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The Sleeping Prince

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The portrait of Severus Snape – hanging in splendour behind the Headmaster's chair – burst into flames with a blinding orange flash, vanishing behind a cloud of acrid smoke.

"Excellent," Dumbledore murmured to himself from the frame he was currently occupying. "Most excellent."

The smoke cleared and Dumbledore took in the scorched and blackened canvas without comment. Then he brightened. "Ah!" he said as he noticed the portrait of Severus still within the frame. He pulled out a lemon drop from his pocket and examined the painted sweet, all fine lines and brushstrokes, before popping it in his mouth with enjoyment.

It was all going according to plan. Before, the portrait had been chilling. Dumbledore – and all the other portrait people – had felt that, with a deep unease that settled in their painted bones. Neither alive nor dead, the portrait of Severus Snape had twitched and screamed but never spoken. Now, Dumbledore thought with satisfaction, it was no more magical than a Muggle child's drawing.

Dumbledore chuckled at the prospect of what was to come next. "You will thank me in the end, my boy," he said, tilting his head towards the portrait of Severus. "You will thank me. Just wait and see."

*****

"I still don’t see why we couldn’t have made an appointment," Ron whispered. Then he yelped and staggered, Harry managing – with a struggle – to keep them both upright.

"Shut up, Ron!" Hermione hissed.

"I was perfectly quiet until you stamped on my foot," Ron said. "That hurt!"

"Ronald!" Hermione said. She attempted to cross her arms but there wasn’t enough room. Her elbow bashed hard into Harry’s side.

"What? I was just saying—" Ron said.

"Will you two be quiet?" Harry interrupted. His side ached, but if he tried to rub it then he’d end up whacking Hermione. Tempers were frayed enough as it was. "This really isn’t the time."

The trio, barely covered by the Invisibility Cloak, shuffled further down the corridor.

"I just think—" Ron said.

"We KNOW, Ron," Hermione whispered. "You think we should make an appointment to see the Professor, then just whip out the book and start doing the spell."

Harry braced himself in case she started with the arm-crossing thing again.

"Well, yes," Ron replied. “I do.”

Harry didn’t know why Ron bothered. Even he knew that once Hermione had her mind made up, there was no arguing with her. And he wasn’t her boyfriend.

"Because," Hermione continued as if Ron hadn’t spoken, "the Healers are going to be absolutely fine with us working Dark Magic on the Professor, from a book so rare that we have the only copy in existence. They won’t mind at all."

"It’s not the only copy in existence!" Ron protested. He stopped and Hermione tried to tug him along by his sleeve. "There’s that one in that bloke’s private collection in India."

Harry suppressed a groan. Ron had really walked into that one.

"Oh, yes," Hermione said, sounding more reasonable by the second. She’d stopped as well – right in the middle of the corridor. If a Healer unexpectedly dashed down the corridor she’d run right into them. Harry had to swallow hard to push down the urge to interrupt. It never did any good. "Oh, yes, there is that one. Only it’s unreadable because of the fire damage, if you remember. The fire damage caused by its previous owner, of whom only a small pile of ashes was found. Was that the copy to which you were referring?"

Ron muttered something. To Harry’s amazement, Ron managed to not sink under this blow, but instead to rally. "But it’s Snape’s—"

"The Professor’s—"

"Last chance! He’s been in a coma for nearly two months now. Plus, the book’s from Dumbledore. And Fawkes brought it to us. And the spell doesn’t mention any flames at all – and neither does the potion." Ron was evidently feeling the strain of Hermione’s disapproving silence.

Hermione took an deep breath but said nothing. Harry seized the opportunity to tug on Hermione’s arm and the trio shuffled further down the corridor, slipping unnoticed past a Healer. The Silencing Spell still held, much to Harry’s relief. Although if it didn’t, then it would make their job much easier, he thought. They wouldn’t need the phoenix magic to wake Snape – the racket that Ron and Hermione were making would do fine.

It had been several days after the final battle that Harry had discovered that Snape – rather than dying, as Harry had thought, in the dirty shack – had in fact lived. After Harry had left to view Snape’s memories, Hermione had made the snap decision to Apparate Snape’s corpse to St. Mungo’s. Only, it was less his corpse and more his still-living body – technically alive, but his heart beating so sporadically that the Healers shook their heads and muttered to each other. Now Snape lay, cold and motionless, in the Janus Thickey ward – healed of the snake’s venom but making no move to rejoin the living, and trapped in a coma that no magic had managed to penetrate.

"I know it’s from Dumbledore," Hermione said after a moment’s silence. "I’m not an idiot, Ronald. Fawkes wouldn’t have carried the parcel for anyone else. He’s a phoenix, not a post owl." She wrenched on Harry’s arm – harder than necessary, he thought – tugging him against the wall as a group of Healers passed by.

Once the coast was clear, Harry manoeuvred himself between Ron and Hermione and seized them by the arms, just above their elbows. He started to move, setting a brisk pace as they continued towards Snape’s private room on the ward.

When they stopped to catch their breath, Hermione opened her mouth.

"Yeah, I know," Ron said. “Sorry.”

Hermione closed her mouth again.

"We can’t know for certain it’s from Dumbledore, can we? The bloke’s dead. What if this is a really big mistake? A mistake of epic proportions? What if, instead of bringing Snape back to full health, we unleash a demon from the nether hells or bring You-Know-Wh – V-V-Voldemort – back to life?"

"Don’t be silly, Ron," Hermione said after a moment. "The healing potion seems sensible enough – tears, feathers and blood, freely given." She frowned. "It’s only so rare because phoenixes themselves are so rare. All documentation about the potion mentions it as a kind of wonderful myth, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t exist."

"But the spell?" Ron asked. He was digging the dirt out from under his fingernails.

Hermione snapped his hand away and Ron jumped, turning his attention to a spot of dirt on his jumper.

Hermione grimaced and looked away. “I don’t know what the spell is.”

Ron stopped picking and turned to gape at her. Harry thought he probably had a similar gormless expression on his own face. Hermione admitting there was something she didn’t know? That she hadn’t been able to research? They’d had the spell-book for almost two months now, brewing the potion and arguing over whether to use it. In that time, Hermione’d barely been out of the Hogwarts library. She’d even been allowed to stay in the Gryffindor dormitory, despite it being the summer holidays.

Hermione’s eyes widened and her bottom lip trembled. "What if you’re right, Ron? What if this is all a terrible mistake and, instead of healing the Professor, we just make things worse? I have no idea what the spell means. It’s not in any language I’ve ever heard of. It’s nonsense. It could be gobbledegook for all I know – or a household spell for cleaning dishes or an incantation to raise an army of flesh-eating spiders!"

Ron paled but squeezed her arm. "It’ll be fine. Won’t it, Harry, mate?"

Harry thought about that. He hoped it would be, but you never could tell. Things had a nasty habit of never going as planned. The corridor was empty once more so he propelled Ron and Hermione along until they found a door marked "Patient: S. Snape – Admittance To Certified Healers Only".

"It had better work,” Hermione muttered, clutching her tiny bag close to her. “Think of the trouble we’ll be in if it all goes wrong!”

Ron shuddered and muttered something under his breath. Harry chose to ignore them both. As soon as he was sure no-one was around he grasped the door handle and pulled. They slid inside the room, closing the door behind them.

*****

Harry had known in advance what state Snape was in – he’d seen the pictures in the Daily Prophet. He’d expected Snape to look white and awful, hooked up to a combination of Muggle monitoring devices and wizard contraptions. Apparently nothing was helping, though. The Healers had admitted themselves baffled, and early optimism and enthusiasm to try anything had long since waned into "keeping the patient comfortable".

Harry had expected Snape to look ill. He hadn’t expected him to look dead.

"Don’t move," Hermione whispered. She gripped Harry’s arm. "I need to cast the privacy spells first. We need to make sure we’re not interrupted, remember?"

Harry nodded, his eyes locked on Snape’s still form.

He was so pale. Except for where he was dark, that was – big, purplish-black shadows making the skin under his eyes look bruised, his black hair a contrast against his white skin. His eyes were open, although he didn’t move a single muscle when the three friends emerged from under the Cloak. He didn’t blink. He looked like he was barely breathing; the sheet under which he lay could have been a shroud rather than a covering.

Harry shivered. "Let’s get on with it."

Ron nodded, chewing on his lip and glancing around. "Agreed, mate. He’s more terrifying like this than he ever was alive."

Hermione shot him a look, pulling the Cloak off from over them and tucking it under her arm.

"Of course, he’s still alive now,” Ron said, backtracking. “Really, the spell’s going to work, Hermione. It’s going to work, and we’re not going to get in trouble, and Snape’ll be awake and… Shit.” Ron started to pace up and down. “I’m not sure I want to be around when he wakes up."

"He’s on our side, Ron," Hermione said, rummaging around in her tiny bag. "Ah! Here we are. One book and one vial of Regeneration Elixir." She pulled them out, pushing the Cloak into the bag in their place.

"Brilliant," Harry said, reaching out for the book.

Hermione held the book in her arms, tight against her chest. "Are you sure you don't want me to do it?"

"Why? Dumbledore sent the book to me, so I reckon I should."

Hermione didn't move, so Harry reached over and tugged it from her hands. "Anyone would think you had no faith in my spell work."

Hermione laughed, very high pitched. "Not at all! I just think—"

"Let's get on with it, shall we?" Harry said, clenching his jaw. He opened the book, cracking the spine back and trying to ignore Hermione's wince.

Hermione sighed and tugged at the cork that sealed the vial. "Fine, I’ll do this bit." She walked over to Snape, the heels of her shoes echoing on the hard floor. Taking a deep breath she reached down with one hand to prise his mouth open. "Oh," she said, "he’s not as stiff as I thought he would be."

Hermione's fingers shook as she tipped the vial to his mouth, a dribble of the thick, red liquid pouring between his lips. "It… smells like blood," she said and paused for a moment before feeding Snape a little more of the liquid. After a moment, Snape’s throat moved.

"Hermione, he swallowed!" Ron said.

Hermione frowned and tipped a little more into Snape’s mouth, allowing a stream of liquid to trickle out of the vial until he’d swallowed it all. Then she stepped back, corking the vial and putting it back in her bag.

"Nothing terrible’s happened yet," Ron said with a grin. He’d stopped pacing and was leaning up against a wall, his arms crossed. "I don’t know what we were worrying about. Off you go then, Harry. Your turn."

Harry recited the spell. It was two stanzas of nonsense verse and he wasn't convinced it would work. But then Dumbledore had never let him down before, had he? Even though he never explained his plans in advance. Even dead he didn't explain his plans in advance. Just expected Harry to follow blindly or, in this case, to believe that the parcel and accompanying letter, sent from beyond the grave, were genuine.

Harry waved his wand in the complicated swirl he’d been practising until his arm ached and…

Nothing.

Snape just lay there, still in a coma and still – to all appearances – dead.

"Um. Are you sure you said that last syllable right?" Hermione asked. She tapped her foot on the floor. "You said ‘aaah’, when I’m sure it was more of an ‘argh’, or possibly an—"

"Argh," Harry said and stabbed his wand in Snape’s general direction. "I said it fine the first time around, Herm—"

"Oh shit," Ron said, hysteria bubbling up in his voice. "Shit!"

Hermione and Harry stopped glaring at each other and turned, as one, to look at Snape.

He was on fire.

Snape's skin flickered with orange flames, the sheets catching alight and the fire grabbing hold of the bed itself in the space of a heartbeat. Snape’s body… twisted for a moment before the smoke concealed him from view.

"Fuck!" Harry yelled, attempting to cast a loud Aguamenti in Snape’s direction, but instead hitting Hermione with a jet of freezing water.

Spluttering, Hermione also cast the spell, her aim more successful. The water evaporated into a sizzling steam as soon as it hit the flames. The smell was harsh and choking and when Ron attempted to also cast the spell he couldn’t speak for coughing.

A siren sounded and a light rain began to fall from the ceiling, growing heavier as the fire continued to burn.

"Snape!" Harry called, trying to fight his way through the smoke and get to the unconscious man. Hermione and Ron grabbed his arms and held him back.

"It’s no use, Harry," Hermione yelled in his ear, barely audible against the siren and the roaring of the flames. "He wouldn’t thank you if you died for no reason."

"He won’t thank us for burning him to death, either," Harry yelled back, his eyes watering as he fired water spell after water spell into the thick whiteness. The floor was swimming but the water wasn't working, the rising flames no less fierce.

There was a popping noise.

"Oh, Merlin," Hermione said. "There go our privacy spells."

The door to Snape’s room was flung open and a Healer screamed as a tide of water slopped out into the hallway. "Fiiiiiiiire!" she yelled, "fire!"

Quickly the doorway was full of Healers, each focusing a powerful water spell on the area where the bed had been – still completely obscured by smoke.

Except now the smoke wasn’t spreading. It was, in fact, getting thinner.

"Switch the alarm off!" Hermione yelled. "Quiet, everybody!"

The alarm was silenced and Harry’s ears rung. The only noise was the rapid whoosh of water issuing from a dozen wands.

"The fire’s out," Hermione said. She stepped, hiding her bag behind Ron and sliding the book into it. "You can all stop now."

"Young lady, I require an explanation this minute," a Healer said, pointing his wand in the direction of the trio. His hands shook "I am aware of who you are, but this looks like murd—"

Harry opened his mouth to interrupt when there was a cough.

It came from behind him.

Hermione whispered a smoke-clearing spell and took a step back, clutching at Ron.

"What," the figure on the bed, half-concealed by the fading smoke, asked tartly, "the fuck is this?"

Harry mouth opened and his jaw dropped. He was surprised he hadn’t fallen down, his legs felt so rubbery.

"S-S-Snape?" he said, taking an unsteady step forwards.

"Potter," the figure sneered and coughed again. "I should have guessed. It would be unlikely that any situation wherein I awake, both soaking wet and yet also smoking around the edges, should not have you at its centre. I ask again, what the fuck is this?"

"Um," Harry said. Was he going insane, or had Snape… changed? Since when did he swear? He never had – not once in all the years that Harry had known him. He looked…

"Spare me," the figure muttered, huddling up against the wall. "You failed to kill me with the werewolf, so you thought you’d have another go? Well, we’ve left school now, Potter. I have friends in high places. You’ll regret this, I swear to you."

"You’re… you’re…" Harry said. He looked around the Healers, but they just stared back and made no move to help him out.

The last of the smoke cleared, revealing a ruined bed with a charred mattress, and… Snape. His hospital-issue pyjamas fell in burned rags around him, barely covering his modesty. It was obvious it was him, despite the… change.

Snape’s face was dark with rage and embarrassment and he tried to shrink even further against the wall.

"S-S-Snape?" Harry asked again, groping for words.

Snape's eyes narrowed. "You look like James but you’re not him, are you?"

"I’m Harry," Harry mumbled.

Snape stared back, his expression free from recognition.

"Professor Snape," Hermione started, but faltered when Snape turned to look at her instead.

"Who are you, miss?" Never before had so much bile been inserted into the word ‘miss’.

"Hermione Granger, sir," Hermione squeaked. "How… How old are you?"

Snape stared at her. The fingers of his right hand twitched and Harry was glad Snape didn’t appear to have a wand. "What?" Snape asked. “Why does that matter?

"Just answer the question," Ron said. Snape turned to look at him instead and Ron went the same colour as his hair, taking a hasty step backwards and eyeing the door with longing.

"I’m eighteen," Snape said. "Although I don’t see the relevance of your inquiry."

Hermione was peering into her bag, her lips moving. Harry suspected she had the spell book open inside it. Hermione looked up at Snape's words, her brow creasing. "Eighteen? Are you sure?"

Snape sat up straighter, raising his head to stare at her. His upper lip curled. "Are you suggesting that I am mentally incompetent?"

"No," Hermione said, "but—"

"It’s just," Ron interrupted, "you were pushing sixty when we saw you five minutes ago."

"Ron," Hermione said, shoving him in the ribs. "The Professor’s the same age as Harry’s parents." She tucked the spell book under her arm. Her fingers moved and her mouth worked. Harry nearly laughed at the idea of Hermione being stressed enough to have to use her fingers to count.

"Thirty-eight," Hermione said. “I think.” She stared at her fingers, counting to herself.

"Yeah," Harry said, not entirely paying attention. The date of Snape’s birth wasn’t really the point, was it? "You… You don’t remember what happened?" He took a step closer to Snape.

Snape didn't move but his body stiffened and his eyes narrowed.

Harry felt something push at his mind. It wasn’t subtle or skilled, but he knew exactly what it was – and he was having none of it. He shoved back at the probing sensation as hard as he could.

Snape jerked and his hands tightened around his knees. He stared at Harry with an expression that wasn’t pleasant. "You know Occlumency."

"You taught it to me," Harry said.

Snape's knuckles were yellow with the pressure of his grip. "I’ve never met you before."

"We’ve known each other for six years," Harry said. He felt sick to his stomach. What the hell had gone wrong with the spell? Snape was awake so it had worked, but there was no doubt they'd cocked it up.

"Ow!" Ron said.

Harry turned towards him. He was rubbing his side and glaring at an elderly Healer who'd pushed her way past and was moving towards Snape, a blanket in one hand and her wand in the other.

"Mr Snape, do you think you could stand?" the Healer asked. She tossed him the blanket and he grabbed it, winding it around himself. "We should move you to more comfortable surroundings."

"Come on," Hermione whispered. "Let’s leave the Healer to it."

Ron nodded. "She's got bloody sharp elbows, that woman."

The three of them began to move towards the door.

"I do not think so," the Healer said, whirling round with her wand raised. "You and your friends have a great deal of explaining to do."

*****

"Professor McGonagall should be back by now," Hermione said once more, making fitful progress through the enormous, yellow-tinged volume of magical history on the table in front of her.

Harry looked up from the book he was studying. He hadn’t been making any progress whatsoever. He’d been turning pages, but the words made no sense – blurring into nonsense and refusing to stick in his brain for longer than a second. "What do you think we did wrong?" he asked, for the tenth or eleventh time in the past half hour.

Hermione shook her head, still flicking through the book. "I don’t know. There’s nothing here except rumours and hearsay – myths and legends without any concrete basis. It’s infuriating!"

"How much trouble do you think we’re in?" Ron asked, drumming a tuneless tattoo on the tabletop. He exchanged a glance with Harry and they both winced.

Harry shut the book in front of him with a thud. "It’s going to be bad."

"Nonsense," Hermione said. She smiled brightly. "We revived him from his coma. So he’s not exactly how we remembered, but I’m sure the Professors and the Healers will be able to fix him. Make him—"

"Older," Harry supplied.

"Uglier," Ron said at the same time as Harry and blushed when Hermione and Harry turned incredulous stares at him. "What? It’s true. He’s not nearly so awful at the moment – it’s chilling. Gives me the willies, it does, being able to look at him and not wanting to be sick." He shuddered. "Grim stuff."

"You’re…" Hermione said, shaking her head and obviously trying not to smile. "You’re unbelievable, you are."

Ron grinned and tipped his chair back, shoving his feet on the desk. "I aim to please, my lady."

"Mr Weasley, take your feet off that table this instant!" Professor McGonagall snapped, appearing from behind a stack of books.

Ron jumped and his chair tipped too far back. He fell onto the floor with a crash, a tangle of man and chair.

Professor McGonagall ignored his moans and sat down next to Harry, pretending not to notice when Ron managed to right the chair and sat back down, shame-faced. "Now, Harry, what is this mess you’ve created? The Healer told me a most peculiar tale, but I would prefer to hear it from its source." She sighed and took off her hat. "I’m getting old, Potter. Try to make this short. Exactly how – and why, for Merlin’s sake – have you resurrected our Severus as an eighteen-year-old boy?"

"Um," Harry said. "Well."

The Headmistress rolled her eyes. "Out with it, Potter. I do not have all night. Severus will be arriving within the hour."

"He’s coming back here?" Ron all but squeaked. "Snape?"

Professor McGonagall pursed her lips. "Yes, Mr Weasley. Hogwarts is the closest thing that Severus has ever had to a real home and there will always be a place for him here. In any case, as you three were the instruments of this disaster I will, of course be looking to you for the solution. Mr Potter, I am still waiting for my explanation."

"I got a package from Dumbledore," Harry said, wondering if the Professor would believe him. The more he thought about it, the crazier it sounded.

"Albus?" Professor McGonagall asked. "Do not tell me that you have resurrected him as well, Potter. There is only so much strain my nerves can take."

Harry laughed. "You've got the strongest nerves out of any of us," he said.

McGonagall's lips twitched. "Be that as it may, Potter, kindly go on with your explanation."

"Oh," Harry said. "Right. Dumbledore must have written it before he died. The final part of his will, that's what he wrote in the letter. He left it to Snape in case he needed it."

"It?" Professor McGonagall asked. She tapped a finger on the desktop.

"Yes, Professor McGonagall," Hermione said, pushing the ancient book towards her. "This. Two pages were clearly marked – a healing potion and a revitalising spell. Fawkes carried the parcel to us, so we weren’t worried it was anything Dark."

"Weren’t too worried," Harry muttered and Ron laughed, avoiding Hermione's eyes.

"Thank you for your support, Harry, Ron," Hermione said with a sniff. She turned back towards Professor McGonagall. "It didn’t make sense, how he would know about Professor Snape, but…" She shrugged. "Fawkes offered up the ingredients for the potion so we went ahead."

McGonagall opened the book to an animated drawing of a phoenix. They all watched as a line drawing of a large dragon swooped down on the phoenix and began to…

Hermione craned her neck. "Is that dragon really—"

"Yes, Miss Granger," McGonagall said. “I am afraid it is.”

They all watched for a bit longer as the very male dragon copulated with the phoenix. When the phoenix – in a splash of vermillion – began to give birth, McGonagall shut the book with a loud snap. "It's a wonder you didn't kill Severus," she said. "Why – in Merlin's name – didn't you tell anyone what you were doing?"

Hermione stared at the book under McGonagall's hands. "It never showed us that before," she said. Then she straightened up and met McGonagall's eyes. "Dumbledore never let us down," she said. "Whatever he told Harry to do was always for the best."

"You are a reckless girl," McGonagall said.

Harry frowned. That wasn't fair. "It wasn't just—" he started.

"Don't interrupt me, Potter," McGonagall said, drawing her eyebrows together. She turned back towards Hermione. "As I was going to say, you are reckless but you would not be such an asset to this House if you were not." She smiled and reached for her hat. "Severus is well once more! I have no great doubts that we will be able to reverse his affliction. I hope that in the meantime you will be kind to him. It appears he has no memories of his adult life, and is no doubt feeling confused."

"Of course, Professor," Harry said, wondering how hard it would be to be kind to Snape. He suspected very. Ron muttered something that sounded like an affirmative, but Hermione smiled hard at McGonagall. "We’ll be the friends he never had."

*****

There was the sound of something breaking and a portrait of an elderly witch fled through the frames along the corridor, shrieking as she went.

Clutching her hat, Professor McGonagall ran towards to the source of the noise with impressive speed, the three friends bringing up the rear. Rounding the corner, they came up against Severus Snape and two red-faced ward assistants from St. Mungo’s, who were doing their best to restrain him. The wreck of a small table lay on the floor, pieces of a vase strewn down the corridor – and the portrait in front of Snape sporting a new, jagged cut; a shard of pottery stuck right through it.

"Scum!" Snape shrieked, attempting to pull away from the two men. "Let me get my hand on my wand and we’ll see if you’re laughing then!"

"Severus," Professor McGonagall snapped. "Calm yourself."

Snape stopped struggling immediately and raised his chin. "Kindly tell these trained monkeys to let me go," he said, his voice tinged with hysteria.

"Let go of him at once," McGonagall said, taking a step forwards. "Now, Severus, what is—"

"Don’t touch me," Snape said. He was breathing very fast and his face was tight and red. Harry wondered if he were half a breath away from tears.

McGonagall stopped dead. "Of course. Let’s all sit go and sit down with a nice cup of tea. I’m sure we’ll all feel better for a nice cup of tea, won’t we?"

"And a lemon drop?" Snape's expression twisted into a sneer. "I bet that old bastard’s around here somewhere, ready to leap out and try and take advantage of this farce."

"Professor Dumbledore is dead, my boy," McGonagall said.

"Yeah, it was you that killed him," Ron added and yelped as Hermione’s elbow connected with his ribs. "What?"

"Now wasn’t the best time to reveal that," Hermione said. "Have some compassion."

"Why? He’s not exactly been a fount of compassion for us over the years. He’s a right bastard, all things considered. Just because he was on our side, doesn’t make him any nicer." Ron glared in Snape’s direction, carefully avoiding looking in Snape’s eyes. "Let’s not forget that, if he’s really lost his memory, he probably still considers himself a Death Eater at the moment, the git."

Harry watched Snape’s face contort, twisting between confusion and anger. His hands were clenched into fists by his side.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

"Weasley," Snape said, his eyes darting from face to face and settling on Ron’s. "Arthur Weasley. That’s who you look like. Always sucking face with that girl who’s constantly knitting." His eyes moved to Hermione. "You’re not her. You look like you’d be too busy sucking a lemon to get a date." He smirked.

Hermione scowled. "Ron’s right. You really are a git. I don’t know why we even considered being your friends."

Snape's face turned a dirty yellow-stained pink. "As if I’d want to ever be friends with a little girl like you. I have much more important things to be getting on with. So, if you don’t mind, let’s just end this ridiculous charade and get back to our lives, shall we?"

"We’re not playing pretend, you prat!" Hermione said. "You were in a coma and we brought you back to life."

"Miss Granger, that’s enough!" Professor McGonagall said. "The Healers explained it to you at St. Mungo’s, did they not, Severus?" she continued. "I know it must be hard to take in, but they were telling you the truth." She took a step forward and held out a hand.

Snape stared at the proffered hand and crossed his arms tight against his chest. "Oh, yes," he said, staring into the middle distance. "It’s 1998, I’m a middle-aged man and I’m – what was it that bitch of a portrait said? – oh, yes, ‘a murdering traitor’ who, according to the Arthur look-alike over there, killed Dumbledore. Well, excuse me for not swallowing a pack of lies like a good little boy."

