate to fail you."

"Yes, sir. I know that." It was patently clear that Harry was trying not to smile as he nodded and retuned to work.

It occurred to Snape, as he closed his office door that evening, that there was no reason for Harry to come to his office to study tonight. After the scene in class today, Snape was sure that he wouldn't bother.

By 6:55, he'd nearly convinced himself that it was for the best. He settled down at his desk in his quarters to grade parchments.

Dumbledore was right, Harry...Potter should have every option. Not to be saddled with him for all of his life. He just wished his life didn't look so bleak without the reckless child in it.

By 7:15, the reality that Harry wasn't going to show up hit him, and he got up from his desk and the untouched essays, to start to pace. He ignored the tightness in his chest. It no longer mattered what he wanted.

A knock startled him. Snape pulled the door open far too quickly to be anything other than pitifully eager.

"You weren't in your office, and you didn't answer my knock there," Harry said, accusingly, his eyes flashing hurt. "I need to study."

Even as Snape tried to convince himself that he wasn't pathetically grateful that Harry was standing on the other side of his door, he found the ire to snap, "So you came for that reason alone?"

"Amongst others."

Snape drew in a breath and let it out slowly. He drank in the sight of a disheveled and annoyed looking Harry. "What other reason would there be?"

Harry inclined his head. "You tell me, since this is your Courtship. Can I come in while you're thinking about it?"

Snape stepped back and allowed him to enter the room, closing the door carefully behind him. "This is highly inappropriate."

"Anymore so than snogging on the sofa in your office?" Harry grinned at him.

Somehow, Snape kept himself from blushing. His mind, oh so helpfully, paraded the images of kissing Harry on the sofa to torture him. He tried to push them away in hopes of maintaining some kind of professional demeanor. It didn't work. It never did where Harry was concerned. "We should not have--"

Harry laughed at him, his eyes sly with amusement. "It's a bit late in the day to be getting so prim, don't you think?"

With an effort, Snape managed a disapproving look. "It's never too late to start following the rules. You might try it sometime."

"I might, but it's unlikely. We've pretty much established that I don't follow the rules very well." Harry stepped closer, dropping his bag and crowding Snape against the wall.

Protests flung aside, Snape gave in easily to Harry's kiss. His hand ran down Harry's back to cup his buttocks through his robes.

For several long, luscious moments, he allowed himself to get lost in the taste of Harry's kisses, but then pulled back, watching Harry's eyes open slowly. He was terrified that he would drown in the intensity of that gaze.

To escape, he closed his own eyes and then couldn't keep them closed. "Do you wish to move this back to my office, so that you may study?"

"I..." Harry looked down, uncharacteristically without anything to say. "I'd rather stay here and not study at all."

Parts of Snape stood up and cheered at the idea. Unfortunately, they weren't in charge. "We cannot."

Snape could almost see him gather his courage.

"Then what can we do?" Harry asked and there was no mistaking what he was on about.

"What do you want to do?" Snape asked, unable to open himself up more than that.

"Not this time. You tell me what you want." Harry's look was both intense and determined. What he wanted was clear in his eyes.

Unlikely as it was, Snape wanted the same thing, and realized with stunning clarity that all he had to do was take it. Something surprisingly not as easy at it should have been. "I want...I...."

When Snape could not go on, Harry glared at him. "What? Have the courage to say it."

"Courage is a Gryffindor trait, not --"

"Say it, damn it," Harry ordered.

Snape forced a breath into his lungs and the words out of his mouth. "You. I want you."

"I never expected you to admit that," Harry said, his initial bright smile dimming.

Uncertain now that he'd said the right thing, Snape felt balanced on a knife's edge, ready to fall into the abyss. "You're shocked? How can you be so--"

"Don't." Harry put a finger to his lips to silence him.

Snape resisted the urge to bite it.

"What I meant was that I never expected you to admit it, not that you didn't feel it. In case you didn't know it, I want you, too."

Until he said it, Snape hadn't been sure. He still wasn't sure. "You do realize that this is for life. Once the final spells are cast, there is no divorce. It can't be broken or undone."

"Yes. I know it. I've researched it fairly thoroughly." Harry looked rather pleased with himself.

Something about the way Harry said it and the expression on his face set off an alarm in Snape. "How thoroughly?"

The smug look in Potter's eyes said it all. "I'm quite sure I know everything about the Ritual that there is to know."

"As well you should." Snape raised an eyebrow. It wasn't that he didn't believe Harry, quite the opposite. He was surprised at how well he'd been duped.

"Everyone always underestimates my intelligence. I know what I want."

"It's not that hard to underestimate you. You don't apply yourself."

"I do when it's important," Harry said, a blush moving up his face.

"Obviously you believed this was." That pleased Snape enormously. "How did you learn about the Ritual?"

"I'd read everything I could find, but the adult sources assumed a certain level of information. I was in a bookstore in Hogsmeade, right before Yule, and there was a children's book on display about wizarding holidays and rituals." Harry grinned. "The book had some information about Courtship, but not a lot. I found another children's book that explained it in detail and showed how to make the items for the table."

