Harry knew he ought to talk to someone.
Other people didn’t seem to think so much about dying; he was pretty sure it was not an idea that troubled Ron very much. Ron was almost too happy sometimes, he thought. He’d just tell me not to be a prat.
Harry shuddered at the thought of the lecture that would be Hermione’s probable response. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t care, he knew; there just wasn’t a chance in hell she’d understand.
The thing that made it so difficult was that he should be really happy right now. Voldemort was finally dead, gone with no chance of coming back, ever. Harry himself had killed him. He was a hero, this time for more than just surviving a curse. Letters and presents were still pouring into Hogwarts for him from admirers and well-wishers. His owls had had to be diverted from the Great Hall into an unused room designated by the Headmaster to receive the inundation. Everyone loved him.
He would never again have to return to the Dursleys. The thought made him smile, but it still wasn’t enough to pierce the dark cloud that seemed to surround him these days. Sirius had finally been cleared; the captured Wormtail had been dosed with Veritaserum and had revealed his own guilt in the crime that had sent Harry’s godfather to Azkaban. Sirius had joyfully offered Harry a home.
He debated talking to Sirius, but even though he thought Sirius might understand, he was reluctant. He couldn’t bear the thought of Sirius thinking any less of him, perhaps feeling sorry for him.
What’s he going to think if you go through with it, Potter? he sneered at himself. He’s not going to be singing your praises. Harry tried not to think about the pain he was contemplating causing his godfather. He himself was in too much pain at the moment to truly consider anyone else’s.
Dumbledore? No, definitely not, he thought. The thought of confessing this sort of weakness to the world’s greatest living wizard horrified him. Kind as the Headmaster was, Harry simply couldn’t see going to him to confess that he was thinking of killing himself.
In the library, Harry had found several Muggle works dealing with depression. One phrase seemed to pop up over and over: ‘cry for help.’ He did not like the sound of it. To confide in someone else meant risking having others think that all of the attention and adulation being lavished upon him was not enough for him. Draco Malfoy’s voice spoke in his mind.
"Wanted just a bit more attention, didn’t you, Potter? Being the most famous wizard in the world isn’t enough for you? Come on, Boy Who Lived, tell us all your ickle pwoblems."
No. No way in hell would he give Malfoy that sort of ammunition.
Which left – nothing.
Nothing was exactly what Harry felt like. So much build-up, so much expectation. But somehow, at the fulfillment of the wizarding world’s dreams for him, he was still the same boy who had spent ten years in a cupboard under the stairs. Worthless.
He still got up each morning and went to breakfast, then to class. Professor Snape still gave him a hard time in Potions, although something in Harry suspected that this was more from habit than actual dislike. During the height of the fighting, it had been the Potions Master at Harry’s back, who kept him from getting killed long enough for Harry to kill Voldemort. Grudging respect for the man had sprung from that experience, and Harry thought it might be mutual.
There was still homework in the evening. Now that Quidditch had resumed, there were practices for that as well. Once, he had cared a great deal about the sport. Now he felt tired at the thought of climbing onto his broomstick one more time to chase a tiny winged ball.
Harry gave up his attempt to sleep and sat up in his bed, looking around at the darkened room. His roommates all slept, and Harry envied them. How long had it been, he wondered, since he’d slept other than fitfully?
Do I really want to do this any longer? He pushed the thought away, but it came right back. Lie awake, perhaps fall asleep for a few minutes, lie awake some more, wait for morning. Get up and go through it all again. The thought made his stomach hurt.
"God, I wish I was dead." He was startled by the sound; he hadn’t meant to speak aloud. His roommates slumbered on, oblivious.
The longing to end it immediately washed over him. He felt like he was drowning in the need to stop existing. If only I could just flip a switch, he thought. Turn myself off. I’d have done it long ago.
Are you afraid? he asked himself. Is oh-so-heroic Harry Potter afraid to die after all? And here everyone thought you were so brave. You sure had them fooled, didn’t you? It’s not like you don’t know how to cast Avada Kedavra.
He drew his knees up under his chin, forcefully keeping in the sob that threatened to well up. Not another day, he thought. I can’t do this for even one more day.
Harry watched Ron sleep a little longer, tears slipping down his cheeks. I’ll never see him again, he thought. I’ve already seen Hermione for the last time. Hagrid, too. Sirius. Oh, god, Sirius. Dumbledore…
Go now, Potter, he told himself. Don’t wait until your sniveling wakes someone up. If you want to do this, do it already. Or do you like torturing yourself?
He slipped quietly out of Gryffindor Tower. The Fat Lady barely stirred in her sleep. His bare feet padded the corridors as he took one last tour of Hogwarts, saying goodbye. He missed his invisibility cloak, destroyed in the final battle. He thought several times that he heard something behind him, but dismissed it as his imagination. After years of wandering the corridors after hours concealed by the cloak’s magic, he felt vulnerable without it.
Finally he turned into the corridor that led to the Astronomy Tower, the school’s highest point. He climbed the steps slowly. The thought of what he planned made him shake with fear. He doubted his ability to bring himself to do it.
Finally he stood perched in one tall window. The night air was chilly on skin that was damp with sweat. He lifted one foot and moved it forward. Slowly he moved the other. Several more tiny steps brought him to the very edge. His toes hung over the stone. He brought up a foot and dangled it in the empty air in front of him.
One more step, Harry. Go on. You can do it. It will be just like flying. One more. One more, and it will all be over. You’ll never have to do this again.
Tears streamed down his face as he took the last step.
Impact came sooner than he expected. For one horrifying second, he seemed to hover in the air, high above the ground. Then he was slammed against the wall of the tower, caught on something from above. The force knocked the breath out of his lungs. Then he felt the scraping of his skin on bare rock as whatever he was caught on somehow pulled him up and back in through the window.
Arms wrapped around Harry, pulling him down onto the cold stone floor. He was crushed against a warm, solid chest. A soothing voice murmured to him, but he could not make out the words. A gentle hand stroked his hair. He squeezed his eyes shut, completely unprepared to face the fact that he still lived.
Harry howled in his savior’s arms. Seventeen years of pain, of frustration, of resentment, tried to find expression all at once, and the effort was choking him. Still the arms held him, still the hand stroked and the voice soothed. Harry cried until his throat was too raw to carry more sound, and then he whimpered for a while longer. Part of him was glad to be alive; a much larger part hated the person whose comfort he nonetheless accepted.
Eventually his shaking subsided. He noticed that at some point he had been given a handkerchief; it was a sodden mess. He didn’t realize he’d been using it. Shame began to dominate his churning emotions. He’d survived, which meant that he would have to face what he’d done, a consequence he’d had every expectation of avoiding. As he uncurled himself from the ball he’d drawn his body into, the arms finally released him and moved away.
When he opened his eyes, Professor Snape stood a few feet away from him. There was no trace in his face of the gentleness or sympathy Harry had felt from him only moments ago. The black eyes glistened suspiciously, but that was his only hint that the Potions Master had been moved to any emotion other than anger by Harry’s nearly successful suicide attempt.
"Perhaps you’d care to explain why you felt the need to do something like this, Mr. Potter?" The familiar sneer was absent, but the voice could have frozen fire.
"Why did you follow me?" Harry asked instead of answering. The words were barely audible through his abused throat.
"Old habits die hard. I find it difficult to sleep, even now, without my nightly walk through the school. Would you believe that when I saw you, I nearly left you to yourself? It seemed to me that you’d earned the right to wander the corridors after hours. It was only when I noticed that you were crying that I decided to follow you. I thought perhaps you might be in some difficulty."
"I wish you’d just left me alone."
"I am very glad I did not. Can you imagine, Potter, how I would have felt tomorrow morning? Knowing I’d seen you on your way here, knowing I could have stopped you?"
"You live with worse," Harry said, knowing he was being cruel. He wanted to punish Snape for his interference. "You seem to deal with everything you did as a Death Eater okay." Something that looked like pain flashed across Snape’s face, but it was gone too quickly for Harry to be certain.
"I live with a great deal on my conscience, Harry," replied Snape softly. "It cannot be said that I ‘deal with it okay,’ however." Snape gestured towards the window. "Do you think that the oblivion of death does not beckon to me every day?"
"Really?" Snape, suicidal? Whatever else Snape was, he’d always seemed so strong. It was difficult to imagine him wrestling with the same demons that plagued Harry. The idea made him feel a little less alone.
"Yes, really. But we’re not going to talk about me. I want to know why you just tried to kill yourself."
"I don’t want to talk about it." Harry drew his knees up to his chest, hugging them tightly. He found himself rocking back and forth; it seemed childish, so he stopped.
"Pity, because you’re going to do so anyway. I’m supposed to be done with saving you, you foolish child. This time I expect to be repaid for my trouble. You will explain to me why you did this."
"I hate you, Professor."
"I know you do, Potter. I don’t much like you, either. I’m waiting."
Harry tried to obey, but every time he began, he started to cry again. He banged his fist into the stone wall in frustration, then cried out from the pain. Snape seized the hand and kept it.
"I asked you to talk, not to injure yourself further. As it is, Madam Pomfrey will probably hex me first and ask questions later, once she sees you. You’re a dreadful mess."
Having his attention drawn to his scraped, bruised body made it hurt terribly; odd he hadn’t noticed it before, Harry thought. His pajamas were shredded along one side, and nearly everything ached. He also noticed for the first time that his feet were terribly cold. He shivered.
Snape removed his robes. Harry’s eyes went wide at this; they opened wider still when his teacher wrapped Harry in them. Snape wore a white shirt and black trousers beneath the robes.
"You may be in shock; you’ll need to keep warm," Snape explained. "Shock or not, we’re not going anywhere until I get my answer."
"Why do you have to know? Why can’t you just leave me alone?" Harry’s voice throbbed with a mix of belligerence and fear. Oh, god, he thought. I’ve made everything a hundred times worse, haven’t I?
"The second question is quite stupid, but I suppose you’re not yourself right now. As for why I have to know, it’s very simple. I don’t want to ever have to do this again. If I don’t know what the problem is, I cannot help you."
"You… you want to help me?" Tears welled up again. Even the hint of sympathy, however grudgingly given, was more than he could take.
Snape’s hand gripped Harry’s tightly. Too tightly, in fact; it was rather painful. Harry found that it helped him focus, somehow. He gripped back.
"Yes, if I can. Will you let me?" Snape answered, his voice brusque.
"Okay." Harry groped for the handkerchief with his free hand and brought it to his nose, blowing hard. "I feel like everything should be different, now that Voldemort’s dead. I mean, I killed him. That’s what everyone expected from me, and I did it. I thought it would change things."
"Things have changed, Harry. The world, Muggle as well as wizarding, is free of a great evil," Snape replied.
"I meant… I mean, I thought it would change me. That I’d be different or something. I thought that if I lived, I’d become what everyone seems to think I am. But I’m exactly the same." Harry’s tone was bleak.
"And what are you, Harry?" Snape’s voice was gentle without being intolerably so.
"I’m nothing. I’m just The Boy Who Lived. There isn’t anything else. And now that it’s all over… now that I’ve served my purpose…" He buried his face in his hands as the sobs began again.
"You feel as though your world has no further use for you."
"Yes," exclaimed Harry. "But how do you know?"
Snape merely gazed at him.
"Oh. I get it." He stared at his teacher as though he’d never seen him before. Snape understood.
"Our situations are quite different, of course. I asked for my burden. Begged for it, to be honest. It has been my redemption, insofar as such a thing exists for me." Snape’s face twisted bitterly. "Yours was thrust upon you. I’ve always said it was too much for a mere boy." He held up a hand at Harry’s indignant look. "Having just gone for a stroll out of the Astronomy Tower window, are you about to protest your maturity?"
Harry hung his head. Shame stirred anew, stronger than before.
"What I do not understand, Mr. Potter, is why this feeling of being nothing exists within you in the first place. Being a hero would make most boys your age ecstatic. Even without the accomplishment of having destroyed the Dark Lord, one would think that you have everything. You’re a good-looking boy…" Harry thought Snape sounded rather choked when he said this. It must kill him to say something like that to me, he thought. "You’re quite popular, and it’s no small matter in this school to be a Quidditch star. One would think you’ve had enough positive affirmation to last a lifetime."
"Do you remember when the Chamber of Secrets was opened, Professor?"
"I’m going to assume the question was rhetorical. Of course I remember," the Potions Master snapped. The familiar tone was reassuring to Harry.
"Do you remember how suddenly I became… not popular?" Harry shook his head, trying to banish the memory.
"Yes, I believe I do. I remember a similar situation when your name was put in the Goblet of Fire."
"Exactly. Even Ron didn’t talk to me for the longest time, then. Everyone was so ready to think the worst of me. Just when I think people are really my friends, something happens and they turn against me." It was Harry’s turn to sound bitter.
"Not everyone, surely. Hagrid has been quite steadfast in his regard for you. Miss Granger, as well."
"Yeah, you’re right. Hermione’s been a great friend." Harry felt swamped with guilt at the thought of how he’d nearly repaid that friendship. "And Hagrid – I don’t know what I would have done without him. So yeah, not everyone’s turned on me, but enough people have. Some of them more than once. Sometimes I think they don’t see beyond my scar because there’s nothing else to see. I wonder sometimes if that’s why the Dursleys really hated me so much."