"But… my boy, how do you explain how I’ve aged?" the Professor asked, her rejected hand dropping by her side.

"And how I’m not Arthur, and Harry here’s not his dad," Ron said. He took a small step back and there was a loud crunch of glass under foot.

Snape stared at him. “Are you some kind of idiot?” he asked, watching in fascination as Ron tried to scrape the shards of glass off the bottom of his shoe, hopping on the spot. “We are wizards. Appearance-altering spells are child’s play." He turned to Harry and, hawking up a wad of saliva, spat in his face. "That is what I think of you, James Potter."

Harry stood there, Snape’s spit sliding down his cheek. He didn’t know what the right reaction was to that. He felt a bit like hexing Snape, but Snape was unarmed, wasn’t he?

Hermione pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her robe, her face grim, and wiped at Harry’s face.

"You are a spoiled boy with no manners," she said to Snape, putting her hanky back up her sleeve with a grimace, "and you should be ashamed of yourself. We’re only trying to help."

Snape took a step forward but Hermione held her ground.

"What, you going to pull my hair or something?" she challenged. "I’ll pull yours back."

"Little girl, I can do much worse."

"Not without your wand," Hermione said, clutching hers tight in her hand and raising it.

"Enough!" Professor McGonagall said.

Snape subsided, taking a step back. He bent his head forward a fraction and his long hair fell in front of his face.

"Let us adjourn to the Headmaster’s office for some privacy. We will have tea and we will talk about this like the civilised adults that we are. I will brook no more of this insolence."

Hermione opened her mouth to speak.

"That goes for you too, Miss Granger," Professor McGonagall said. "Come. We have much to discuss."

*****

Harry had seen many awful, horrific things in his life. He thought that he’d never seen anything as disturbing, though, as the look on Snape’s face when he saw the portrait of himself in Dumbledore’s office. He’d never seen anyone go white before, but Snape’s skin drained of colour. Though he didn’t go white exactly – more of a blotchy, mottled pale yellow. He looked like a walking corpse.

Harry, wanting to look anywhere but at Snape, stared at the portrait. He wondered why it was in such a scorched state, the paint damaged and peeling. Snape looked… very Snape-like. His portrait sneered down at the room, its face twisted and unpleasant. The painter hadn’t spared Snape’s feelings and the hair had a disgusting sheen, as did Snape’s skin itself. His nose seemed to fill the whole world – hooked and bent – topping off the scowl to perfection. Harry had never seen a pantomime, but he’d occasionally looked at the programmes that Dudley had brought home and tossed aside – he was reminded, with a sudden rush, of a picture of a hook-nosed villain, scowling out the pages of one such programme.

Harry supposed it would be a shock to discover that that was what you looked like later in life. Teenage Snape wasn’t going to be winning any prizes for beauty, but – as Ron had said – he wasn’t as repellent and, well, undead and evil looking as middle-aged Snape.

Harry wondered why he was the only person to notice that Snape was having a silent break-down, right in front of them. He felt uncomfortable. He wasn’t good at this sort of stuff. It was much more Hermione’s thing, judging how people were feeling and all that. He glanced over at her, hoping to catch her eye.

"I wonder why the portrait looks as if it’s been on fire," Hermione said. She was peering at the portrait, her head on one side.

Professor McGonagall walked up to it with interest. "The house-elves did say something about the portrait being odd," she admitted. "I can’t say I paid much attention. I thought they were being silly and superstitious." She touched the portrait with a fingertip and frowned. "It was certainly a magical portrait when we had it brought in here – primed for the, ah, inevitable," she said, glancing at Snape.

"Of course! Magical portrait lore," Hermione said. She didn’t have her hand up, but she had a determined ‘pick me!’ expression on her face.

‘Here we go again,’ Ron mouthed at Harry and grinned. "Go on, enlighten us, Hermione."

"Well, you know how only wizards who are dead can have magical portraits, right?"

Harry looked at her.

"Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed? Oh, Harry! How unobservant can you get?" Hermione rolled her eyes and half-rose towards a bookshelf, before sitting back down with a smile and a shake of her head. "Never mind. That’s not really the point. Only deceased wizards can have magical portraits – before a witch or wizard dies, their portrait exists in a state of potential."

"Potential?" Harry repeated. "Wha—"

"Oh, you know. Not moving, but ready to spring alive once the person has passed. It’s really a fascinating branch of magic, you know. Timing is everything in many ways."

"What’s that got to do with this?" Harry asked. He could see Snape out of the corner of his eye. The colour was returning to his face, but he was still staring at the portrait as if he’d seen a ghost. Harry supposed that, in a way, he had.

"The portrait’s linked to the witch or wizard while they’re still alive, of course. It looks as if the spell we cast has had an effect on the portrait as well as the Professor himself."

"It’s completely free of magic now," Professor McGonagall said, stepping away from the portrait and sitting at Dumbledore’s desk. "It’s as if the link had drained all magic from it; the portrait unable to hold up under the strain." She pursed her lips. "Most intriguing."

"That’s… me," Snape said in a quiet, odd voice. His hands were deep in the pockets of his robe and a muscle in the side of his face twitched.

"Yes, Severus, it is indeed. Now, do come and sit down." McGonagall called for a house elf, who left and came back within seconds with a heavy tray of tea-things and three different kinds of cake.

Snape didn’t move.

Harry turned to Hermione, but she had her nose in a book and was rifling through the pages, her lips moving. Ron had his eye fixed on the cake. Harry sighed. He was going to have to comfort Snape, wasn’t he? “Are you okay?” he asked, shuffling over to Snape. He kept his distance just in case. He didn’t think Snape had a wand on him, but after seeing what he could do with a vase that wasn’t very reassuring.

Snape turned to him, his face closed down. "Who are you?" he said.

"I’m Harry," Harry said, taken aback by the venom in Snape’s voice. "Harry Potter. Er. You were at school with my mum and dad. James and Lily."

“Lily Evans?” Snape asked.

“Er, yes,” Harry said. He’d hoped that Snape would remember that bit. Evidently not. Harry wasn’t certain what Snape’s feelings had been for his mother, but he knew enough to know that he wouldn’t be happy about her marrying James Potter.

"Lily married James?" Snape said. The flare of hurt in his eyes was unmistakable. "I hope they’re very happy together.”

Words were a funny thing, Harry thought. They could be perfectly polite, but if you said them a certain way they sounded anything but. "They’re, ah, dead," Harry mumbled. "You really don’t remember anything, do you? They were killed by Voldemort when I was a baby."

Snape’s eyes were black holes in his face – no feeling, no emotion behind them. "How could I forget that?" he said. Harry couldn’t tell if it were a statement or a question.

"Harry," Professor McGonagall said, the word holding a warning. "Don’t overwhelm Severus. Both of you sit down please."

"Why?" Snape asked, curling his arms around himself. "So I can find out who else I murdered, while I sit with the children of my school friends and drink tea?"

"Sit DOWN, Severus."

Snape did so. He perched on the edge of the seat as if he were ready to flee, refusing to take any tea or cake.

Harry, suddenly hungry, dug into a huge slice of fruitcake. He could feel Snape watching him but he refused to be irritated. This was going to be a challenge and a trial, no doubt about it, but he’d conquered Voldemort. Sorting out Snape could hardly be difficult compared to that.

*****

Harry thought that, if he made a list of the worst days of his life, while there’d be a good many he could choose from, the last few would certainly make it high up on the list. He’d had to go through his story – from receiving the package to brewing the potion with Hermione and Ron to casting the spell – so often that he was reciting it by rote. He’d been tested for residual Dark Magics by so many different witches and wizards that he wanted to scream. He’d been interrogated and poked and probed and...

"I’ve had enough," he said to the Healer who was asking him, for the millionth time, exactly how he’d said the spell that had changed Snape.

The Healer blinked. "I’m sorry?"

"I’ve had enough," Harry repeated. "I’ve told you what happened. If you don’t believe me, that’s too bad. I’m not going over it again."

"But you must," the Healer said. She dropped her quill, a huge ink blot spreading across her parchment. “Sit back down at once.”

"No he mustn’t," Hermione said, tugging on Harry’s arm and leading him towards the door. "We’ve all had enough, thank you. We’ll be in our quarters if you have any new questions, but we’re tired and we need a break."

Later, in the Gryffindor common room with Hermione and Ron, Harry felt a bit guilty that Snape was presumably still in the hospital wing being poked and prodded, still having to answer interminable questions. He didn’t have any friends to stick up for him.

"Why don’t we, er, ask Snape if he wants to hang out with us this evening?" Harry said.

There was a surprised silence. Harry felt just as shocked at the words that’d come out of his mouth as Ron looked.

"That git? In our common room?" Ron asked.

"That’s a nice idea, Harry," Hermione said, putting on her ‘doing her duty’ face. It was the same face she wore when she mentioned S.P.E.W. "I’ll go and get him now."

Ron turned to Harry when Hermione had left the room. "Are you stark raving mad? Inviting a Slytherin into our common room? What are we going to do with him once he gets here? I doubt he’s going to want to play Exploding Snap. He’s the nasty little sort that’ll probably jinx our marshmallows and spike our Butterbeer." He wrinkled his nose and lay back against the sofa, his fingers patting his pocket for his wand.

Harry smiled and shrugged. "It was only a suggestion. I didn’t expect Hermione to actually go for it."

"Are you joking? Did you see the glint in her eye? She’ll be making "Give Snape a Chance" badges before we have a chance to blink, and making us sign petitions until our fingers drop off," Ron said. He shuddered and sat up, reaching for a box of sweets on the table in front of him. “It’s enough to drive a man to drink. Or, at least, eat so many Chocolate Frogs he turns into one. He chucked a packet at Harry and grabbed one himself.

Harry grinned, unwrapping the Frog and grabbing it by the leg before it could escape. "How do you put up with her?"

Ron went bright red and stuffed his mouth with chocolate. "I, er…" he mumbled through a mouth full of brown.

"I was joking," Harry said with a laugh.

Ron smiled and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "It, er, has its benefits," he said, making a lewd gesture and winking suggestively.

"Oh, Merlin, no," Harry said, trying not to picture his two best friends naked and writhing and failing miserably. "What a thought."

"Sorry, mate," Ron said. He leaned over and punched Harry on the arm before reaching for another Frog. "By the way," he said. He opened up the Frog and swore as it leaped, bouncing away across the corridor and hiding behind the rubbish bin. Ron looked down at the chocolate stain it had left on his jumper. He picked at it with a fingernail. “What’s, er, happening with you and Ginny?"

"Oh," Harry said. He turned his attention to the wrapped Chocolate Frog in his hand. "Um."

"It’s none of my business, I know," Ron said, "but I did tell her that if the reason you’ve been looking a bit miserable lately was her fault, I’d punch her in the jaw. She protested at that, but Hermione’s been telling me all about equal opportunities, and I’m feeling quite the modern man these days."

Harry laughed. He tore open the chocolate packet and popped the Frog into his mouth, screwing up his forehead in thought. To be honest, he wasn’t positive what had happened between Ginny and himself. The only thing he knew for certain was that nothing had. They’d decided – at least, Ginny had decided and he'd agreed, thinking that he should probably be feeling more miserable about it – to give being ‘just friends’ a try, and see where that got them. "No punching necessary."

Ron lay back, putting his hands behind his neck. "As long as you’re both happy, mate, then I’m happy too."

Hermione re-entered the common room, Snape conspicuous by his absence. She sat down, her face flushed. She looked like a woman who was counting to ten to prevent herself from saying something rude.

"No Snape?" Ron asked, whistling a happy tune as he lay back. "What a pity."

"He decided he’d rather sulk— I mean, he’d rather study old newspapers than play with kids," Hermione said. She sat down with her hands on her knees and glared at the wall like it had done something to offend her.

"Great," Ron said. He jumped up and tuned the wireless to a Celestina Warbeck hit. He waltzed around the common room until Hermione burst into fits of giggles. "Who wants Snape cluttering up the place, anyway?"

The next day, Professor McGonagall came into the Gryffindor common room and told them that they could return to the Burrow if they chose. "You are all planning on returning in September to complete your Seventh Year, are you not?"

Harry tried not to groan. He’d defeated the Dark Lord – was it really necessary that he got his NEWTs? Apparently yes, according to Kingsley, who’d refused to take him on as an Auror until he was fully qualified. "Go away and do your studies, Harry," he’d said. When Harry had complained Kingsley had grinned and threatened to Imperius Harry if he refused. "Come back in a year and we’ll start you on Auror training then," Kingsley repeated. Harry knew he wanted to be an Auror so he’d decided to put up with another year of school. It didn’t mean he was excited about it though, however much Hermione went on about it.

"Oh, yes, Professor! We’re all so looking forward to it," Hermione said. "I’ve already read my way through all the textbooks twice in preparation."

Ron and Harry exchanged a gloomy look.

"Good," Professor McGonagall said. "I’ll expect you all in my office after the welcoming feast. I hope to have made some progress on Severus’ condition by then."

"He’s staying at Hogwarts?" Ron asked, wrinkling his nose.

Professor McGonagall frowned at Ron. "Yes, Mr Weasley. We’ve discussed matters and it is likely that Severus will be joining some of the Seventh Year classes. Much of his knowledge is nearly 20 years out of date. He has expressed an interest in finding out where modern wizardry is heading."

"What?" Ron said. "But—"

"I trust you will afford him the full respect he deserves, as your elder and as a man who has been through much – even if right now he barely knows it," the Professor continued, fixing Ron with her glittering eye. "That means you as well, Mr Potter," she said, turning toward Harry to include him in her lecture.

"Er, yes, of course, Professor," Harry said. Of course he would be kind to Snape. He would be kind to Snape, even if the effort of doing it killed him. The man was a bastard, but Harry could be decent to him. He owed him that much at least.

*****

Ron, Harry and Hermione paused outside the Great Hall for a moment. They looked at each other – the sort of wordless, comforting look that passes between true friends. Harry tried to smile.

"You okay?" Hermione asked, her voice low.

Harry nodded, then blushed as he realised her question was aimed at Ron. Ron’s jaw was set, and it was painfully obvious – even to Harry – that he was struggling with tears. Somehow, being in Hogwarts just a few weeks previously hadn’t been so hard. Empty of students, it had an appropriate sombre, quiet atmosphere. Now the Great Hall was buzzing, packed with jostling students making far too much noise.

Harry felt an odd mixture of happiness and grief. He didn’t know what he’d expected, exactly. It wasn’t that he wanted any grim reminders of the battle fought within these very walls. But… A lump grew at the back of his throat and he blinked hard.

After the victory Madam Pomfrey had taken him aside and gently suggested that, although Muggle in origin, talk therapy had a lot going for it. Would he, perhaps? Harry had thought about that for, oh, at least a few seconds, and politely declined. The idea of sitting in a room and talking non-stop about himself to a sympathetic witch felt both awkward and self-indulgent. He’d never been the sort to wallow in his grief. He just wanted to get on with things. After all, the dead were dead and he didn’t see how talking about it could make it any better.

Looking around at the Hogwarts students – the mass of bodies failing to make up for those students who would be absent forever – he wondered if he should have taken Madam Pomfrey up on her offer. Then Ron put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and Harry – guiltily – felt a stab of joy. He was alive. His best friends were alive. He was finally free of Voldemort’s shadow - and free to do, and be, whatever he chose.

Ron rubbed at his face and half-grinned at Harry. "We should go in. McGonagall will have a fit if we’re late."

Harry smiled back as best he could, and Hermione tucked her hand into the crook of his arm.

"Maybe they won’t make a big deal?" Harry whispered as they all walked towards the Gryffindor table.

"Fat chance of that, mate," Ron whispered back. "You’re a hero!"

Harry quickened his pace, looking down at his feet. "No more than anyone else," he mumbled. "You’re as bad as the Daily Prophet."

Ron whacked him. "If I were as bad as the Prophet I’d be regaling the audience with tales of your dating triumphs and singing praises of your silky hair and penetrating eyes." Ron turned to Hermione. "Will you stop elbowing me, Hermione? I’m making a successful attempt to embarrass Harry, and you’re ruining it."

"Hush," Hermione whispered. "People are…" She trailed off, obviously unsure what to say.

Harry tried not to flinch. They were so close to the Gryffindor table – all he wanted was to slide in and not be the centre of attention for once. He looked around. Everyone had stood up and, instead of applauding, they were just… staring. It was a relief when a couple of people started to clap and the action was soon copied, the whole school body erupting into cheers and whoops.

Harry grinned, feeling simultaneously proud and mortified. He hadn’t done anything special, really. He’d only done what anyone else would have done in his situation. Well, with the exception of Malfoy, perhaps, he thought, catching Malfoy’s eye for a split second. Malfoy was clapping, but he looked bored.

Malfoy raised an eyebrow when he noticed Harry looking at him and turned, whispering something in the ear of – Harry’s eyes widened in shock – Snape? He was dressed in loose Slytherin robes rather than his usual black, buttoned work robes, and yes, he was still eighteen rather than pushing forty, but it was unmistakably him. Snape was standing next to Malfoy, who pulled away, a supercilious smirk on his face, shooting another glance at Harry.

Harry wasn’t sure he liked that much. He didn’t think he wanted to be friends with Snape, not exactly – Snape was a bastard and, well, to put it bluntly Harry hated him – but he wanted to talk to him. He’d spent a decidedly odd past few weeks wanting to talk to Snape – so much so that Ron had accused him of being infected with Dark Magic, and insisted Hermione check him for the Imperius Curse.

Harry frowned, somehow unable to look away from the sight of Snape standing next to Malfoy. He curled his fingers into fists in the pockets of his school robe. Malfoy was, no doubt, infecting Snape with his poisonous views. He was obviously only making friends with him for his own nefarious purposes. Malfoy was a Slytherin and couldn’t be trusted. So what if Harry’d saved his life? That didn’t mean anything. Not that Harry knew what Malfoy would want, now that Voldemort was dead and the Malfoys had come out of it all remarkably well, despite their guilt.

He only realised he was staring when Snape raised an eyebrow, his lips curled into a classic Snape sneer. Harry snapped his head away to focus on an exciting piece of wall the other side of the room, feeling like an idiot. What the hell was he worrying about? Snape was a Slytherin himself, for fuck’s sake. He’d spent years deceiving Voldemort. It was ridiculous that Harry was worried that a few minutes spent in Malfoy’s company would mean Snape would refuse to talk to him. Hell, Snape would probably refuse to talk to him just because he was James’ son. They hadn’t had a great start, after all, what with Snape spitting in his face and all that.

Harry winced. This was all far too complicated. He kind of wished they’d left Snape as he was – at least then he wasn’t talking to Harry because he couldn’t, not because he was a git who’d rather be friends with Malfoy than with Lily’s son.

He snuck another quick glance at Snape, across the Hall. The applause had died down, and people had resumed their seats, much to Harry’s relief. Snape was looking at Malfoy, who was deep in conversation with Pansy Parkinson. Snape’s expression was almost… adoring, Harry thought with some confusion. Why on earth would Snape adore Malfoy, of all people? He was just a little toad who bowed to his father’s every whim. He shook his head, turning his attention to the Gryffindors around him.

"Honestly, he’s not that bad," Hermione was saying, her voice shrill. She continued in the same vein, waving her fork about to punctuate her words.

"It’s going to be worse than badges," Ron whispered to Harry. "If she’s not knitting pro-Snape jumpers in the next few days I’ll be surprised. She’s more like my mum than I’m entirely comfortable with, mate."

Harry laughed a spot too loudly and Hermione turned to him, a determined expression on her face. "Tell them, Harry. Tell them that they shouldn’t play a practical joke on Snape."

"What’re you planning?" Ron interrupted, looking over at Dean and Seamus, upon whose expressions guilt was plainly writ.

"Just a little welcome back gesture," Dean said, leaning as far away from Hermione as he could without falling out of his seat. She did look pretty scary with that fork, Harry thought, trying not laugh out loud. "Nothing that won’t do him the power o’ good."

"He’s already friends with Malfoy, Hermione. The man needs showing what’s what," Dean said, nodding. "Tell her, Harry."

Harry frowned. For some reason the idea of making a fool of Snape didn’t appeal. An image of Snape hung upside down and humiliated, his dad laughing, flashed through his mind. "No, it’s not right," he said. "He’s a war hero. We should have some respect."

"Exactly," Hermione said, nodding her head so hard that Harry wondered how she managed not to give herself a headache. "We’d all be dead if it wasn’t for the Professor, so leave it alone."

That killed the subject all right, but Harry wondered – from the sulky expressions of Dean, Seamus and some of the other lads – if they’d been convinced. He hoped so. Life was going to be weird enough with a teenage Snape around without turning him into an enemy. He hoped that the coming year would go by quickly.

*****

"Why were you talking to that git Malfoy?" Harry burst out and felt a bit surprised. He’d made a solemn vow to himself that he wouldn’t say anything stupid to Snape. Snape – the old Snape – had always seen him as a useless child who said useless things, and he was determined not to give this new Snape a chance to mock him. That the first thing that came out of his mouth was a ridiculous question that made him sound like a twelve year old didn’t bode well.

Ron rolled his eyes and made a complicated hand-gesture that suggested that Harry was completely insane.

Snape, sitting at Professor McGonagall’s desk, looked up as Harry, Ron and Hermione entered. He didn’t even bother to respond to Harry’s question – he just raised an eyebrow and stared at Harry.

"Go on, why?" Harry continued, this time earning a sharp glance from Hermione.

Snape’s expression slid from blank to incredulous. "They warned me you were mentally incompetent, Potter, but I didn’t think—"

"I’m not!" Harry said. "It’s you that’s mentally incompetent. Don’t you know anything? Making friends with—" He managed to halt the flow of angry words before they could all spill out, his breathing coming hard and fast.

"I know that Potters are murderous imbeciles who’re not to be trusted," Snape said, rising from his chair, his fists clenched, "and that one should never turn down an offer of friendship from someone with connections."

"You are all getting on well, I see," the Headmistress said, entering the office and sitting behind her desk.

Harry winced with embarrassment but Snape merely scowled, sitting back down and leaning forwards so his hair swung in front of his eyes.

The Headmistress didn’t say anything for a moment, just looked around at them all, her back very straight. "I expect you four to behave," she said. She raised a hand when everyone tried to speak at once. "That’s enough. Did you not listen to my speech at all?"

Harry tried to recall what she’d said, but all he could remember was a blur of hero and thanks and praise that he’d done his best to ignore. Evidently it had worked a bit too well.

Professor McGonagall pursed her lips.

"You said that now, more than ever, we should make a show of inter-house unity, because otherwise it was likely the house structure would be abolished," Hermione recited at speed. "And that we should lay aside our prejudices and old grudges, and remember that the war is over and forgiveness is a key part of the healing process."

"Ten points to Gryffindor," the Headmistress said and smiled at Hermione. "I’m glad that someone was paying attention."

"Sorry," Harry and Ron both mumbled.

Severus pursed his lips but didn’t contribute.

"Apology accepted," the Headmistress replied. "However, as I’m sure you’re aware, that is not the reason why I have called you here." She flicked her wand and the door to the office opened, a trio of Healers entering.

Harry snuck a quick look at Snape – he was sitting very still, his fingers curled tightly together in his lap. His lips were pressed so hard together they were nearly invisible.

"We won’t take more than a couple of hours," one of the Healers said cheerfully. "Just pop along with us to the hospital wing and we’ll get started."

Snape’s face flushed with colour and he looked, not directly at the Headmistress, but at a point somewhere just to the side of her head. "As I’m not expecting this pointless examination to yield any useful results, may I remind you that I am still waiting for my wand to be returned to me?"

"They haven’t given you your wand yet?" Harry asked?

Snape looked down his nose at Harry. "Evidently not, otherwise you would be paying me a little more respect, Potter."

"Is that a threat?" Ron asked, leaning forward in his chair and making a show of his own wand.

"Children!" Professor McGonagall interrupted.

Snape sat bolt upright at that, opening his mouth to protest.

The Headmistress cut him off before he’d begun. "If you act like children then that is what I shall call you," she said. "You know what the situation is regarding your wand, Severus. I’ve told you—"

"So much for promises," Snape interrupted, shaking his head. His eyes were fierce and bright.

"Oh, Severus—"

Snape shot from his chair and stalked towards the door. "Come, let us get this over with. I would appreciate the chance to retire on this side of midnight if at all possible." He wrenched the door open and stormed through it.

"Did you promise him his wand back?" Hermione asked.

The Headmistress frowned and she clasped her hands together, resting them on top of her desk. "Severus’ wand was charred beyond saving in the fire. I have told him this, but…" She sighed and shook her head. "He refuses to believe me. He always did have certain… issues with trust."

"Can we see it?" Harry asked. "Maybe if we all try together, we can fix it."

McGonagall didn’t move for a moment. Then, coming to a decision, she slowly opened one of the desk drawers and withdrew a transparent bag containing a few twisted lumps of charred wood. A mass of ash shifted as she moved it.

Harry took a deep breath, flooded with sympathy for Snape. He remembered how awful he’d felt when his own wand was ruined – and he’d always had a small hope that it could be repaired. Snape must feel as if he were missing a limb, to know that his wand was destroyed beyond repair.

"Mr Ollivander’s not out of hospital yet, is he?" Hermione asked. She was leaning forward and her hand was hovering over the bag – as if she wanted to touch it, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so.

The Headmistress shook her head. "We have spare wands, of course, that Severus could use in the meantime. He already has one in his possession, but I presume he hasn’t taken to it. He always did hate to show weakness in front of others." She sighed and picked up the bag, replacing it in the desk drawer. "If it’s not working well for him, I doubt he’ll perform any magic in public."

One of the Healers cleared her throat. "I don’t mean to intrude, but we should get started."

The Headmistress inclined her head. "Of course." She waved her hand, dismissing the trio. "Be co-operative and…" She paused.