"That was very wise of you and I must say I would never have expected it, either." Even as he said the expected words, his respect for Harry's resourcefulness went up another notch. "So you did not need Mr. Weasley's help after all."

"No. But the book said that only immediate family: a parent, a grandparent or a sibling, could help you with the ritual items. Ron had to know that."

Snape nodded. "Thus when he offered--"

"Exactly. How could I refuse? Especially when I planned to accept in a few weeks, anyway."

"You could have refused quite easily. He did not know that you knew." Snape kept his tone hard.

"But I knew. And I knew what I wanted." His look was pointed and direct.

A thrill ran through Snape at that look, but equally quickly uncertainty replaced it. "That is the part that I find difficult to believe. You could have anyone you wanted."

"I want someone who wants me, Harry, not the bloody Boy Who Lived and then Lived Again." Harry sounded completely disgusted. "I hate how much killing someone, even Voldemort, has made me a hero."

Although it was completely unlike him, Snape would have liked to find something comforting to say. Unfortunately, he could think of nothing that would not sound utterly trite. He put his hand on Harry's and squeezed.

"I knew that you were following the Ritual for real. I thought you must want me." Harry looked like he was trying not to show how hopeful he was.

Snape looked down, his face flushing, embarrassed by his own feelings. "I followed the ritual out of respect for it," he said more harshly than need be in the vain hope to hide his fears.

"Oh? You said you wanted me."

Perhaps he hadn't hated Harry as much as everyone thought, but that didn't mean he'd actually liked Harry. "When we began, I don't believe my feelings for you were very different than yours for me."

"What does that mean? Did you care for me at all?" Harry's look was cautious, worried even.

Snape hated this conversation and wanted it over before one or the other of them said something truly humiliating. "Must I continue to boost your flagging ego?"

Harry breathed out softly, sounding relieved rather than chastened. "In a while, we're not going to have any choice, so you might as well say it."

"You think you can force a confession out of me. It's been tried by experts--"

"I'm sure it has. I'm not forcing. I'm asking."

Blast him for putting it that way. "I think we can make a go of it. However, I don't think it's going to be easy."

"I expect not. Things that come too easily are generally not as important to you as things you've had to work to attain."

"Very true," Snape agreed.

For a moment or two, Harry was silent and then he said, "I know I should have brought this up sooner, but what about the name change?"

Snape knew there was only one way that particular conversation could play out. "If there were anything to negotiate about it, which there isn't, it would have come up when we were working out the rest of the domestic details."

"How can you say that? Do you expect me to change my name without even talking about it first?" Harry folded his arms over his chest, looking quite belligerent.

"No, not at all. The books you read didn't explain the name conventions?" Of all the points that Harry might have missed, it would be this one.

"It said that in most cases, the less prominent of the pair takes the name of the more prominent. I thought we must be close to equal on that."

So, he did have the information, he'd just misinterpreted it. As usual. Snape sighed. "We are nothing of the sort."

"Is your family name that much older than mine?"

"Don't be ridiculous. While my name is old, it is not nearly as prominent as yours. Besides which, I possess no fortune."

He could almost see the wheels working in Harry's mind. "Wait. No. You're going to take my name?"

"Yes, of course I am. What else would I have done?" Snape folded his arms across his chest and glared at Harry.

His eyes wide and incredulous, Harry shook his head. "I didn't expect that."

"Clearly not. Even if I were in possession of a fortune, and my name was as old as Malfoy's, there is no name more known or prominent in our world than that of Harry Potter."

"Oh," Harry said, quietly. "What if I were not the Boy Who Lived?"

"You are still in possession of a fortune and with an old and respected name. I'm not sure what you find so amazing about this."

"I thought you'd make me--"

Snape snorted at the very idea. "As if anyone can make you do anything."

"You're just as stubborn as I am."

"It should make our lives together interesting."

Harry laughed. "I'm sure interesting is not what we'll call it."

"Be that as it may, it was clear from the beginning -- at least to me -- that I would take your name."

"Severus Potter? That just doesn't sound right to me."

Snape shuddered. It didn't sound right to him, either. On quite a number of levels. However, the one thing that gave him no end of amusement was that James must be turning over in his grave right about now. "I'm sure I'll get used to it."

"Do you want to hyphenate it? Potter-Snape or Snape-Potter?"

"And if our children wish to marry a Smythe-Parkinson?"

"I see what you mean. Still, I don't want to force you." Harry sounded quite serious about the issue.

"It is not an onerous burden to have your name. And as I said, I will get used to it."

"You'll have a long time to do so. No one is going to be surprised, are they?"

"Not at all. Although, I expect the Headmaster will not be pleased with us. I doubt he could cause us problems."

Harry's expression became concerned. "Unless he decides to fire you and expel me."

"The political realities being what they are, he would be wise not to do such a thing." Snape hoped he sounded confident. If the Headmaster wanted to, he could make a great deal of trouble for Snape, at least for a while.