"Ah, yes. The Dursleys. I’ve heard about them." Harry was astonished by the venom in Snape’s voice.
"And, um…" Harry was reluctant to say it aloud. "You always seemed to think I was nothing."
Snape’s hand tightened on his again. "I’ve never thought you were nothing, Harry. I promise you that."
"Because so many others thought that you were so much more than what you are. A boy, a wizard, a student. It was more than unfair for you to have the world’s salvation assigned to you as though it was your responsibility. It was an abomination, whether we had any other hope or not. I admit that I went too far in the opposite direction. I’ll even admit that there were times when I found you a genuine irritant, and allowed it to show. My goal was to make you feel normal in some small way. However, when I think of the Dursleys and their treatment of you, I regret that I was not have kinder about it. I did not realize at the time that I was reinforcing a lesson you’d already learned at home."
"That place was never home," Harry said vehemently. "And I guess I wish you could have been a little nicer, too. Okay, a lot nicer. You’re a real prick sometimes, Professor." Harry waited stoically for the inevitable loss of points.
It didn’t come. Instead, Snape smiled.
"I’m glad that fact was not lost on you, Potter. It gives me hope for you yet." He rose from his seat on the bare stone floor. "It is time for you to display your Gryffindor courage, Harry."
"Please, I don’t want to…"
"Nevertheless, you must. I cannot simply deduct points and send you back to bed." He tugged on the hand he still grasped. Harry wondered why Snape had not pulled away ages ago, but he was grateful that he had not. The physical contact had been a much needed anchor.
"The Headmaster won’t eat you, you know," Snape continued.
Harry shuddered. "I almost wish he would. He’s going to be so…"
"Disappointed. Yes, I know. Professor McGonagall will not be pleased either." Harry thought that had to be the understatement of the century. The Head of Gryffindor would be furious with him. "I also suspect that it will not be long before your godfather puts in an appearance."
Harry’s glance flicked longingly towards the window. Snape caught the movement.
"Why do you think I have retained your hand, Potter? And if you think escape lies that way, imagine the reception you’re likely to get from James and Lily if you succeed." Harry’s eyes squeezed shut against the renewed pain.
"Will you stay with me, Professor Snape?" The green eyes were pleading.
"If you like. I won’t leave you to face this alone. Might I make it clear that that goes for later on, as well? You will always be welcome, should you need to talk."
Harry’s throat tightened. "Thank you, sir," he whispered. They left the Astronomy Tower together.
The pain in Professor Dumbledore’s face had been staggering. Even now his eyes kept straying to Harry, as if to reassure himself that the boy was still there. The young Gryffindor sat hunched and miserable in a chair by the fire as the headmaster talked with Professor McGonagall, their voices too low for Harry to hear. True to his word, Snape occupied the chair beside him.
"Minerva, please calm yourself." Dumbledore said, the rising volume carrying to the pair near the fire. From his perch, Fawkes gave a squawk, but it was weak, sounding much as the phoenix himself looked. He was nearing his rebirth, and in poor condition to comfort anyone.
"I will not. I have never had cause to be so ashamed of a student in my house." She strode angrily to where Harry sat. "How could you, Mr. Potter? Do you believe that we value you so little? Is it possible that you value us so cheaply? How could you have wanted to hurt us like this?"
"I’m sorry." He wondered how many more apologies he would have to make.
"You have shamed Gryffindor and this entire school. As of this moment, you are off the Quidditch team."
"Yes, ma’am." Dumbledore and Snape exchanged surprised glances at his calm acceptance of what was a truly heinous punishment.
"Perhaps that is a bit harsh, Minerva…" She cut Dumbledore off.
"You are of course in charge of this school, Albus, but Gryffindor and its students are my responsibility. Mr. Potter is off the team." Dumbledore bowed his head in reluctant assent. "I believe one hundred points from Gryffindor is also in order."
Harry shook his head at this. "It’s no one else’s fault, Professor McGonagall. Please don’t punish Gryffindor like that."
"You’ve known for seven years that all of your actions reflect upon your house. This is a very grave offense you’ve committed, young man. Be thankful it isn’t more."
Harry turned his face away, but nodded. When Snape had first brought him to Dumbledore after leaving the Astronomy Tower, Madam Pomfrey had been summoned to take care of his bruises and abrasions, and had given him a calming draft. She had suggested Dreamless Sleep Potion, but Harry refused it. He had wanted to face this now rather than wake to still have it all in front of him, but now he regretted not having taken it. He’d never felt so tired in his life. He huddled in the robe that had been sent up to him by a house elf as if the thick cotton would defend him against McGonagall’s wrath.
"Why, Harry?" Her voice was softer now.
He looked up to see McGonagall’s bewildered expression. This was worse than the shouting and the hundred point loss. He dropped his eyes.
"I don’t know. Everything just hurts too much."
"How long have you felt like this?" Dumbledore asked.
"I’ve always felt this way, a little. It got worse when Ced… Cedric died." He could not bring himself to mention his guilt every time he looked at Cho Chang for the two years following Diggory’s death. His crush on her had been killed along with his rival. Since that time, he had not allowed himself to develop similar feelings for any other girl. He knew it was irrational, but he harbored the fear that if he did fall for anyone, someone else would die as a result. He had even pulled away from Ron and Hermione. They were too close to him, and therefore in danger. He told himself that it was for the best, but the self-imposed isolation was a constant source of pain. His loneliness ate away at him.
Now that the threat was gone, he’d fully expected to be happy again. He had looked forward to renewing his closeness to his two best friends, only to find that the wall he’d built during the dangerous times refused to be torn down. They had also become a couple along the way, leaving him the odd man out. The days of the Trio were gone.
The door burst open and Sirius Black walked in.
"What’s happened? Where’s Harry?" He looked around and spotted his godson huddled in his chair. "Are you all right?" The boy nodded, but couldn’t meet Sirius’ eyes.
"What’s going on, Albus?" he repeated. "And why is Snape here?" His glare made it clear that he was prepared to hold the Potions Master accountable for any harm to Harry, no matter how flimsy the evidence.
"Sit down, Sirius. This will not be easy for you to hear." Still glaring at Snape, the animagus sat down near the desk.
"Are you in trouble, Harry?" He got a quick nod in answer. Sirius drew his brows together as he saw that Harry still wouldn’t meet his gaze.
"Sirius… Harry tried to take his own life tonight." The headmaster’s voice was gentle, but there was no way to cushion the shock.
"WHAT?" he roared. Harry flinched.
"He stepped out of a window in the Astronomy Tower. Fortunately, Severus followed him up there, and was able to reach him before he fell. It was a very near thing, I’m afraid."
"Harry…" Sirius whispered raggedly. "This can’t be true. Tell me you didn’t do this."
"I’m s-s-sorry, Sirius."
"No." Sirius’ face drained of color. "Oh, my god, Harry. Why?"
"I don’t know. I just couldn’t do this anymore."
"What, Harry?" Sirius went to kneel in front of the boy who was the closest thing to family that he had. Harry began to shake. "What couldn’t you do?"
"Anything. Sleep, go to class, talk to people. I can’t do it. I’m really sorry."
"Are you going to try something like this again?"
"I don’t know," Harry whispered. "I wish Professor Snape hadn’t saved me."
Sirius raised his hand as if to strike his godson. His jaw clenched as he got himself under control.
"Don’t ever say anything like that again, do you hear me? You have too much to live for, you stupid, foolish…" He gathered Harry into his arms, looking pained when the boy stiffened at the embrace. He released him, but captured his chin and raised it so he could look Harry in the face. "It would kill me to lose you. Please say you’ll never do it again."
Sirius stood and ran a hand through his hair. "I know you’re sorry. That’s not what I want to hear from you. I want you to promise that you’ll never try to kill yourself ever again."
"I… I’ll try."
"Damn it, Harry, that’s not good enough. Don’t force me to send you to St. Mungo’s."
Harry gasped. "You wouldn’t do that."
"If I thought it would save your life, I would. In fact, I’m not sure I see an alternative. You’ve made it clear you’re still a danger to yourself. What can I do here, Harry?"
Tears gathered behind Harry’s glasses before they escaped to slide down his cheeks. "I promise, Sirius."
The animagus shook his head. "I don’t know. I can’t shake the feeling that the moment we turn our backs, you’re going to go right out that window again."
"I won’t. I just promised you."
"I just forced you to promise me. I wish I could believe that you mean it, but I don’t."
Harry was reluctant to add another lie, so he kept silent.
Sirius turned to Snape.
"Thank you, Severus." He held out his hand. After a moment, Snape took it. "I owe you for this."
Snape considered this for a moment. "If that is so, then I would ask you to discharge the debt right now."
Sirius’ brows rose. Dumbledore and McGonagall looked curious. They couldn’t imagine what Snape could possibly want from Black.
"Don’t take Harry to St. Mungo’s." The crying boy looked up at this, shooting a grateful glance at Snape.
"It’s not like I want to," Sirius replied. "But he’s obviously still suicidal. What else can I do?"
"St. Mungo’s will not help, for all that they can physically restrain him from harming himself. The Boy Who Lived, incarcerated there for suicidal depression? He’d be little more than an exhibit in a cage. If you allow him to remain at Hogwarts, I will see to his safety."
"What makes you think you can do that? And why would you want to take on that kind of responsibility? You’ve never liked Harry." Sirius was skeptical, but there was cautious hope in his voice. It was likely that Harry would hate him if he sent him to the wizarding hospital over this.
Snape chose not to address the subject of whether he liked Harry or not.
"I became responsible for him when I kept him from falling, Black. I cannot allow him to be placed into a situation he will find even less tolerable than the one he tried to escape from tonight. And I believe that, considering the alternative, Harry will allow himself to guided by me in his remaining time at Hogwarts. Is that not so, Mr. Potter?"
"Yes, sir. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it, as long as I can stay here." There was no mistaking the sincerity in his voice this time.
"Will you trust Severus to do this, Sirius?" Dumbledore asked.
Indecision was plain on Black’s face, but he finally nodded. "If he comes to any harm…"
"You will tear me limb from limb, and I will allow you to do so. You have my word that he will be kept safe."
"Thanks, Professor Snape." Harry’s relief was obvious.
"Don’t be so eager to thank me. You will be spending a great deal of time in my company, and you may yet decide that St. Mungo’s was the better bargain after all. If no one has anything else to say to you, you should go to bed now. I trust you have no objection to him remaining in his dormitory, Minerva?"
"None, if you’re willing to take responsibility for him."
"I am. You may go, Mr. Potter, and mind you do not make any detours on your way."
"Yes, sir. Um…" Harry rose and looked at the adults around him. "Is anyone else going to know what I did tonight?"
All eyes turned to Snape. "I believe your classmates will realize that something has happened when you do not participate in tomorrow’s Quidditch game. What you tell them will be up to you. I will not require you to accept my advice, but if I were you, I would tell your friends what happened. The burden of the secret is likely to weigh more heavily on you than the consequences of telling them the truth."
McGonagall looked thunderstruck at the mention of the next day’s match. She had clearly forgotten.
"I do not believe I will be able to find another Seeker by tomorrow afternoon, Severus. You may consider the game forfeited to Slytherin."
"He’s off the Quidditch team?" Sirius looked scandalized. Harry hung his head once more.
"They’re going to hate me," Harry said miserably.
"They’re going to be disappointed, and yes, they may well be angry with you. I don’t think anyone is going to hate you, however." McGonagall’s calm, no-nonsense tone was firmly back in place. "If anyone tries to take out his anger and disappointment on you, come to me."
"Yes, Professor." They both knew he would not.
"On second thought, Mr. Potter, I believe that I shall keep you with me tonight." Harry started to protest, but closed his mouth quickly. It was Snape or St. Mungo’s, after all.
"Harry…" Sirius looked close to tears. He opened his arms, and this time Harry went willingly into the hug. "Please don’t try to hurt yourself again. You’re all I’ve got."
"I don’t really want to die," Harry said into Sirius’ robes. "I just didn’t know what else to do."
They held each other a moment longer, then Sirius released him, giving him a gentle push towards Snape.
"Take care of him, or else."
"I will." Snape held the door open for Harry and followed his charge out of the room.
"Am I doing the right thing, Albus? Minerva?" Sirius asked.
"Severus wouldn’t have asked for the responsibility if he couldn’t fulfill it," McGonagall said.
"I never thought I’d say this, but thank the gods that that greasy git can’t keep his nose out of other people’s business."
"I wouldn’t have phrased it quite that way, Sirius, but I agree." Dumbledore removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "When I think how close we came to losing Harry tonight…"
The three of them remained where they were for a while, each silently contemplating what might have been.
It was a long, silent walk from the Headmaster’s office to Snape’s dungeon quarters. For once, Severus found the silence oppressive. He was uncomfortable not knowing what was going on inside Harry’s head. He was already having serious doubts about having made himself accountable for Harry’s continued existence. Was the boy already planning his next attempt? he wondered.