"Yes, Headmistress?" Hermione said, radiating politeness.

The Headmistress looked resigned. "Try not to kill each other?"

Harry grinned at the expression on Hermione’s face. "Understood."

*****

Harry woke up from a nightmare with a deep and awful sense of dread, his forehead clammy and the sheets twisted around his limbs as if he’d fought a demon in his sleep. He supposed that, in a way, he had. He shuddered. Snape had died again. Snape always died in his dreams, in a variety of ways, each more fantastic than the one before, his eyes fixed on Harry’s as he silently expired. I died for you, he eloquently expressed without a single word. You didn’t save me. In some ways it was better than his link with Voldemort, which had pressed on his scar, sending shooting pains throughout his body. In some ways though it was worse, leaving him shaken and guilty.

Tonight was the first time he’d dreamed of Snape’s actual brush with death. He could still smell the stench of the mouldy straw on the floor, cut through with the tang of blood. There had been so much blood, dear God. How could anyone have survived such a loss? Harry wiped his brow with a hand that shook far too much for a grown man. "It was just a dream," he muttered to himself. "Get a grip." When he blinked it was as if the image of Snape, face pale as he put Harry’s survival over his own, was burned into the insides of his eyelids.

Harry shuddered and pushed the curtain surrounding his bed open. Ron was sitting on the edge of his own bed. He looked up when he saw Harry and grinned. "Rough night?" Ron asked. He ran a hand through his hair, his grin getting wider. "First sign of insanity, talking to yourself, you know."

"Ha ha."

Ron laughed. "You’d better get a move on, by the way. Don’t want to be late for our first Potions class of the year. I know how much you’ve been looking forward to it."

Well, Harry thought, that certainly explains the nightmare. "Do you think Snape will be there?"

"What, miss a chance to lord it over both us and a teacher?" Ron said, standing up and stretching, arms out wide. "That wouldn’t be the Snape we know and loathe, mate. Crikey, I’m willing to swear on Merlin’s saggy left–"

"Okay, okay," Harry interrupted when he noticed the time. "We won’t have time for breakfast at this rate."

Ron yelped and shoved Harry’s clothes at him, half-pushing him out of their bedroom.

When, between hysterical giggles, Hermione managed to inform him that he was wearing odd socks and that his robe was inside-out, Harry knew that the day could only get worse. Obviously, fate had it in for him, and nothing he could do would make a blind bit of difference. He was doomed.

* * *

At least, Harry thought (doing his best to see the silver lining in an increasingly stormy sky), Snape and Malfoy were in front of him in class. That way, he could see what they were up to. After a few minutes, however, he quickly changed his mind. It would be better if he couldn’t see what they were doing, as what they chiefly seemed to be engaged in was looking back at him and smirking and nudging each other. At least, Malfoy was smirking and nudging and Snape was looking pathetically gratefully at being the recipient of said smirks and nudges.

"I wonder if Snape fancied Malfoy’s dad," Ron whispered, pulling a face that suggested he was going to be violently sick. "Ferret face does look a lot like him."

Harry considered this. It was a frankly bizarre idea. He wasn’t sure whether he was more disturbed by the idea that Snape had fancied Malfoy’s dad or the idea that he’d fancied Harry’s own mum. Neither sat particularly comfortably in his mind. Probably, he thought, because the idea of Snape fancying anyone at all, and having… man parts under that black robe of his was disturbing. He’d been so used to thinking of Snape as some kind of inhuman villain – there’d even been a rumour that he was secretly a vampire – that thinking of him any other way was hard on the brain. "I don’t think so," Harry replied, sure that his doubt showed in his voice.

Snape caught Harry’s eye and raised an eyebrow. Harry felt his cheeks heat up and he hoped that Snape hadn’t caught any part of his and Ron’s conversation. Then Snape turned back to Malfoy, whispering something in his ear. Malfoy made a surprised-sounding snort of laughter and turned to look at Harry, his lips twisted into a knowing smirk. Harry tried not to go any redder but refused to look away. Luckily for his sanity the teacher entered the classroom and Malfoy made a show of reluctantly turning to face her.

"Good morning, students," the Professor began, her smile so wide it nearly reached her ears.

Harry had seen her at the feast at the beginning of term, but he hadn’t realised she was the new Potions Professor. His heart sank. She was a young witch, her long, dark hair loose and wild and her clothing floaty. She resembled a hippy Muggle, all tie-dyed cloth and patchwork. That wasn’t the problem though. The problem was the collection of flashing badges pinned to her eye-wateringly bright blouse. Our hero – Harry!!! one blinked, while another pronounced Hip Hip Harry-ay! in a staccato rhythm.

Harry wondered if it was too late to flee for his life, but the Professor was blocking the door and the sniggers had already begun. Ron was having quiet hysterics beside him, making a muffled snorting noise into the sleeve of his robe.

"Shut up," Harry hissed at Ron, who looked up at him and had to look away, a fresh wave of sniggers overcoming him.

Harry reached up and tried to comb his hair over his scar surreptitiously, hoping that the Professor wouldn’t spot him. It was a wasted effort.

"Good morning, Harry Potter," the Professor said, her eyes widening when she spotted him. "What an honour it is for me to work with you. I have no doubt you will be teaching me a thing or too about the noble art of Potions, rather than the other way around."

She spoke as if every sentence ended with an exclamation mark. Harry could practically see the enthusiasm bubbling off her, her clothing flapping as she bounced about. It would be sweet if it weren’t so embarrassing.

"I am Professor Smith," she said, her voice breathy and girlish, "but I would love it if you would call me Sylvia." She smiled at them all, walking up and down the classroom and turning to each student individually. She arrived at Snape’s desk. "Oh, I see we have another celebrity in our midst," she said. Harry wondered if it was only himself who caught a hint of scorn in her soft voice. "Mr Snape, I look forward to your contributions to my class." Yes, Harry, thought, watching Snape’s eyes flicker at the implied insult of Mr, a definite scorn in her voice.

"Let us begin," Professor Smith continued, her voice back to syrupy sweet. "Open your textbooks to page seven and collect the ingredients for the potion you find there. At this level I expect you to successfully concoct complex potions without input from myself."

*****

After half an hour Harry’s potion was bubbling and emitting a sweet smell, the colour a virulent pink. He glanced over at Snape’s potion. It was steaming but the liquid was completely still, the potion a dark red, the colour of congealing blood. Snape was scribbling notes in a book, hunched so far forward over the desk so that Harry couldn’t see his expression.

Professor Smith clapped her hands.

Ron rolled his eyes. "Does she think we’re twelve years old, or something?" he muttered, but turned to face her. His own potion was a mess of seething lumps of pink and purple and every now and then it belched out a choking stench that made Harry want to retch. "I reckon Snape’s the only one to get the potion right," Ron continued, shaking his head.

Harry peered at his potion with growing gloom. "Yeah, it’s definitely not supposed to be this pink," he agreed.

"I’d stay back from mine," Ron whispered with a grin, elbowing him, "I suspect it might explode any second."

"Pay attention, class!" the Professor said. She clapped her hands fast and made a squeaking noise that Harry thought could be happiness or excitement, but made her sound demented. "Kindly look towards the potion of Harry Potter."

Everyone swivelled round to look at Harry. Snape cocked an eyebrow at Harry’s potion and smirked into the middle distance. Harry tried not to notice. He tried not to notice anything. It was a difficult feat when everyone was staring at you.

"This is the best sort of effort," the Professor said, gazing at Harry with her head on one side. Her badges flashed even brighter, and she clasped her hands together. Harry saw that she was wearing a large ring on one finger – a silver lightning bolt. He hunched down in his seat and wished he had his Invisibility Cloak on him. "It is not perfect, but I think that considering who it was made by, you should all be inspired."

Harry shifted in his chair. He’d reached the limit of what he could take. "It’s not very good, Professor," he said. "It doesn’t look anything like it should." He sucked up a pipette of the potion and squeezed a drop on the lemon the desk in front of him, feeling a perverse pleasure in demonstrating just how bad his potion was bound to be.

There was an intake of breath as everyone tried to shield themselves from a possible explosion. It didn’t explode but, instead of growing the luxurious hair it was supposed to, the lemon’s skin withered and leaked juice.

Professor Smith waved her wand with super speed. The lemon sprouted ten inches of lustrous hair and she giggled. "There. I said your potion was the best kind of effort. All it needed was a little extra time to work."

"But, Professor," Harry started, unable to believe what he’d just seen. Had she really thought she’d fool an entire class of seventh year students into believing his potion had worked?

"I think we should see a further demonstration, Professor," Malfoy interrupted. He sat back in his chair and smirked around at all his friends. "Tip the potion on Potter’s head and let’s see how much hair he grows then."

The Professor’s nostrils flared. "One hundred points from Slytherin for unforgiveable insolence!"

"What?" Malfoy said, the scorn clear in his voice.

"The phrase is ‘I beg your pardon’," the Professor said. "I trust you will remember your manners in future." She brushed her hair away from her face and smiled over at Harry, who stared back in open-mouthed astonishment. "Now, let us see you all demonstrate your potions."

The results were decidedly mixed. Hermione managed a short growth of ginger hair on her lemon, which sent Ron into fits of laughter, while a few other students managed some scrubby patches of growth. Ron’s lemon remained decidedly bald, but he shrugged. "Sign of virility," he whispered to Harry, nudging him and winking. The only person whose lemon showed a healthy crop of hair – apart from Harry’s, whose lemon now resembled a fur ball – was that of Severus Snape.

Professor Smith examined Snape’s lemon, looking disconcerted for a moment. Then she smiled and clasped her hands. "Well done, Mr Snape. Of course, you do have a few more years experience than the other students. A job well done, nevertheless."

Harry couldn’t see Snape’s face, but his back was very expressive.

At the end of the lesson, Ron waved his wand hastily at his Potions equipment and vanished the sorry mess with a grin. He was about to do the same for Harry’s when Harry stopped him. Snape, apparently still unwilling to use his borrowed wand in public, was laboriously decanting his potion and preparing his glassware for hand-washing.

"Are you sure?" Ron said, a touch too loudly for comfort. "He might—"

Harry glared at him, motioning that Snape was right there so would Ron please shut the hell up? Ron mouthed okay, okay and rolled his eyes.

"I’ll see you in Defence," Ron said, grabbing his bag and narrowly avoiding knocking Harry’s potion all over his lap. It hit his knees instead, burning through his trousers, which smoked and shrivelled.

After checking for missing skin, Harry looked up to see Snape staring at him – it wasn’t exactly disdainful, but it wasn’t friendly either. It was more… incredulous.

"I’ll follow you when I’ve cleared up," Harry said, waving the smoke away from his knees.

Ron shook his head slowly as if Harry were mad, but left the classroom. Harry realised that he was alone with Snape. Snape evidently realised it too, snapping back round to his Potions apparatus and acting like he was very busy.

"Um," Harry said, not sure what he wanted to say.

Snape said nothing. This didn’t help.

"Um," Harry said again.

"What?" Snape said. It was impressive, Harry thought, how off-putting one mere word could be.

"Um," Harry said, realising that there was a theme to his attempts. He tried once more. "Do you... Would you… Do you like Quidditch?"

Snape made a disdainful noise and Harry wondered if he’d lost his mind. Why the hell had he asked that? What had possessed him to ask that?

Snape finished what he was doing and scooped up his papers and quill, clutching them close to his chest. His long hair fell in front of his face and his eyes were fixed firmly on the door.

"Wait," Harry said as Snape reached the door. "Stop."

Snape turned. "Why?" he asked after a moment of silence. He sounded genuinely puzzled. "So you can ask me what my favourite colour is?" Now he sounded less puzzled and more offensive.

"Um, no?" Harry said. "I was just being friendly."

Snape raised his eyes to look at Harry, and Harry felt similar to a bug under a microscope. He squirmed. "I was!" he protested, feeling as if he were being judged for something he hadn’t done. "I know you don’t… remember everything," he said, looking down at his shoes, "but you did so much for me. It can’t be easy being here, like this." His words turned into a mumble.

When he looked up, Snape’s skin was faintly coloured and he raised his chin, his hair falling away from his face. "Who says I can’t remember everything?" he said, shifting his books in his arms. His tone was defiant. "I remember enough."

"Oh," Harry said, "have you been remembering more?"

Snape wrinkled his nose. "Was there something you wanted, Potter? Or are you simply delaying me so you can wreak some sort of havoc?" He peered at Harry more closely, narrowing his eyes. "What are you up to?"

"Oh, forget it," Harry said, vanishing his potion and starting to pack his things away. "I was just being friendly. If you can’t see that I’m not my father then you’re not nearly as clever as I thought you were."

Snape opened his mouth and then shut it again without speaking. He shifted his books in his arms again. "You think I’m clever?" he said, as if daring Harry to deny it.

"Of course," Harry said. He frowned, pausing in the act of putting his textbook in his bag. "How else could you have fooled Voldemort for so many years?"

"Well, naturally," Snape said. His eyes darted around the room, never quite fixing on Harry’s face. He turned back to the door to leave. "See you tomorrow in Potions," he mumbled as he left.

Harry was ten minutes late for his Defence Against the Dark Arts class, but even despite Hermione’s disapproving sniff he felt cheerful. He wasn’t sure why he felt like he’d made a success of his meeting with Snape, but they hadn’t argued or shouted or flung toxic potions at each other’s heads, so he counted that as a definite positive.

Though, as yet, he still hadn’t worked out exactly why it mattered that he and Snape were on speaking terms. He just felt, deep down, that it did.

*****

At dinner that night, Harry knew immediately that something was up. The Gryffindor table was like one giant chain of Chinese whispers, with Harry last in line. He nudged Ron who shrugged, but toyed with his food like a guilty man.

"Hermione, what the hell is going on?" Harry asked. She frowned and leaned over the table towards him.

"I have no idea. Ron refuses to tell me, so it must be something I’d disapprove of," she said, tossing her hair and shifting so her back was facing Ron.

Ron wavered, but did not break. "It’s not my plan to tell," he said stabbing at a bit of carrot.

When Harry realised who was the target of this plan, it was too late.

Dean casually walked over to the Slytherin table, his wand raised, and cast a spell right at the back of Snape’s head.

There was deadly silence for a moment and then Snape turned and the whole Hall burst into hysterical laughter. Snape was a ghastly caricature of himself. His nose had sprouted into an enormous hooked monstrosity, his hair glistened as if it was coated with oil and two leathery wings ripped through his robes at the back, unfurling above his head.

Snape whipped out his wand, a short, stubby thing that looked odd and awkward in his hand and hexed Dean. At least, he attempted to hex Dean but, apart from a few sad sparks, nothing happened.

Dean laughed. "You can’t say you didn’t deserve that, Professor." He turned his back on Snape and walked back to the Gryffindor table to the accompaniment of whoops and cheers.

Harry sat there, overwhelmed by sympathy for Snape and anger at Dean. He wanted to help Snape, but he couldn’t think of a single thing to do that would make the situation any better. Snape had already lost enough face without being rescued by a Gryffindor, even he could see that.

Snape caught his eye for a moment, and his stare was blank. He looked away quickly, turning in mute appeal to Malfoy. Malfoy wrinkled his nose and turned away, whispering something to Pansy Parkinson, who giggled and stared at Snape without sympathy.

The teachers had noticed that something was wrong by now and Professor Smith dashed over, her long skirts flapping around her legs. "Oh, dear!" she said, not managing to cover her smile very well. "Mr Snape? How unfortunate. Mr Potter?"

"Er, yes?" Harry replied, surprised.

"Come with me. Together we will fix this unfortunate transformation."

Harry blinked at her. "Shouldn’t he go to Madam Pomfrey?"

Professor Smith smiled sweetly at him. "An excellent idea, Mr Potter. Once again you prove your versatility and sharp mind. Mr Snape?"

She looked around, but Snape was already halfway down the hall, moving towards the exit at speed.

"Dear me," she said, shaking her head. "Tut, tut. Some people really need to learn some manners."

"I should—" Harry started, standing up.

Ron tugged him back down. "That really won’t help, mate," he muttered. "McGonagall’s coming, sit down."

Harry sat in silence as the Headmistress lectured them, disappointment clear on her face. He couldn’t look her in the eye, but he refused to tell tales on his housemates. That didn’t mean that he wouldn’t have something to say about it when they were safely in their common room though.

The problem was that, once they were in the common room, only Hermione seemed to care that Snape had been humiliated in front of the whole school. "You’d have laughed if we’d done it to Malfoy," Seamus said and evidently considered the matter ended. Harry supposed he had a point, but that didn’t make it any less wrong. He kept remembering the blank look in Snape’s eyes as everyone laughed at him, and the way he’d left the hall so fast that Harry had barely seen him go.

Harry clenched his jaw. Snape was just as much a war hero as he was – more so, even, because he’d had a choice where he, Harry, had had none – and he should be treated with respect. It was wrong to mock him that way, and no one ever would again – not if Harry had anything to do with it.

*****

Harry sat in Madam Pomfrey’s office, wondering what the problem was. It was a week after Snape’s humiliation and Harry hadn’t managed to speak to Snape once. He’d been hoping that their appointment with the Healers from St Mungo’s would provide an opportunity for him to express his sympathy. Or… not sympathy, exactly – Hermione had warned him how much a proud man like Snape would hate that – but he could at least apologise on behalf of Gryffindor. He’d been sitting there for fifteen minutes now, however, and Snape still hadn’t turned up.

The door opened and Harry looked around. It wasn’t Snape. It was a Healer. "Mr Potter, we have a… situation," she said, wringing her hands.

"What’s happened?" Harry said, half-rising.

The Healer shook her head. "No need to get up. Mr Snape refuses to be in the same room as you, to put it plainly." She looked beseechingly at Harry.

"What?" Harry said. "Why the hell not?"

The Healer blushed. "Something about abject humiliation and just like his father and… well." She pursed her lips. "Mr Snape is not a very polite young man."

"But it wasn’t me!"

"Oh? You know what he’s talking about?" the Healer asked. "We do need to examine the two of you together though, I’m afraid. We’re picking up an odd magical signature from Mr Snape and we need to be sure that it’s not dangerous for either of you. Perhaps you could… apologise?"

"I didn’t do anything," Harry said, feeling immensely annoyed. Snape was an arse and no mistake about it. "I’ll tell him that. Where is he?"

"Come with me," the Healer said. "You will be… careful, won’t you?" she asked, her brow wrinkling. "He’s already… Well, you’ll see for yourself."

Harry entered the room, his mouth open, ready to start yelling. He shut it again when he saw the state it was in, his eyes widening. At first he didn’t even notice Snape himself, he was too busy taking in the utter mess. It was as if a whirlwind had picked up every article of furniture in the room, dashed them down and liberally sprinkled black ink over them. Then he saw Snape, hunched up in a corner, his head in his hands.

"I’ll leave you to it, shall I?" the Healer said brightly and left the room, shutting the door behind her before Harry had a chance to respond.

Snape raised his head and glared at Harry. "Fuck off," he said. His cheek was streaked with ink and his hair was wild.

Harry remembered why he was here. "It wasn’t me," he said. "You saw it wasn’t me. I told them not to."

Snape’s eyes flashed. "I don't believe you," he said. "It was exactly the sort of thing your father would have done. He always got his friends to carry out his dirty work."

"IT WASN’T ME!" Harry yelled, infuriated. "And my father wasn’t like that," he added, not sure of the truth of that statement. It made his insides ache in a strange way.

Snape laughed without a trace of humour. "Surely even you don’t believe that?" He closed his eyes for a moment. "Now kindly leave me alone, or I will throw this bottle of second rate ink at your head."

"You kept your temper a bit better when you were an adult," Harry said and wished he hadn’t. He wondered what awful event had taught Snape how to keep calm, and thought that he probably knew.

Snape threw the bottle in his hand.

His aim was poor, and the bottle smashed on the wall to the side of Harry’s head, splashing him with droplets of black rather than gouging a chunk out of his head.

"What the hell was that for?" Harry yelled, leaping out the way of the spreading pool of black ink on the floor.

"Will you just GET OUT?" Snape yelled back.

Harry didn’t move. Snape needed serious help.

"GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT," Snape yelled, spittle flying from his mouth.

Harry thought that, on the whole, he wasn’t making very good progress, so he reached for the doorhandle with a hand that he was surprised to find was shaking, and dashed out.

The Healer took one look at him, splashed with ink, and let him go.

Later, lying awake in bed at an ungodly hour, Harry decided that he’d had just about enough of Severus Snape. Snape the middle-aged man had been a bastard, and it seemed that Snape the teenager was even more unpleasant to be around. How that was even possible he didn’t know, but there it was. Harry decided that the best thing to do would be to keep out of Snape’s way. It wouldn’t be hard, what with them only sharing Potions lessons. Snape was an arse, and he, Harry, had been mad to think that there could ever be anything other than enmity between them.

But when he told Ron and Hermione what had happened, and how Snape was a total nutcase, Hermione didn’t act as expected. Her eyes filled with tears and she shook her head. "Poor Professor Snape," she said. "He must be finding things so difficult. He was always such a dignified man."

Ron looked at her like she was the nutter and Harry forced himself to laugh and agree with Ron. He’d made his decision. But… It didn’t feel right. Despite Snape obviously being a madman, it didn’t feel right.

*****

Over the next few weeks, Harry held firm to his decision. It wasn’t a difficult thing to do, given that Snape rarely turned up in the Great Hall for meals so Harry only saw him at the three scheduled Potions lessons each week. And then there was the fact that Snape acted as if Harry didn’t exist. They never crossed paths when fetching ingredients, never looked at each other – even by accident – and never acknowledged each other’s presence.

"He did it first," Harry said to Hermione when she asked him about it.

"Hmm," Hermione said, turning back to her work and making rapid notes with her quill. "I’m sure."

This less than ringing endorsement failed to help Harry feel any better. It was, he had to admit, more work to ignore Snape than it was worth. It was… silly, that's what it was. Snape had to be trying so hard to ignore Harry that he couldn't be thinking of anything else but Harry in class – where he was sitting, where he was looking, how far along he was with his potion. It made Harry feel odd to think about it. Plus there was the fact that Harry's potions, never brilliant to begin with, became infinitely worse each time. Snape’s never failed to be anything other than textbook perfect, but… on the rare occasion that Harry snuck a quick look at his face, Snape always looked disgusted with what he was producing.

Then there was the embarrassing fact that, however bad Harry’s potions were, Professor Smith always drew the class’s attention to it with no small amount of praise. After the first few lessons she’d taken to haunting his desk, offering encouragement, and adding ingredients when she thought he wasn’t looking. It was worse than embarrassing, it was humiliating. The rest of the class had quickly moved from amusement to irritation at her blatant favouritism.

Harry was so wrapped up in ignoring Snape and trying to ignore Professor Smith, whose badges became more personal and more awful each week, that it was some time before he realised that he wasn’t the only one who was doing some ignoring.

"When did Snape stop sitting with Malfoy?" he whispered to Ron one lesson, when it finally dawned on him that the seat next to Snape was empty. A quick check of the room showed that Malfoy was now sitting next to Zabini, as far away from Snape as possible. In fact, the desks near Snape were now empty where before they had been occupied by the Slytherin in-crowd.

Ron shrugged, occupied by his sludgy grey potion, which heaved as if it were about to be sick. "A few lessons?" he said, wrinkling his brow. "Do you think I need to add more powdered unicorn horn?"

Harry shot a quick glance at Snape.

"For someone who hates Snape, you’re spending an awful lot of time obsessing over him," Ron said, adding a pinch of white powder to his potion and stirring. "What’s up, mate?"

Harry felt himself overheat. "I’m not," he mumbled. "I was just looking at his potion."

"What colour is it, then?" Ron asked.

Harry realised, with horror, that he had no idea.

"See?" Ron said, his tone matter of fact. "You’re mental. Tell you what, how about I hex him with a full body bind and then you can have a nice chat. He won’t be able to chuck things at you, at any rate."

"Tosser."

Ron grinned. "Same to you, mate."

Harry looked at Ron’s potion. "I think you’ve been stirring it in the wrong direction," he said.

Ron glanced at his textbook. "Do you think it will explode if I change direction now?"

Harry shook his head.

"Poor show on the change of subject by the way," Ron said, beginning to stir his potion the other way. "As I was saying—"

Harry ducked, tugging Ron down with him as the potion exploded, covering the surrounding students in something that was intended to induce a sense of peace and harmony, but instead made them believe that killer bees were attacking the school.

As the screaming students were subdued and bundled off to the hospital ward, Harry tried to ignore what Ron had said. It was yet another thing to add to his list.

*****

Severus Snape had never enjoyed his life much, but he’d always felt certain of three things. First, that even if he’d lost the friendship of Lily Evans forever, at least she despised his worst enemy, James Potter, as much as he did. Whatever awful things James did to Severus – and he did them less, now that Severus had shown him, by means of hex and subtle potion, exactly why it was a bad plan to mock him – James would never have the one thing he wanted most: Lily’s love. Severus would always have that knowledge, scant comfort that it was.

Second, he knew that, despite his father’s dirty blood, he was the most talented wizard in his class and the most dedicated. It took away the sting of loneliness to know that he was better than the rest of his class. They might be having fun, but he would be the victor in the end – in career, in finances and in life.

And third, and most importantly, he knew that he was special and that he had an exciting secret life of which only a few, select Slytherin students were aware. Every time he thought of his new role as the trusted associate of Lord Voldemort – or, as he breathlessly thought of him, his Lord – he felt ridiculously proud. His Lord didn’t despise him for his tainted blood or his upbringing in squalor and poverty. His Lord valued him for his talents, and when the world was a purer, fairer place, men like his father would be trodden into the dirt and never allowed to do the sort of things they did ever ever again. Of this, Severus was most certain.

When Snape had woken, his eyes watering from smoke, to be informed that he was a despised middle-aged man in a teenager’s body, he had been certain it was a hideous nightmare and one from which he would soon awaken. He had tasted insanity in the pain of the Dark Mark, a cleansing pain his Lord had said, and one that would wipe away any Muggle taint and prove his loyalty. He had experienced nightmares before, both sleeping and waking, so why should this be any different?