"Well, if he fires you, you know that I will be happy to support you." Harry's eyes narrowed and it was obvious he was considering a possibility he hadn't before and then he smirked. "I can arrange for you to spend the rest of your life in pampered luxury. Would you like that?"

Snape laughed. There was some small avaricious part of him that wanted to jump at the idea, but he pulled back from it. "I think not. I'm quite confident I would not like the terms."

The proprietary look left Harry's eyes and he laughed, too. "Probably not."

Relieved and not exactly sure why, Snape said, "I have money put aside from my salary. I plan to open a shop."

It was incredibly unflattering how incredulous Harry looked at that moment. "You?" Harry sputtered, his eyes dancing mirth. "A shopkeeper? You'd never have any customers."

Snape was not amused and scowled at him. "Thank you so much for your high opinion of my skills."

"To be successful, you'd need to be nice to your patrons. You're as difficult as the day is long."

"It's an unfortunate thing, then, that you've chosen to spend your life with me, isn't it." Snape hadn't meant to sound quite so annoyed.

"I don't think so. But then, I'm an odd man." Harry laughed.

Snape felt his lips twitch as he tried not to smile. "Quite true. I'm sure my patrons will be more interested in my brewing skills than my personality, unpleasant or otherwise."

Harry's eyes sparkled. "I think we'll keep you in back to brew and I'll take care of the customers. It is a good thing that I'm so much better with people than you are."

That Harry assumed he'd be part of the venture pleased Snape more than he was going to admit, and he felt compelled to point out, "Actually, you're not that much better with people than I am. You are, however, better looking, and I'm sure that will help."

"We shouldn't forget about being the Boy-Who-Lived, either. Might as well make that work for us.

"I must say, I'm surprised that you would even suggest such a thing, given how you've always complained about your fame."

"I hate it. But I'm going to have to live with it -- we both are. So maybe, like I said, we can make it work for us." Harry actually grinned at that.

"Very Slytherin of you."

Harry included his head. "When were you planning to stop teaching?"

"As soon as the Dark Lord was gone."

"So, you're going to resign? Why haven't you mentioned this to me before now?"

He honestly hadn't thought it would matter one way or another. "We're getting a bit ahead of ourselves, aren't we? You haven't finished school yet."

"Two months and I'm done with school." Harry was silent for a moment. "I've made some tentative plans, myself."

Snape was not sure he liked the sound of that. "What do you plan to do?"

"Travel." Harry's look was intense, as if he'd thought about this for some time. "Until I've seen everything I've missed."

"What have you missed?" Snape asked, wondering if he shouldn't be asking what exactly had Harry seen, instead.


Which meant he would be gone for a long time. Snape's chest tightened pathetically, but he nodded. "Do you plan to return at some point?"

"Of course. Besides, I was hoping you'd come with me."

Snape had not expected that and had no idea what to say. "I've always wanted to travel and had neither the time nor the means." He still didn't have the means, he reminded himself.

"Good thing you're about to get a rich husband then." Harry laughed as he said it, as if it were a joke.

"You certainly know how to stroke my ego, don't you, brat," Snape said, no longer worried it was an issue.

"I try." Harry leaned up and kissed him. "It's not a problem, right?"

He pulled Harry closer. "Don't be silly."

Harry stepped back, and reached into his pocket, drawing out a coin. He offered it to Snape palm up.

With the reverence the gesture deserved, Snape inclined his head and took the galleon. "Thank you," he whispered.

Harry grinned at him. "We're going to do this?"

A flicker of excitement went through Snape. "After curfew, we will go upstairs and complete the Ritual."

"Which version of the final spell did you use?"

"The table and contents are spelled to transfigure into a marriage document with all the agreements from the negotiations. We will both sign it after we have consummated our engagement. It's then filed in the Hall of Records."

Harry chuckled. "And then all hell will break loose."

"Probably." Snape didn't want to even think about the number of howlers he was going to receive for his audacity. "However, it need not be right now."

"Do you want to wait two months while I finish school? Even if you do, I don't." Harry looked as appalled as only a seventeen year old about to be denied could look.

"There are several practical reasons to wait until then."

"Such as?" Harry did not look as though he wished to be convinced.

"Do you wish to start married life with me, still under my control?" At Harry's confused look, Snape said, "you will still be attending my class, still subject to my discipline."

Harry thought about it for a moment. "Will Dumbledore even allow me to stay in your class?"

"That's Professor Dumbledore." For a second, he thought about taking points and then realized how absurd it would be in this situation. "Do you see what I mean? I corrected you without thinking about it."

"You're going to have to stop doing that when we're not in class."

Snape laughed. "Do you think it's going to be easy?"

"No, but I've been dealing with you since the Courtship started. I don't expect special favors. Outside of class, you're not going to try and lord it over me, are you?"

"I could." Snape had to admit that the idea held little appeal. It would complicate their already complicated relationship.