He thought briefly of allowing Harry to sleep on the sofa in his sitting room, but instead he used his wand to levitate it into his bedroom. He wanted Harry close tonight; no doubt he was feeling rather desperate at the thought of what lay ahead tomorrow. A short time later, having settled a subdued young Gryffindor down for the night, he climbed gratefully into his bed. For a time he lay exhausted, but unable to sleep. The night’s events swirled through his mind, making relaxation impossible.
Snape found himself listening intently for sounds of movement from the sofa. It seemed unlikely that Harry would simply rise and bolt out of the door, but he wanted to be prepared. He realized that his guest for the night was also finding sleep difficult. He shifted continually, seemingly unable to make himself comfortable. Snape was toying with the idea of offering him a place in the bed when he was startled by a low, muffled moan.
He sighed inwardly, hoping that if his student was going to cry again, it would not last long. They both needed badly to sleep. He heard another moan, and was just about to get up to go to the boy when he heard him gasp. Then came the unmistakable sound of flesh on flesh, and Snape realized with shock that Harry was masturbating. On the sofa, only a few feet away. The rhythmic pounding grew louder and faster, and another groan escaped the boy, although he was clearly trying to be as quiet as possible.
Snape continued to feign sleep; Harry would be mortified to know his teacher was listening to him jerk himself off. He reflected as he tried not to listen that he had learned a great deal about Harry Potter tonight; more than he’d ever wanted to know, really. First, that Dumbledore’s golden boy had a dark side, prominent enough to drive him to attempt self-destruction. Second, and equally disturbing, was this forced awareness of him as a sexual being. Harry was simply obeying a reflex, he knew. Mortal danger often left intense sexual arousal in its wake. Life reasserting itself. Perfectly normal and natural, and nothing that should make the Potions Master squirm with embarrassment. He felt his own cock rise at the sounds from the sofa, but made no move to touch himself. He would not get off to his student’s reaction to his narrow escape from death.
Harry cried out, but the sound was muffled as though he had stuffed a fist into his mouth. The Gryffindor lay utterly silent for several minutes. The scent of his ejaculated seed drifted over to Snape. Eventually, Harry rose from the sofa and made his way in the darkness to the bathroom. The closed door did not serve to mask his sobs, or the sounds of retching that came soon afterward.
Snape allowed Harry to sleep until midmorning before waking him and sending him back to Gryffindor Tower. Harry approached his house with dragging steps, dreading his reception there.
He paused outside the portrait hole. The Fat Lady regarded him sympathetically.
"I don’t blame you for not wanting to go in there, my dear," she said. "Such a dust up! It doesn’t help that the house we’ve forfeited to was Slytherin, of course." She continued on in this vein as Harry covered his face with his hands. He wasn’t going to be popular with his housemates.
He gathered his courage and gave the password. Noise poured into the corridor as the portrait swung open. He walked into a Gryffindor common room that was engulfed in chaos.
"There he is! Harry!" someone yelled. People continued to shout, only now it was in his direction.
"Where’ve you been?" asked Ron, grabbing his arm. "I’ve been looking for you all morning. There was a notice outside the Great Hall at breakfast. We’ve forfeited to Slytherin! McGonagall says it’s not a mistake. You’ve got to straighten this out."
"It’s not a mistake, Ron."
"What do you mean? Of course it is. We don’t have any reason to forfeit."
Harry took a deep breath. "Get the team together," he told his friend, who was also the Gryffindor Keeper. "You’re going to have to choose a new captain. You also need to hold tryouts for a Seeker, although I think Dennis Creevey might be a good choice."
"You’re not making sense. You’re our Seeker, and our captain. You’re not too sick to play, are you? You don’t look so good. I’m sure Madam Pomfrey could…"
"I’m off the team."
"Speak up. I can’t hear you with everyone shouting in my bloody ear."
"I’m off the team," Harry yelled. The room quieted.
"I’m the reason we had to forfeit. It’s my fault. I’ve been chucked off the team. I’m also the reason we lost a hundred points."
"What are you talking about, Harry?" Hermione shoved through the crowd to stand beside him. "I thought that hundred points had to be a mistake."
"I screwed up last night. Bad. I’ve ruined this year for Gryffindor. I’m really sorry." He pushed past students who stood between him and the stairs to his dormitory and bolted up to his room. Ron was right behind him.
The red haired boy closed and locked the door.
"I want to know what’s going on, Harry."
"Go and get Hermione, then. I’m only going to tell this once."
"Harry, you’re scaring me here. Stop pacing like a trapped animal."
"Do you want me to tell you or not? If you do, get Hermione."
Ron eased the door open to find a crowd of curious Gryffindors on the other side.
"Someone fetch Hermione." He closed the door again until a knock sounded a short time later. He cracked the door, spotted his girlfriend and pulled her inside, locking and spelling the door. He soundproofed it for good measure before turning back to Harry.
"Talk," he said.
Harry felt like vomiting again. He wished once more that Snape had not seen him last night.
"I tried to kill myself."
"Bloody hell," Ron swore.
"Harry?" Hermione looked faint.
"Where have you been all night?" Ron asked, sitting next to Hermione and taking her hand.
"I slept on Snape’s couch."
"Is that where you…" Hermione began.
"No. The Astronomy Tower. I jumped out the window. Snape grabbed me just as I went and pulled me back in."
"Oh, my god." Hermione paled further. "Why?"
"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" demanded Harry irritably.
"Because it would be a good thing to know, you stupid git. I’d be very interested to know why you thought your life was so worthless you’d end it with a bloody great splat in the courtyard." Ron’s voice vibrated with anger.
"I know it was stupid," Harry said quietly. "I’m sorry."
"Screw sorry. You didn’t even wake me up to say goodbye."
"And if I had, would you have just said goodbye and let me go?" Harry asked, his own temper flaring. "The whole point was death, you know, not waking you up so you could talk me out of it."
"Talk you out of it?" Ron snorted. "I’d ruddy well have knocked your lights out if I’d been there to see you pull a stupid stunt like this."
Harry stood, fists clenched. "Sorry you missed your chance last night. How about we have a go now?"
"STOP IT!" shouted Hermione. "Ron, get out."
"You can’t throw me out of my own room, Hermione."
"You’re making things worse. Just go." She shoved him towards the door. "Please, Ron. I want to talk to Harry alone."
"I thought you wanted to talk to both of us, Harry." Ron’s face, though still angry, also held the same confused expression Harry had seen on McGonagall’s face the night before.
"I wanted to tell you at the same time. Now I’ve told you." Familiar as he was with Ron’s volatile temper, Harry had still hoped for something approaching understanding from his best friend. Now that notion seemed unreasonable to him; after all, he thought, he didn’t really understand himself. How could Ron?
"Ron, please." Hermione gave him a pleading look. Scowling, he went.
She spelled the door behind him and sat down, patting the bed beside her.
"Come on, Harry, I won’t bite." She gave him an encouraging smile.
"Funny, Snape said the same thing about Dumbledore. Last night."
"He did?" Her astonishment drew a weak laugh from Harry. "Was he right?"
"Yeah, pretty much. Dumbledore didn’t seem that upset with me. But McGonagall and Sirius were kind of mad."
"Kind of?" she prodded.
"Well, no more Quidditch, a hundred points, that ‘kind of.’"
"Oh." The Gryffindor Head of House had a temper as formidable as Ron’s, if usually better contained.
"Was there much left for them to chew up after Snape got through with you?" she asked.
"Actually, Snape was really great." Harry shook his head. "I think he actually understood what I was feeling. He made himself responsible for me."
"What do you mean?"
Harry pressed his lips together. It made him feel helpless, that he couldn’t discuss this without tears coming to his eyes.
"Last night, Sirius asked me if I was going to try it again. I… I couldn’t tell him that I wouldn’t." He gave a hastily choked sob.
Hermione’s arm went around him, and she pulled his head down onto her shoulder and began to stroke his hair.
"Harry… I don’t know what to say. I feel like the worst friend in the world. I knew you were… withdrawn, but I swear I didn’t have any idea that things were this bad. You didn’t… get it out of your system last night?"
He shook his head.
"Sirius talked about sending me to St. Mungo’s."
"Snape saved me from that, too. He said he’d make sure I didn’t do it again, if Sirius wouldn’t send me there."
Hermione was silent for a time, but she didn’t stop caressing the tousled black head.
"If you couldn’t promise Sirius that you wouldn’t try to hurt yourself again, how is it that Professor Snape can guarantee you won’t?"
"He can’t, I guess. That’s what I can’t figure out. He put his neck on the line for me. Why would he do that? I couldn’t honestly tell Sirius I wouldn’t do it again, but now I don’t think I will. I can’t pay Snape back like that. But Hermione…" He broke off, wrapping his arms about her waist. She held him as he wept into her robes.
"It’s going to be hard, isn’t it, Harry?" she asked gently.
"Yeah. I mean… it’s not like I really want to die. I just don’t know if I can live anymore. Everything’s gone so wrong."
"Will you do something for me?"
"What?" he asked.
"It won’t be easy," she warned. "I want you to tell me everything that’s gone wrong, and not leave anything out. We’ve got all day."
Knowing that there was no possible defense against a Hermione who wanted information, Harry began.
Snape waited patiently while Dumbledore fussed with the tea things. It was a familiar habit, a delaying tactic used whenever the old wizard was reluctant to discuss something. After an interminable wait, the Headmaster handed Snape a steaming cup, his signal that he was ready to talk at last.
"May I say that I’m very proud of you, Severus?"
"For not killing Black last night? Think nothing of it. I don’t kill Black all the time. I’ve had a lot of practice at not killing him. One day, perhaps, it will not require so much restraint to let him survive our encounters. Until then, I do my poor best."
"I was referring to your generous offer towards Harry."
"I know you were. I would prefer that you not thank me for it, as I had no choice in the matter. Do not insult me by implying that I did it out of the goodness of my heart."
"Why was there no choice? The boy has a godfather."
"Who was perfectly prepared to immure him in St. Mungo’s so he would not be obliged to deal with the problem himself."
"Do you think Sirius cares so little for Harry?" Dumbledore’s voice held a hint of rebuke.
"No, I think Sirius cares too much for Sirius. A godson who is no trouble – who is ‘fun’- was all well and good. A damaged godson requiring actual work is obviously another matter."
"You are not being quite fair to Sirius, but I will let it rest for now."
"It is reassuring to see that your reputation for wisdom is not entirely unearned."
Dumbledore’s eyes narrowed just a little.
"I give you a great deal of license, Severus, but sometimes you go a bit far."
"And sometimes I don’t go nearly far enough. Had I been more willing to challenge you years ago, when it might have done some good, perhaps this would not have been such a shock to you."
"To what, exactly, do you refer?"
"That it must have been an unpleasant surprise to you to find that your child god has feet of clay. You encouraged the Boy Who Lived hype, beginning the night of Lily and James’ deaths. When did you start to believe it yourself?"
Dumbledore’s eyes flashed, but his tone was still mild when he answered.
"I will admit that I believed it served our cause to have a rallying point. I tried to balance his fame with the most normal childhood that could be achieved under the circumstances."
"Will you at least admit that it wasn’t terribly normal?"
"Harry was safest with the Dursleys. Voldemort could not touch him there."
"No. You are correct about that. Unfortunately, the Dursleys could."
Dumbledore closed his eyes briefly. "No one regrets that more than I do, Severus."
"I think you might be wrong there. I imagine Harry regrets it a great deal."
"Considering your feelings for Harry for the past seven years, I’m surprised to see you take up the cudgels in his defense." The tone was less mild now.
"A moment ago you were proud of me." The voice was pure silk, soft and insolent.
"I still am. But your vehemence here has me a bit mystified."
"I don’t believe you’ve ever been mystified in your life. Selectively perceptive, yes. But if you want to hear me say it, I understand Harry’s situation."
"Then I wish you would explain it to me. You may not believe me, but I had no idea he was so unhappy." Dumbledore shook his head, sighing. "I truly want what’s best for him."
"You feel that way towards all your favorite tools. I have cause to know." Snape didn’t bother to disguise his bitterness.
"I have never regarded Harry as a tool." The headmaster sounded as though even he was not convinced.
"You routinely distribute invisibility cloaks to first years and encourage them to wander the school at night, then?"
Dumbledore did not answer.
"You treat your tools with care, Albus, but in the end they are still tools. No matter how much you love them, you do not hesitate to use them."
The old wizard glared at his Potions professor.
"I thought that we were in agreement over what needed to be done."
"I have never disagreed with you that Potter was indispensable to our cause. But I have always said that the burdens you placed upon him were too much. I do not say this to hurt you, Albus, but last night was the result. If only you had placed him with a wizarding family…"
"Your anti-Muggle bias is well known to me, Severus."
"Call it what you like. Sixteen years ago you made a mistake. Last night you sat back and watched Harry Potter pay the price, in more ways than one." Snape’s tone was icy. "It suited you to have him live with those wretched Muggles because it made him pathetically grateful to be rescued. By you. I’ll say this for you, you prefer your instruments to be willing rather than coerced. What you will do to achieve that willing cooperation has sometimes been rather – dare I say it? Slytherin."