When it became apparent that it was all too real, all too awful, he applied himself with a will to regaining his missing memories. It was, he soon discovered, impossible to discover them entirely. Without his wand he was hampered, knowing it would be unwise to instruct the Healers in certain Dark magics that he would ideally have employed to probe his injured mind, but he could do enough to be sure they were unrecoverable. So he did the next best thing – he read. He read every paper he could find – every report, every book, every transcript of every trial.

The results were not pleasing.

His Lord had, it seemed, failed to purify the wizarding world. Had, in fact, been an insane, murderous madman who tossed Severus himself aside as so much garbage, in his quest to slay a schoolboy.

It was… difficult to learn that his hero worship had led to the death of his most dear friend, Lily. Unthinkable that he’d killed Dumbledore, even in an act of mercy. But, most of all, (and it shamed him beyond belief to know that this was his overriding emotion), he was embarrassed. Embarrassed to be caught out in a life of self-sacrifice and loyalty, dedicated to a friend who’d married a boy he’d hated. Embarrassed to be thought of as soppy and romantic and in love, when he’d loved, as hard as he knew how, but not in that way.

The other students had been surprisingly tolerant of him, on the whole. In a world of magic he was hardly the first to be so— changed, but he knew from experience that people were cruel, and more so if you let them be. It was odd, being surrounded by students whom he both knew and yet were perfect strangers. Draco, for instance. His resemblance to Lucius was so strong that it was hard to believe that the haughty blond-haired boy was not him, and yet… Draco was different. More spoilt if that could even be possible, and less well-mannered. Lucius had always been charming. Even Severus himself, well versed in Lucius’ particular brand of flattery, had occasionally been dazzled by him. Half the time those whom Lucius insulted never even realised that it was so, too caught up in his bright smile and smooth tone of voice. It hadn’t come as a surprise to Severus when he fell out of Draco’s favour. The— incident had only sped up the inevitable.

Some students, Severus thought with bitterness, were just the same as their parents – or worse. Harry was a clone of James in appearance, but at least James had been openly hostile, his attacks never a surprise in that sense. But to solicit friendship, to humiliate and then to lie about it… Severus gritted his teeth, overwhelmed by anger. It was Slytherin, that’s what it was. An amateur attempt at Slytherin, but then what could you expect from a Gryffindor? Still, the hero had managed to wind all his classmates around his little finger, and all the teachers too, from what Severus had seen. Even though it was obvious from his reading that, ugh, luck had played the biggest part in Potter’s victories. Dumb luck and sheer stupidity on a massive scale. Severus refused to buy into the hero cult of Potter. It was sickening stuff, that’s what it was. Potter was as big a bully as his father and should count himself lucky that he, Severus, didn’t have a working wand or he’d be in some serious pain right now. To think he’d almost been fooled by Potter’s oily words of friendship… Severus shuddered. He was an idiot, that’s what he was. The name Potter was synonymous with trouble and that was all there was to it.

*****

Harry had a cunning plan. It was a plan that was cunning, very, very cunning, and sod what Ron said. Although he hadn’t said anything really, just looked confused for a moment then laughed. "So, Hermione was right, who’d have thought," he’d said and refused to elaborate.

Harry thought this was worrying, but it was okay, because his plan was so brilliant and so straightforward that nothing could go wrong.

He thought, rather anxiously, of Ron’s mystifying words the moment he put his plan in action, but he still couldn’t see what they could possibly mean. By then, of course, he’d realised the major flaw in his plan, but it was too late. The plan was done. And that was the problem with the plan. The lack of, well, after-plan planning. He would make this point to Ron after the Potions lesson, providing he was still alive, and see what Ron said. He’d also force him to be more explicit with the Hermione was right part of it, because Hermione was always right, and it was disconcerting to know that Hermione was right, but not know exactly what she was right about.

And he was babbling now, and to babble in your own mind was probably a sign of lunacy, or at least imminent mental breakdown. But the alternative was to… to look at Snape, who was no doubt looking at him. Because he couldn’t really not look at him, could he, given how Harry was sitting next to him, not giving him any choice about the matter.

Sitting next to Snape in Potions was, Harry thought, revising his feelings about his cunning plan, perhaps the worst plan in the world. What the hell had he been thinking?

After ten minutes, Harry realised he hadn’t listened to a word that Professor Smith had said. The rest of the class were rising to fetch ingredients, but Harry had been too intent on not looking over at Snape to even know which potion they were supposed to be brewing.

Summoning up all his courage he turned towards Snape. Snape had his head bent over his textbook, his hair falling in front of his face, his body angled as far away from Harry as he could.

Harry’s heart raced and, for a moment, he dithered between terror and sheer annoyance. Annoyance won out. "I don’t smell," he said, then felt an overwhelming urge to sniff his own armpits just in case he did.

Snape didn’t respond but he flinched, so at least Harry couldn’t accuse him of being deaf.

"Aren’t you going to get your ingredients?" Harry asked after a moment. He had to bite his tongue not to say anything rude. The whole point of sitting next to Snape was to… well, Harry hadn’t decided what that was yet, not entirely, but no doubt Snape could be sarcastic enough for the two of them.

"And it wasn’t me, you know," Harry said, wanting to get that in early in the proceedings, when there was still a chance that Snape wouldn’t throw anything at his head. He got ready to duck, just in case. "I wouldn’t do that. I know what my dad did to you, and I feel really bad about it. I’m not like that."

"You feel bad?" Snape said. His voice was low and venomous and he didn’t even look up, just sat there, frozen over his textbook. "You dare to say you feel bad?"

"I do!" Harry protested, "I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m trying, here. How can I make you see that—"

"Potter," Snape interrupted, still not moving. "Hate is not a strong enough word for what I feel for you. You will regret it if you do not leave me in peace. You have blighted my life for years, I will not have you blight it further."

"Oh," Harry said, moving back as if Snape had physically struck him. "Right. Right."

Harry grabbed his textbook and got up, crashing into Ron, who loomed up in front of him, grabbing him and guiding him towards the desk they usually shared.

"I got your ingredients, mate," Ron said, "and chopped them up." He eyed both of their cauldrons. "I think I made a few mistakes, but points for effort, eh?"

"Thanks, Ron," Harry said. He felt very tired.

Harry’s potion failed to animate a drawing of a mouse, as intended, instead producing a limping skeleton of something that squeaked miserably until Professor Smith vanished it with a forced smile.

"We can’t all be good at every potion, can we?" she said, and her badges blinked violently, Go Harry! Go Harry! "Even the most superior Potions master has his off day." She smiled in Snape’s direction. "I see that Mr Snape has failed to even make the beginnings of the potion. Not to worry, Mr Snape, a few more years and you may yet be adequate. Perhaps if you are lucky, Mr Potter will give you a few pointers?"

The Professor flashed a wide smile at Harry, and he felt sick.

"Mr Potter’s talents are indeed… varied," Snape drawled. He pushed his hair back from his face and his lips twisted into a feral grin.

Professor Smith smiled back and her hair floated as if electrified by her inner happiness. "There is, indeed, nothing that Mr Potter could not satisfactorily complete if he were to try!"

"Is that so, Professor?" Snape said. He was leaning forward at his desk now, looking up at Professor Smith. He was up to something, Harry thought, trying not to panic. What on Earth could he be up to?

Professor Smith beamed at Snape. "Why, yes, Mr Snape. I am glad you are not bitter to see a superior talent at work."

"I have always wished to see a master at work upon the Draught of Eternal Fire," Snape said, his voice more oily by the second. "It would be a great pleasure to watch Mr Potter engage with this potion."

Professor Smith knocked over the potion in front of her, reaching for her wand but getting tangled up in the process. It took her a good few seconds to free herself. "It would take some arranging," she said, panting as if she'd run a race. Her badges blared, Harry is BRAVE!! She turned to Harry, who was feeling more and more worried by the second. "You have faced dragons and defeated them countless times, my dear, have you not? This would be an excellent way for you to demonstrate your skills once more." She turned back to Snape. "A wonderful plan, Mr Snape. I shall arrange it. Now, let us tidy up, it is time for your next class."

"What?" Harry said, leaning back to speak to Hermione, "the hell was that?"

Hermione glared at Snape’s back. "I wouldn’t worry," she said. She set her jaw. "Much."

"Hermione!"

"It’s a simple warming potion," Hermione said, chewing on her lip. "Many wizards have heating devices powered by it."

"Then why do you look so worried?" Harry said, tugging at her arm. She turned, making a poor attempt at a cheerful smile.

"The potion must be… activated by a dragon’s breath," Hermione said quickly.

Harry stared at her. "I have to make a potion and get a dragon to breathe on it?"

Hermione nodded.

"And by breathing, you actually mean send burning flames all over it?"

Hermione nodded again. "I can’t think why the Professor would allow this," she said, stacking her books and beginning to pack them away. "Only trained professionals would usually attempt such a thing."

"Professor Smith is deluded," Harry said, leaning back in his chair and shutting his eyes.

"Did you speak my name?" Professor Smith said, appearing at Harry’s left elbow.

Harry jumped, his eyes snapping open. He managed, with a great athletic feat, not to fall off his chair or knock anything over. "I was wondering if I could let someone else demonstrate the potion," he said. He tried not to stare at her chest, but the badges were flashing too close to his face and it was impossible not to. He shuddered. He'd need some brain bleach to get rid of that thought.

"Oh, no, it will be such a treat for us all to watch you in action," the Professor said. Harry the Hero! her badges flashed, Hero! Hero! Hero! "Let’s have no false modesty, Mr Potter." She smiled, her lips red and wolfish. "Now you must be off, or you will be late for your next class."

"Don’t worry," Hermione whispered to Harry as they left. "The Headmistress will never allow it."

Harry thought about dragons – he’d had enough of them for the rest of his life – and crossed his fingers.

*****

"I have an apology to make to you, Mr Potter," Professor McGonagall said to Harry, coming up to him when the Great Hall was clearing after dinner. "I fear I have been unable to put a halt to this mad scheme of Professor Smith's." She sighed. "Dragons! It was trouble enough importing them for the Tri-Wizard Tournament, but it seems madness to do so for the dubious benefit of a few seventh year students."

"But…" Harry started.

"Oh, do not worry yourself about that ridiculous notion of the Professor’s. I do not wish to speak ill of my staff, but..." McGonagall pursed her lips. "Rest assured you will not be risking yourself to brew any potion."

"Then why are the dragons still coming?" Harry asked, shoving his hands in the pockets of his robe and trying not to stress out.

"For you to study," the Headmistress said. "You and your classmates will study the creatures for a full week – their habits, defence against them and their properties. Professor Smith has already outlaid a vast sum of money – it is quite ridiculous." She bristled. "Nevertheless, this little departure from your regular studies will not harm you."

"Are you sure I won’t have to make that potion?" Harry asked. "Professor Smith can be… quite insistent."

"I am in charge of this school," the Headmistress said, dropping her shoulders and standing very tall. "Do not worry yourself."

Oddly, Harry didn’t find this entirely comforting. He resolved to owl Charlie, Ron’s older brother, and ask his advice on dragon-proof clothing and potions. There was no sense in being ill prepared. Life had a nasty habit of behaving exactly as expected, most of the time.

The owl from Charlie, sent the next day, didn’t help his peace of mind. The best advice I can give you is to wear clothes that slip off easily. If you’re set on fire, you’ll want to be able to get out of them sharpish.

"Great," Harry said as Ron read the letter and laughed. "That’s great advice that is. Then I’d not only be burned, but also naked in public."

"How about we stay right at the back of the class," Ron said, throwing Charlie’s letter in the bin. "And get ready to run very fast. Plan?"

"Plan," Harry agreed, nodding hard, and hoped it would be all over soon. School was more stressful than training to be an Auror could ever be.

*****

By the time the dragons were due to arrive the term was nearly at an end. The nights were drawing in, the weather turning from autumnal to frosty. Harry found that most of the time he was able to put Snape out of his mind entirely. No progress had been made on fixing him, or even finding out what had gone wrong with the spell. Snape still refused to be examined in the same room as Harry and the Healers had long since given up trying to force him. Snape rarely appeared in the Great Hall at meal times, coming to some arrangement with the house elves for his food, and half the time he didn’t attend Potions classes. Whenever Harry saw him he felt a twinge of something that he supposed was guilt, although what he had to feel guilty for he couldn’t decide. He guessed it was just that Snape looked… unhappy. He tried to hide it, his face twisted into a perpetually sour expression, but that was evidence enough in itself.

"Just forget about it," Ron advised every time he spotted Harry looking quiet. It became annoying after a while, because sometimes Harry wasn’t even thinking about Snape when he said it. Most of the time, maybe, but not every time. Sometimes he was thinking about exams and what it would mean to fail them. He was finding it hard to concentrate in class. It wasn’t anything to do with Snape, he said – repeatedly – to both Ron and Hermione, who kept accusing him of brooding. It was nothing to do with Snape, nothing at all, he was just stressed and tired and he couldn’t sleep at night, which made him worse.

But… sometimes, Harry supposed, he did think about Snape. So having something new to worry about, namely the whole being burned alive by a dragon thing, had got to be a positive thing, right?

The morning they were due to meet the dragon they would be studying – a Hungarian Horntail with the unlikely name of Brenda – Harry looked down at his breakfast and decided that today, what with the prospect of a fiery death, he wouldn’t think about Snape at all. His egg looked back at him mournfully, and Harry pushed it aside.

"Mmmmf?" Ron asked, his mouth full.

"Go ahead," Harry said, having learned how to decode Ron’s muffled questions after far too long of eating beside him.

Ron swallowed. "I didn’t ask if I could eat your breakfast," he said, his cheeks turning the colour of his hair. "I will," he said, scraping the contents of Harry’s plate onto his own, "but that’s not the point. I asked if you were okay."

"I’m fine," Harry said, which was a lie.

"Just remember," Ron said, loading his fork with a huge mound of egg and sausage, "we’ll go right to the back. Whatever they try and make us do, we’ll go right to the back."

The problem with going right to the back, Harry soon found, was that dragons are no great respecters of such nuances in space and place. He and Ron positioned themselves right at the back of the group of students, despite Professor Smith’s cheerful waving, beckoning them to come closer.

The dragon sat in front of them all. It wasn’t as enormous as Harry had expected, but it didn’t look pleased to see them. It was sitting still and rigid but its eyes were twitching back and forth, scanning the students.

"Are we all here?" the Professor asked, looking around also. "Come on, Mr Snape," she called. "Hurry up!"

Harry half-turned. Snape was some distance away but approaching at speed, his school robe billowing out around him.

The dragon made a gurgling noise and Harry turned back to look at it.

"Keep calm, class," the Professor said. Her voice was high and she took a few steps away from the dragon, glancing back at the castle as if to judge how far it would be to run. The dragon keepers raised their wands at the dragon, keeping it surrounded.

The dragon raised its head, sniffing the air. It was still for a moment before, in one swift, dramatic movement, its wings cracked open and it half-hovered, half-stood, opening its mouth and taking a deep breath.

"Duck!" the Professor yelled, "get down, class!"

Everyone dropped to the floor. Everyone, that is, with the exception of Snape and Harry. Harry could see Snape out of the corner of his eyes, standing frozen to the spot. He doesn’t have a wand, Harry thought, he’s got no way to defend himself.

Harry leaped between the dragon and Snape without a second thought, pulling out his wand and casting a blocking spell as hard as he could at the beast. It was a split second too late. The spell wavered and failed in time for Harry to feel the heat of the dragon’s breath full on his chest. There was a searing, aching pain and he lost consciousness to the sound of screams. He hoped they weren’t his own.

*****

Harry came to gradually. It didn’t hurt – he felt like he was floating on a soft cloud – but there was an odd, uncomfortable memory of pain. He opened his eyes and wondered where he was. His mind felt odd and fuzzy and his thoughts wouldn’t settle.

"Harry!" Hermione said and she sounded like she was underwater. Like she was crying underwater. Why, Harry thought, would she be crying? "Does it," Hermione began, then made a choking noise. "Does it hurt?"

"What happened?" Harry asked, trying to focus on her.

"Now, Harry, just lie still and don’t try to speak," said a comforting voice.

Harry wracked his brains. Madam Pomfrey? Oh, so he was in the hospital wing. What had happened?

Then he remembered.

"The dragon," he said. "Shit. Is Snape okay?" Then, after a moment, "am I okay?"

"You’ll be absolutely fine, Harry," Madam Pomfrey said briskly. "You were the only one injured." Harry felt her cool hands on his chest, checking his bandages. "Do stop crying, Miss Granger, you’ll upset my patient. It looks much worse than it is. It won’t even mark, once the ointment has done its work."

"Oh," Hermione said, sniffing. She took a hanky from her sleeve and blew into it with a honk.

"You look a right state, mate," Ron said. He laughed, and it sounded shaky. "We thought you were a goner. Why’d you do it?"

"It was going for Snape," Harry said, thinking that that should be explanation enough.

"Right," Ron said and Harry thought he saw him exchange a meaningful glance with Hermione. "Right."

"I’m going to give you a sleeping potion, Harry," Madam Pomfrey said. "Another few more days in here and you’ll be right as rain."

"Another few more days?" Harry said. "How long have I been in here?"

"You’ve been un… unconscious for over a week." Hermione hiccupped. "We’ve been so worried."

"With no reason," Madam Pomfrey said, but she didn't sound unkind. She squeezed Hermione's shoulder on her way to fetch a vial of potion. "Didn’t I say that all would be well?"

Harry sipped down the potion she tilted to his lips. It felt strangely cold, like ice sliding down his insides, but before he could comment on that he was asleep once more.

*****

Harry woke up with a jolt, sure that there was someone else in the room with him. He didn’t feel as woozy as before but his chest ached, as if an elephant had stomped on him. It was pitch black but he was sure he could hear someone breathing. Although, on second thoughts, it sounded less like regular breathing and more like someone trying their hardest not to cry.

"Hermione? Is that you?" Harry whispered, feeling a bit stupid. He was probably imagining it, after all. He could see, rather blurred, a clock on the opposite wall. He squinted and made out that it was gone two in the morning. He tried to stretch for his glasses but it hurt, and knowing the exact time became less important to him.

The breathing stopped. Harry thought that, on the one hand, while that could be an indication that he was going mad, on the other hand, it could be that the other occupant of the room was holding their breath.

There was a choked noise and Harry let out a breath, relieved that he wasn’t going insane. "Um, who is it?" he asked.

There was the soft sound of someone attempting to get up as quietly as possible and walk towards the door. Harry squinted into the darkness, but it didn’t help. He couldn’t see a thing.

An odd thought came into his mind. "Um," he said, running with it. "Snape? Is that you?"

The footsteps came to a halt and there was an unnatural silence.

"I, er, don’t mind if it is," Harry said, winding his fingers into the sheets. "Um. Is it?"

Snape cleared his throat. "I apologise for disturbing your rest, Potter," he said, "I shall leave you to sleep."

"No, don’t," Harry said, struck by the dismal tone in Snape’s voice.

Snape didn’t move, but he didn’t say anything else either.

"Um," Harry said. "So."

"Quite," Snape replied.

There was another silence. Harry wished he could see Snape's face – but then his usual expression seemed to be a scowl, and there was no reason to suggest he was looking any different to usual.

"Why?" Snape began, then stopped.

"Why, what?"

"Don’t be an imbecile, Potter," Snape said with some heat.

"Oh, that," Harry said, remembering the whole 'saved Snape's life' business. "It wasn’t anything, really."

"You often leap in front of dragons to save the lives of people who you despise, do you?"

"I don’t despise you," Harry said, fixing on the thing that irritated him most. "It’s you that despises me."

"Rather less so right now," Snape muttered. "Which is hardly the point. Why did you do it? I wish to make the terms of my debt clear."

"Terms of your debt?" Harry said, wrinkling his brow. "What are you on about?"

Snape made a frustrated noise. "I doubt you would have been so heroic without some exchange in mind. What is it you desire from me?"

"You really are an arsehole," Harry snapped. "Is it too much to believe that I stopped you from being burned to death because, you know, I didn’t think you’d particularly like being burned to death?"

"Yes," Snape said simply. "It is."

"Well, you can sod right off," Harry said, breathing hard. He had to force himself to keep lying down. He bet it would hurt if he tried to storm off. It hurt to breathe, let alone get up. "Slytherins! You’re all the same."

Snape made no audible attempt to leave. After a long pause, Harry felt the urge to check if he was still in the room.

"Snape?"

"Yes, Potter?" Snape said. He sounded tired.

"Why don’t you sit down, rather than standing about," Harry heard himself say, to his own surprise. "I think there’s a chair near the bed, although I couldn’t say where with any certainty."

Harry heard Snape move towards him and the faint scrapings of chair legs moving on the floor.

"You can see?" Harry asked, the theories that Snape was a vampire who could see in the dark suddenly sounding a lot more plausible.

"No," Snape said. "I remembered where the chair was."

"Oh," Harry said. "You’ve been here before?"

Snape was silent for a while. "I wished to see if you were recovering," he said. There was a soft scraping noise as Snape shifted in the chair. "I may have been here once or twice before."

"I didn’t do it," Harry said, remembering a bone of contention between himself and Snape. Now seemed as good a time as any to bring it up.

"I don’t believe you," Snape said. It sounded like he knew exactly what Harry was referring to. "It's just the type of joke that your father would have found humorous."

"How many times do I have to say that I’m not my father?" Harry said, rolling his eyes in the darkness. "He was an arse to you and I’m sorry about that, but you can’t blame me. You should have hexed him back," he added.

"And have the werewolf eat me in my sleep?" Snape snapped. "An excellent notion, Potter."

Harry swallowed down an angry reply with a struggle. "I didn’t have anything to do with the trick played on you," he said again. "Why would I lie?"

There was silence once more, punctuated only by the quiet sound of Snape breathing.

"I apologise," Snape said, so softly that Harry had to strain to hear him.

Harry blinked. "What?"

"Are you deaf?"

"Oh, go on," Harry said. "Say it again."

"You are mocking me," Snape said stiffly.

"No, I’m really not," Harry said, a yawn interrupting him part way. "It was just unexpected."

Snape let out a short, sharp laugh. "I confess that I did not expect it, either. But then life has been full of unexpected things, of late." He paused. "And since we are dealing with unlikely events, let me say that I am grateful for your quick action with the dragon. I would not have thought anyone would risk their health and life so impetuously, and least of all for myself. Thank you."

"You’re welcome," Harry said, yawning again.

"Will you… recover fully?" Snape asked.

"Madam Pomfrey said so," Harry mumbled, drifting into sleep. "It’s a bit hard to breathe but I think I’ll be okay."

When Madam Pomfrey came to check on her patient and administer more pain relief in the early morning, she stopped dead in the doorway. Severus Snape was fast asleep in the chair by Harry’s bed, one arm stretched out to Harry, his hand curled around Harry’s arm. She stepped back and made a loud noise, slipping down the hallway when she saw Snape start, snatching back his arm and dashing out of the room before Harry woke up. She smiled after Snape before going in to see to Harry, glad that he hadn’t noticed her. Severus deserved a little happiness, and she was certainly not a woman to let a few rules stand in the way of something so harmless.

When Snape returned to Harry’s room the next night she wasn’t surprised, but she was curious as to why the boy didn’t visit during daylight hours. When he returned the night after that she was more puzzled still.

She wasn’t the only one. Harry wondered if he’d dreamed Snape’s second nocturnal visit, he’d been so quiet. He seemed to have come just to sit there. The silence would have been an uncomfortable one if Harry hadn’t been so tired. When he woke up he had no idea how long Snape had been there with him – it could have been ten minutes, or it could have been the whole night. Without any concrete evidence it was impossible to tell if Snape had even been there at all. Harry hoped he wasn’t delusional. The potions Madam Pomfrey fed him kept him spaced out and happy, though, so it wasn’t too big a stretch of the imagination to think that he was seeing things.

On the third night Harry, feeling remarkably better and remarkably bored – having lain down for what felt like forever – was more awake when Snape arrived. It seemed like a good idea to turn on the lamp on the bedside table so he did so, blinking in the pale light.

Snape stood there, frozen in the act of crossing the room.

"So, you’re not a dream," Harry said.

Snape composed himself and cocked an eyebrow at that. "Do you often dream of me?" he asked with a smirk and then, unaccountably, coloured.

"Why don’t you visit me in the daytime?" Harry asked.

Snape stiffened. "I can go away if you would prefer."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Sit down."

Snape did so, sitting bolt upright, his hands resting on his knees. He looked like a waxwork of himself, or a prim aunt, his lips set and his shoulders tense.

"You look like you’re awaiting execution," Harry said. It was a joke, but Snape frowned.

"I was not sure if I would be…" Snape started.

"Would be what?"

Snape wrinkled his nose. "Welcome," he concluded, and stared at the opposite wall as if it had done something to offend him.

"Of course you are," Harry mumbled. There was a strange atmosphere between them. When Snape turned to look at Harry, his expression was soft for a moment, before his eyes darted away from Harry’s face.

Snape raised his chin. "Besides, I did not know if your friends would drag me off and feed me to the dragon if I attempted to visit you in their presence."

"Why would they do that?" Harry asked.

"They haven’t told you?" Snape asked.

"Told me what?"

Snape knit his fingers together and shifted in his seat. "I am partly to blame for the incident with the dragon," he admitted. "More so than simply implanting the idea of Dragonology as a suitable topic of study in the mind of that foolish woman, Professor Smith. You are aware I have been refusing to see the Healers from St Mungo’s?"

"Er, yes," Harry said, thinking that now probably wasn’t the right time to bring up Snape’s attempt upon his life via the method of ink bottle meets head.

"I allowed them to examine me after the incident. They say that the concentration of phoenix magic within me has increased. They would never have allowed me anywhere near the dragon if they had known."

"I don’t understand," Harry said. "Why would that make a difference?"