Harry did not look like he believed him. "I'll call you on it, if you do. I know it's not going to be easy, but we can make it work."

"You seem very determined." Snape dropped a kiss on his lips and then let him go. "Do you have simple robes?"

Harry shook his head. "I have my school robes and dress robes, but nothing in between or simple."

"I'll transfigure something of mine for you." Snape mentally went through his cupboard for something that would fit Harry.

"Why do I need something like that?" Harry asked. "Oh, wait, you were wearing plain robes -- even for you -- when you came back that night. And you know, it looked like you didn't have anything on under it."

"I hadn't realized you were that observant of me, especially then," Snape was pleased that he'd even noticed.

"I--" Harry blushed.

Snape kissed him to shut him up. "Let me go find you something."

"As if it will fit," Harry snorted.

"We can adjust it to suit you." Snape held out his hand and Harry took it.

"It's cold in here," Harry complained as he walked barefoot across the stone floor of the Great Hall. "And there is a definite draft."

The robe he wore came to his ankles and was a bit tight across the shoulders. He hadn't wanted to make it any shorter given what he was wearing, or not wearing, underneath it.

"I shall do my best to warm you later. Try and pay attention now?"

Snape placed the coin on the table next to his own coin. Stepping back, and motioning for silence, Snape bowed and then raised his wand.

"We'll cast the final spell together," he said, glancing quickly at Harry.

With a nod of agreement, Harry raised his wand and said the words with Snape.

A soft pop sounded and the two coins fused into one. Then the table and contents folded in on itself. A moment later, it disappeared entirely, and a thick parchment appeared in the air. Snape reached out to catch it.

Warm feelings of home and permanence and security all blended into an almost tangible emotion that invaded Harry's chest. It was stronger than on previous occasions. Harry breathed in, closing his eyes and savoring it.

"That feels so good," Harry whispered after a moment, not wanting to lose the feeling.

Snape nodded. "It does."

Harry was disappointed when it started to fade. That it didn't disappear completely was a relief.

"You'll always know...." Snape looked away, obviously not able to finish the sentence.

"Okay." Harry said, hearing what he hadn't said. "I'm assuming you feel the same thing."

"I feel the warmth of your feelings for me, yes." He held out his hand for Harry to move out of the great hall.

"I'm not sure how much more than this I have to give. At least, right now."

"It is sufficient," Snape said, solemnly.

When they reached Snape's quarters, he held the door open and nodded for Harry to go inside. Harry didn't bother stopping in the sitting room. Instead, he headed straight through to Snape's bedroom.

"A bit presumptuous, aren't you?" Snape asked, but he had an anticipatory gleam in his eyes.

"Am I?" Harry hoped he didn't look as nervous as he felt. He might not be a virgin, but he felt his lack of varied experience acutely. With a bravado he didn't feel, he reached down and caught the hem of his robe, pulling it up and over his head. As the cold air hit his slightly damp skin, he shivered.

"Very convenient, these robes are." Snape ran a finger down Harry's chest, and then kissed him quickly before pulling his own robe over his head.

Harry took a good look at him. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but as thin as Snape was, he wasn't scrawny. Long wiry muscles wrapped around his bones, making him look more tough than fragile. Snape would never be a handsome man, but he'd be good at protecting Harry's back when needed. Harry rather thought he'd appreciate that more than someone pretty.

" do we have to do this?" Harry felt his face heat. "I mean...."

"Consummation," Snape said in his classroom lecture tone, "can be any sexual act between us." He paused and looked at Harry. "What would you like to do?"

Harry felt his blood pressure go up at Snape's expression. "I want you. I want to have you and then you can have me." Blushing hotly, Harry couldn't believe he'd actually said that, even if it were true.

"I believe that can be arranged. I'd like the same thing," Snape said, his voice low and six kinds of sexy.

"To have me?" Harry's pulse pounded and he knew he sounded breathless. "Or do you want me to have you?"


"Oh, good." Harry reached for him, pulling Snape against him, and sighing in pleasure. He pressed a kiss to the juncture between Snape's neck and shoulders and felt Snape shudder against him.

His hands slid down Snape's naked body, and cupped his arse, squeezing. Snape pushed back into his hands with a soft sound of pleasure.

Snape put his hand on Harry's jaw and lifted his face for a long, slow kiss. When Snape's tongue slid into his mouth, Harry moaned, opening wider, encouraging exploration. He loved the feel of Snape's hands on his body and Snape's tongue in this mouth. He was nearly overwhelmed with the pleasure of it, and the desire to do everything he wanted all at once.

He forced himself to calm down and take it all more slowly. He pushed away enough to guide Snape backward to the bed. After climbing in, Harry tossed the bedcovers to the foot of the bed and held out his hand to Snape, smiling in what he hoped was a sultry way.

With a smile that was filled with desire and a surprising amount of tenderness, Snape took his hand and joined him on the bed. As he leaned forward, Snape pushed him flat and settled on top of him, all hard angles, and arousal. It took a few tries to arrange themselves comfortably.