"Is this concern for Harry that I’m hearing, or is it your resentment of me that we’re really talking about?"
Snape pushed his chair back and paced to the window. "I resent my situation, Albus. I will not deny that. But I accept that it was of my own making. I have never resented you. I do not, even now. Not on Potter’s behalf, certainly. But I would like you to listen to me, just this once. The boy feels that he owes everything he has to the wizarding world. It is we who are in debt, not him."
Dumbledore nodded. "I should think that the tribute that still pours in by owl every morning would give Harry some perspective on where he stands with us."
"It’s done just the opposite, in my opinion. You will tell me, I think, that I can’t stand to see Harry succeed, that I’d keep him from getting his ‘due.’ Am I correct?"
"There have been times when I have thought so."
"The Boy Who Lived is public property. He actually tries to answer his fan mail, even though he would rather not receive it at all."
"When did you decide that he wasn’t a publicity seeker, Severus?"
"I never said I’ve behaved well towards Harry. I know I haven’t. But it angers me to see him so grateful for the tatty junk he gets by the cartload. He still feels that he should provide some sort of return on the wizarding world’s investment in him."
"May I ask how you know this, Severus?"
"He told me, last night. Not in so many words, but the sentiment was the same."
Dumbledore’s hands shook slightly, making his teacup rattle in its saucer. "I’m glad he felt able to confide in you."
"I didn’t give him a choice."
"Of course," the headmaster said wryly. "Perish the thought that you might be kind to him."
"Precisely." Snape glared. "I wish it had been someone else who found him. But somewhere along the way, as he delivered miracle after miracle for you, you and all his other well-wishers began to believe that his strength and resilience were limitless. I’m no more perspicacious than you, Albus. A great deal less so, in fact. It was only distance that helped me see what none of the rest of you could, any longer. A scared child. And now he is a scared young man who can no longer provide justification for his existence. His purpose died with Voldemort. He should be shown that he does not have to be useful to be worthwhile."
Dumbledore considered this. It was obvious from the way his eyes rested on the Potions Master that he thought Snape’s words applied not only to Harry.
"You’re right, Severus."
Snape blinked in surprise.
"I did, as you phrased it, ‘believe the hype.’ Every challenge, every task set before Harry, he completed. Somewhere along the way, I think I did begin to see him as invincible. It was unforgivable of me." Dumbledore suddenly looked older than Snape remembered ever having seen him. "Last night an injured child needed my help, and I withheld it. You’ve accused me of having a blind spot where Harry is concerned so many times. I never even considered that you might be right. And now I’ve failed him as I failed you."
"You were not responsible for my failings. I set my feet upon that path myself. You rescued me, and I am grateful. Pathetically so," he said, smiling humorlessly. "But please, Albus, let him benefit from my experience in this. Don’t allow him to isolate himself, and don’t allow anyone to create a situation which further isolates him. He will not meet with compassion from most of his peers, once this incident becomes known. They’re more likely to take advantage of his weakness to tear him apart. Don’t cripple him further."
"In other words, call off Minerva?"
"That will do, as I believe you once said, to be going on with."
"She was shocked. As was I. I’ll admit that it was a severe blow."
"Will she recover from it, do you think?" Snape looked skeptical.
"I’ll see what I can do, Severus. In the meantime, I appreciate your willingness to help Harry. I know," he said, holding up a hand, "you don’t want thanks. But thank you anyway. Is there anything else I can do?"
"Allow me to kill Black, perhaps?"
A ghost of a twinkle appeared in the blue eyes. "And how will that help Harry?"
"It won’t. I, however, would feel much better."
When Harry and Hermione emerged from the dormitory that afternoon, it was to find their fellow Gryffindors considerably calmer than they’d been that morning. Ron, so they were told, had left his room in an obvious temper. The crowd gathered outside the door had followed him back into the common room, where he’d refused to say anything, other than to make it clear that anyone who gave Harry any grief would answer to him. He’d then turned and plowed a fist into the unyielding stone of the wall. He was still not back from the hospital wing.
"Harry?" asked Colin Creevey, somewhat nervously. Ron’s display was clearly fresh in his mind. "Is there… you know, anything we can do?" There were nods all around.
Harry was stunned. He’d expected demands to know what he’d done, since his actions had cost his house so dearly. An ache rose in his throat.
"I… haven’t been… I’ve been sort of down lately," he said. "Last night…" Hermione took his hand and squeezed it. "I did something a bit desperate. I really didn’t mean to hurt anyone. If you think you could still be my friends…" He bit his lip, unable to continue. Horrified comprehension showed on several faces.
Seamus Finnegan stepped forward. "You won’t get rid of us that easily, you bonehead," he said affectionately. "Anytime you want to talk, I’m here."
"Me too," said a chorus of voices.
"We love you, Harry," said Ginny. "All of us."
"Thanks," was all he could think of to say. Hermione led him out of the portrait hole and down to the kitchens in search of a belated lunch. When they finally escaped from the tender clutches of the house elves, conversations in the corridors ceased as they approached, only to be resumed in whispers after they’d passed. Harry tried hard not to let it bother him.
Hermione had several books piled on the grass beside her, and was copying notes onto a roll of parchment as she talked to Harry. He was on his hands and knees in Professor Sprout’s herb garden, weeding in the bright spring sunshine. He’d shed his robes and wore only jeans and an old t-shirt.
"It says here that a lowering of serotonin levels in the brain not only causes depression, but it removes the inhibition against self-harm. Exercise is supposed to help boost endorphins and serotonin production, so this really is supposed to be good for you."
When Professor Snape had ordered him to report to Sprout to be put to work Sunday morning, Harry had regarded it as yet another punishment, and said so. Now, after an hour and a half of labor, he felt hot, sweaty, and rather worn out, but he also felt somewhat better inside.
"Quidditch would be good for him, then," grumbled Ron, who was leafing through a copy of ‘Quidditch Illustrated.’ Upon his return from the hospital wing with a newly undamaged hand, he had simply embraced Harry, and nothing else had been said between them.
"The exercise, maybe, but really," she said, looking serious, "would it be a good idea to have him a hundred feet in the air on a broomstick? It wouldn’t be that hard for him to simply let go. Sorry, Harry," she said, looking uncomfortable.
"It’s okay," he said. It was going to be difficult to adjust to the restrictions that had been placed on him, he knew, and Quidditch was only the beginning. For the time being he was not allowed to fly at all, for the very reason Hermione had mentioned. He would also be allowed his wand for classes and homework only. Hermione had been assigned the duty of keeping it at other times. He understood why his teachers felt this to be necessary, but it stung him badly.
It felt good to be with his two best friends like this. Hermione’s compassion had been a badly needed balm to his wounded spirit, and Ron, after his initial outburst, was proving to be understanding in his way. He hadn’t felt this close to them in months.
"There are medicines Muggles take for depression, but I don’t know what kind of effect they’d have on a magical brain chemistry. I don’t think it would be a good idea to experiment with them," Hermione said, chewing her lip thoughtfully. "I’m sure there must be potions for this sort of thing, but the only mood-elevating potions I can think of don’t last very long, and you can’t take them regularly. This is so frustrating." She slammed the book shut and tossed it aside. "The only books in the library that even mention depression are Muggle books. Don’t wizards ever get depressed? Um… besides you, I mean," she added.
"It appears more in Muggle borns, Miss Granger," said Snape, who stood behind her, peering down at her notes. None of them had noticed him approaching. Ron tried to hide his Quidditch magazine before he remembered that they weren’t in class. "Mr. Potter’s mother was Muggle born, so I suppose that is close enough. Melancholia is almost unheard of among wizards of pure blood. There are exceptions, of course." Harry, gazing up at Snape’s impassive face, knew he was looking at one of those exceptions. He’d given a lot of thought to Snape’s ready understanding on the night of his suicide attempt. "It is considered a defect of breeding, rather than a medical condition to be treated."
Hermione’s eyes were wide from having Snape address her question with no snideness or sarcasm. Voldemort’s death had marked the end of Snape’s blatant favoring of the Slytherins, but he had become no more pleasant to the other houses, Gryffindor especially, than he’d ever been. Emboldened, she asked him about antidepressant potions.
"None exist, other than the temporary mood enhancers." he replied. "There is too much stigma attached to the condition to encourage research. I am looking into it, however. Any assistance you can give me would be appreciated, Miss Granger."
"Yes, sir," she said, her eyes shining. Ron was stunned, Harry less so but not by much.
Snape regarded Harry gravely for a moment. He withdrew a copy of the ‘Daily Prophet’ from his robes and handed it to him.
"I had meant to show you this privately, Mr. Potter, but perhaps it’s as well that your friends are here." He waited grimly for Harry to read the headline:
"BOY WHO LIVED CRACKS UP!"
Harry sank back and raised a hand to his forehead, the color draining from his face.
Ron frowned and grabbed it out of his hand. "Bloody, bloody hell," he said viciously before handing it to Hermione.
"If it’s that Skeeter bitch again… oops. Sorry, Professor."
"No, it is not Rita Skeeter," he said, ignoring her language. "I advised you not to keep your suicide attempt a secret, Potter, and you may think that I did you a disservice. But these things have a way of coming out eventually, and it’s better to have it out in the open now. At the very least, no one can ever blackmail you with it."
The three Gryffindors looked shocked at the possibility.
"It is nearly lunchtime. See me in my office afterwards, Harry." Harry was beginning to get used to the sound of his first name from his least liked professor. Ron and Hermione were too indignant to notice.
"I’m not hungry," he muttered.
"In that case, you may come with me now." He turned and walked away, leaving Harry to follow.
Harry could feel Snape watching him as he sliced valerian root. Does he think I’m going to slit my wrists if he looks away? he wondered. He held the blade up for a moment, looking consideringly at the sharp edge. Moments later, Snape plucked it out of his hand.
"That is enough for now, I think," the professor said.
"Oh, come on," Harry said, irritated. "I wasn’t going to do anything."
"Did the notion occur to you?" Snape asked.
Harry looked up into the black eyes, meaning to lie. "Yes," he said instead. "I thought about it – for about half a second. But what do you think I can do with you watching me like that?"
"Nothing, which is why I’m watching you." The Potions Master examined the sliced roots. "Your work today has proven what I’ve long suspected. If you give this subject a modicum of your attention, you have the capacity to do well in it. A pity that I haven’t been able to get you to focus properly until your final term. You will never catch up to Miss Granger, but perhaps you might yet have some competence with Potions before you leave Hogwarts."
"I do okay in the subjects I’m going to need." Snape raised an eyebrow at this.
"Learning is never wasted, Mr. Potter, no matter how irrelevant you may consider it to be. Good grades in all your classes keep your options open. Just what were you thinking of doing after you graduate?"
Snape’s tone was casual, but Harry sensed that he was being asked this question for a reason. He couldn’t imagine why Snape would be concerned about his career plans.
"I’m still considering professional Quidditch, but I think I’d really like to become an Auror."
"Quidditch…" Snape said after a moment. "You may yet have that option. But you will never be an Auror, Harry."
"What are you talking about? The Ministry’s already owled me about training. They’ve practically offered it to me. Why shouldn’t I be an Auror?"
The professor’s expression was more sympathetic than Harry had ever seen it.
"No. You don’t mean that I…" He shook his head. No.
"I’m sorry. I know that this disappoints you…" He reached out, very slowly, to rest a hand upon Harry’s shoulder. He was not surprised when the Gryffindor shrugged it off.
"My life is pretty much fucked now, isn’t it, Professor?" He removed his glasses to dash away the tears that had formed. "I can’t be an Auror because… because…"
"Mental instability," Snape said, very gently.
"You said I shouldn’t keep it a secret," Harry said bitterly.
"It’s in your school record. It would have been discovered."
"What about Mad Eye? Every Auror I’ve ever met, for gods’ sake. They’re not the most stable lot."
"They didn’t begin as you see them now, Harry. The work can be damaging. That is why only the strongest are accepted."
"Which leaves me out. I’ve ‘cracked up.’ Quidditch… you said it may be an option. The Cannons have already said they want me…" His breath hitched. "They’re going to be too afraid that I’ll ditch my broom in midair, aren’t they?"
Snape said nothing.
"Why did you save me? Why did you fucking save me?" Sobbing, he launched a fist towards Snape’s face. The older wizard caught his wrist an inch away from its target and held it.
"Oh, god…" He tried to pull away. Snape held on, knowing Harry would only try to bolt. He couldn’t allow it, not right now.
Swimming green eyes, oddly vulnerable without the glasses, looked up at Snape. "I just tried to hit you. I’m sorry…"
Snape drew the shaking boy into his arms.
"It’s all right, Harry. It’s going to be all right," he murmured, knowing he could not promise any such thing. He stroked the soft black hair as Harry wept. A surge of protectiveness swept through him. Harry wrapped his arms around Snape, clinging to him as if his life depended on it.
Harry was studying with Ron and Hermione in the Gryffindor common room that evening when the note arrived, an hour before curfew.
You will spend tonight in the dungeons. Bring what you will need for the morning. Do not delay, or I shall come looking for you.