Snape gave Harry a look. "Your general knowledge is abysmal, Potter. Do you never do any independent study?"

Harry rolled his eyes and snuggled into the duvet. "Let’s take the lecture as read. I get enough of that from Hermione without you starting as well."

Snape laughed, and his eyes lit up for a moment. Harry was surprised how much his face changed when he smiled, and he smiled back.

Snape immediately looked away, his shoulders stiffening. "The dragon is the ancestral enemy of the phoenix, Potter, as you would know if you had any intellectual curiosity at all. They are finely attuned to each other’s magical signatures. The Horntail sensed the phoenix magic within me and attacked."

"That’s not your fault," Harry said, wondering what was up with Snape. One moment he’d been laughing, the next he reverted to his usual grim face, acting like he had a poker up his arse.

"Of course it’s not," Snape replied, "I am aware of that, Potter. However, I do admit a certain culpability."

"You could call me Harry, you know," Harry said, changing the subject.

Snape turned to him, an eyebrow raised. "We are hardly at that stage of friendship."

"Right," Harry said, chastened. "You should visit me tomorrow though, in the daytime. If, you know, you want to."

Snape’s lips moved, ever so slightly, as if he were attempting to smile but couldn’t quite manage it. "Perhaps. I should let you get some rest now, Potter. It is late."

"You don’t have to go," Harry said.

Snape paused, twisting his fingers into his robe and frowning, a strand of hair falling in front of his eyes. "You wish me to stay?"

"If you want to," Harry said. He wondered why he felt so unsure of himself. He was acting like… like Snape was a girl he fancied, he realised in a great rush of comprehension. Which was followed by a great rush of incomprehension. "I, er, think I should go to sleep though," he added hastily, finding himself unable to look Snape in the eye now he’d had that terrifying and completely ridiculous thought. But, as with all disturbing things, once he’d thought it it refused to go away and leave him alone.

Snape stood up as soon as Harry spoke and almost dashed to the door. But, when he reached it, he half-turned and said: "See you tomorrow, Potter."

In response that that statement, Harry found his heart decided to beat faster and his stomach shifted like a burrowing animal had taken up residence within it.

When he woke up, he felt as if he’d been dreaming hard. His head hurt and he felt the worst he’d felt during his hospital stay. Which meant that it was ironic when Madam Pomfrey took his temperature, checked his chest and told him that he was fully healed and ready to go back to class.

As luck would have it the first lesson was Potions, taken by a mousy looking witch who blushed and squirmed when anyone asked her a question. She was, she squeaked, only taking the class as a favour to her good friend Minerva, until a suitable replacement Potions teacher was found. Harry wasn’t sure what had happened to Professor Smith, but rumour had it she’d packed up and left in the middle of the night, her badges flashing messages of despair and her hair wild.

Harry looked for Snape but he wasn’t in class. Hadn’t been during Harry’s stay in the hospital wing, according to Hermione, who looked very knowing as she told him. Harry didn’t know what she knew, but he was sure that whatever she was inferring it was wrong, dead wrong, because even Hermione had to be wrong sometimes.

Right?

*****

When Professor Hardburn, a thin, spiteful looking man wearing a three-piece Muggle suit covered in stains and badly sewn patches, entered the dungeon classroom a week later, Harry had a bad feeling. When Professor Hardburn, looking right at Harry, murmured something poisonous about celebrities and set them to work on the hardest potion in their textbook, he knew – without a doubt – that he hated the new Potions Professor, and that the rest of the school year would be a trial.

When Professor Hardburn curled his lip as Harry’s potion – which was, he had to admit, a poor effort (Snape had shot into the classroom a few minutes late, heading straight to his desk without looking left or right, which disconcerted Harry more than he cared to admit) – and Vanished it, murmuring fail with an unpleasant smile, he knew he was absolutely screwed. He needed to pass his Potions NEWT, and pass it well, to get onto the Auror programme. Kingsley had made that quite clear. No special treatment. Harry almost – almost – missed Professor Smith.

The fact that, at the end of the lesson, Snape seemed to move at the speed of light, leaving the classroom before Harry had time to blink, just served to rub it in. Apparently Snape could only be nice in private, in the darkness, in the middle of the night – and nice was probably putting too positive a spin on it, Harry thought with increasing gloom. He’d been civil at best. Probably, now Harry was healed and he no longer had cause to feel guilty, Snape saw no reason why he should speak to Harry.

It was bloody typical, that’s what it was, Harry thought, managing to knock over his flask of ink and flood the desk with permanent black. He wasn’t 100% sure what it was typical of, but he felt strongly about it all the same.

*****

In the last Potions lesson before the Christmas holidays Harry was determined not to make a fool of himself – and equally determined to speak to Snape, which, he thought with deep gloom, was certainly a bad combination. It was as if nothing had happened between them, Harry thought, toying with his quill and watching the back of Snape’s head. Ron whacked him and he spattered ink into his potion, which hissed and spat back. Harry looked at it with despair. It was supposed to be a thin, clear liquid suffused with tiny bubbles. His potion, a scummy grey colour, was on the fast Floo to another fail grade.

The problem was, he thought, as he had thought on a constant basis for what felt like weeks and weeks now, was that nothing really had happened between them. So Snape had shown a little common decency and visited him a few times? Harry couldn’t have, in all honesty, described his visits as particularly friendly. So why did Harry feel like something important had passed between them? Something awkward and odd, but not necessarily bad?

He shook his head, trying to concentrate on his potion. Snape was ignoring Harry as much as he’d done when he thought it was Harry who had played the practical joke on him. But, unless he, Harry, was going completely mad, he was ignoring him in a different way. Instead of ignoring him he was… avoiding him. The few times Harry had managed to speak to him he’d been the opposite of the calm, disdainful Snape that Harry knew all too well. Instead, he’d been nervy and on edge. If it had been anyone else, Harry would have described him as embarrassed. It was all too peculiar. Why would Snape be embarrassed to talk to him?

Harry’s traitorous brain reminded him that he was embarrassed to talk to Snape, but he did his fervent best to ignore it. Ever since he’d drawn a parallel between the way he felt talking to Snape and the way he felt when talking to someone he fancied, he’d been trying his best not to think at all. Every time he woke up, he attempted not to think about it. Every time he went to Potions class, he attempted not to think about it. Every time he went to sleep, he attempted not to think about it. Some attempts were more successful than others and Harry found himself torn between fear and interest every time he closed his eyes at night, his dreams were so… well. That was personal, and he didn’t want to talk about it. Not to Hermione, not to Ron (fuck no) and certainly not to himself.

Ron nudged him again. "Wake up, mate!" he hissed. "Old Hardhead’s coming this way."

Harry jolted to in time to watch his potion boil over, taking the varnish off the desk and congealing into hard lumps.

"Dear, dear," Professor Hardburn said, making a note on his clipboard and tugging at the string that held his cuff together. He waved his wand, Vanishing the potion but not the mess on the desk. "Another fail mark, Mr Potter. Do make sure you clean up thoroughly before you go or I will be forced to give you a detention."

Harry bit his tongue and Professor Hardburn moved on to Ron, who scraped a dismal pass grade. As ever, Snape was the only student who achieved top marks, but he barely acknowledged Professor Hardburn’s praise, his attention fixed on his work.

"Snape?" Harry called over. Snape didn’t turn around but he jolted and the quill in his hand trembled for a moment before he laid it down.

Harry waited a moment but there was no response. "Wait for me after class, will you? I want to ask you something."

Malfoy wolf-whistled from the corner of the room and several of the Slytherin girls made crude catcalls.

"Fuck off, Malfoy," Harry snapped. "Why don’t you just—"

"Language, Mr Potter," Professor Hardburn said, looking up from his clipboard. "You will stay after class to scrub all of the tabletops, thank you."

Harry scowled. "Yes, Sir." He realised that Snape hadn’t even acknowledged what he’d said. Knowing his luck he’d got himself an hour of scrubbing without any benefit. It wasn’t fair.

When the bell rang the students filed out, Ron and Hermione arm in arm. Hermione gave Harry’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze and whispered "good luck" as she left. Harry frowned. She was reading too much into this, surely? He’d already told her his plan, and he’d done his best to be a bit less cunning than last time. That hadn’t gone so well. This time? Harry felt his stomach churn. Hopefully Snape would agree.

Harry looked over at Snape. He was hunched over his textbook, the potion still glittering in front of him. His quill was back in his hand but he wasn’t making any notes.

"Er, Snape?" Harry said.

"What do you want?" Snape asked. The words sounded rude, but the way he said them… Harry’s brow creased further.

"I was wondering if, er, you’d consider giving me some Potions tuition. You know, during the Christmas holidays. If, er, you’re available, that is. You don’t have to," Harry said. He’d thought of something a lot more straightforward and a lot less idiotic to say – it was a pity he couldn't remember what it was.

There was silence for a moment. "Why?" Snape asked.

"Because I’m crap and you’re really good. I’d be really grateful," Harry replied. "I, er, I could pay you if you—"

"I do not require payment," Snape said, sniffing. He straightened up and began to pack away his equipment. "I shall, however, require that you pay attention and do your best to be less moronic than you usually appear to be."

"Oh," Harry said, thinking about that. "So you’ll do it?"

"Evidently," Snape said witheringly. "Do use your brain, Potter."

Snape walked to the door. He still hadn’t turned around to look at Harry.

"Er, when shall we start?"

Snape didn't stop. "Monday," he said, as he opened the door. "Here. Ten o’clock sharp."

He walked off before Harry could say thank-you, his footsteps echoing down the hallway.

Harry’s heart was beating fast and hard and he couldn’t stop grinning – even though it took him a full two hours to clean the desks. Every single cleaning spell had slipped from his mind and he had to scrub by hand.

*****

Harry entered the dungeons at a run, ten minutes late, skidding to a halt in front of Snape, who was scowling and packing up his things. "Sorry I’m late," he said, trying to catch his breath. "I overslept."

Snape glared at him but began to put his things back on the desk. "I dislike having my time wasted, Potter," he snapped.

Harry flushed and did his best to keep his temper. He had overslept, but only because he’d tossed and turned in bed until gone four in the morning. He’d only remembered – for fuck’s sake - that he was a wizard and could take a sleeping potion when it was too late. If he’d taken a shot of Dreamless Sleep he’d still be asleep and snoring right now. Eventually he’d managed to drift off, only to wake in a terrible panic.

The fact that he’d had a wet dream in the night, and even he could no longer ignore whom he’d been dreaming about, was only salt in the wound. He’d evidently gone completely insane, and now he’d have to suffer a morning of his worst subject in the presence of Severus Snape, who made him feel deeply uncomfortable at the best of times. Now, every time he looked at him, he saw flashes of his dream, Snape’s face twisted with pleasure, his skin—

"What are you staring at?" Snape asked.

Harry jumped. "Nothing," he managed, running a hand through his hair and thinking hard about slime and gung and snails.

Snape didn’t look convinced. He narrowed his eyes and stared at Harry as if he suspected him to be plotting something. "Let us get started," he said, turning to the Potions apparatus he had partially set up. "Get your textbook out and prepare to engage your brain."

Harry did so.

*****

Harry had, to tell the truth, expected the morning to be both boring and frustrating. He’d long ago learned that he had no talent for Potions and that if he tried – very, very hard – then he might be just about adequate. Without the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook, his utter incomprehension of the skills needed to brew was obvious, even to himself.

Having the Half-Blood Prince in person as a tutor, he’d thought, would be no substitute – particularly when it came to the final exam. He was pleasantly surprised or, to put it more plainly, completely shocked, to find that Snape’s instructions actually made sense. He learned more in one morning than he’d learned in the whole of the term so far. He did, however, find it hard to keep his temper when Snape got going.

"Explain to me why we add the Mumbleweed in a ground form, rather than shredded," Snape ordered, as Harry wondered if it were possible for a wrist to fall off. "Ten more minutes should do," Snape added, peering at the pestle and mortar that Harry was currently occupied with.

"Um, so it dissolves more quickly?" Harry hazarded, switching hands and attempting to get a steady rhythm going with his left.

Snape made a snorting noise. "Of course not. Don’t you know anything? If the Mumbleweed is shredded it takes longer for the potion to cook and the delicate balance will be spoiled."

"That’s what I said," Harry muttered.

"Don’t be a dunderhead," Snape said, frowning as he scooped up a handful of lacefly wings. "The dissolved Mumbleweed would give the potion an entirely different property."

Harry held his tongue.

"Are you listening to me?" Snape asked, weighing out the wings and crossing his arms, turning to stare at Harry. "This is elementary stuff, Potter. The sort of knowledge you should have picked up in your first year lessons."

Harry suppressed the urge to point out who had been his teacher then. Suggesting that Snape was an inferior teacher would doubtless not go down well.

"Lost your tongue?" Snape continued, getting into his stride. There was an evil glint in his eye. "I wouldn’t have thought—"

Harry passed Snape the mortar and pestle. "Is this okay?" he interrupted.

Snape took it from him and, as he did so, their fingers touched. Snape pulled away as if he’d been burned, and when Harry looked up at him Snape’s cheeks were blazing.

Snape cleared his throat. "It is adequate," he said, and failed to insult Harry for at least ten minutes afterwards.

*****

When Harry asked, hands busy and eyes down, if Snape fancied sitting with him and his friends at dinner that night, he nearly fell off his chair when Snape said yes.

The sight of Severus Snape sitting at the Gryffindor table – even if it was during the holidays, with only Ron, Hermione and a few other students – had to be seen to be believed. At least, Harry had to blink a few times before he’d concede that it wasn’t a hallucination brought on by potion fumes. He’d spent the afternoon flying with Ron, which seemed to be the only way he could stop Ron exclaiming over the fact that Harry had asked that git to sit with them at dinner.

"He’ll be wanting to sit with us at Christmas lunch next," Ron yelled into the wind.

Harry dodged a tree and zipped over towards Ron. "We’ll be at the Burrow for Christmas lunch," he yelled back.

"Well, don’t you dare invite him there," Ron continued. "Mum’d have a fit."

"No, she wouldn’t," Harry replied, swooping past him. "She’d say he was welcome."

"Yeah," Ron said, pointing his broomstick down and skimming towards the ground. "You’re right, mate. So don’t do it, okay? I’m hoping to share my room with Hermione, not with a gloomy git. What if he turned back in the middle of the night?"

They landed together and sat, panting, on the grass.

"Your mum will never let you share a room with Hermione," Harry laughed. "You’re sharing with me in any case, remember?"

"Oh, yeah," Ron said. He scowled down at his broomstick. "Bugger."

After they’d changed out of their Quidditch gear Ron had headed off to meet Hermione, shouting that he’d meet Harry in the Great Hall. Harry had expected to see Ron and Hermione in there when he entered. He’d even thought that Snape might be there, sitting at the Slytherin table and requiring coaxing over. He hadn’t expected to see Ron, Hermione and Snape all sitting at the same table, Hermione pouring Snape a drink while Ron attempted to make polite conversation.

"Um, hello," Harry said.

Snape looked up and, while he didn’t exactly smile, he didn’t frown either. "Evening," he said, looking away.

Harry sat down next to Snape. Their thighs brushed through their robes and Snape immediately shuffled over so there was a decent gap between them. It was an awkward start but Hermione and Ron didn’t seem to notice, Hermione mentioning a new law regarding poisonous plants that got them all talking. At least, got Snape talking, while Harry and Ron sat about, pretending to listen for a polite amount of time, before talking Quidditch amongst themselves.

All in all it had, Harry reflected as they made their way back to the Gryffindor dorms for the night, been a relatively successful day. He was a step closer to not failing his Potions NEWT, Snape was speaking to him and – well, Snape was speaking to him. Maybe more to Hermione, who had opinions on plants that Harry had never heard of, but that wasn’t really the point.

*****

After a few days of Potions tuition, Snape and Harry had slipped into an odd routine. Harry would arrive, a few minutes late, and Snape would be his most sarcastic. Harry would attempt to brew a potion and Snape would be his most sarcastic. Harry would fail at answering basic questions about basic Potions techniques and Snape would be his most sarcastic. But, at some point, Harry would say, or look, or do something that would, unaccountably, turn Snape from poised to clumsy, and the rest of the lesson would be sarcasm free.

Harry did his best not to think about what was disconcerting Snape. It was obvious. Every time Harry touched his arm, or brushed against him, or even did something simple like smile at him, Snape turned into a teenager. Of course, he already was a teenager at the moment, Harry was more than aware of that, but he lost that knowing, inscrutable air that drove Harry mad, turning into a real human being who blushed and made mistakes and wasn’t sure how to act.

Harry’s list of things to ignore at all possible costs – which was already long enough, what with the dreams, which attempted to multiply into daydreams if he didn’t exert steely mental discipline at all times – grew longer with each lesson with Snape. It seemed unfair, he thought, that he should have to add someone else’s problems to his list, but Snape’s flushed skin and awkwardness were playing havoc with Harry’s brain. He was being ridiculous, he told himself sternly. Just because Snape was awkward around him, did not add up to the Conclusion He Was Not Thinking About Because It Was Wrong And Stupid, And Did He Mention Wrong?

And now his thoughts were in capital letters, and every time he looked at Snape he saw all the things that he wasn’t thinking about, except he really was, because fucking hell…

He was going insane, that’s what was happening. Because there was no way he could be thinking these kind of thoughts about Snape of all people, and the idea that Snape could be thinking the same thoughts about Harry himself was even less probable.

It was with relief that Harry left Hogwarts for the Burrow, ready to spend a lovely Christmas not thinking about Certain Things Which Were Definitely Becoming A Problem, but eating too much turkey and drinking too much Firewhisky instead. If he could see his way to falling back in love with Ginny, as well, he wouldn’t mind that too much either.

*****

Harry returned to Hogwarts after Christmas feeling a strange combination of gloom and anticipation. Christmas had been nice but despite the full house the Burrow had felt empty. The chairs may have been filled but that didn’t make Fred’s absence any less keenly felt, the addition of Andromeda and the babbling baby Teddy not disguising the loss of Tonks and Lupin.

Also, to Harry’s dismay, he had failed abysmally in his mission to fall in love with Ginny once more. He’d tried, he really had. He’d thought about her naked in the shower, even, and that pleasing image had barely got a reaction out of him. Even talking to her hadn’t helped, or playing Quidditch in the garden until they were helpless with laughter. He liked her, yes, very much. He even loved her. Just not in the right way, not any more. Every day at the Burrow she felt more like a sister, and less like his lover. When she kissed him he felt guilty, of all things. She smiled, a small smile, as she pulled away and shook her head. "It’s over, isn’t it?"

Harry nodded, and couldn’t bring himself to speak.

"I thought it might be," Ginny said. "I suppose Hermione’s right."

"About what?" Harry asked.

"Oh, just something she said," Ginny said and refused to go into details.

When Harry questioned Hermione she claimed to have forgotten her conversation with Ginny entirely, although her red cheeks suggested a different story.

Harry wasn’t sure he wanted to know, in any case, because the thing he was rapidly thinking of as The Insanity (for short) reared its head every time he thought about what Hermione thought, and if he thought about that any more then his head might explode. This, he considered, would be a bad thing.

*****

Harry entered the dungeons for his first Potions lesson after the Christmas holidays with some trepidation. His heart was pounding and he was short of breath, even though he wasn’t late for once. Snape was sitting in his usual place, his head bent down to the textbook and his hair falling in front of his eyes. As soon as Harry entered, however, he looked up, his eyes meeting Harry’s for a split second before skidding away to focus just past his shoulder. "Would you care to sit with me?" Snape asked. "I hope you have been studying the reading material I suggested," he added, turning back to his books, "although I suspect that’s too much to ask for."

"It was Christmas," Harry protested, taking the seat next to Snape’s, and looking back at Ron to mouth sorry. "Of course I didn’t."

"Ah," Snape said.

"Did you have a good one?" Harry asked, fishing out his textbooks and his battered quill. "Can I share your ink?" he asked, looking in dismay at the inside of his bag and his spattered books. "I think mine leaked."

"It was adequate," Snape said with a shrug. "Preferable to Christmas at home." He wrinkled his nose at Harry’s ink-stained books. "You should take more care of your things."

Harry looked at his books and laughed. "Yeah, maybe. What was Christmas like with your family?"

Snape said nothing.

"Before I came to Hogwarts I’d never had a proper Christmas," Harry said, realising that he’d put his foot in it in some way. "Mostly I got locked in my room."

Snape still said nothing and then he hissed the word Muggles.

"Well, yes," Harry said, shifting in his seat. "But they aren’t bad people because they’re Muggles. They’re just bad people."

"Last Christmas my Muggle father hit my mother so hard he broke three of her ribs," Snape said, fiddling with his quill. It snapped between his fingers and he pushed it off the desk and on to the floor.

"That’s terrible," Harry said, feeling wretched.

Snape’s shoulders were very round and his hair hid his face from view.

Harry, very gingerly, reached over and put his hand on Snape’s arm. "I’m so sorry."

Professor Hardburn entered the room and Harry moved his hand away, not sure whether he’d made things better or a whole lot worse. Snape was quiet for the whole lesson, avoiding looking at Harry and hardly talking, except to tell Harry when he went wrong with his potion.

"I’m sorry," Harry said again at the end of the lesson. Professor Hardburn had looked at his potion from all angles and tested it at least twice, before sniffing and pronouncing it fit for purpose. "I didn’t mean to—"

"Give it a rest, Potter," Snape said. "I know you didn’t mean to. You hardly expected me to tell you family secrets when you merely asked if I had spent a pleasant Christmas." He sounded disgusted with himself. He stood up at sped, the chair screeching against the floor, and bent over his potion.

Harry flinched. "Um, right," he said. "Do you fancy going to Hogsmeade for a drink this evening?"

Snape made a surprised movement, spilling half of the liquid he was decanting. Harry Vanished it after a frozen second.

"Why?" Snape asked.

"Why not?" Harry said, still reeling from shock that he’d actually asked such a thing. Such a thing would only make The Insanity worse, feeding it with all sorts of new and interesting notions and evidence.

Snape decanted the rest of the potion without incident. "That would be… acceptable," he said, sounding suspicious. "I suppose."

"Great!" Harry said, grabbing his stuff and practically fleeing the room. "I’ll see you after dinner!"

*****

"Mate," Ron said, paling under his freckles. "Did you seriously just say what I think you did?"

I asked Snape on a date, Harry’s mind chanted, I asked Snape on a date, I asked Snape on a date. "It’s not like it’s a date or anything," Harry said, as firmly as he could. I asked Snape on a date and he said yes, even though he doesn’t know it’s a date and it can’t possibly be a date and I really must stop thinking about this as a date, his mind added. The Insanity was proving difficult to contain once it had been let loose.

"You asked Snape on a date," Ron moaned. "I mean, I know Hermione said—"

"Hermione said what?" Harry said, running his fingers through his hair so that it stood up at odd angles. "It’s not a date!"

"What if Snape thinks it’s a date?" Ron pointed out. "You did ask him on a date."

"I didn’t," Harry protested. "I asked him for a drink."

"You asked him out for a drink," Ron replied.

"If I asked you if you fancied a drink, you wouldn’t think I was chatting you up," Harry spluttered.

"I would," Ron said. "But some things are too hideous to contemplate. Back to the matter in hand—"

"It’s not a date," Harry said again.

"Hermione!" Ron said, grabbing her as she came into their corner of the common room. "Harry’s going on a date with Snape!"

Hermione smiled at Harry. "Really? That’s wonderful! Didn’t I say, Ron, that—"

"It’s not a date," Harry moaned. "Why won’t you believe me?"

Hermione sat down next to Ron and pecked him on the cheek, sliding her arm under his. "Does Severus think it is?" she asked Harry.

"Severus?" Ron said, spluttering. "Severus?"

"That is his name, Ron," Hermione said, dropping Ron’s arm and folding her arms. "Well, Harry?"

"Of course he doesn’t think it’s a date," Harry said. "If he did, he would never have said yes."

"Oh, Harry," Hermione said. "That’s not true and you know it."

The Insanity threatened to take over Harry’s entire brain, implanting itself as a new operating system.

"It’s not a date," he mumbled.

"We believe you," Hermione said. "Now, what are you going to wear?"

*****

"I was surprised that you suggested this," Snape said, looking down at the drink in front of him.

They were sitting in a small pub off the beaten track in Hogsmeade. Ron had suggested that Harry take Snape to Madam Puddifoots, but Harry had threatened him with slow, painful death if he said another word and so he’d shut up, only contributing a snigger to the conversation every now and then. Hermione’s suggestion of this place had been much more welcome.

"Er," Harry said, trying not to add I was pretty surprised about it, too. He didn’t think that would go down well. "Two friends can go out for a drink, can’t they?" he continued, aware that he sounded like he was pleading.

Snape nodded, glancing over at him for a moment before turning back to his drink. "I am surprised you wish to be my friend at all," he added, staring down into his beer.

"That’s a stupid thing to say," Harry replied. "Why wouldn’t I?"

Snape rolled his eyes and took a sip of his drink. "I am not who you remember, not entirely. My loyalty to the Dark Lord is still…" He shrugged. "I know I was a spy for the Order, but that is still in my future."

"It’s not," Harry said, puzzled. "You’ve done it."

Snape hunched his shoulders. "I don’t remember doing it. I’m not sure it’s…" He took another deep drink. "How can I be sure it’s something I would choose, now?"

"You don’t need to choose now," Harry said. "It’s done. We defeated Voldemort and it’s all over."

Snape’s face twisted. "You really are quite the Gryffindor, aren’t you?" he said and it didn’t sound like a compliment. "Everything so black and white. I do not know…" He took a deep breath. "I do not know if I would have the courage to do what my older self did."

"You are your older self," Harry replied. "The Healers at St Mungo’s are sure of it. They think the world would have exploded if you were a time traveller."

"Again, you miss the point," Snape muttered.

"What is the point?" Harry asked, feeling a bit cross.