Desire sparked through Harry with every movement of skin on skin, the slip and slide of muscles and flesh. He wondered how it could feel so good to just touch. Snape felt marvelous under his hands, and on top of him. He smelled good and tasted better; a delight for all of his senses. Harry reveled in the sensations.

Snape's mouth was hot and delicious as it made its way slowly down Harry's chest. He groaned rather pitifully when Snape didn't stop where he would have done the most good.

Harry canted his hips, hoping that Snape would take the hint.

He didn't. He simply lifted his head and smirked. "You have no patience, Harry. Perhaps it is time that I taught you some."

Harry wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. "Think you can?"

"We shall find out, won't we?"

"Do I want to?"

Snape's smile was full of dark promise. "Oh, yes, I think you do." He bent his head to lick along Harry's inner thigh. Harry closed his eyes, letting the sensations wash over him, and hoping he could last out whatever torture Snape had planned.

When Snape was done with his thigh, instead of moving higher as he should have done, he licked along the side of Harry's knee, and then under it. Harry whimpered. Who would have thought he'd be so sensitive there?

It seemed like Snape made it his life's work to find every sensitive place on Harry's body. Surprisingly, there were quite a few that responded to teeth and lips and fingers.

Harry yowled in frustration of the most basic kind as Snape bit along his hip, carefully not touching anything else. "Please," he begged.

"Not yet." Snape turned him over and began to work from the back of Harry's neck down.

With another groan, Harry pushed back into his mouth. It felt so good, so amazing to be touched like that, even if Snape was torturing him with teasing.

"Please," he tried again, hoping for mercy, hoping for the sensations to continue.

"Patience." Snape sounded so amused that Harry thought about pulling away in annoyance.

Then Snape did the most amazing thing with his tongue, sliding it into him in a way that one ever had before. Harry screamed at the incredible pleasure that roared through him. He could not believe what Snape was doing or how good it felt or that he could even survive such a thing. His whole body felt like it had melted in absolute and utter bliss.

Snape hummed into him and Harry mewled. He never expected to know anything that felt so good. A hand closed around him, stroking. Harry's mind went blank with ecstasy, and he came hard enough to see stars.

Still panting, Harry opened his eyes and Snape smiled down at him, well deserved smugness on his face.

After another minute or two, Harry had regained his breath and decided to answer what just happened with an assault of his own. He rolled them over, starting his own reconnaissance of Snape's body, mapping Snape's chest and torso with his tongue. The sounds Snape made while he accomplished his task sent shivers down Harry's spine, making him feel almost as good as he hoped he was making Snape feel.

He moved lower, listening to every breath change, feeling every shudder, learning what Snape liked best. It thrilled him to reduce the formal, remote Snape to this needy creature who would only be satisfied by him. Along the way, Harry realized bringing things to an early closure would not be what either of them wanted. Instead, he was going to drag things out as long as he could, just as long as Snape had with him.

With deliberate slowness, Harry made detours along Snape's torso, finding, to his surprise, that Snape tasted very good. He stopped to lick at Snape's nipples, to mouth his along his belly, to trace the hair line downward with his tongue.

Snape squirmed under him, his hips jerking, pressing into Harry.

"Do try to move things along, Harry," Snape growled when Harry had spent a bit of time nibbling back and forth along his hip.

"I thought you were the one with the patience."

Snape's answer wasn't articulate and Harry ignored his own arousal to keep doing what he was doing. He was enjoying it, and so was Snape, despite his complaints.

When Snape was breathless and begging, almost out of control, Harry closed his mouth over him. This was one of the things he had some practice on and he was going to enjoy it. He sucked slowly, just teasing, savoring the taste and smell of him.

After several long moments of that, Snape made a frustrated sound and Harry took pity on him, taking him deep into his throat and humming. Without finesse, without artifice, Snape groaned and thrust up into Harry's mouth, coming without warning as he sputtered Harry's name.

A tremor of satisfaction went through Harry and he smiled, moving up to hold Snape as he came back to himself.

"Good?" Harry asked when awareness had returned to Snape's eyes.

A slight smile and a nod were all he got. It was enough. Harry felt like the king of the world. There was something so amazingly satisfying about putting that contented look on Snape's face.

He gave Snape another minute or two to recover, and then he nudged him onto his belly. Snape groaned agreeably and spread his thighs apart. The sight of him and the ease with which Snape gave himself nearly did Harry in. He wanted Snape so badly that his body throbbed with the need to possess him.

Raising a hand, Harry summoned the lubricant to him.

"It has been some time for me, use a lot of it," Snape ordered.

"Don't worry, I won't hurt you."

"See that you don't."

As carefully as he could, Harry prepared him, taking more time than was probably needed, especially if Snape's complaints about dawdling were anything to go by.

When he slid inside, it felt amazingly wonderful, and he was afraid he would humiliate himself before he could move. After a moment and a deep breath, along with some cold thoughts, Harry felt Snape's body yield and he moved the rest of the way in.