Professor S. Snape’
"I have to go," Harry said, closing his Charms book and shoving it roughly into his bag. "My keeper’s calling me."
He came back down the stairs a few minutes later with his small bundle, moving wordlessly through the common room towards the portrait hole. It didn’t work; Hermione caught up with him before he could make his escape. Trying hard not to resent his friend, he dug out his wand and handed it to her.
"I’m sorry, Harry. You’ll have it back tomorrow, first thing."
He nodded, eyes averted, and walked out, feeling utterly humiliated.
Snape was waiting for him at the top of the dungeon stairs. Neither of them spoke until they reached Snape’s sitting room.
"You may have an hour to study, if you like."
"No, I’d rather go to bed now." Harry was embarrassed by his own sullenness, but he couldn’t control it.
Snape began to move the sofa.
"Can’t I at least sleep out here?"
"Not tonight, Harry. You’ve had a difficult day." ‘You’re a risk tonight’ was left unspoken.
Harry lay stretched on the sofa, listening to Snape move about in the next room. He tried to remember why he should be grateful for what Snape had done for him, but the urge to escape, to find the first available means to end this, was pulling at him. He owed Snape his life; Snape had done him a favor. Snape was keeping him from hell in St. Mungo’s. Sirius would kill Snape if anything happened to him. He sat up, rocking steadily back and forth. The pain was overwhelming.
"Professor," he whispered into the darkness. He waited. Then, a little louder, "Professor."
Snape was beside him.
"What is it?"
"Please let me go."
"I can’t, Harry. I’m sorry."
"I’ll write a note. I’ll tell Sirius it wasn’t your fault…"
Snape drew Harry to his feet and led him, unresisting, to the bed. Stopping only to remove his robes and shoes, he climbed in next to him and pulled him into his arms.
"I know it’s hard, Harry. I’m going to help you. It’s going to get better." He continued to whisper to him until the boy’s breathing became even. Snape fell asleep with Harry cradled in his arms.
Wednesday morning, Harry awoke with the vague, insistent feeling of something unpleasant awaiting him. By the time he climbed out of bed, he remembered that the afternoon would bring Gryffindor’s first Quidditch practice with its new Seeker. He reminded himself that he no longer cared much about Quidditch, but the knowledge was painful just the same.
The morning did not begin auspiciously. Draco Malfoy was waiting for him outside the Potions classroom.
"Hey, Potter!" he called. For someone with two parents in Azkaban, Harry thought, it was remarkable that the arsehole could still strut around as though he owned the school.
"I heard about your little ‘accident,’" he said. Pansy and a small knot of other Slytherins giggled appreciatively. "Next time you want to commit suicide, I’ll be happy to assist. Just let me know when and where."
"I’d like that, Malfoy," he replied solemnly. The Slytherin contingent stopped laughing. Was Potty that far gone? they whispered to each other. "Although it would really be helpful if you would demonstrate for me first. I’d like to see what works for you."
Malfoy glared at him while Crabbe and Goyle tried to work out exactly what Harry had said. He felt like he’d scored a point, but the enjoyment he usually found in pissing off Draco was blunted. There was little pleasure in it.
The day went downhill from there. Snape was marginally less of a prick to the class in general, something Harry hadn’t expected. He actually said something complimentary to Hermione. But Harry had trouble concentrating in class. Normally that wasn’t a problem; he’d never paid much attention in Potions. This morning, however, Snape was paying attention to him. That the attention probably saved his life was, under the circumstances, of very little comfort.
"Mr. Potter," he said from right behind him, just as he put a spoonful of raw rather than distilled dandelion extract into his cauldron. "We are brewing a basic warming potion. Any first year could do it. We are not-" he picked up Harry’s cauldron and flung it against the wall, to collective gasps from the class – "I repeat, not trying to poison ourselves. Not in my class." His black eyes blazed with anger.
Kept afterwards, Harry protested that he’d made a mistake. He hadn’t meant to use the wrong ingredient, had certainly had no idea that he was making a potentially fatal error. Snape eventually relented, though not before panicking Harry by threatening to remove the guardianship that was Harry’s only hope of being allowed to finish out the school year. Unable, he said, to overlook such dangerous carelessness, the professor deducted another ten points from Gryffindor before releasing him to join his friends.
At lunch, it was clear word of the incident had spread. He heard ‘tried to kill himself in Potions’ more times than he could count. Some of the not-quite-whispered comments came from farther down the Gryffindor table.
Defense Against the Dark Arts came after lunch. Harry found no pleasure in what was normally his favorite class. He had to endure the embarrassment of being subjected to the maternal fussing of Professor Weasley, with whom he had been a favorite for several years.
"’arry, it is so tragic. Mon pauvre ange!" she declared, her pale, silky hair draping over him as she pressed him to her magnificent bosom. The other boys in the class, with the notable exception of Ron, looked on in fierce envy. The youngest Weasley male had long since recovered from his intense crush on the woman who was now his brother Bill’s wife.
As class ended Harry received a summons from Professor McGonagall.
"If ever there was a time to jump out of the Astronomy Tower, it’s right now," Ron said, earning him an elbow in the ribs from his girlfriend. "What?" he protested. "I wasn’t going to let him do it, Hermione. But just to be safe, we’ll walk you there, okay, Harry?"
Harry was beyond caring. They left him at the door of the Transfiguration teacher’s office. Hermione was due in the dungeons to go over possibilities for antidepressant potions with Snape, and Ron had last minute preparations to make for his first Quidditch practice as team captain. Harry squared his shoulders and went in.
Professor McGonagall did not look up as Harry entered. She continued to mark scrolls for several minutes, leaving him to stand uncomfortably before her desk. When she finally raised her eyes to him, her lips were pressed tightly together.
"Sit down, Mr. Potter."
"I understand there was an unfortunate incident during your Potions lesson this morning."
"Professor Snape assures me that it was a mistake on your part."
"He seems convinced that you were not purposely attempting to harm yourself."
He couldn’t think of anything to say, so he said nothing.
"All in all, a rather dramatic morning."
Harry looked miserably at the floor. Before the previous Friday, he’d always gotten on well with McGonagall. This coolness from the Head of Gryffindor hurt.
"Have you nothing to say, Mr. Potter?"
He cursed himself as the first tear splashed onto his robes. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do it."
"Tell me, do you think I was too harsh towards you for your actions in the Astronomy Tower?"
He was feeling too abraded to be startled by the change in subject. What could he say? he wondered. He could only try to accept his punishment as manfully as possible.
"No, Professor," he whispered.
"I’ve come to expect a great deal from you over the years, Mr. Potter. Perhaps too much, although you’ve never disappointed me before. Or at least not this deeply. In particular, I have come to expect a certain strength of character from you."
Harry fervently regretted that Snape had caught his mistake in Potions that morning.
"I want to know what is going on with you."
"I don’t know what else to tell you, Professor."
"Very well." She rose. "Come with me."
He followed her, head bowed, through several corridors. He tried to take comfort in the fact that they were not heading towards Dumbledore’s office. It made the idea that he was being expelled seem less likely. She stopped before an unfamiliar door, heavy oak bound in iron. She tapped her wand to it and it opened. The room was empty except for…
"The Mirror of Erised!" Harry exclaimed. Harry hadn’t known what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t this. In Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, he had found the mirror, and it had shown him with his parents. Dumbledore had later explained to him that it showed a person what they most wanted in the world. The last time he’d seen it, it had shown him with the Sorcerer’s Stone in his pocket. It had helped him to thwart Voldemort’s attempt to steal the stone.
"Tell me what you see," said Professor McGonagall.
Taking a deep breath, Harry stepped in front of the mirror. He looked at it in puzzlement. The mirror didn’t seem to be working.
"What do you see?" she repeated.
"Nothing. It’s black."
"Let me look." Harry moved aside, and McGonagall stood in front of it. After a moment, an image appeared to her. She saw Harry airborne on his Firebolt, wearing Gryffindor Quidditch robes. He was smiling as he held up the Snitch. He looked happier than she’d ever seen him. She moved back.
"Try again, Harry." He noticed the slight tremor in her voice. Did the mirror’s failure to work for him have something to do with the lack of character she’d alluded to earlier? He hoped he would see something, anything, in it this time.
He still saw only blackness. "Sorry, Professor. It doesn’t work for me anymore." He stepped away from it.
To his extreme surprise, McGonagall threw her arms around him.
"Harry, I didn’t understand. I’m sorry." The stoic deputy headmistress sounded near tears.
He patted her back awkwardly, wondering what she could have seen in the mirror to cause her such distress. Whatever it was, he hoped it wasn’t anything too awful.
He was in his dormitory when the summons came, gazing out the window that faced the Quidditch field in the distance. The team had finished practice, and he could see their robes, washed of color by the moonlight, as dark shadows moving across the grass. Through the open window, he heard them laughing. Practice went well, he thought. They’ll be fine without me. He tried to be glad about it.
He was not surprised by the note; he’d expected Snape to call him to the dungeons this evening. It had been, after all, a ‘difficult’ day. He’d spent the last two nights in his own bed, after waking up in Snape’s on Monday morning. He realized that he had not slept as well on those nights, though he should have slept better in his own familiar bed.
On his way through the common room, he acknowledged the awkward ‘good nights’ that came his way. Poor Harry, they’re thinking. He has to sleep in the same rooms as that malevolent bastard. Try the same room, Harry thought. Maybe the same bed. If I’m lucky… he suppressed the thought. It was hard to accept that he needed the comfort Snape was giving him.
Snape surprised him this time. He was not waiting at the top of the dungeon stairs. He was outside the portrait hole when Harry emerged.
"I guess you didn’t believe me about this morning," Harry said dully. Bitterness took more energy than he had tonight.
"What do you know about Muggle psychiatry, Harry?" he got instead of an answer.
"Only what Hermione’s told me."
"Which is where I’ve gotten my information as well. She told me today, as we discussed possible potion formulations for you, about a certain Sigmund Freud. Have you ever heard of this fellow?"
"Uh huh." He didn’t know where Snape was going with this, and didn’t care.
"Apparently he was a pioneer in modern Muggle psychiatry. I can’t say I was impressed by most of what Miss Granger shared with me, but I was fascinated by one concept."
He paused. Harry recognized his cue.
"What was that?"
"Something called the Freudian slip. It refers to an accident that perhaps is not an accident after all."
"So you think I meant to poison myself in front of your class. And maybe get you killed by Sirius in the process."
"No, Harry, not consciously. But I wonder if deeper in your mind, you saw the opportunity and took it."
"You’re a logical man, for a wizard, Professor."
Snape raised a brow. "I flatter myself that I am."
"Do you honestly think I’ve paid enough attention in your class over the years to be able to have that kind of ‘accident?’"
Snape’s reaction astonished Harry. The Potions Master threw his head back and
laughed. The sound was pure mirth, and the change in Snape’s face was amazing.
For those few brief moments, he looked years younger, and far less forbidding
than usual. He was almost handsome. Harry’s breath caught in his throat at the
This time, when they reached Snape’s rooms, Harry chose to get some studying done before going to sleep. He’d been far too unhappy to open his books earlier. The fact that he had made Snape laugh from amusement rather than derision lifted his spirits considerably.
When it was time to retire, Snape lifted his wand towards the sofa.
"I’m sorry, Harry. I can’t let you sleep out here alone."
"I wasn’t going to ask that."
Snape waited. Harry was suddenly more nervous than he’d been when he’d asked Cho Chang to go to the Yule Ball with him.
"Could I sleep with you again tonight?"
Snape looked at him intently for a moment. Harry couldn’t decipher his expression.
"All right," he said at last. Harry let his breath out; he hadn’t realized he’d been holding it. He thought that might be why he suddenly felt light-headed.
Rather than being held by Snape as he’d been three nights earlier, Harry kept carefully to his side of the bed. He lay awake a long time, acutely aware of Snape’s still form next to him. There was something disconcerting about knowing that his Potions professor was close enough to reach out and touch, if he wanted. At the same time, he felt a sense of peace, a rare enough sensation these days for it to be noteworthy to him. Harry fell asleep still trying to untangle the curious mix of emotions that he felt towards the man sleeping beside him.
Harry awoke to feel something heavy pressing into his neck, making it difficult for him to breathe. He opened his eyes. Snape was lying on his stomach with one arm flung out. His breathing was deep and even. Keeping his eyes fixed on his host for any signs of wakefulness, Harry gently lifted the arm off of his windpipe and took in a lungful of air. Snape stirred slightly, and the arm moved out of Harry’s grasp to drape across his stomach.
In his nearly eighteen years, Harry had shared a bed only twice, and only with Snape. Was this what it felt like to wake up with a lover? he wondered. He was suddenly, uncomfortably, curious about the arm that rested upon his abdomen. The sleeve of Snape’s nightshirt had ridden up, leaving the forearm bare. The limb was slender, but not bony, and covered in smooth pale skin. The hair on it was black and very fine. He wondered if it was as soft as it looked. He slowly laid his fingers on the back of the finely turned wrist, just barely touching it.
"Allow me," said a sleep-roughened voice. Harry jumped.