"The point is that you are sitting opposite a loyal Death Eater, who took the Mark, who swore to be faithful to the cause until death," Snape said, his breathing harsh. "Right now, I am the sort of person who should be in Azkaban. Locked up for committing unspeakable evils for a cause that, even now, I cannot entirely explain the rightness of."

Harry considered this. "You made a mistake," he said, taking a sip of his beer. "One that you regretted and made up for." He looked steadily at Snape and shrugged. "Just because you don’t remember it, doesn’t take it away."

"It does," Snape breathed. He rolled up the sleeve of his left arm and Harry flinched, just for a moment, expecting the blemish of the Dark Mark. He stared. Snape’s arm was pale skin and nothing but. The Dark Mark was conspicuous by its absence.

"It’s not there," Harry said, taking a deep breath. A thought occurred to him. "Haven’t you had it done yet?"

Snape looked down at his arm. "It was done. I made my choice."

"But…" Harry started.

"Rebuilt," Snape said with an odd edge to his voice, "the phoenix magic rebuilt me. Without the… taint."

"Well, there you are then," Harry said, trying for blasé. "Taint free."

Snape gave him a withering look.

They sat in silence for a while, sipping their drinks. Harry desperately tried to think of something non-controversial to say but he could only think of Quidditch, and he didn’t think Snape had much to say about that.

"It hurt," Snape said breaking the silence, his voice calm, "more than anything you can imagine."

"What did?" Harry asked and could have kicked himself.

Snape snorted. "Conversation with you, Potter, is surprisingly painful. I was, it may surprise you, referring to the ritual which bound me to the Dark Lord, rather than the torturous spectacle of you attempting to use your brain, however."

Harry chose to ignore that. "Why – why did you do it?"

Snape took a large gulp of his drink and his face darkened. "He was the only one who—" He stopped, swirling the dregs around the bottom of his glass.

"Sorry," Harry said, "I didn’t mean to pry. Sorry."

"It is not that I do not wish to tell you," Snape forced out. "It is more that I have never spoken of it before. It is tiresomely difficult."

"I won’t tell anyone," Harry said. "If you want to tell me anything, you know, private."

Snape smiled, very slightly. "I believe you. Still, let us talk of other things."

"Oh, of course," Harry said, "whatever you want. Er, so, which Quidditch team do you support?"

Snape laughed, one of the first genuine laughs that Harry had heard him make. "You really are an idiot, aren’t you, Potter," he said, lifting his glass to his mouth to hide his smirk.

Harry couldn’t help but agree.

*****

"So, how was the date?" Ron called when Harry entered the Gryffindor common room.

"Shut up, Ron," Hermione hissed, nudging him in the ribs, but it was too late.

All eyes turned to Harry.

"It wasn’t a date," Harry said, feeling himself go red. The more people stared at him, the hotter he felt. He flung himself down on the sofa next to Ron. "Thanks a lot," he muttered, "really helpful. If they announce it in the Daily Prophet I’ll murder you."

"Sorry, sorry," Ron said. "It wasn’t a date!" he said loudly. "There," he whispered, "I made up for it, right?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. "I can kill him for you, if you like, Harry."

Harry laughed. "Yes, please."

"Hey!" Ron protested. "Where is the love?"

"Potter and Snape up a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G," a group of giggling sixth year girls broke out, before collapsing into fits of laughter.

Ron went pale. "Shit, Harry. I really am sorry."

"It’s okay," Harry said, thinking that it really, really wasn’t. "They won’t spread it about, will they? And it wasn’t a date, anyway," he added, in a loud voice, just to make it clear.

If Snape heard the rumour and thought he’d started it he was a dead man, and no mistake about it.

*****

"So, Potty," Malfoy called across the Great Hall the next day at breakfast, "I hear you had a hot gay date with Snape last night." He smirked and the girls at his table all broke into giggles, whispering to each other. "Get any action?"

Harry attempted to rise from his chair and wreak hideous vengeance on Malfoy but something impeded his progress. It was Ron and Hermione. Hermione had her feet hard on his toes under the table, and Ron was dragging him down by his robe.

"The Professor has been giving Harry extra tuition in Potions," Hermione said, loud enough so Malfoy – and all the other Slytherins – could hear. "Harry was buying him a thank-you drink. You really should wash your mouth out with soap, Malfoy."

Malfoy’s face went red. "Aw," he said, "Potty so bad at Potions he needs Snapey-Wapey to baby him?"

"Funny," Harry said, shrugging off Ron, who was still clutching at his robe to keep him seated. "Very funny. Still, I bet you wish you were as good at Potions as Professor Snape is, don’t you?"

Malfoy’s mouth opened and shut and he settled for a glare. "Fuck off, Potter," he said.

Harry snorted. "That the best you can do?"

It appeared that it was. It was enough though, Harry thought, the incident occupying his mind for the rest of the day. Snape was going to have an absolute fit.

*****

The next morning at breakfast something happened to Malfoy. One moment he was laughing and whispering with his friends, speaking loud enough for Harry to catch his name – but not loud enough for Harry to hear what Malfoy was saying about him. The next moment his head swelled up to twice its normal size, the skin twisting and stretching. Malfoy started to shriek, pawing at his cheeks, moaning and wailing until a teacher dragged him off to the hospital wing to get fixed.

Harry looked around but he couldn’t see an obvious culprit. He grinned – not caring who’d done it. It had been a great way to start the day.

Then Harry entered the Potions classroom and saw Snape, and remembered what had happened the day before. It was too much to hope that Snape hadn’t heard about it. He wondered if Snape would murder him and eat his flesh now, or save it for later.

Instead, Snape shifted over at his desk, indicating that the space next to him was free. Harry sat down next to him, puzzled. Snape wasn’t going to kill him? If not, why not? He snuck a quick glance at Snape. Snape looked smug, if anything.

"So, did Malfoy enjoy his morning orange juice?" Snape asked.

Harry choked. "That was you?"

"Of course," Snape replied, sounding amused. "You don’t think I let people get away with embarrassing my friends like that, do you?"

Harry was speechless. "You’re not angry at me?"

Snape frowned, fiddling with his quill. "No. Should I be?"

"Well, no," Harry replied. "I thought you’d be… You know… I didn’t think you’d want to…"

"Spit it out, Potter."

"I thought you’d want to kill me. You know. Because people thought we’d been out together. Out out."

Snape didn’t say anything to that, just kept twirling his quill.

"It’s nobody else’s business," he muttered, then bit his lip. "Arseholes, the lot of them."

Harry had thought that he’d been fairly good, on the whole, on suppressing The Insanity in the period after the pseudo-date. At Snape’s words, however, it popped up, deciding that what Harry really wanted, in the middle of the Potions classroom, was to think about Snape kissing him.

Harry felt very, very hot all of a sudden. He gulped.

"Are you well?" Snape asked after a moment, examining him curiously. He pressed a hand to Harry’s forehead for a second. "You don’t feel hot but you’ve gone a peculiar colour. Do you need to see Madam Pomfrey?"

There was no way Harry was going to stand up at that moment, voluminous robes or no. No way in hell. "I’m, er, fine," he mumbled, the images of Snape kissing him refusing to leave him be. The feeling of Snape’s hand burned into his skin. Merlin. Denial really wasn’t working for him, not right now.

Professor Hardburn started to talk, much to Harry’s relief. He fixed his attention on the Professor, trying to remember how to breathe and trying to focus on Potions rather than, say, the thin, pale boy sitting next to him. It was difficult, though. Even though he and Snape weren’t touching every time he or Snape moved, even minutely, the fabric of their robes brushed together. It felt more intimate, more terrifying, than anything Harry had ever experienced before. He wondered if he’d gone right through insanity and out the other side, and was now in some incomprehensible, ridiculous world where sitting next to someone you really, really shouldn’t fancy made you more aroused than a snog and a grope with your ex-girlfriend ever had.

Snape pushed a piece of parchment towards him and Harry nearly keeled over before getting a grip on himself. It wasn’t like Snape knew that he was having these… inappropriate thoughts about him. Heart racing, he looked down at the paper in front of him.

Potter, it said, in a firm, old-fashioned hand, is everything okay? If you are about to faint it would be wise to inform me, unless you wish to collapse upon the glassware and gain some new facial scars. S.

I’m fine, Harry scrawled back. Thanks. Just came over a bit funny for a moment there.

Snape looked down at the paper, his hair falling in front of his eyes. His quill hovered below Harry’s own messy writing for a moment, then he added something extra and pushed it towards Harry. Would you care to accompany me on a trip to Hogsmeade this Saturday? Harry read. The writing was less neat than before.

Harry looked down at the question. His stomach twisted into knots. When he glanced over at Snape, Snape was looking dead ahead and did not seem to want to catch Harry’s eye.

Harry wondered if he dared write as a date? for at least a second, before he realised that there was no way in hell he could bring himself to ask that. He’d rather face Aragog again, or Voldemort himself, than ask Severus Snape if he was asking him out on a date. There were things that were difficult, that took all a man’s courage, and there were things that were impossible by definition. This was most definitely the latter.

Sure, Harry scrawled, his heart thudding and a strange beast coiling round his insides. He pushed the paper towards Snape, who scanned it and slipped it inside his textbook.

"Right," Snape said, "go and fetch the eye of newt and we’ll make a start on this potion."

"Oh," Harry said. He hadn’t even realised that Professor Hardburn had finished talking. He wondered why Snape hadn’t just asked him out loud, in that case, but then he thought about how he’d feel asking Snape such a thing out loud and his insides felt funny. Except he, Harry, had The Insanity to deal with, so what was Snape’s problem?

Harry tried to squash the hope that rose up and attempted to inform him what Snape’s problem could be. At least, he thought it was hope. It felt more like panic, truth be told. Because if Snape was infected by The Insanity and he, Harry, was infected by The Insanity, then together… But then two blokes didn’t do that. Harry started to hyperventilate. He didn’t even know what two blokes together could do, if they’d both gone mad and decided to be… together. In that way.

This was something, Harry thought, gripping his quill so hard that he was surprised it didn’t break, that he really should not be thinking about in class.

*****

Harry entered the library with caution. It was quiet, as usual, but there was always the risk of an unexpected Hermione. Harry sort of wanted to talk to her about this, but mostly the thought of it was so painfully embarrassing that he’d really rather not. He flicked through the index card boxes, not sure exactly what he was looking for. S for Sex made him blush, the titles sounding far too lewd for a school library, but S for Sexuality turned up several titles of possible interest.

He shut the index card drawer and slipped into the book stacks, running his eye along the numbering until he came to the right area. He pulled out a book at random, only to find himself holding a spell book that shimmered with magic and reflected an image of himself, transformed into a smiling girl complete with pigtails and short skirt. He shuddered and shoved it back. A general history was more what he was looking for. He couldn’t be the only one who had had these kind of thoughts.

Then he caught sight of a title that made his heart thump. He looked around and, feeling a bit ridiculous for doing so, pulled his Invisibility Cloak over his head before grabbing the book from the shelf. He clutched Homosexuality in the Wizarding World, a heavy, leather-bound tome, in his hands for a moment, before sitting down to read.

*****

"Headmistress," Severus said, shifting from foot to foot as he stood in front of her desk, his fingers wound tight inside the over-long sleeves of his school robe.

Professor McGonagall smiled at him. "Do sit down, Severus. And as I keep saying, you may call me Minerva. We’ve been friends for long enough."

Severus sat down, trying not to scowl. He already knew the answer to what he was about to ask so there was no point to being there. Still, ask he would. Better to be embarrassed in front of the Headmistress than to be embarrassed in front of… someone else.

"Now, what can I do for you?" the Headmistress asked.

"I find myself challenged in a pecuniary sense," Severus said. It didn’t sound so bad put that way. A lot better, in any case, than a straightforward I have no money.

The Professor frowned and Severus tried not to get angry. It wasn’t fair. Poverty was so demeaning.

"Have you visited your vault in Gringotts? The salary of a Head of House is not a fortune, but I believe it was sufficient for you before."

Severus felt incredibly sour towards his older self. "I have visited this vault," he admitted, "and found it empty. I believe my older self spent freely on potions ingredients. There is a bill for a replica sword which took most of his – my – savings."

The Professor looked astonished. "Severus, you should not have paid that! Hogwarts will, of course, reimburse you for the full cost." She waved her wand at one of her desk drawers, which opened with a creak, and withdrew a small bag. "Take this," she said, pushing it towards him. "I will also set up an allowance for you. You have a scholarship, as you did before, for your schooling and keep, and I apologise for neglecting this matter."

Severus looked at the bag. "I do not wish to take money I have not earned," he forced out.

"You have more than earned it," the Professor said, sharply. "It is yours. Do not embarrass me by refusing it."

Severus inclined his head and pocketed the bag of money. "You have my thanks."

When he returned to his rooms he poured the money out onto his bed and counted it. One hundred galleons. It was enough for books and extra potions ingredients for a whole term, if he was careful. There would even be enough to treat a friend to a drink and a meal, as well. He tried to smile but he felt too nervous, even in the privacy of his own room. When he tucked the bag into the inside pocket of his robe his hands shook.

*****

So far the day out had been far more tolerable than Severus had expected. He had supposed that Harry had only acquiesced to his request out of politeness, rather than an actual urge to be seen in public with him. But Harry surprised him, as he had kept surprising him, over and over again.

Things had been a little… strained at first. Severus knew that he wasn’t always good company – his temper and his vicious tongue had driven away every friend he’d ever had, so it was likely his fault. Soon, though, Harry had relaxed, even making a – pitiful, but amusing – attempt to verbally spar with him. No one had ever laughed at Severus’ black humour before, or been so good-natured when they were the butt of the joke themselves.

It was dangerous, that’s what it was. Severus knew himself all too well, his opinion of himself swinging wildly from pride to self-loathing and back again. Lily had always said he was too intense, too open with his emotions. She’d used to say that she liked it – she liked knowing what he was feeling, wished that other men were more like him. More like him. What a joke. When she’d tossed him aside like so much garbage after one awful slip of the tongue, one insult said in anger, he’d drawn into himself. He’d felt poisoned with anger and shame, sick to his very bones with it.

The only thing that helped – the only ones that had helped – had been his Slytherin associates and his outside interests. Lucius had been a distant figure during his early school years, an imperious blond who always got his own way without any fuss, and Severus had admired him for that. Admired him a little too much, perhaps. But he’d never been the least bit tempted to act upon his admiration. Lucius Malfoy was a slippery customer, who’d sell your secrets and smile as he tore your life down around your ears. Severus had never considered him a friend, even though his memories informed him that he’d spent more time at the Malfoy’s manor house, of late, than at his own home. Of course, that was years ago, but it didn’t feel that way. Even the history he’d read and the newspaper reports didn’t suggest that there was anything other than the friendship of close rivals between them.

So, no. Lucius had never posed a danger to him, not on any personal level. Harry, on the other hand… Well. Severus just couldn’t stop looking at him. His grin was infectious and his enthusiasm more so. He was reasonably attractive, as men went, despite his strong resemblance to James. But, and this was the most dangerous, most terrifying thing about him – ridiculous as it was to admit – he was so honest. Every emotion reflected on his face, in the way he held himself, in how he spoke. It was as if he’d simply shrugged off the bad things in life, refusing to brood on them, to let them fester. He’d learned from them, yes, Severus could see that when he looked in his eyes. But he’d managed to stop them from changing him into someone bitter.

Severus envied him. He wanted to be him, he wanted to be friends with him and he… Well. He just wanted him. It was a painful, hopeless kind of feeling that he knew wasn’t healthy. It was going to be Lily all over again, only worse, because this went beyond kindness and friendship and into something – something that Severus wished to Merlin that he didn’t feel, but he did, so much so that every waking moment was measured by it.

Severus’ train of thought was interrupted by Harry himself, who was laughing and tugging him over to a shop window.

"What are you babbling about, Potter?" he asked, allowing himself to pulled.

"Look," Harry said, turning to grin at Severus before prodding the glass. "Aren’t they amazing?"

Severus followed the line of Harry’s finger to a selection of dragon-shaped pendants. They were amazingly realistic, he had to admit, so much so that the tiny Horntail made him shudder. One opened its tiny mouth and breathed a tiny cloud of steam, before curling up into a ball.

"Hmm," Severus said. "I would have thought you’d had enough of dragons."

"I wonder if I could afford one?" Harry said, patently ignoring him. "I’d love one for my bedside table." He laughed. "It would really freak Ron out."

"I believe they are intended to be worn around the neck," Severus said, staring at the dragons. It was safer than staring at Harry, his cheeks red and his hair a mess, one hand pressed longingly up against the glass.

An impulse came over Severus and he wavered, for a moment, before yielding to it. What were a few mouldy books and a few rare ingredients, compared to… "Would you – would you care for one?" he asked, trying to sound off-hand.

He felt, rather than saw, Harry turn towards him, but didn’t dare look that way. "As a gift," he clarified. "It would be an appropriate apology, I feel."

"Are you sure?" Harry asked. He sounded hesitant. "They’re probably expensive."

Severus bristled. "I have sufficient," he lied, hoping that one tiny dragon wouldn’t be too expensive. "Wait here." He entered the shop before he could lose his nerve, handing over the 90 galleons the woman asked for without complaint. His heart was thudding. He’d never spent so much money at once before, and certainly never bought such an extravagant gift.

When he left the shop he was beset by doubts. Harry would think it was too much. He’d know. He looked down at the package in his hands. "Here," he said, shoving it in Harry’s direction. Harry fumbled and almost dropped it, but managed to catch it before it fell. "I have to go now," Severus mumbled, turning to flee. He was disgusted by himself. He’d always been awkward, his social graces poor, but he’d never felt so embarrassed by his behaviour before.

Harry caught him by the arm. "Don’t," he said. His face was flushed but he was smiling. "Thank you," he said. "Let’s go get some lunch, shall we? My treat."

Severus tried to compose himself. He wondered if he looked as flustered as he felt. He sincerely hoped not. "That would be pleasant," he forced himself to say.

"Great," Harry said, grinning at him. "Let’s go."

Severus attempted to smile back. He’d made an idiot of himself but Harry didn’t seem to care and, not only that, was taking him for lunch. He didn’t mind being seen in public with… with Snivellus.

And he was still holding on to Severus’ arm. Severus tried not to think about that too hard.

*****

"Don’t you get bored in your own rooms?" Harry asked. He was walking the grounds with Snape – who he now thought of as Severus – not that he dared call him that.

Severus frowned and pushed his hands into the pockets of his robe. "No, why should I?"

Harry shrugged and tried not to shiver. It was bloody cold outside but if he mentioned it then Severus might suggest they go inside, and that would mean going their separate ways. Harry had begun to wonder why there was no communal room for people of different Houses to hang out in. "I like being around my housemates," Harry said. "Our common room’s fun. We have games and we just sit about and talk rubbish."

Severus wrinkled his nose. "That doesn’t sound like much fun to me. I could visit the Slytherin common room, I suppose, if I desired the company of tiresome idiots, but I happen not to."

"Yeah, it’s not much fun in there," Harry said, remembering the time he and Ron had gate-crashed, dressed up as the terrible twosome of Crabbe and Goyle.

"How do you know that?" Severus asked, turning his head to look at Harry with curiosity.

"I, er, just do," Harry mumbled.

Severus laughed. "If you’ve seen the inside of the Slytherin common room, then it’s only fair that a Slytherin should take in the experience of the Gryffindor common room."

Harry frowned. "I’m not sure that would be a great idea," he admitted. "I’d be happy to take you in, but I don’t think some of my housemates would make you feel welcome."

Severus rolled his eyes. "Are you really so unimaginative, Potter? I can think of a dozen different ways I could get in without being detected, if I so desired."

"I could hide you under the Cloak, I suppose," Harry said without thinking.

Severus laughed. "Your Invisibility Cloak? That’s your answer to everything, isn’t it?" He raised an eyebrow and smirked.

"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," Harry replied.

"Go on then," Severus said. "I dare you."

"Okay, then," Harry replied, grinning. "Tonight, after dinner. I’ll sneak you in and show you around."

"I can hardly wait," Severus said. It was sarcastic, yes, but when Harry looked over at him he was smiling, his face red from the wind and his hair wild.

Harry had to suppress a terrible urge to give him a hug.

*****

Harry realised, too late, that there wasn’t a good reason why they were both under the Invisibility Cloak. Severus needed to be, yes, but wouldn’t it have been much simpler if only he had been concealed? Harry wondered why Severus hadn’t pointed this out. He was usually so quick to point out when Harry did something idiotic. Why hadn’t he this time?

There hadn’t been much room under the cloak when he’d shared it with Hermione and Ron but, for no discernable reason, there seemed to be even less room for two. Harry and Severus had to squash close together to keep hidden, their arms and hips pressed hard together. Severus’ hair was tickling Harry’s cheek. He smelled nice, this close to, of herbs and lemon.

Harry had cast a Sound-Concealing Spell but he still felt like he needed to whisper. "Okay?" he asked as they reached the Gryffindor portrait entrance.

Severus let out a breath. "Yes," he said. There was a smile in his voice.

They slipped into the Gryffindor tower behind a group of unwary third years, Harry gathering his courage and taking Snape’s arm, ostensibly to guide him the right way.

They entered the common room and stood about for a bit.

"So far, this is less exciting than I had anticipated," Severus whispered. "Although my eyes are bleeding from the décor. It is about as subtle as the Slytherin common room in tone. Are the dormitories as bad?"

Harry laughed. "Yes." He thought about that for a moment. "Actually, worse," he admitted. "The red and gold blends in so nicely with the orange of Ron’s Cannons posters."

"It sounds like a sight worth seeing," Severus snorted.

"Oh, it is," Harry agreed. "See it and you can die happy."

"Preferably right away, I presume?"

"The dying or the seeing?" Harry asked.

"Either. Both," Severus replied. "You do know you make no sense, Potter, do you not?"

"Oh, come on," Harry said, without thinking it through. "I think you’ll probably live."

"Very well," Severus said, sounding amused. "Lead the way."

Harry realised he had now committed to showing Severus his bedroom, where only the night before he’d… done things of a personal nature whilst trying not to think of someone who was currently standing much, much too close.

He led Severus towards his room, slipping through the open door and into a room that wasn’t empty. Was, in fact, far too full of Rons and Deans and Seamuses, to name a few. Harry motioned to Severus that they should leave but, to his horror, Ron rose and shut the door, blocking their exit.

"There’s a draught," Ron said, when Dean raised an eyebrow at him. "It was blowing right on my neck."

"It was just Seamus farting," Dean said.

Seamus gave him a dirty look and threw a pillow at him.

"What now?" Severus whispered.

"Not sure," Harry whispered back. Severus’ arm felt warm and soft against Harry’s own, but if they stood about then they’d end up getting whacked by a pillow. Ron and the guys could be unobservant, Harry thought, but he doubted they’d be that unobservant. "We could sit on my bed until they open the door again?"

"Great," Severus said. "Trapped in a room with a group of men who think humour consists of fart jokes. Next they’ll be holding a belching contest."

Harry suppressed a laugh. "Come on."

They began to tiptoe towards Harry’s bed but, as they did so, Ron got up and walked in front of them. Severus started, losing his balance and, attempting to avoid Ron, came up hard against the trunk at the foot of Harry’s bed.

There was a massive crash and the sound of splintering glass.

"Fuck!" Harry said. "Quick!"

Acting as one he and Severus leaped onto the bed, pulling the curtains tight around them.

"Harry?" Ron called, "why are you being a twat?"

"Er, I’m just practising?" Harry called back.

Severus rolled his eyes at him and mouthed "Nice one, Potter. Very smooth."

"Are you okay?" Ron asked.

"Fine!" Harry replied. "Just fine!" He tried not to squeak, but he wasn’t sure that he’d managed it.

"Well, okay mate," Ron said, sounding amused, "whatever makes you happy."

Harry quickly cast a Muffliato spell. "I, er, think we got away with that," he said. "What do you think?"

"I think you’re an imbecile," Severus replied. "How am I supposed to leave now?"

"Er," Harry said.

"Precisely, Potter."

Harry pulled at the Invisibility Cloak, tucking it down at the end of the bed. The fact that he was sitting, in semi-darkness, on a bed with Severus was beginning to sink in. Terror hit. He tried to move, but he couldn’t manage it without coming up against Snape. Four-poster bed it might be, but it was definitely designed for one.

"Stop fidgeting, Potter," Severus snapped, shrinking back. He shrank back too far and Harry grabbed him, pulling him closer, worried that he’d fall out of bed entirely. The problem with this was that he ended up with an armful of Severus.

Severus was a lot more bony than Harry’s tentative thoughts had prepared him for. He was all sharp angles through his robes, his body taking up barely any space at all.

"Um, sorry," Harry felt moved to say.

Severus took in a sharp breath. "I believe I am safe now, Potter. You may release me from your tender care."

Harry let go as if his hands had been burned. "Sorry," he repeated.

They sat in silence for some time. Severus’ breathing was ragged and every now and then his lips parted like he wanted to say something, but kept changing his mind.

"I’m going to take my shoes off," Harry said, breaking the silence. He struggled to do so without brushing up against Severus and just about managed it. He tugged at his outer robe miserably, not sure how he could remove it without knocking Severus’ head off with his elbow. There just wasn’t room.

"Oh, for Merlin’s sake, Potter," Severus said, his voice disagreeable. He shifted on the bed, moving towards Harry and pulling the robe from his shoulders. He was very warm and very close for a few moments before he moved away.

Harry, glad that it was gloomy behind the curtains of his bed, rolled up the robe and shoved it to the bottom of the bed. He turned to Severus, who’d shrugged off his own school robe and shoes.

"We may as well lie down as not," Severus snapped. He began to do so then he noticed what was around Harry’s neck. He went still.

"What?" Harry asked, looking down at the necklace. The dragon was still, coiled up as it hung around his neck.

Severus seemed to shake himself out of his trance. "Nothing," he replied, lying down. Spots of red blossomed high on his cheekbones.