To Harry, it felt like coming home, like Snape's body was welcoming him with each stroke. He was wanted, no, more than that, he was needed. His very existence gave Snape something no one else could provide. Harry wasn't sure he believed his own fanciful thoughts, and after a moment or two more, it didn't matter.

Snape moaned pitifully, pushing back into each thrust. The movement spiraled into heat and light and bliss. Harry felt pure joy wash over him and he reached around to grip Snape.

"Come for me," Harry whispered. "Come now."

Snape let out a long lush moan, and did as he was told, coming hotly over Harry's hand.

Thrilled by Snape's response, and with his own pleasure overwhelming him, Harry took hold of Snape's hips and thrust a few more times before his passion crested and he was lost in the bliss.

He opened his eyes a moment or two later, still feeling the aftershocks of their combined delight and smiled at Snape. "You're mine, now."

Snape looked amused. "Possessive brat, aren't you?"

"It too late to change your mind." Harry was sure from the look on Snape's face that he didn't want to anyway.

"Unlike you, I was aware of that from the beginning." Snape touched his cheek. "It's late and we both have class in the morning."

Reluctant to leave the bed, Harry did anyway. He needed to use the toilet. In the loo, he gave himself a quick wash, ignoring the mirror's lewd remarks. When he was done, he fetched back a flannel to clean up Snape.

"Thank you," Snape said when he was finished. "That was an unexpected kindness."

Harry snuggled in beside him. "I hope I know how to treat a lover." He ran a hand along Snape's side.

"Very much so." Snape's voice was blurred with sleep.

Harry kissed his hair and closed his own eyes, letting sleep take him.

Snape floated slowly to consciousness, an unlikely feeling of warmth and well being encompassing his whole body. Even more unusual, he was warped in strong arms, held by a lover. Not just any lover either, his husband.

That thought brought him fully awake. Careful not to move, despite the shock, he was very much enjoying the languid feeling and wasn't quite ready to give it up yet. He also needed a moment to process all of this before he faced Harry.

"I can almost hear you thinking, Severus." Harry's warm breath drifted across his ear.

He shivered. "So, you've finally decided to use my given name."

"Mmm... Didn't think it would be appropriate before now."

That didn't sound like Harry to him at all. "Since when did that bother you?"

"I told you I wouldn't use the Courtship to my advantage. I meant it."

Clearly he had. Snape's respect went up a bit more, but he said nothing.

Harry's teeth connected with the soft flesh of his neck and bit down. But the sting let up before it hurt badly, and then he licked across it. His hands slid down Snape's torso.

Snape pressed back into Harry's hands as they settled onto his bottom.

"You want a go, or should I go ahead again?" Harry licked along the side of his neck.

"Go right ahead." Snape closed his eyes. He was willing to let Harry do all the work if he wanted to.

"I will, then." Harry pressed him forward until he was lying flat. Then he tossed back the covers, a cool draft skirted over his skin, rising goose flesh.

Slowly, languidly, Harry lifted his hair and kissed the back of his neck moving downward, swirling his tongue around each of Snape's vertebra.

"Mmm..." Snape murmured, settling further into the bed. Harry's tongue was wonderfully sensuous, and oddly arousing. He'd never really considered his back an erogenous zone, but clearly he should have done. Closing his eyes, he sank into the feel of it, letting everything else go. If Harry had paid this much attention to detail in his school work, he'd be a scholar of Granger's level.

Given Harry's downward spiraling tongue, it didn't take long for him to reach his obvious goal. Snape smiled into the pillow he was clutching. What an adventurous boy Harry was turning out to be. Snape was spread open, licked and bitten and tasted. Sensations washing through him faster than he could comprehend them, he moaned pathetically, surprised and delighted by the boldness.

Harry seemed to like what he was doing since he continued until Snape was nearly mindless with pleasure. He moaned and writhed and whimpered, on the verge of begging for release.

Merlin, how he loved what Harry was doing to him: the feel of Harry's mouth on his skin, the near painful stab of his tongue inside him, the sharp teeth biting down with just enough pressure, and everything else about his touch. It felt so damned wonderful. He'd never get enough of it. He loved it. More than that, he realized, he loved Harry.

Oh Fuck, Snape thought, the lovely languor of his arousal starting to slip away. Where had that come from?

"What?" Harry asked, lifting his head.

No possible way to explain that wasn't completely pathetic, Snape choked out, "Nothing. Continue. Now."

Harry hesitated for one second, and then bent his head to his task.

Closing his eyes tightly, Snape pushed away the errant thought, dismissing it from his mind. It must be the fantastic sex. Yes, yes, that must be what it was. It could not be anything else.

As Harry's tongue made its way back where Snape wanted it, he allowed him to be swept away by the sensations again.

Just at the critical moment, Harry stopped again.

Snape looked back over his shoulder and scowled. "Do not think to stop now."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Harry said, reaching for the lubricant.