Snape lifted his arm off of Harry’s stomach. "My apologies," he said. "I fear that I am a rather… active sleeper at times." He groped on the bedside table for his wand and used it to illuminate the face of the clock. 4:45, Harry saw over his shoulder. His head ached a bit; it had been nearly two when he’d finally drifted off. Two hours and forty five minutes of sleep; he’d hoped for at least four. He knew from experience that there was no possibility of going back to sleep. He slid out of the bed.
Snape lay back and closed his eyes; he hadn’t moved when Harry came back out of the bathroom. His eyes snapped open, however, when rather than climbing back into bed, Harry opened the door to the sitting room.
"Where are you going?" he said in a resigned tone. He must hate having to babysat me, Harry thought. About as much as I hate the fact that he has to do it.
"I thought I’d read or something," he said. "If I’m allowed out of your sight, that is."
Snape ignored the petulant remark.
"How much sleep did you get?"
"Enough, Mother." The thin lips twitched.
"I doubt it, but I can’t force you to stay in bed. Perhaps if I could persuade Professor Weasley to come and tuck you back in…"
He’s teasing me, Harry thought. Just when I think he can’t surprise me anymore, he does something so – unSnapelike.
"Fleur?" he replied with a grin. "No thanks. You fuss over me enough as it is." Harry walked into the other room, but turned around and came right back.
"Why what, Mr. Potter?"
"Why do you fuss over me?"
"I hardly think I fuss."
"’Did you get enough sleep?’ ‘Do you need another blanket?’ ‘Can I bring you your teddy bear?’"
"If you require your teddy bear, you should have brought it from Gryffindor with you."
"I’m being serious."
Snape shuddered. "I’d much rather you were Harry. It’s far too early for me to have to contemplate your flea-ridden godfather."
"He hates that pun."
"A rare flash of good taste. But annoying Black is rather an avocation of mine."
"Is that why you agreed to take responsibility for me? To irritate Sirius?"
"If it does so, that is a benefit, undoubtedly. But no, that was not my purpose. I thought you understood why this was necessary?"
"Yeah, sort of." Harry walked slowly back over to the bed and sat down. "I know Sirius is really freaked out. I actually thought he’d understand. He spent twelve years in Azkaban. He knows all about feeling like this. Doesn’t he?"
"He understands what it’s like to have despair projected onto him from an external source. Remove the Dementors, and Black’s spirits recover rapidly. He’s always been disgustingly cheerful."
"I don’t know. There are times when he seems sad, for no reason."
"As you said, he spent twelve years in Azkaban. No one could come out of that unscathed, even he. But he does not know what it means to be consumed with those feelings from within."
Harry didn’t look at him.
"Yes," Snape said evenly, "I do. Since I was a bit younger than you are now."
Harry looked up, startled. "You’ve lived with this for – you’re how old?"
"Thirty eight. And it hasn’t been constant. It doesn’t always bother me."
"’Bother’ you? That’s putting it mildly."
"Being seventeen aggravates the condition, Harry. From sixteen until my early twenties, I felt as I believe you do now."
"Did you want to die?"
"Not particularly. But I wanted the feeling to end, and I would have happily accepted anything that brought that about. Death included."
"Yeah, I guess that’s how I feel. It’s just that it feels like death is the only thing that can stop this."
Harry felt uncomfortable asking his next question, but he desperately wanted to know.
"Did you ever try to commit suicide?"
"As a teenager? Three times, in varying degrees of seriousness. You came closer than I did, although not by much on one occasion."
"What did you do?"
Snape made a face, as if disgusted by the memory. "I attempted to hang myself."
Harry gasped. "What happened?"
"A friend found me before I could asphyxiate. I did not know enough then to place the rope so that it would break my neck."
Harry was chilled. He could barely discuss his feelings without bawling like a first year, and here was Snape, calmly disdainful over his own lack of skill when it came to suicide.
"Why didn’t you use a potion?"
Snape actually smiled at the question. "As a student I did not have access to the ingredients for any potion I would have cared to use."
"You could have broken in and…" Harry’s hand flew to his mouth. He mentally kicked himself for having become just a bit too comfortable confiding in Snape.
"As you did, in your second year?" The smile was still there. Harry couldn’t believe Snape wasn’t yelling at him and giving detention.
"Um… that wasn’t me, actually," he said, turning slightly red.
"Weasley or Granger, then, I suppose. It doesn’t matter. The gillyweed?"
"Still not me."
"I don’t suppose you intend to satisfy my curiosity?"
"I don’t want to get anyone in trouble."
"Perhaps someday you’ll tell me."
Harry realized that he wanted to. Still, those secrets were not his own to give away. He didn’t think either Hermione, as well as she got on with Snape these days, or Dobby would appreciate it if he named them.
"Yeah, maybe I will, someday. But if not a potion, what about Avada Kedavra? Hanging just seems so…" he shuddered. It sounded like a terrible way to die.
"At the time, I had never tried it." When Harry’s eyes widened, he continued, "Yes, I know we junior Death Eaters were supposed to be skilled in all aspects of the Dark Arts before we ever set foot in Hogwarts. As it happens, you know a great deal more about wielding the Unforgivables than I did at your age." Snape’s tone became serious. "Why didn’t you use the curse, Harry?"
"I wasn’t sure it would work," he said after thinking for a moment. "I survived it once. I know the circumstances were… unusual then." He closed his eyes at the thought of his mother. She had given her life to save him, and sixteen years later, he was ready to betray that incredible gift. At that moment, he hated himself deeply.
Snape’s hand closed over his shoulder. "It doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate what she did for you, Harry," he said, as if reading his mind. Harry supposed it wasn’t surprising Snape’s mind had leapt to the same thing. "You’re in pain, and you want it to stop. If there was a palliative that did not involve death, you would choose it over ending your life, would you not?"
Harry nodded. His throat felt blocked, and he swallowed to clear it.
"But there’s not one. You still feel like this sometimes, don’t you?"
"There’s no way I can live my whole life like this. I don’t know how you have, but I know I can’t. I wish it was over right now."
The hand on his shoulder urged him closer, and Harry went willingly. He laid his head on Snape’s shoulder, biting his lip against the threatening tears. He was tired of crying. He was tired of being tired, and of hurting.
"I know," the velvety voice said. "Granger and I have begun work on something to help you."
"If there’s a potion that can help me, why didn’t you ever try to come up with it for yourself?"
Snape answered reluctantly. "I suppose I never thought it worth the bother."
Harry’s arm wrapped around Snape’s waist. The thought of Snape killing himself caused a stab of intense pain. This is why Sirius got so mad, he thought. I think I’d be mad, too.
"You never said why you’re helping me, Professor. We haven’t exactly been best friends all these years."
"You may call me Severus if you like."
"Okay. Severus." He’d always thought the name was sinister, but when he said it this morning, it seemed strong instead. Reassuring.
Snape’s hand went to Harry’s back and rubbed soothingly. Harry pressed closer to him, not caring that this wasn’t supposed to feel so good.
"We’re going to find a way to help you. Don’t give up."
Harry found himself growing drowsy, and closed his eyes. He awoke again at seven, still pressed against Snape. The older wizard was asleep. Harry realized that Snape never answered his question. He was curious, but if Snape… if Severus didn’t want to tell him, he wouldn’t push. For now, it was enough to know that he wasn’t alone.
Harry spent most of Friday night lying awake in his bed in Gryffindor Tower. Dealing with the reaction to his near-death, he found, was almost as bad as dealing with the suffocating emotions that had made him jump in the first place. He wished Snape had known about the owl from Sirius; he might have summoned him to spend the night in the dungeons again. Harry lay in bed thinking how comforting it would be to have those lean, strong arms wrapped about him.
In one week, his feelings for Snape had gone from loathing tinged with grudging respect to… to what? he asked himself. Liking? No, not exactly. Snape was still Snape, although perhaps toned down a bit from the version that had given him nightmares as a first year. Around others, he still treated Harry as an annoyance to be endured, much the same as any other student. His shift in attitude since Voldemort’s destruction helped, though; it was nice to see Malfoy squirm with the rest of them when the Potions Master wasn’t pleased. All the same, he did not treat the Gryffindors, Harry included, much better than he had before. He allowed Hermione to work with him; she was so pleased by the opportunity that she didn’t care that he wasn’t nice.
So Severus was still hard to like. It was so hard to call him that, even in the privacy of his thoughts. He wondered why the wizard had offered to let him. More and more, he thought that the gesture was meant to distract him from questioning Snape’s motives for helping him. If so, it was rather desperate, Harry mused. But he does call me Harry now. And sometimes, he does act as though he likes me. Sometimes it seems like he likes me a lot.
Pondering his altered relationship with Severus gave Harry a welcome distraction from his interactions with everyone else. Ron and Hermione were there if he needed them, and often hovering when he didn’t. For the most part his other housemates were friendly, if a bit too careful in their treatment of him. Some resentment for the loss of points showed on occasion, but he couldn’t fault that. Most of the students outside of Gryffindor avoided him. I’m not contagious, he wanted to scream. Conversely, when someone appeared to want to speak with him, he had to suppress an urge to pretend he hadn’t seen them and keep going. He was lonely; he wanted to be left alone. It was maddening.
At breakfast, he’d received a letter from Sirius. He never saw most of his mail now; two days after his abortive leap from the Astronomy Tower, Dumbledore had asked him if he wished to continue to receive with his ‘fan mail,’ or to answer it. The question had surprised him; he viewed it as an obligation, if an unwelcome one, and he had thought that answering it was expected of him. He’d been as gracious about it as he could make himself be, and thought he’d pulled off the act very well. But Dumbledore was nearly impossible to fool, Harry reflected. The man missed nothing. He’d confessed with relief that he never wanted to see a scrap of it again, and from that day he had not. Personal mail still came through, though, and he was happy to see Sirius’ tawny owl gliding towards him in the Great Hall.
He finished breakfast hurriedly and took the letter back to his room, wanting to read it in private. He was glad that he had; as he read, the familiar pain bloomed in his stomach and spread through his chest in a dull ache, then moved up through his throat, making it difficult to breathe.
I hope you are well. I’m sorry I haven’t written before this; the publisher wants some revisions for chapter seven. They say it doesn’t really capture the feel of arriving in Azkaban. A bloody horror story is what they want; I rewrote it and sent it off again yesterday. There still isn’t going to be enough screaming or torture or whatever they want, but it’s my story, not theirs.
This is really hard for me to write, Harry, and I don’t mean my memoirs. I still can’t believe it. You’ve come through so much, you’ve been almost killed the gods only know how many times, and yet you can do something like this. I’m trying to understand. I really am. But gods, Harry, I’m so angry. I almost hit you in Dumbledore’s office, and I’m sorry about that. I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I had, or expected you to. But I want to hit something.
And now, knowing that I’ve left you to Snape’s dubious mercies; I think I feel even worse about that. If I knew anything else to do, I’d be doing it. The more I think about it, the more I know St. Mungo’s would have been a mistake. They could keep you alive, but they couldn’t do a damn thing to make you happy about it. I’m sorry I even suggested it, and I won’t do that again. But I still don’t understand. Why aren’t you happy? Please, just tell me why.
I think that maybe you should come home. I know it’s not home to you, not yet, but if you give it a chance it could be. You’ve only got a couple of months left at Hogwarts; we could find some way to finish your studies from here. You could do your assignments by correspondence, maybe. I don’t know, but there’s got to be some way to work it out. Maybe you could go to class and portkey home every night. I just can’t handle the thought that the only thing standing between you and this urge to hurt yourself is Snape. It’s got to be doing more harm than good. I don’t know why I agreed to it in the first place.
I’m coming to Hogwarts tomorrow; we can talk about this then. Think about it, okay? I love you.
Harry’s first reaction was panic. He didn’t want Sirius to remove him from Hogwarts, but the animagus was his legal guardian. If he said Harry couldn’t stay, then he couldn’t. Not even Dumbledore would be able to stop him, and Harry wasn’t at all sure that Dumbledore would want to anyway. He had very little idea what was going on in the headmaster’s mind where he was concerned. In the week since his suicide attempt, the old wizard had not spoken of it to him once.
The thought of no longer being near Severus caused the worst pain. Harry needed to know he was close by, that he was there if he needed him. He wished it wasn’t almost time for classes to begin. He wanted very much to show Snape the letter, to ask what he should do, what he should say to Sirius tomorrow. He stowed away the letter and flung his bag over his shoulder. It would have to wait.
By lunchtime, the urge to place this new worry in Severus’ hands had faded. He didn’t want to remind him that Sirius had allowed him to become his de facto guardian out of desperation, and against his better judgment. He decided that he needed to deal with Sirius himself. He was a grown man, or very nearly so. If I can face Voldemort, I can handle Sirius Black, he thought. I hope.
He kept hoping it as he tried unsuccessfully to sleep that night. He craved a strong, warm body pressed against his own, and long-fingered hands to stroke his hair. He wondered if Severus was also awake, and perhaps thinking about him.
Sirius arrived midafternoon. He found Harry in the herb garden next to the largest greenhouse, clad in a t-shirt and shorts. Sweat soaked through the shirt and dripped from his forehead. An enormous pile of weeds lay to one side.