Harry looked down at Severus, his dark hair falling softly on the pillow, his school shirt riding up just far enough to expose a sliver of pale skin at his belly, and wished he were dead. However, fate was not kind enough to grant him his wish, so he lay down next to Severus, trying to remember how to breathe.

There wasn’t enough space to lie with a gap between them so they lay side by side. Severus felt warm against Harry’s side and it was an effort not to relax against him. Harry wanted to but… Severus felt so stiff beside him, holding himself rigid.

"Are you okay?" Harry asked. He wasn’t sure why he’d asked that, not precisely, but it was as good a question as any.

"No," Severus whispered after a pause.

"Oh," Harry said. He tried not to panic. "Is it something I’ve done?"

"Shut up, Potter," Severus snapped. "You are not helping."

"But I want to help," Harry said. "You’re my… We’re… I want to help," he finally settled on.

Severus said nothing for a while. Then: "It’s ridiculous," he burst out, "you’d never…"

Harry’s heart was beating fast and his insides felt most peculiar. "Never what?" he managed.

"Never mind," Severus muttered. "Forget it."

"No, go on."

"Just leave it alone will you?"

"Um, no," Harry said. "Please tell me what’s wrong."

"Why do you care?" Snape blazed.

"Because I like you," Harry replied. Then he heard what he’d said. Shit.

"You. What?"

"I like you," Harry said, feeling miserable down to the tips of his toes. This was one conversation he never, ever wanted to have. The fact that he was having it didn’t change his mind one bit.

"In what—" Severus started, then broke off. "How?"

"What do you mean, how?"

"I… Just answer the question!"

"Um," Harry said. His heart was beating so fast that he wondered if he’d die of a heart attack before he managed to say the words. "I like like you," he forced out.

There was a deathly silence. Harry had his eyes screwed tightly shut and he didn’t dare open them.

"I like you too," Severus said. His voice was low and tense.

Harry couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe and he couldn’t think straight and Severus could not have just said what he just said.

Screwing up his courage he opened his eyes and looked over at Severus. Severus’ cheeks were pink and he wouldn’t meet Harry’s eye.

Then the light went out.

"Um," Harry said, just to break the tense silence. He reached over to Severus, feeling like he was taking his own life in his hands, and placed an arm across his chest.

For a while they just lay there, Harry dying of terror by inches and Severus doing his best imitation of a statue. Then Severus shifted, rolling towards Harry, one hand tentatively reaching over to rest on Harry’s hip.

Harry wondered if he dared kiss Severus. There was the problem that it was dark and he might miss. There was also the problem that Severus had said he liked him, but he hadn’t said he like liked him and what if Harry had completely misunderstood? Then he’d not only feel like an idiot, but also quite possibly be a dead idiot, because someone as good at Potions as Severus had to be a quick hand with the poison.

He settled for attempting something that felt just as terrifying. He moved his hand from Severus’ side, reaching up and managing to find the side of Severus’ head without inflicting injury. Severus took in a sharp breath and Harry stilled for a moment, before running his fingers through Severus’ hair.

"Can I," Harry whispered, "can I, um, kiss you?"

The ringing silence was not encouraging.

"Merlin," Harry muttered. "I’ve made an idiot of myself, haven’t I? Oh, Merlin."

Severus’ hand tightened around his hip. "Yes," he said shortly.

"Oh," Harry said, feeling panic take over. "Shit, I’m so, so sorry."

"You misunderstand me," Severus said, his voice tetchy. "Not yes to that. Yes to… the other thing."

"Oh," Harry said. The panic didn’t recede at that, it just transferred itself to a new and terrifying prospect.

"If you have changed your mind," Severus said and didn’t go on.

"No, I want to," Harry said quickly, before Severus could change his mind. He wet his lips, overcome with nerves. Then, trying not to die, he moved closer to Severus and aimed.

Their lips bumped and their noses scraped together. It was not a stylish kiss or a technically sound one. Harry was so nervous that he was trembling and Severus moved so awkwardly against him that Harry wondered if he’d ever kissed anyone before. It was, however, fucking brilliant, in Harry’s opinion at least. Every part of his body tingled, overwhelmed by sensation. Snape’s lips were dry and warm, his hair tickling Harry’s face as they pressed their mouths together.

Severus drew back. "Potter," he began, sounding hoarse and strange.

"Harry," Harry said, thinking it was about bloody time that they started to call each other by their first names. "Call me Harry."

"Harry," Severus said. "Are you sure?"

"Never been more so," Harry said, knowing he was probably being far too honest, but unable to tell anything else but the truth.

Severus reached up and wound his fingers tight into Harry’s hair, pulling him towards him. This time his kiss was less uncertain, his mouth opening and tongue darting out to lick Harry’s own.

They kissed until their lips were sore and they were gasping for breath, fingers trailing over each other’s faces, moving through hair, as if they were learning each other off by heart. Finally they broke apart, breathing hard.

"We should sleep," Severus said. He swallowed and trailed a finger down Harry’s cheek. "You are incompetent enough during Potions when fully rested. It would be positively dangerous for you to attempt to brew without a good night’s sleep."

"Hey," Harry said with a laugh, giving Severus a whack. "Enough, you."

"I only speak the truth," Severus replied. He sounded as if he were smiling.

"So much for tact," Harry said, trying not to make an embarrassing mmmm noise as Severus’ finger worked its way down his neck and along his collarbone. "You’re worse than Ron."

"Do you wish me to sugar coat my opinions?" Severus asked. "I won’t, by the way."

"No," Harry replied. He moved forward and placed a kiss on Severus’ mouth. It felt so exciting to do that, in the middle of a conversation. Severus’ breathing faltered. He broke away, taking rapid, shallow breaths, gripping Harry’s hair so tight it stung.

"Um," Harry said, his heart pounding with the fear that he’d done something wrong. "You okay?"

Severus laughed, a giddy, light-headed laugh. "Give me a moment," he said. He took several deep breaths. "You are," he started. For a few seconds there was only the sound of his breathing. "Overwhelming," he concluded.

"In a good way?" Harry asked

Severus laughed again, although this time it was more of a snort. "Obviously, Harry, or I would not have required that you stop, lest I—" He didn’t finish his sentence.

Comprehension dawned on Harry. "Oh." He steeled himself to say an important thing. "Would you mind if we didn’t, you know… I haven’t, um… before." He was aware that he hadn’t exactly made his point crystal clear, but he was certain that it was the best he could do. This was embarrassing, painfully so.

Severus cleared his throat. "That is – acceptable. Perhaps we should sleep now?"

Harry let out a sigh that was partly frustration but 95% relief. It was scary enough kissing Severus. The thought of doing anything more intimate was thought-provoking, but bloody terrifying at the same time. "Sounds good," Harry said. "We should, er, get under the covers." He attempted to do so, managing to whack Severus at every turn.

"Watch it, Harry, I bruise easily," Severus said, tugging the trapped cover out from under him and pulling it over them both. There was a crash as assorted shoes rolled off the bed and hit the floor.

"We’ll get those tomorrow," Harry said, tugging Severus into a hug and hoping that he wouldn’t object.

"Hmm," Severus said. "You do like taking pointless risks, do you not? Be ready to Obliviate on a mass scale."

But he didn’t object to Harry’s arm around him and, fairly shortly after, Harry felt one of Severus’ arms tighten around his shoulder.

"Mmm," Harry said, half asleep and happy. "G’night, Severus."

"Goodnight, Harry."

Some time later a silvery vapour began to pour from a broken flask inside Harry’s trunk, wafting towards the bed and winding itself around the sleeping Severus. No one was awake to see it and Severus himself did not stir, although he sighed in his sleep and his eyelids flickered.

But in his portrait frame in his old office, Dumbledore consumed another painted lemon drop from his endless supply and smiled.

*****

Severus woke with a start – mental rather than physical, his finely honed survival instincts had always served him well – and a deep-seated conviction that something was wrong. His mind felt fuzzy – as if someone had been poking around in there, odd fragments that must be dream blurring into semi-reality.

Keeping still, his breathing regulated and calm, he opened his eyes a fraction.

And saw Harry Potter, fast asleep beside him.

Severus… remembered. He remembered everything. The memory of his nervous excitement and happiness the night before made something in his chest tighten. It had been a fragile, doubting kind of happiness but it had had potential. Severus cursed himself. How could he have been so moronic? This was worse than Lily, worse than anything, and he had only himself to blame.

Concentrating hard he Summoned the hated replacement wand. Muttering a quick Invisibility spell – it worked flawlessly and he cursed his younger self for incompetence – he slid out of the bed and collected his belongings, slipping out of the dormitory and moving through the castle to his own quarters.

Steeling himself, Severus looked in the small mirror in the corner of his sitting room. It was as he had expected. A worn-out, bitter middle-aged man stared back at him, with sallow skin, lank hair and a nose so hooked it was almost comedy. A face that only a mother could love – and she had, and sure enough she’d been the only one. Severus despised self-pity, considered whining the province of the mentally feeble, but today it felt difficult not to succumb to the depths of despair. Severus scowled at himself in the mirror. He was thinking like a teenager. And the thing that horrified him most about the whole ugly mess, that made him yearn to give in to his weaker instincts and break down and sob, was: he still wanted Harry. He wanted to talk to him, to work through the memories that bubbled up in his head. He’d never felt the urge to share his thoughts before, but now he wanted to unburden himself to Harry so much his whole body ached with it. It was pathetic, Severus thought with disgust. And it was awful. How demeaning to have your memories – your very being, in some ways – restored, and to want to have them taken away again, just for a… for a hug.

Severus stripped off the Hogwarts school uniform, wincing at how ridiculous he looked, and shrugged on his usual black robes. It didn’t help him feel any better. A hot shame ran through him at being so exposed to the little shits that were his students. His mind buzzed and focused. He needed someone to blame or he would go mad. Potter had performed the spell incorrectly, reviving him to face all this humiliation and heartache. Never mind everything else he’d done, Potter was to blame for that. Severus tried to feel hatred for him, straining for it so hard it hurt, but he only managed to feel hatred for himself. Still, the idea of hatred was a good one, he thought – the easiest, most dignified way of coping with the inevitable. The appearance of hatred should not be hard to muster, not hard at all.

*****

Ron woke up after a night of decidedly odd dreams and opened the curtains around his bed a crack, peering out with his eyes half-shut in case he caught sight of something that would scar him for life. He’d been sceptical when Hermione had suggested that Snape gave every impression of being head over heels in love with Harry. The idea was, frankly, too bizarre for him to believe. Harry and Snape? No way. Not in a million years. Not ever. Just... no. Ron had to grudgingly admit though that teenage Snape was – just a bit – easier to cope with than Professor Snape had ever been. He was still a git, but less of a scary, evil git.

Still, Ron was pathetically grateful that Hermione had implanted the idea of Harry and Snape doing it in his mind, despite the fact that the thought of Snape minus clothes made him feel distinctly nauseous. Because, otherwise, when he’d jolted awake the night before at the sound of a loud thump and turned his bedside lamp on to see a Slytherin robe falling off Harry’s bed, he would have yelled and leapt up, ready to attack the intruder. So while the idea of Snape and Harry doing it in Harry’s bed was all kinds of wrong, it wasn’t as scarring to the brain as the terrible thought of actually catching them at it.

When Ron peered cautiously around at Harry’s bed he was intensely relieved that the robe was gone and the curtains around Harry’s bed parted, revealing a sleeping Harry but no Slytherin in sight. To shove his clothes on and escape the room was the work of a moment. There was a time when a bloke wanted to keep things quiet – and there was a time when he needed to get things off his chest or else explode. Ron hoped that Hermione was up and awake.

Ron headed out of the Gryffindor tower, not seeing Hermione anywhere in their common room. If Hermione were awake she’d most likely be in the library so Ron headed in that direction, only to be winded by the woman herself, who cannoned into him with a squeak.

"Ron!" Hermione said, picking herself up from the floor. "Have you seen Harry?"

"I was just looking for you," Ron replied, trying to help dust her off.

Hermione evaded his hands and made a frustrated noise. "Have you – have you seen Professor Snape?" she asked.

Ron shuddered. "That’s what I wanted to tell you. You were right."

Hermione frowned. "About what?"

Ron waggled his eyebrows and lowered his voice. "There was an extra bloke in our dormitory last night. One of a Slytherin persuasion."

Hermione raised a hand to her mouth. "What?"

Ron felt very confused. "I thought you’d be happy for them."

"Oh, Ron, this is awful," Hermione said. "I passed the Professor on my way to the library this morning and he’s changed."

"Yeah, he’s not nearly such a git all the time," Ron said. And then realised what Hermione had just said. "You mean…"

"Yes!" Hermione said, wringing her hands and beginning to pace. "Of course, I couldn’t tell if his memories were back, but he’s not young any more."

"Shit," Ron said. "Do you think Harry knows?"

"Of course not," Hermione snapped. "Use your brain, Ron Weasley."

"What shall we do?"

Hermione set her jaw. "We have to stop Harry going in to breakfast. I saw the Professor heading to the Great Hall. We have to break it to Harry before he sees him."

"We’d better run, then," Ron said. "Have you seen the time?"

Hermione paled. "Come on!"

*****

Harry woke up with a start and tried not to panic when he saw he was alone in bed. A quick glance at the clock showed he had precisely three minutes to get dressed or he’d be late for breakfast so he slung on some clothes, ran a brush roughly through his hair and dashed for the Great Hall. He grinned at Hermione and Ron, who were running down the corridor from the other direction, and entered the hall. Ron and Hermione caught up, grabbed him and attempted to pull him out again, but it was too late. Harry had seen.

Harry stood, rooted to the spot, his limbs heavy and disobedient. Sitting at the teacher’s table, scowling heavily, was Severus. Or, rather, Snape.

"He changed back," Harry managed. "Oh, God."

Hermione and Ron tugged Harry to the Gryffindor table and forced him to sit down. The table was buzzing with gossip and Snape’s transformation was the main topic of discussion. Harry wanted to die. But after he’d done that he wanted to talk to Severus… Snape… and – he didn’t know exactly what he wanted. But he didn’t want to sit down and eat fried eggs, that was for sure.

"Sit down," Hermione said, dragging him back into his seat when he attempted to rise. "Or you’ll embarrass him – as well as yourself."

"But," Harry started and didn’t know how to continue. How did you tell your best friends that you’d fallen in love with the most unlikely of persons?

"We know, Harry," Hermione whispered. Her tone was gentle. "About you and him."

"Oh," Harry said. A sudden horror came over him. "Does everyone know?"

Hermione waved her hand to dismiss that. "Of course not. We’re your friends. It was obvious to us." She glanced at Ron. "Well, to me," she amended.

"I need to talk to him," Harry mumbled, toying with his egg.

"Of course you do. But you don’t want to cause a scene, do you? Severus would hate that."

Harry pushed his egg further around his plate.

"After breakfast," Hermione pronounced.

After a few minutes the Headmistress rose and her magically amplified voice rang out. "I am sure that you have all noticed that Professor Snape is restored to his full self once more. He will be taking up his role as Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher immediately. Do you have anything to say to the students, Severus?"

Severus rose, his black robe billowing out around him. "No," he said, his voice cold. "Except that any gossip regarding myself will be punished with the severest measures. Do I make myself clear?"

The silence was deafening. "I see he hasn’t improved in temper," Dean whispered.

"Ten points from Gryffindor for insolence," Snape snapped, wheeling round. "Although, then again, twenty has a nice round sound. Speak again and I will double it."

Dean shut up, glaring down at the table in front of him.

After several more announcements the students began to file out of the hall. Harry stood up, his legs trembling, and started to move towards the teachers’ table. Snape was muttering something to Professor McGonagall, who was blocking his exit.

"Ah, Harry," MCGonagall said. "I’ll leave you with Severus. I am sure there are things you wish to discuss."

"There is nothing," Severus said with a sneer, "that Potter and I need to talk about."

"Um," Harry said faintly when Minerva was out of earshot.

Snape crossed his arms and raised one eyebrow. "Spit it out, Potter, and stop bothering me."

Harry felt himself flush. "We should talk," he mumbled. "About, you know. Um."

Snape made an impatient movement. "You cannot expect that I would still be interested in pursuing that particular path," he all but spat. "Do you actually have a brain in there, Potter? All evidence points to the contrary."

"But—" Harry said. "I thought we—" He swallowed hard. "I still like you," he forced out.

Snape’s expression flickered but turned frosty. "Enough of this teenage melodrama," he said. "Do not make yourself any more ridiculous than you already have."

Harry’s brain decided that, while Harry might feel like he was stuck to the spot, his legs should take him out of the hall at a quick pace. He almost tripped over Ron and Hermione, who were waiting for him outside the Great Hall.

Harry felt sick. He tried to take a deep breath but he was finding it increasingly hard to breathe. He clutched at his throat and came across the necklace that Severus had given him. It was too much. He fumbled at the clasp, the little dragon uncurling and hissing at him as his hands shook.

Harry wet his lips. "Hermione," he mumbled. "Could you give this back to S— Severus for me?"

Hermione looked furious. "How dare he treat you this way?" she fumed, taking the necklace from him.

Suddenly Ron, his face edging on purple, grabbed the necklace from her and stormed into the hall. Harry and Hermione watched through the open doorway as Ron stamped over to Snape and all but threw the dragon necklace at him. Snape picked up the dragon from the table where it had fallen, between thumb and forefinger, and dropped it into a pocket in his robe.

"You – you wanker," Ron spluttered and swung back his arm, punching Snape hard in the face.

Snape swayed and clutched at his cheek. Ron, evidently losing his nerve, fled the scene of the crime.

"Oh, Ron," Hermione said, when he’d rejoined them outside the hall.

Ron flinched and shuffled about on the spot, his fists clenched by his sides. "I couldn’t help it," he said. "The git deserved it."

"I’m so proud of you," Hermione said, her voice choked.

"Oh, right!" Ron said, puffing out his chest.

"Let’s get out of here," Hermione said, smiling at him.

Ron looked behind him as if the devil himself was chasing. "Agreed."

Thank goodness for Ron and Hermione Harry thought later as he sat sandwiched between them in the Gryffindor common room. They’d practically dragged him from the entrance to the hall, pulling him to a private spot before he could make a fool of himself. The world had felt muffled and odd, as if he were walking in a dream.

He wasn’t one for talking about stuff so he hadn’t, at first, until Hermione pulled the whole thing out of him, painful thread by painful thread. He wasn’t sure it had helped. Before, he’d felt numb and tired, whereas now he felt… raw. His stomach ached and his head ached. Hell, even his skin ached. But, after he was done, Hermione had given him a hug and then Ron, going red, had also given him a hug. He felt no better, not really, but it stung less to know that they loved him even if someone else didn’t.

*****

Harry looked forward to his first Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson with Snape about as much as to an appointment with the gallows. Hermione took his arm as they walked to the room – Ron following close behind, making terrified noises that sounded very much like you deserved it, you old git, said in a variety of different ways.

When they entered the classroom Snape hadn’t arrived yet. The other students stared at Harry, just for long enough to make him feel even worse than he did before. But at least, Harry thought, no one actually said anything. Everyone looked nervous, in fact.

Snape entered, a swirl of black cloth topped by a sour, cross expression. He glared around at them all. "It is too much to hope that any of you have actually learned something during the past months," Snape pronounced. He snapped around the dungeon, his robe billowing. "Mr Malfoy," he said, stopping in front of Malfoy’s desk. "Kindly inform me what you are currently studying."

"We were learning advanced duelling, sir," Malfoy replied, smirking around at his fellow Slytherins.

Quick as a flash, Snape flung a hex at Malfoy. Malfoy made a choking noise and curled over his desk, retching.

Snape ignored him and Pansy, glaring at Snape, did her best to help Malfoy out of the room and off to Madam Pomfrey.

"The first rule of advanced duelling," Snape said, continuing to pace around the room, "is to strike when your opponent least expects it."

Hermione had her hand up, but Snape ignored her completely.

"Duelling is not a game. At its nicest it is an exercise in humiliation. At its nastiest, winning means life and losing death – and worse than that, shame in death."

"We’re learning traditional duelling, sir," Hermione said loudly. "You cheated."

"Did I give you permission to speak?" Snape asked, whirling round to face her. "Discipline has evidently become lax in this class. Ten points from Gryffindor."

Harry – a seething mass of hurt and anger – didn’t think, just reacted, throwing a hex at Snape as hard as he possibly could.

Snape reacted instantaneously, shielding himself with ease and flinging back a curse that Harry only just managed to block.

"Is that the best you can do, Potter?" Snape asked, derision clear in his voice.

"Fuck you," Harry said.

There was an audible intake of breath from the rest of the class.

"I fear I must decline that request," Snape said smoothly, his expression mocking. "My apologies."

Harry fired off another hex, blinded by tears of anger.

Snape blocked it without a word. "Angering your opponent can be a successful way to victory," he murmured. "Injuries can be mental as well as physical."

"You should be ashamed of yourself, sir," a Gryffindor called and there were mutters of agreement from the others.

"Yet, I am not," Snape said, returning to the front of the classroom. "You evidently still believe – despite demonstrations – that your Defence classes are a game. Morals do you no good when someone is holding their wand to your throat. You must rely on sharp tactics and a quick mind to survive. Dying for a cause means little other than your death, in the end."

"You’re wrong," Harry snapped. He couldn’t bear it any more. "And you’re not only wrong, you’re… you’re a cretin."

"What I am, Potter," Snape hissed. He was behind his desk now, and he leaned forward, resting his palms on the tabletop, "is older than you, better than you and—"

Harry flicked his wand – calm and quiet – under the table. Snape froze.

"The thing with a full body bind," Harry said, rising and walking towards Snape, "is that you don’t need to cast it at the chest. The feet do just as well."

The class was silent – as frozen as Snape – watching to see what Harry was going to do.

Harry raised his wand to Snape’s neck. Snape didn’t move – he couldn’t – but his eyes flickered in panic. "I could kill you right now," Harry said. "But I won’t. Be thankful I’m the better man out of the two of us." Harry leaned in close to Snape’s ear. He meant to say something cutting or rude. The words I hate you flashed into his mind. He tried to say them, but they came out aching and truthful. "I wish I could hate you." Harry shook his head and tried to stop his lower lip trembling. "Just leave me alone, will you?" He turned and walked away.

"Come on everyone," Hermione said, her voice loud. "Class is over, time to go."

"But what about Professor Snape?" someone asked.

"He’d better hope someone in his next class is good at reversing body bind curses," Hermione said. She clapped her hands loudly. "Come on! Shoo!"

No one protested and Ron shut the door on an empty classroom – empty, that is, apart from the frozen statue of Snape.

Afterwards, in bed in the dark, Harry cried for only the second or third time in his life.

*****

Severus Snape was, of all unlikely things, lost. Not mentally – although there would be some that would disagree – but literally. He’d started his regular night-time patrol of the castle but, after one turn, he found himself in corridors that he recognised but that were in the wrong order. He raised his wand. "Who’s there?" he snapped. "Reveal yourself at once."

No reply. Severus continued to walk, rounding the corner and coming up in front of… too late, too late his mind screamed as he flinched and tried to look away. But there – right in front of him – was the Mirror of Erised. And there – reflected in the mirror itself – was his heart’s desire.

It was horrendous. It was awful. It was unthinkable. It was preposterous.

It was Harry Potter.

In the mirror, Harry lay curled up on the sofa, dressed in a loose night-robe. He wasn’t wearing his glasses and his eyes were soft and unfocused. He caught sight of Severus and smiled –as if all his dreams had come true – and held out a hand.

After what felt like forever, Severus managed to rip himself away from the tempting vision. He sank to the floor, resting his head on his hands. There was a dull ache throughout his skull, as if someone had wrapped a metal band around his forehead and tightened. When Severus rose and attempted to find his way back to his rooms – he needed a drink and he needed one now – the route was simple. So simple that he wondered if he’d actually gone mad. That would explain a few things at least.

Most of a decanter of Old Ogden’s later Severus looked up – muzzily – and nearly fell over. At least, he would have if he’d been standing up. As it was, he leaned backwards and banged his head on the wall with a muffled curse.

"Hello, Severus, my boy," Dumbledore said, looking up from the frame he was currently inhabiting – a frame which usually housed a taciturn Salazar himself.

"It was you!" Severus managed after a few attempts.

"What was?" Dumbledore asked mildly. He withdrew a lemon drop from a pocket inside his robe, blew on it and popped it into his mouth. "Alas, fluff." He pulled a distressed face. "I must remember to store these delightful treats in a more appropriate receptacle."

"Cease this babbling!" Severus said. Or, at least, he tried, the words slurring in his mouth. "The Mirror!"

"And what did you see?" Dumbledore asked.

"You know full well what I saw," Severus spat. He felt distinctly queasy. It was the work of a moment to sooth his stomach with a large gulp of whisky. "You always know everything. Every dirty little secret, every—"

"Oh, my dear boy," Dumbledore interrupted. "It is never wrong to love."

"The subject is not up for discussion," Severus said between gulps of alcohol. "He doesn’t… He won’t… I…" He slammed down his glass so hard it cracked. "You’re an interfering old fool. Even dead you refuse to leave me in peace."

"And you, Severus," Dumbledore said, peering over his spectacles, "are a lonely man who deserves some happiness. He loves you, you know."

"He does not," Severus breathed, eyeing the empty decanter with distress.

"Alcohol is never the answer," Dumbledore said.

"What else would you suggest?" Severus snapped.

"Ah," Dumbledore smiled, a twinkle in his eye. "I was hoping you would ask me that."

*****

The next morning Harry was relieved to see Severus – Snape – was absent from the Great Hall.

Then an owl landed on his head.

"Argh!" Harry yelled. The owl gave him a look and dropped a tightly rolled scroll of parchment on Harry's plate, swooping off. Harry looked around. No one else had received any mail, so what the hell was this? His stomach churned when he saw his first name, inked in a bold, black hand, on the outside of the scroll. It was the same hand that had, in the past, normally confined itself to writing such comments as "only a dunderhead would come to that conclusion" and "why are you wasting my time with such poorly researched nonsense?" It was from Snape. He had to read it, but he couldn’t read it here. Muttering an excuse to his friends he took off to the nearest toilet, locking himself in a cubicle.