Snape subsided back onto the bed, as Harry worked his talented fingers into him. And soon, thankfully, it wasn't simply his fingers. The burn streaked across his back, and down his spine. Despite last night's activities, he wasn't used to it yet. Though he sincerely hoped to be before much longer. He loved the full feeling after his too-stretched muscles finally relaxed.

Each stroke into him sent pleasure sparkling through him. Stars flash before his closed eyes. "Harder," he moaned and pushed into the thrusts. "More now."

Vaguely, he heard Harry chuckle.

Sweat dripped off him and he continued to move with every thrust, every stroke into him. The pleasure built and built until it was nearly unbearable. But bear it he did, willingly, completely, letting it take him and remake him into something else entirely. He might have screamed, he didn't know anything for sure, except that Harry had taken him to a place he hadn't been before, a place he knew with absolute surety that only Harry could find again.

After they had their breath back, Harry cleaned them both up and snuggled down into the bedding with him. Harry started to snore softly a minute or two later.

Snape, however, could not sleep. His mind kept going over the unfortunate facts. In the harsh moments after sex, he knew it could no longer be dismissed.

It was true.

When had he been so stupid as to fall in love with Harry? He wondered if he could be any more pathetic: a broken, scarred, foolish old man falling in love with a silly school boy. All right, so perhaps he wasn't old yet, and Harry was anything but silly, but that didn't make it any less humiliating.

Rather than berate himself for his stupidity, which would no doubt play itself out for years to come, he would be better served by figuring out what he could do about it. Not a lot, he decided. They were stuck with each other.

Harry would be his for a time, and then he would stray, finding younger, more agreeable companions. He didn't love Snape. He'd said as much. Snape resolved to enjoy what time he had and try not to kill him when the time came to let him go.

He tried to tell himself that Harry would have to come home to him. That would be cold comfort to both of them, in the end.

"Severus? What's wrong?" Harry's voice was sleepy, and he pressed a kiss to Snape's shoulder.

"Nothing. Go back to sleep." Snape's voice was harder than he meant it to be. But better than sounding pathetic.

"Not until you tell me what's bothering you." They were really going to have to work on that Gryffindor stubbornness.

Not tonight, however. "Go to sleep. We have class in the morning," Snape said in his best teacher voice.

Harry tightened his arms. "It is morning already, and that tone doesn't work with me anymore. So, why don't you tell me what's wrong?"

Snape was not going to tell him the truth. He couldn't. So he said nothing, closing his eyes, and hoping sleep would come.

"That's not going to work with me, either."

"Yes, it is. Let me be." Snape rolled away from him.

Tenaciously, Harry followed, pushing him flat, wrapping his arms around him. "Okay, if you don't want to talk about that, how about negotiating something else."

Snape's eyes snapped open. "What did you have in mind?"

"I want to move in here tomorrow."

"And why would you think that I'd agree to that?" Snape hadn't even considered the idea. And now that he did he could foresee many problems.

"I want this to work between us. I think we should live together from the start. We are married, after all." Harry had that determined sound to his voice.

"Won't you miss your friends?"

Harry shook his head. "I'll still see them. I'll still go to the common room, but I want to live with you from the beginning."

"I think it's a bad idea." Colossally bad. Distance would save him from ruin.

"Severus." Harry clearly wasn't going to let it go. "Are you saying no?"

Was he? Could he? Snape sighed, sounding, he had no doubt, resigned. "No. I'm saying it's a bad idea."

"Fine. I'll have the House Elves move my stuff down here this morning."

There were times when Harry seemed quite unstoppable. Snape tried to find that annoying, but couldn't quite manage it. "Do as you please. Later. Go to sleep now."

Harry kissed him again, and closed his eyes. Snape did the same, wondering when exactly he'd lost total control of his life.

The crossing of his wards in the hall outside his door woke Snape the next time. He rolled over. The previous evening's activities came back to him in a rush and he frowned. Before he could decide what he should do, the wards sounded again.

Beside him, Harry groaned. "I don't want to get up."

"You'd do well to do so, anyway. We have class later on."

Harry opened one eye and then the other, looking around for the clock. "We've got hours yet."

"We don't. It's nearly time to get up anyway." Snape got out of bed, pulling on his dressing gown as he headed into the sitting room.

He opened the door. "Headmaster? To what do I owe this honor?" Snape tried to keep a civil tongue, despite his annoyance at the invasion of his rooms.

"I saw that the table was gone this morning." Dumbledore's tone was cautious, but there was ever so slight an amount of hope in it. "I had hoped that you had come to your senses --"

"And broke the engagement?" Snape infused his voice with a note of warning. He didn't want the Headmaster to say something he'd regret later.

Dumbledore's look was shrewd and then disappointed. "Harry wasn't in his bed last night. I had thought perhaps --"

"That I knew where he was?" Snape asked and before he could go on, he heard his bedroom door open.

"I'm here. Is something wrong, Headmaster?" Harry came out wearing Snape's other dressing gown. The silk one.