"What did you do now?"
Not an auspicious greeting, Harry thought.
"What makes you think I did anything?"
"I think my first clue was the fact that you’re serving a detention."
"It’s not detention."
"You volunteered to pull weeds while the rest of the school is at the Quidditch game?"
Sirius spoke in his best I’m-trying-to-control-my-temper voice.
"Then what is it, exactly? Herbology’s never interested you much before."
Harry straightened up and sat back, still on his knees. He rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead to wipe away the sweat.
"This is for exercise and to help me relax."
"You’ve got to be kidding. Whose idea was this? Snape’s?"
"As a matter of fact, it was."
"This is his idea of helping you?" Sirius’ voice was rising.
Harry’s temper snapped. "It is helping. I am relaxed, goddammit."
Sirius crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow.
"So I see. Pull weeds then, I don’t have a problem with it." His face suggested otherwise. "But why aren’t you at the game?"
"I didn’t feel like it." He grabbed another handful of weeds and pulled.
"I know it’s hard being off the team. But you still love Quidditch."
"Come on, Harry, I know you. You’ll get to fly again, maybe even play again."
"Oh, yeah? When?"
"When you get yourself under control."
Harry’s mouth tightened.
"What if I never do?"
"You will. All you’ve got to do is be strong. If there’s one thing you are, it’s strong."
"I’d think you’d know otherwise by now."
Sirius made a noise of impatience. "I can’t pretend I know what that stunt was about, because I don’t. God, Harry… shit, I promised myself I wasn’t going to say anything about this. What the hell were you thinking?" His expression darkened.
"I was thinking I wanted to be dead." Be careful, Harry, a little voice said. Don’t piss him off any more than you already have. Piss off yourself, Harry told the voice. What does it matter? He’s going to do what he wants, and I can’t stop him.
"I know you don’t mean that."
"Snape didn’t catch me on the ledge, Sirius. He got me on the way down. Barely. I bloody well did mean it."
Sirius’ face spasmed with pain. "Don’t say that."
"Then don’t tell me to be strong, to just cheer up. I am trying, you know. Why do you think I’m out here now? I hate weeding, but it does help. And maybe you could back off of Professor Snape a little, while you’re at it. He’s trying to help me."
"If you say this helps, I’ll believe you. But trusting Snape was a mistake. You’ve never talked to me this way before." His voice was pleading. Harry knew he was saying, help me understand. I would, he thought, if I understood myself.
"Where is he, anyway? Isn’t he supposed to be watching you?"
Harry sighed. "Not every minute of every day, no. And Slytherin is playing, so I’ll let you work out where he is for yourself."
"You’re more important than a lousy Quidditch match."
"Some people don’t think I’ll off myself the moment they turn their backs."
"I don’t think that."
"Oh, no? Can I borrow your wand, then?" The green eyes glittered.
"Does it matter? I just want to borrow it for a moment. Or don’t you trust me?"
"Of course I trust you," Sirius said, but he made no move to reach for his wand.
Harry rolled his eyes.
"I want to get the thorns off these nettles. The gloves I’ve got aren’t thick enough to pull them without getting stung."
Sirius hesitated, then pulled out his wand and handed it to Harry, watching every move until he handed it back.
"Thanks," Harry muttered.
"Why do I have the feeling I just took some kind of test, and that I failed?"
Good sense began to reassert itself in Harry.
"I’m sorry, Sirius. I was baiting you, and you didn’t deserve it. You want to understand. But I don’t know a lot about depression myself, so I can’t explain it to you. Hermione could; she’s been through everything the library has on it, and her parents owled her some more books yesterday. All I can tell you is that I hate this. I feel like my life is ruined." He looked up at his godfather. "And I’m scared."
Sirius knelt on the grass close to Harry. "Tell me what I can do to help. I promise I’ll do it."
"Don’t make me leave Hogwarts."
"If I could be sure that would help…"
"You asked what you could do. That’s what I want from you. I don’t want that threat hanging over me." It might make me do something desperate, he almost said, but stopped himself. He’d hurt Sirius enough. Another thought occurred to him. His godfather wouldn’t like it, but it had to be said.
"You could also try to remember that Severus is the only reason I’m still here. If you care about me, you could find a better way to show your gratitude than to belittle what he’s done for me."
Sirius’ eyes narrowed. "So it’s Severus now, is it? And what exactly has he done for you? I know he saved you, and I am grateful. I want to know what he’s done to you since then."
"That’s exactly what I’m talking about!" Harry shouted. "He hasn’t done anything to me. He’s been there for me. He understands what I’m going through."
Harry couldn’t interpret the emotions that played across Sirius’ face, but he thought jealously might be one of them. Just fucking great, he thought. That’ll help.
"Tell me, Harry. Has he ever touched you?" Sirius’ face was suddenly hard. His tone made Harry nervous.
"What do you mean, touched?"
"It’s a simple question. Has… he… ever… touched… you?"
"Yes. So have you. So have lots of people."
"If you think I’m going to give you a play-by-play you’re mistaken."
"I should have known." The animagus gave an unpleasant laugh.
"What are you talking about?"
"This was his game the whole time. I never noticed until now, but you’ve grown into a very good-looking boy. You can bet your arse he’s noticed. And I’m not willing to wager that much."
"What are you saying?"
"Your new friend likes boys," he said with a sneer. "Young ones, apparently, although I’d never thought that of him before."
Anger such as he’d never known towards Sirius swept through Harry. Since he’d once believed that Sirius was responsible for his parents’ deaths, the emotion was strong indeed.
"He saved my life," he said through clenched teeth. "Since last Friday, he has touched me, yes. In kindness. In comfort. Like he cared about me. If you’re accusing him of taking advantage of me in any way, then let’s go. Right now." He raised his fists in front of him and stepped out of the garden, careful even in his rage not to damage the delicate plants.
"I’m not going to fight you," Sirius said, although his fists clenched at his sides.
"Then take it back."
"Just because he hasn’t – if he hasn’t – doesn’t mean he won’t."
"Just because he’s gay – which I only have your word on – doesn’t mean he’d do what you’re saying."
"It is true, Harry, that I do prefer men." Snape stood several feet away. He looked from Harry to Sirius, his face calm. "As for taking advantage of you – you will have to make up your own mind about that."
Sirius turned from Harry, his teeth bared in an expression reminiscent of his canine form. "What have you done that leaves it open to interpretation?"
Harry looked at Severus, trying to gauge from his face just how much he should tell Sirius. He knew his godfather would put a damning construction on the nights Harry had spent in the Potions professor’s bed, even though those nights had been completely innocent – on Snape’s side, at least. Harry admitted to himself that when he awakened Thursday morning, he entertained the thought of something more than mere comfort. He had no idea how Snape would react if he knew that, but he knew perfectly well how Sirius would take it. He wasn't ready to pack his things just yet.
"He’s done nothing," Harry said. "There is nothing to interpret. He has been kind, Sirius, and that’s all. I’d prefer not to fight you over this, mostly because I know you’ll win," he said candidly. "There have been a couple of times in the last week when I’d probably have tried again, if Severus hadn’t been there." Use your brain, Harry, said the little voice. Being on a first name basis with Snape won’t appease Sirius. He doesn’t need to be appeased, Harry argued. He needs a good right hook.
As he’d hoped, this revelation distracted Sirius from his primary target, though he knew the distraction carried a lot of risk. Sirius closed his eyes in pain, and did not open them again for more than a minute. Snape looked questioningly at Harry. Harry nodded confirmation. The strain of hostility with Sirius was catching up to him quickly, and he wanted badly to seek the comfort of Severus’ embrace. He stayed where he was.
Sirius opened his eyes. "How can it be that bad?" he asked softly.
"I don’t know. It just is."
"What will happen if I take you home?"
"I’ll feel trapped, Sirius."
"And you’ll try to – escape."
"Yeah." God, I want Severus, he thought.
"This is so wrong. I should be the one helping you."
"If it helps, when I first thought of killing myself, you were the only one I seriously thought of telling."
"Why didn’t you?"
"I didn’t want to be stopped."
Sirius embraced Harry roughly. "Thank god you’re still alive. Please, please stay that way."
"I want to. Responsibility for my life is an unfair burden to put on Severus, but I want you to understand that he’s really done a lot for me. Every minute I’ve had past last weekend I owe to him." He looked at Snape, standing silent but watchful, and smiled. Snape closed his eyes for a moment in acknowledgement.
Sirius let go of Harry and stepped towards Snape.
"I want to blame someone, and I can’t blame Harry, so I picked you." He met Severus’ eyes. "I’m sorry for what I said." For the second time in eight days, he offered Snape his hand. The other man took it.
"Some of the blame does in fact fall to me." He ignored Harry’s shaking head. "Nevertheless, I’ll do my best for Harry. You may also be assured that I shall not abuse my position of trust."
Sirius flushed. "Yeah, like I said, I’m sorry I said that. I can’t help worrying about him."
"Now you know how I’ve felt these last seven years," Severus replied. "He may have only recently begun to want to end his life, but he’s been making noteworthy attempts on it since his first year here."
To Harry’s amazement, Sirius grinned. "Yeah, he’s quite the little thrillseeker, isn’t he?" He reached out to ruffle Harry’s already messy hair. "God, I need a drink. Go in the greenhouse and try to clean up a bit, Harry. I’m taking you to the Three Broomsticks. You coming, Snape?"
"I believe I will, thank you."
Harry washed up quickly, and followed, bemused, as the two old enemies walked together into Hogsmeade.
Harry and Snape parted with Sirius outside the Three Broomsticks; the animagus to Apparate home, and the remaining two to walk back to Hogwarts. Harry felt smug about his unexpected Hogsmeade visit. He had been treated to butterbeer while Severus and Sirius indulged in a few drams of firewhiskey. The conversation had been much more comfortable than he’d expected. Having made up his mind to behave himself, Sirius had gone out of his way to be, if not friendly to Snape, at least cordial.
Severus decided to visit the apothecary before returning to the school. Harry agreed, trying to disguise his eagerness. The thought of having Snape alone, to himself, a little longer felt unexpectedly good. He watched his teacher examine the odd jumble of ingredients and potions-making implements, his hooked nose wrinkling in disgust at one jar, his long, elegant fingers brushing lovingly over another. The professor made several purchases and stowed them in his robes.
They walked between the winged boars that guarded the gates just as the sun touched the western horizon. Harry felt more relaxed, closer to content than he had in many weeks. They spoke little on the walk, but the silence was comfortable. Harry resisted the urge to twine his fingers in Severus’. The knowledge that he wanted to do so had ceased to disturb him.
Hermione met them by the main stairway. She shoved a scroll into Snape’s hands. He perused it as she talked, describing the effect she thought a combination of St. John’s wort and phoenix tears might have. Fresh would be best, Harry heard her telling Snape as she drew him towards the dungeons, but since Fawkes was about to immolate, did he have any stored? She was all but tugging on his arm in her excitement. He hadn’t been quite ready to part from Severus, but he couldn’t help smiling at Hermione’s enthusiasm. He also hoped she was genuinely on to something.
He still felt the lingering feeling of well-being that had come from an afternoon in Severus’ company. He practically ran up the stairs to shower before dinner, flashing a brilliant smile at Professor McGonagall as he passed her. She smiled warmly in return.
Hermione was not at dinner; Snape’s place at the staff table was also empty. Harry grew impatient. He considered going down to the dungeons to see what they might have come up with, but made himself accompany Ron up to the common room instead. He lost two games of chess before Hermione came in through the portrait hole. She looked pleased.
"It’s only the first try, so don’t get your hopes up," she cautioned after she explained what she and the Potions Master had concocted. It had to brew overnight, and so could not be tested until the next day. "If it doesn’t work, there are still lots of things we can try."
"Thanks a lot, Hermione," he said, smiling at her. "Even if this potion doesn’t work, I appreciate that you’re trying."
"It’s been a lot of fun, actually." Ron smiled indulgently at this. It had taken him some time to get over the feeling of being threatened by his girlfriend’s brilliance, Harry knew, but he had eventually come to accept it as a large part of what he loved about her. God knew he and Harry both had benefited from it enough times, he thought.
She dropped a stack of books onto the table. "This is more than I ever thought I’d get to see of the darker potions while I’m still in school," she said. "It’s amazing some of the things people have created potions for. And Snape knows all about this stuff. I feel bad that I’m getting so much out of you being suicidal, Harry." She gave him a sad smile.
He smiled back. He realized he’d smiled a lot today, something he certainly hadn’t expected when he awakened that morning.
"Hermione, studying the Dark Arts. Who would’ve thought?" Ron said. Hermione’s stern look was betrayed by a her lips, which would not maintain their prim line.
"Too bad you’re a Gryffindor," Harry said. His best friends had known for several years that the Sorting Hat had nearly put Harry in Slytherin, and what it had told him. "’You could have been great,’" he quoted. "’It’s all in your head.’"
"Don’t move my stuff to Slytherin yet," Hermione said. "We’re not going to break out the unicorn blood for you, or anything like that. Sometimes the Dark Arts texts have more unusual things in them that are still perfectly acceptable."