Taking a deep breath, Harry unrolled the scroll and began to read.

*****

"Severus!" Harry yelled, banging on the door to Severus’ private quarters. "I know you’re in there. Open up!" Harry had been banging for five minutes now – and painful on the knuckles it was too – but to no response. "If you don’t open up I’ll… I’ll…"

Harry raised his fist to bang again, and only just managed to stop himself from hitting Severus himself, who flung the door open. He looked ill, dark shadows under his eyes, his skin pale and waxy.

"Will you cease that racket at once, Potter," he yelled, then winced, bringing a hand up to his head.

"Severus, I—" Harry started.

"I do not recall giving you permission to call me by my first name," Severus said. "Kindly refer to me in a more appropriate manner. 'Sir' will do fine if Professor Snape is not to your liking."

"Er, no, I don’t think I will," Harry said. He waved the letter at Severus.

Severus eyed it blankly for a moment, and then recoiled as if it were a venomous snake poised to strike. "By the four Founders," he muttered, "tell me I did not… Albus!" he yelled.

"Oh, have you seen Dumbledore’s portrait?" Harry asked. "He’s been, er, avoiding me I think."

"I cannot think why," Severus spat. "Perhaps it could be because you are an insufferable, cheeky brat who fails to do as he is told."

Harry scowled. "I’m not that bad," he said. "In your letter you said that—"

"Don’t—" Severus interrupted. "Just – don’t." Then — "Obliv—"

"Expelliarmus," Harry yelled, Severus' wand shooting from his grip. "Merlin," Harry said, curling his fingers extra-tight around his own wand. "Did you mean any of what you wrote?"

Severus just stood there, very upright and stiff.

"You can’t even remember what you wrote, can you?" Harry said. "I knew you were drunk when you wrote it." He shoved the letter at Severus, who took it without a word. Harry turned to leave.

"Potter, I—" Severus said. When Harry turned, he was staring down at the letter, his expression unreadable.

"It doesn’t mean anything if you can’t even fucking remember writing it!" Harry shouted, then walked away as fast as he could without technically running. It was pointless trying to make things up with Severus. The man was so spineless he couldn’t even make an apology without the aid of alcohol, and then denied it the next day when it really mattered.

Harry tried not to think of the sad, hopeless tone of Severus’ letter and the way the precise, tight phrases had affected him. He ached enough without adding Severus’ pain to his own.

*****

Severus sat down on the sofa in his room, clutching the letter in hands that trembled despite all his tried and tested calming techniques. His hangover clutched at his head and stomach, threatening to make him physically sick. He’d already taken a hangover-relieving potion but it had not had the desired effect – he suspected that it had lost its efficacy during its time in storage.

Opening up the scroll he read his own, scribbled handwriting, feeling himself flush with embarrassment. I have no right to be forgiven, he read, but I beg for your forgiveness regardless. He shut his eyes tight, fragments of the letter reverberating in his mind. Your kindness and friendship to me during my time of need will never be forgotten, even if things can, by necessity, never be what they were.

Severus took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. He had made a fool of himself. The fact that he meant every word did not help in the slightest. The fact that Harry – Potter – now believed him to be insincere also did not help. He frowned, trying to puzzle through his conflicting emotions. Harry, on receiving the letter, had come straight to him. Not, apparently, to mock him or to inflict further humiliation upon him in payback for the incident in the Defence class. But to – Severus drew a blank. To befriend him? Surely not. Although why else would he have come?

Severus frowned, staring into space. Harry had come to put things right between them and he, Severus, had been dismissive and unpleasant. He had made a mistake, as much as it pained him to admit that. His heart beat faster. He had made a mistake but, this time, he refused to spend the rest of his life in mourning for it. This time he would make his friend forgive him. Whatever it took.

*****

Harry stared at the small, chunky package in front of him that a tiny, sulky owl had just delivered.

"What’ve you got?" Ron asked peering over at it, spraying toast crumbs over the table.

"Could be a bomb," Harry muttered.

"Huh?"

"Oh, never mind," Harry said. He glanced over at the teacher’s table. Severus – Snape – was there, apparently deep in conversation with McGonagall. Harry frowned down at the package, unsure whether to open it or to stomp over to Snape and throw it at his head. He plumped for opening it, tearing off the brown paper and pulling out a small, leather-bound book. He opened it and gasped. Smiling up at him was a photo of his mother, aged around 13 or 14, perched precariously on a broom, her Hogwarts robe billowing in the wind.

Open-mouthed, Harry flicked through the photo album, discovering his mother grinning and waving during most of her entire school career. He paused at the last photo. Severus, aged fourteen or fifteen, rolled his eyes at the camera, arm in arm with Lily. Lily turned to Severus, whacking him, and a reluctant smile forced its way to Severus' lips.

Harry rifled through the wrapping and the album but couldn’t find a note. He frowned. Why would Severus – Snape – send him that?

"What’s that you’ve got, Harry?" Hermione asked.

"Here," Harry said, passing it over.

Hermione flicked through, smiling down at the pages. "That’s your mother, isn’t it?" she said, her voice soft. "Who sent this to you?" She reached the last page. "Ohhh," she said.

"He didn’t include a note." Harry frowned. "I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean."

Hermione handed the album back to Harry. "Maybe you should wait and see if he says anything," she advised. "He wasn’t very nice to you yesterday, was he? Maybe this is his way of saying sorry."

Harry felt himself colour. "Maybe," he muttered. He looked down at the book. It felt warm and solid in his hands. It was a good present, he had to admit, but if Severus – Snape – wanted to say sorry, why didn’t he just say it?

*****

The next morning the same small, sulky owl attempted to pull Harry’s ear off before dropping another package on his plate. It was another chunky parcel and Harry tore it open before he lost his nerve. He found inside a copy of the seventh year Potions textbook, the cover pristine and shiny. "What the hell has he sent me that for?"

Hermione took the book from him and opened it up. "Oh, Harry," she said, flicking through it, "this must have taken ages. No wonder he looks so tired this morning".

"You mean it’s not just a textbook?" Harry asked, taking it from her. "I wondered if he was, you know, taking the piss." He opened up the book at a random page. Neat, black handwriting filled the white spaces. Peering closer, he saw that they were amendments: terse but helpful comments on each step of the potion. Flicking through he saw that every page was the same – meticulous instructions pointing out the best way to chop, to stir and to brew for the optimum results.

Ron peered over his shoulder. "Merlin’s balls," he said, "I’m sitting next to you in the final exam."

Harry frowned, not sure if he was happy or not. He felt peculiar. That Severus would take so much time to construct such a thoughtful gift was more stressful than anything else – especially as, once again, Severus hadn’t included a letter or even a note. He still had no idea what Severus was thinking, or what these gifts were meant to mean. If he was only doing it because he felt guilty or, Merlin forbid, sorry for him, then that would be worse than Severus doing nothing at all.

*****

Over the course of the week, Harry received three more parcels from Snape. Wednesday brought a weighty illustrated history of Quidditch, Thursday a vial of a sweet-smelling potion that declared, in Severus’ bold hand, that one teaspoon at night would ensure pleasant dreams, and Friday a bundle of yellowing letters.

Friday also brought the first letter from Severus himself. It was short and to the point. I hope that these will cause you more happiness than pain, he’d written. Yours, Severus.

Harry carefully opened one of the letters. For a while he couldn’t speak. They were from his mother – dozens of them – addressed to Sev and filled with stories and complaints, tales of her troubles with her jealous sister, her crush on an older Hufflepuff she wouldn’t name, her excitement about presents and parties and… Just the unedited, personal thoughts of a typical teenage girl but to Harry, who’d never known her, they were more precious than anything in the world.

Harry bunked off of his morning classes for one of the few times in his life, sitting on his bed in the empty boy’s dormitory and devouring the details of his mother’s teenage years. When he finished he looked up, blinking away the pressure behind his eyes, suddenly feeling incredibly hungry. Looking at the clock he saw he’d missed lunch so he dug into a packet of Chocolate Frogs, taking care not to get any on the letters.

It took him some time to decide whether or not to go to his afternoon Defence class. The idea of facing Severus made his stomach lurch. It felt safer by far to sit on his bed and hope that no one noticed he was missing. Harry sat, trying to force himself to leave the room, until he was already five minutes late. Then he came to a decision, grabbing his books and dashing to the dungeons.

When he arrived, Severus was sitting at the desk of the front of the classroom, marking essays. The students were all quiet, the only sound the scribble of quills on parchment. Harry thought about attempting to slip in without saying anything, but he forced himself to speak to Severus. "Um, sorry I’m late, P-Professor," he managed.

Severus didn’t look up, just gave a brief nod. "Page 37, Mr Potter. Ask me if you have any questions."

"He didn’t take points!" Ron whispered when Harry reached their desks. "You’re fifteen minutes late and he didn’t take points!"

Severus raised his head. "I do have ears, Mr Weasley. Would you like me to deduct points from Gryffindor?"

Ron shook his head. "No, thank you, sir."

Severus sniffed. "Then I suggest you hold your tongue and concentrate on your work."

"Y-yes, sir," Ron stuttered. He looked at Harry, incredulously.

Harry opened up his textbook and took out his quill, trying not to smile.

At the end of the lesson, Harry waited until the classroom was empty of students and went up to Severus. He was still marking books, his hair falling in front of his face, wearing an expression of deep concentration.

"Thank you," Harry said, not knowing the right words for what he wanted to say. "Thank you so much."

Severus didn’t look up, just nodded.

Harry stood there, unsure of what to do next.

"Was there something else you wanted, Potter?"

"Oh, um. Not really," Harry said, fidgeting with the books in his arms. "I, er, said the thank you thing already, so…"

"If," Severus said, looking up but not at Harry, exactly, more over his shoulder. "If you would care to talk of your mother, sometime, I would be willing to reminisce. She was a dear friend."

"Oh," Harry said. "That would be nice," he said, carefully. "But I’d prefer to just, you know, talk. In, er, a more general sense," he attempted to clarify. He wasn’t sure it had worked so well.

Severus’ expression flickered. He cleared his throat. "Quidditch?" he offered, his tone dry.

Harry laughed. "If you want. We could go to a match. I bet you’d love that."

"Oh, yes, Potter," Severus replied, "I do not get enough of imbeciles risking their necks on a tiresome, tedious game while being forced to oversee school matches. Spending my valuable spare time in a draughty arena full of screaming teenagers is indeed a highly tempting notion."

"How about a drink, then?" Harry asked, digging his fingernails into his palms, deep inside the pockets of his robe.

"I never, ever wish to imbibe alcohol again," Severus said with a shudder. He frowned. "Did you just—"

Harry wasn’t sure what he’d just done – apart from, apparently, asking Severus out for a drink out loud. Analysing his feelings for Severus was proving trickier than he’d hoped. Severus as a teenager had grown on him. He couldn’t recall how he’d ever found him ugly. Homely, maybe, but with a rare light in his eyes at times that made Harry feel weak and breathless, his smile more appealing than any Harry had ever seen.

But now his Severus was – Professor Snape. His teacher. A man nearly twice his years in age who’d spent the majority of those suffering. Who’d been betrayed by everyone he trusted. Who’d watched him grow up. Who’d hated him, and been hated in return. What it came down to in the end, though, Harry thought, was that he’d cared for Severus – very much – and he couldn’t just turn it off. It was odd and it was uncomfortable and it was painful, but it just was.

So yeah, Harry realised. When he’d just suggested that he and Severus go out for a drink he’d meant it. The idea was terrifying, but in a good way.

"Harry," Severus said.

Harry started at the sound of his first name on Severus’ lips, a slow smile pulling at his cheeks.

Severus looked faintly irritated. "I am twenty years your senior, or thereabout. I do not – and should not – fraternise with children."

Harry’s smile faltered. "I’m not a child," he protested. "I’m eighteen."

"You are enough of a child not to see the problems inherent in your suggestion," Severus said dryly.

Harry frowned. "When you – when you were eighteen and you chose to take the Dark Mark, were you a child then?"

Severus went a dull, angry red and took in a sharp breath. "That is… that is not the same thing at all. And, if anything, only demonstrates the folly of youth."

Harry tried to stay calm. "How is it folly to want to – to get to know you better?" he asked. His voice came out as little more than a whisper.

Severus closed his eyes and made an awful, frustrated noise. "Tomorrow," he said, after some time, "I was planning on brewing a complex potion I have been researching, for much of the day. It will be hard, boring work and I have no room for dunderheads. But," he said, his voice sharp, "if you wish to assist then you may do so. This is… the best I can do, do you understand?"

Harry thought about the day at Hogsmeade he’d had planned for the next day – and thought about spending the day in the gloomy dungeons choked by fumes. It was no contest. "That sounds great," he said, grinning at Severus, who looked frankly astonished. "I’ll see you tomorrow."

*****

Winter turned to spring and Harry became a regular fixture in Severus’ private laboratory, both helping with the potions Severus researched and invented and assisting with Severus’ preparations for his Defence lessons. The first few times he’d helped out Severus had been sarcastic and stressed, any potions they produced together adequate but nowhere near Severus’ usual standard. Conversation was forbidden, Severus made that clear, so the only noises to break the silence were the chopping of herbs and Severus’ sporadic terse instructions.

But, after several weeks had passed, things… changed. For the first time there was a tea break, with actual tea, and the next time cake to accompany it. Harry, desperate to break the customary silence, got Hermione to explain the contents of the latest issue of The Practical Potioneer to him and did his best to engage Severus in conversation about it. Since Harry hadn’t entirely understood what Hermione had said his ploy had mixed success, but Severus lost his customary tense, cross look and almost smiled a few times.

The next time Harry assisted, Severus had – apparently – digested the contents of the latest issue of Quidditch News and, with a smug air, proceeded to explain in excruciating detail why Harry’s favourite team would fail to qualify for the Quidditch Premiership. Harry didn’t think this was quite in the spirit of the thing, but Severus looked so amused with himself that he decided to grin and bear it.

Conversation over tea gradually spilled over into conversation outside of the constraints of the teapot and the cake-stand. Severus seemed to appreciate intellectual discussions that bordered on arguments, so Harry spent more time with the more respectable newspapers finding, to his surprise, that some of the stuff not on the sports pages was actually pretty interesting. Severus was sharp when he disagreed and he often did (sometimes, Harry suspected, just to see what Harry would do next), but he’d lost that disdainful, mocking tone he used to have. It was nice, Harry thought with some satisfaction. It was nice indeed.

*****

"Tomorrow," Severus said, scribbling notes as he spoke.

"Is the start of Easter holidays, I know," Harry said. He leaned up against Severus’ desk and pushed a hand through his hair.

"Don’t interrupt," Severus admonished, but his tone was mild. "Tomorrow is the night of the equinox. It is also the night when a particular, rare plant grows in the Forbidden Forest. It blooms, reaching its full peak of perfection, at dawn. Of course, it can be harvested at any time, but for the greatest potency it must be harvested in the rising light. Would you care?" He hesitated. "To join me on my expedition?"

"Sure," Harry agreed. "Why not."

The reason why not, he realised, as he tried to take a nap the following afternoon, ready to rise at three a.m. and walk a dark forest with Severus, was obvious. It wasn’t so much the awful things that lurked within the forest – he had no doubts that together he and Severus were more than a match for any beast with too many teeth for comfort. It was more that… he’d be alone with Severus. In the dark. With no one else around.

The idea of spending some time away from the dungeons was scary. Things between Severus and himself had been improving each time they met. Sometimes Harry looked at him and felt a rush of feeling so strong it made it no sense. It was at those moments that he wished hardest that Severus would turn back. Not because he preferred him as a teenager, really. More that, as a teenager, Severus had been less formidable. The idea of taking him by the hand had been terrifying, but not impossible. The idea of holding hands with Severus as he was now was too daunting to contemplate. Some things are unlikely, and some things are impossible, Harry thought. The idea of Severus still finding him a – a – suitable prospect was just never going to happen. Friendship was the most he could hope for.

So when, at 4.30am, waiting for the dawn in the dubious comfort of a decidedly non-magical tent in the middle of the Forbidden Forest, Harry reached over and took Severus’ hand in his own, there was no one more surprised than himself.

Severus’ skin was cool and smooth and, for a frozen moment, his hand rested in Harry’s like that of a corpse – a heavy, unresponsive weight. Then, to Harry’s relief, his fingers tightened infinitesimally around Harry’s. The night was dark, thick clouds covering up the moon, and Harry could only see the outline of Severus’ face if he squinted.

"Is this okay?" he whispered after a while, his stomach in knots. He presumed that it was because Severus hadn’t hexed his fingers off, but it wasn’t positive confirmation.

"No," Severus breathed, followed by a quick, "yes."

Harry gently squeezed Severus’ hand. "It will be okay," he said. He wasn’t sure why he said it, he just felt instinctively that it was something that needed to be said.

"It most certainly will not," Severus said stiffly.

Harry took that as a challenge, intoxicated by tiredness and the feel of Severus’ hand in his own. He leaned forwards, reaching up to cup Severus’ cheek with his other hand and kissed him, ever so softly.

Severus made a surprised, breathy noise. "Harry," he said, but didn’t seem to know what to say next.

Harry told his brain to say something witty or clever, but instead he heard himself say "please" in a needy, hoarse voice that made him blush into the darkness.

Severus didn’t move and Harry’s heart sank. Maybe he’d made a terrible error of judgement. Maybe Severus did just want to be friends, and now he’d ruined everything and—

Severus kissed him.

It was different from the last time. Different mentally, because it was easier in some ways – he’d kissed him before, after all – and harder by far, because he hadn’t, not this Severus. As a teenager Severus had been soft and gentle, his kisses tender and tentative. Now he was— harder, more forceful. His mouth moved with a purpose, and that purpose seemed to be to turn Harry into a quivering wreck in less than sixty seconds. His hands slid down Harry’s sides, pulling him closer towards him, tipping Harry’s head to the side and gently biting and licking a trail down his neck.

Harry gathered all his mental strength and pushed Severus away. "If you don’t stop that," he mumbled, "I’m going to… Merlin."

Severus’ breathing was fast and shallow. "Harry," he said, his voice wound so tight it sounded ready to snap. "We should not…"

Harry had had enough of being friends and wanting and never getting, but the awful sound in Severus’ voice made him pause. "We should, er, make it clear what we’re talking about here," he said.

Severus laughed, very faintly. "I look forward to spending some months in your company while you attempt this feat."

"Oi," Harry said. He felt light-headed and dizzy, as if he could do anything or say anything. He supposed it was the Gryffindor side coming out once more – although he hoped the Sorting Hat didn’t turn up at any point, because who knew what it would offer up out of its magical depths. "Um," Harry said, thinking that if he said it all really fast then maybe he wouldn’t lose his nerve. "When-I’ve-finished-school-let’s-go-for-that-drink-if-that’s-okay-with-you-maybe?" he managed.

"You desire to – court me?" Severus asked.

"Doesn’t that usually involve fairy princesses and people turned into animals and back?" Harry asked. "I think I’d prefer to try something a bit less eventful. A, er, date."

"Have you taken leave of your senses?" Severus asked. It didn’t sound rude, it sounded – bitter.

"You always said I had none to start off with," Harry muttered.

"Indeed you must not," Severus snapped, "if you think that someone as difficult as myself could ever make you happy."

Harry digested that. "I think I want to give it a go," he said. He summoned a bravado that he didn’t really feel. "Can we get back to the kissing now? I was enjoying that."

Severus made a spluttering noise. "You are a tiresome, incorrigible brat," he said, but he said it in the nicest way possible.

And they got back to the kissing, soon after.

*****

To Harry’s surprise, the next time he saw Severus – in the middle of a crowded corridor in Hogwarts – Severus smiled at him as he passed. He didn’t stop and he didn’t say hello, but Severus rarely smiled and never in public, as far as Harry could see.

For the rest of the day he walked around with a silly grin on his face of his own. Until, that is, Ron threatened to tell him intimate details of his love life with Hermione, if he didn’t stop smirking about the git. Harry strongly suspected that Ron’s details could be covered in under one minute, but he didn’t feel strong enough to find out, so he attempted to stop grinning. It was a challenge though.

As the days – and weeks – went on, Harry wished he had some kind of time-turner device that would, rather than allowing him to travel back in time, allow him to travel forward. The exams loomed and while he thought he should feel stressed, he didn’t. He was a natural in Defence, adequate in his other subjects and, thanks to Severus’ helpful textbook, more than good enough to pass well in Potions.

Harry saw Severus practically every day but it wasn’t enough – particularly as it was always in the classroom, in public, surrounded by other students. He wanted so badly to spend time alone with Severus, but he understood all too well why that would be a bad idea. They would have plenty of time to get to know each other properly, Severus had said, stiff and embarrassed, when the school year was over. For now, Harry was his pupil and that was that.

To Harry’s surprise, however, the rest of the school year flew by in a blur of work and work and more work. Hermione constructed him a revision plan and, amazingly, he stuck to it. He did wonder if cramming so much information into his brain was good for him – a catalogue of the uses of blood in magic, for example, pushing out more important information like the latest Quidditch team rankings or the names and numbers of all the players in the last ten years – but it kept him busy.

He discovered that he wanted to do well. Not just for himself – although doing well would guarantee his career as an Auror – but for Severus, who’d spent so much time making him use his brain. After all, he did have one, and it would be a shame not to use it.

*****

The ceremony which marked the ending of their education at Hogwarts had been spectacular. Sitting in a tiny boat, the whole lake lit by candles, a beribboned certificate in his hand, Harry had been overwhelmed with happiness. Now, standing on the bank next to Severus, surrounded by parents and students, he felt his nerves – his old friends – return to him. "Tonight," he murmured, quiet enough that only Severus would be able to hear, "perhaps we could, um."

"Um?" Severus said, snorting. "Really, Harry, your amazing grip on the English language never ceases to amaze me."

"Git," Harry replied. "You know what I mean." He glanced at Severus quickly. He appeared as calm and composed as ever, but a muscle in his jaw twitched.

"You mean the time has finally come," Severus said, his lips twitching, "for us to… go to a Quidditch match together?"

Harry let out the breath he’d been holding and rolled his eyes at Severus. There was a glimmer of a smile on Severus’ lips.

"Double git," he pronounced.

"As ever, Harry, I repeat that your—"

"Yes, yes," Harry interrupted. "But back to the point."

"To the um?" Severus asked.

"Er, yes," Harry said, feeling himself overheat.

"Ah, now we move on to er," Severus said. He was definitely smiling now, although he was trying to suppress it.

"Oh, do shut up," Harry said, whacking him.

Severus laughed. "Your wish is my command."

"Really?" Harry asked.

Severus turned to look at him. His eyes were alive with laughter. He made a mocking bow then he smiled, very softly. "Always," he said.

"Then why are we still here?" Harry asked.

Colour flared to Severus’ cheeks for a moment, but he nodded his head. "Why indeed." He took a few steps away and half-turned to Harry. "Well, come on then, Mr Potter, stop dawdling. The world awaits."

Harry grinned and followed Severus – out of Hogwarts and into the unknown. It was terrifying – but in the best of ways. He couldn’t wait.

*****

// A Few Weeks Later //

"What is all this junk, Harry?" Severus asked, wrinkling his nose as Harry began to empty his trunk.

Harry shrugged, holding open a black plastic bag and tossing in a plethora of worn-out socks, tired quills and crumpled parchment. "It just builds up," he said, "I didn’t mean it to." Then, "fuck!"

"Gladly," Severus drawled, "although maybe you should move your detritus off the bed before we do so."

"Arse," Harry said, laughing, half sticking his finger in his mouth. "I cut myself. There’s something broken in there. Some kind of glass."

Severus got up from the chair where he was perched, flicking through a Potions journal. "Let me see," he said, gingerly pulling out shards of glass from Harry’s trunk. "If you took more care of your things," he said and then paused in the act of pulling out a larger fragment.

"It's not anything important is it?" Harry asked, peering down into the trunk. "Just looks like an old flask. Hope it was empty when it broke."

Severus stared at the broken crystal flask. The old bastard, he thought, he put it in there. He tried to work out how Albus could have accomplished such a feat when he was dead and in the grave, but busybodies such as Albus never let a little thing like being deceased stop them when they had a grand plan.

There was a slurping noise as Harry pulled the finger out of his mouth. "It looks familiar," Harry said, "but it's only an ordinary flask, right?" He took his glasses off and rubbed at his eyes, shoving them back on at a wonky angle.

Severus cleared his throat. "I believe this may have contained a quantity of my memories."

Harry stretched out a hand towards the broken flask then changed his mind, bringing it up to scratch through his hair until it stood up in wild spikes. "What?"

"It would explain things," Severus said, beginning to pick out all the fragments of glass he could find. "Why the Regeneration Elixir did not work as you thought it would, for example. It could not rebuild me completely because I was not all there to be rebuilt."

"I left your memories in Dumbledore's Pensieve," Harry said. "I swear I did."

Severus thought about that. The image of a twinkling eye and the scent of lemon drops seemed to hang in the air for a moment. He would have killed Albus – if he hadn’t been already dead, that was. Then again. If he’d never been trapped in his teenage body without his adult memories, he and Harry would never have…

"Do not trouble yourself," Severus said. "It all turned out well in the end."

"Are you sure?" Harry asked. His brow was creased. "You're not just saying that, but actually planning a terrible revenge for later?"

Severus smiled. "I shall if you continue to unpack at the speed of a sleeping snail. While speed is not necessarily of the essence—"

"Okay, okay," Harry said, grinning and holding up his hands in mock surrender. "I get the point."

A flash in the painting in the corner of the cottage made Severus turn. He stared suspiciously at it for a few minutes, but the rural scene remained devoid of painted life. He shrugged. He had no great doubt that it was Albus – the meddlesome fool – but, for once, he couldn’t complain. Things had turned out better than Severus could ever have hoped.