It came to his ankles and clung to him like Snape wished he could right then. He found he wanted to.... No, he was not going to think such things now, not with Dumbledore standing right in front of him. "Was there something else you wanted, Headmaster?"

"You spent the night here?" Dumbledore asked Harry. "Willingly?"

"I did." Harry folded his arms over his chest and glared at Dumbledore. "Is there a problem with that?"

"As well you know, teachers and students are forbidden from having sexual relations."

"Unless they are married," Snape added helpfully.

"You didn't?" Dumbledore looked genuinely appalled. "Why?"

Without a hint of apology in his face or stance, Harry looked at Snape. "Because I wanted to."

Dumbledore did not look impressed. "You're so sure you know what you want, Harry? What about in ten years? Or twenty? You've tied yourself to Professor Snape for your entire life."

"I did know that, yes," Harry said, sounding exasperated. "You might trust that I know what I'm doing."

"If you cannot trust him, then you should trust me. I know what is best for Harry." Snape glared at Dumbledore, surprised and hurt at the lack of trust.

For one second, Harry looked startled, but he nodded. "I trust Sn...Severus. And you should as well. You've got no reason to doubt him."

The words of defense and trust from Harry meant more to Snape than he was ever going to be able to say. "I know what he wants and what he needs. I believe we shall suit."

Dumbledore looked closely at Harry. "Are you satisfied with that?"

"Yes." Harry looked and sounded resolute. "Very satisfied."

Snape resisted the urge to smirk. "Are you satisfied?"

"I shall have to be, won't I?" Dumbledore did not sound like he was happy, not in the slightest. "All I wanted for you was to have the choices you should have."

"You know, that would be all well and good, Headmaster, but I've never had many choices. I didn't choose to be the Boy Who Lived. I didn't choose to be the wizarding world's champion. I didn't choose to spend my entire adolescence with a monster trying to kill me. I never wanted to spend all of my free time training and working toward a goal that included having to kill someone." Harry breathed out.

Snape put his hands on Harry's shoulders, offering what support he could.

"But I did choose Severus. He's one of the few choices I've ever been allowed to make. You won't take him from me." That possessive tone of Harry's thrilled Snape every single time he heard it. He stepped closer, nearly against him.

Dumbledore looked old suddenly. "I'm sorry if you believed --"

"No." Harry held up his hand. "I did what I had to do, but I didn't choose it."

For several long counts, Dumbledore was silent. "I shall announce your marriage at lunch today."

"The name change as well," Snape said.

Dumbledore nodded, not looking even remotely surprised. "Have the documents been filed?"

"Not as of yet. We only just awoke and haven't had time to sign them."

"I shall leave you to it then." He looked back at them. "I shall see that your morning classes are covered. You may both remain here until lunch."

Harry opened his mouth to say something, and Snape squeezed his shoulder to stop it. "Thank you, Headmaster," Snape said as Dumbledore went out.

"Why didn't you let me say what I wanted?"

"It would serve no purpose. We've disappointed him and there is no reason to rub his nose in it."

Harry looked down and sighed. "I reckon you're right...Severus."

"Of course I am."

"Do you actually know what I need?" Harry gave him a speculative look.

"Yes, I believe I know what you need."

"What?" Harry suddenly sounded as if he wanted to be reassured.

This was not something he was good at, but he supposed that he could try. "You need security. A stable environment to finish growing up in --"

"I'm already a grown-up --" He sounded outraged by the assessment that he could be anything less than an adult -- as only a not-quite-mature seventeen-year-old could.

Doing his best to bite back a nasty comment, Snape sighed. He didn't want to hurt Harry this morning, however, "I think you need to grow up quite a bit. But I'll help you, so --"

"You and what army?" Harry folded his arms over his chest, looking ready to do battle.

Snape was not in the mood for a battle. He put his arms around Harry and pulled him in, but he wouldn't stay still and moved away slightly. "All right, I may have put that badly. However, you still need time to mature completely."

Harry looked ever so slightly mollified by the word change and then he laughed. "What else?"

Snape knew he'd been taken and decided to be generous and let it go. "Someone to stand by you no matter what stupid, reckless thing you do," Snape continued. "Someone you can trust. Someone who will care about you."

A big stupid grin on his face, Harry finally looked like he'd heard what he'd wanted from Snape. "You're right. I do need all of that."

"You say that as if you're surprised."

"You do know that if you give me all that, I'll likely fall in love with you?"

"Oh, the horror," Snape said, forcing a frown, "to be in love with one's spouse. How will you survive it?"

"I'm sure I'll manage somehow." Playfully, Harry knocked his shoulder into Snape's and tipped his head up for a kiss.

Snape obliged him for a few minutes. They didn't need to go anywhere this morning....

"How likely is it that you'll return my future feelings?" Despite the bravado in his tone, Harry sounded slightly apprehensive.

"Oh, I'm sure that it's ever so likely." He said it sarcastically, giving himself an out if he needed it, but it looked like he might not after all. He tightened his arms around Harry and kissed him soundly.