"I want to see some of the unacceptable stuff," Ron said, grabbing a green leather-bound book from the stack.
"Me, too," said Harry, taking another and opening it.
"Just don’t spill your pumpkin juice on it, Ron," Hermione said, moving a goblet that sat dangerously close to his elbow to a safer spot. "Snape would kill me if anything happened to these. They’re very old, and I’m sure they’re very valuable. And while you’re looking, keep an eye out for anything that mentions melancholia."
"Sure. Look at this one," Ron said, pointing to one page. Hermione read over his shoulder.
"Ewww. Thanks for sharing, Ron." The book described a potion that made the drinker sweat blood until they bled to death; unfortunately, it was accompanied by a picture.
"That’s why they call it Dark Arts, love," he said, giving her a kiss. Harry turned his eyes to his own book, trying to ignore the kiss as it deepened. He couldn’t help feeling a bit awkward whenever they became affectionate. He wasn’t sure if it was because he felt like he was intruding, or perhaps that he was jealous that he’d never had anyone to do that with. He wasn’t surprised when his thoughts turned to Severus. ‘I do prefer men,’ the older wizard had said. I think that might be another thing we have in common, Harry thought.
When Ron’s hand slid up to cup Hermione’s breast, Harry cleared his throat. The two sprang apart, color flooding both faces.
"Sorry…" Hermione said, hiding her face behind her book.
"Yeah. Forgot where I was for a minute." Ron’s voice was hoarse.
He toyed briefly with the notion of telling them about his newly realized sexual orientation, but decided it wasn’t a good idea, at least not yet. They’d be bound to ask what – or who – made him decide he liked his own sex. Given whom he’d spent so much of his free time with recently, not to mention several nights, it wouldn’t take much for them to figure it out. He wasn’t ready for that. He still wasn’t quite sure of his own feelings, and did not have a clue about Snape’s.
"This one doesn’t seem so bad," Ron said, having hastily perused his book for something to talk about. "The Fiorenzi Elixir."
Hermione moved to read over his shoulder. "’Created by Estrella de Fiorenzi in the 14th century,’" she read. "It kills the drinker in exactly twelve hours. But it doesn’t sound painful, or anything like that. There’s a gradual loss of strength there towards the end, but it sounds like a fairly peaceful death. I wonder why it’s in with the torture potions."
Ron handed her the book; he wanted something more exciting. He picked up one covered in short black fur.
"There’s an antidote," she said after a few minutes. "Apparently Estrella liked to give people the elixir and bind them so they couldn’t move, but with the antidote in plain sight. I guess that would be a form of torture. I wonder if she was related to Lucrezia Borgia."
"Who?" asked Ron.
"A Muggle who was famous for her dinner parties. The guests never knew if they would be poisoned or not."
"The antidote worked until the last hour," she continued, "but then it was too late. The victim had one more hour to know, to the exact minute, when they would die. But…" she blinked. "She was sadistic, wasn’t she? There was a potion she’d sometimes give her victims before they drank the elixir, and they wouldn’t die from it. They’d look like they did, though, and they would wake up about a day later. Buried alive." She shuddered.
"Couldn’t they just Apparate out?" Harry asked, horrified.
"Not if she set up anti-Apparation wards," Hermione said, looking pale.
"Most of these don’t look that hard to brew," Harry said, reading a recipe for a potion that made the victim burst into flame from within.
"Most of them aren’t. Professor Snape said that’s a characteristic of most Dark Arts stuff. It’s pretty easy to do. It’s the results that are so hard to take." She closed her book. "I don’t think I want to look any more right now." She gathered the books, plucking the fur-covered one from Ron’s hand. "Should I get the Monopoly set while I’m locking these up?"
Ron groaned. "All right, but if you get Boardwalk and Park Place again, I’m out."
"You’d have won that last game if you’d hung onto your railroads."
The squabbling continued when she returned with the Muggle board game. Harry was grateful once again for his two best friends. They knew he’d had trouble sleeping lately. A game of Monopoly usually went on for hours, and breaking it out so close to bedtime was a way of keeping him company through at least part of the night. The fact that they probably wanted to sneak off for a snog, or more, made it all the more selfless, and it touched him. He really was very lucky, he thought, as he began to distribute the play money.
For the next couple of weeks, Harry found the effects of his depression more than mitigated by something else. Severus had not invited him to spend the night again, but he spent several evenings in the Potions classroom for tutoring. He knew that this was Snape’s way of keeping a close eye on him, but also, as he’d mentioned before, of keeping his options open. He would never be a Potions Master himself, but it did feel good to see his skills increase so markedly. He knew Severus was pleased with his progress, and that felt good, too. Harry was falling in love.
His friends saw a return of the old Harry, and rejoiced. Hermione was as glad of the improvement as anyone, but was determined to keep researching a cure for his depression, or at least a way to control it. She had read enough on the subject to know that if it spontaneously disappeared, it could reappear just as suddenly. Besides, she was no more willing to give up her sessions with Snape than Harry was. If they were successful, she had hopes of becoming the youngest witch ever to publish in the Journal of British Potions. Harry’s improved spirits made it difficult to test the experimental potion, so it was put aside.
The next Saturday was Gryffindor’s last Quidditch match of the year, and the first since Harry had been replaced by Dennis Creevey as Seeker. Practices, as Ron informed him, had gone well indeed, and they had high hopes of defeating Hufflepuff. Their forfeit to Slytherin had cost Gryffindor any chance of winning the Quidditch cup, however. Excitement over the game was tempered with bitterness at the unfairness of the situation.
Harry was one of the last to enter the Great Hall at lunch on Saturday. Dennis saw Harry and waved with his usual enthusiasm.
"I’m going to catch the Snitch just for you, Harry!" he yelled from down the table.
"You’ll be great, Dennis," Harry replied loudly. He forced a bright smile. "Gryffindor couldn’t have a better Seeker."
"Too bad he wasn’t on the team from the beginning of the year," said a voice from down the table. There was a shocked hush.
Harry glanced in the direction of the voice to see a burly fifth year, Miles Cunningham, looking directly at him.
"You want to say that again, Cunningham?" asked Ron.
"Sure. If Dennis had been on the team instead of Potter all this year, we might have a shot at the Quidditch cup."
Neville Longbottom shot Miles a censorious look. "It wasn’t Harry’s fault."
"Oh, no? Someone dragged him up to the Astronomy Tower, then? I never heard that he didn’t go voluntarily. Seems to me that it was his fault."
A couple of heads nodded. Harry felt sick with guilt.
"I’m sorry," he said in a low voice. His appetite had fled.
Ron moved down the table and stood in front of Miles, arms crossed over his chest. The fifth year was big, but Ron was bigger, and his temper was legendary.
"Yeah, well, maybe he couldn’t help it," the younger boy said sullenly.
"Make sure you remember that," Ron said before turning away. He squeezed Harry's shoulder reassuringly. "Don’t let that prat get to you."
"I won’t," Harry said, but it was too late.
The game was mercifully short. With Gryffindor ahead by twenty points, Dennis caught the Snitch in just under half an hour. It wasn’t a record, but it was an excellent time. He flew to where Harry sat with the rest of his house, waving the Snitch and beaming.
"That was for you, Harry!" He flew off to join his teammates on the ground. Harry smiled and waved back, wishing for the first time in two weeks that he was dead. He thought he’d truly lost interest in Quidditch, but the game had been intensely painful to watch.
A party was being held in the Gryffindor common room to celebrate the victory, but Harry could not bring himself to remain for it. He made a point of congratulating Dennis as publicly as possible before slipping out of the portrait hole.
He wandered aimlessly for a while, then turned his steps towards the library. Maybe something to read would take his mind off things, he thought.
When Snape found him, he was sprawled in a chair at one of the long tables, a volume of Shakespeare plays open in front of him. He stopped behind Harry, looking down over his shoulder.
"’Hamlet,’ Mr. Potter? Not very uplifting."
"It’s what I’m in the mood for."
"In that case, I believe this would be a good time to test the antidepressant potion Miss Granger and I brewed."
Harry didn’t move.
"I cost Gryffindor the Quidditch cup," he said.
"You’re assuming you would have defeated Slytherin, and that the other teams would have arranged their wins and losses to accommodate you. Gryffindor did not yet have its name inscribed on the cup."
"Okay. I cost Gryffindor a chance at the Quidditch cup."
"Perhaps. You have paid for that, Harry. It will always bother you far more than it will anyone else."
"It hurt, not playing today." He hadn’t intended to say it aloud.
A hand rested on his shoulder and gripped tightly. Harry leaned back, seeking more contact. This, he thought, was what he’d needed all day.
"Will you come with me now?" Severus asked.
Anywhere, Harry thought as he stood. He tucked the book into his bag and followed Snape out of the library.
Snape poured the contents of a plain glass decanter into a goblet and brought it to Harry. The liquid was blue and viscous. He lifted it to his lips and swallowed.
It tasted horrid, but he’d expected that. He closed his eyes and waited.
And waited. After a minute he opened them.
"How will I know if it works?"
"Do you feel depressed right now?"
"Then I would say that it did not work."
Snape’s tone was gentle; Harry could hear his disappointment.
"The theory was promising. Unfortunately, science and magic have never mixed well before, and perhaps it is unreasonable to expect them to do so now. If anyone can find a way to accomplish this, however, I have every expectation that it will be Miss Granger."
"She said she had other ideas."
"And so she does. It would make things easier, of course, if I understood the concept of brain chemistry better. Science is pushed much harder to understand the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of things than magic is. A wizard may intuit the best way to create a potion; a scientist cannot do so with a chemical formula. He may arrive at his conclusion quickly enough that it seems like intuition, but the results must still adhere to a rigid set of principles. Magic is much more flexible. What we don’t know about the magical energy in your brain will hinder us, Harry. Miss Granger certainly does have other avenues to pursue, but you should be prepared for a long wait before she is successful."
Harry noticed that Snape spoke as if the potion had been created by Hermione alone. Blaming her for the failure, he wondered, or giving her all the credit for the attempt? He decided it was the latter, although it was still uncharacteristic of Snape to give Hermione credit for much of anything.
"Thanks for trying." Harry’s own disappointment was catching up with him. Hermione had told him not to expect too much from the first effort, but he had not realized the obstacles that they faced. He had expected it to work, the first time. Without waiting for an invitation, he pushed himself against Snape’s chest. The Potions Master was taller; years of poor nutrition as a child had taken a heavy toll where Harry’s height was concerned. Snape had perhaps eight inches over him. At that moment, Harry regarded his small stature as a good thing. It meant that he could tuck his head under Severus’ chin, burrowing into a cocoon of security as Snape’s arms came around him, as his head bent so he could rest his cheek on top of Harry’s head.
Tears, hot and embarrassing, spilled down his face without warning, to be soaked up by Severus’ robes. Harry cried harder as the disappointment over the failed potion gave way to the deeper hurt he had endured earlier in the day, and the fear of what his life would become if no solution was found for him. Snape held him as sobs of devastating, nameless grief wracked his slender body.
Eventually the weeping subsided. Harry lifted a shaking hand up to Snape’s shoulder, then further to curl around the back of his neck. This contact made the Potions Master stiffen, but he continued to hold him as the spasms eased. Harry lifted his face from the front of the wet robes. Snape began to disengage his hands, only to have Harry’s hands tighten around him.
"No, please…" Harry whispered. He lifted his pale, tear-streaked face to Snape’s and brushed his lips softly against the other man’s.
"Harry…" Snape closed his eyes. "Stop it. We can’t."
The hand moved from Snape’s neck to tangle itself in his hair. It held him in place as Harry took another kiss, this one more demanding. His boldness was rewarded with a groan. Snape shuddered and opened his lips to Harry’s seeking tongue. Jolts of sudden, fierce desire shot through Harry. He’d never known anything like it, and he desperately wanted more. The disappointment was brutal when Severus wrenched his mouth away.
Harry tried to pull him back, but implacable hands reached for his wrists and pulled them down and away. Snape kept his hold on Harry, and the touch was not gentle.
Harry couldn’t look at him. He turned his head away, his dark fringe falling over his glasses.
"I’m sorry. I don’t know why I thought you’d want me."
"I do want you." Snape sounded as though he was confessing some terrible sin.
Harry’s head snapped around.
"Black was right. I have noticed you." Just how much of that conversation did he hear? Harry wondered. "And you’re more than good-looking. You’re beautiful. When I saw you step from that window, it felt like you were tearing out my heart. There’s no worse feeling than seeing something so perfect try to destroy itself. I vowed that I would do whatever was necessary to keep you from doing that again; even getting closer to you. It has been exquisite torment." His eyes softened momentarily. Then he seemed to recall himself and his purpose, and they became cold again. "I should not say any of this to you. I’m telling you this because I want to be certain you know that I am not rejecting you because I do not want you. I will not let you continue to believe that you are not worthy of… affection."
"If you really do want me, then why won’t you let me…" he looked down as his voice trailed off.
"Even had I not told Black that he could trust me with you, I would not permit this. I am as close to being your guardian as makes no difference, even if I were not your teacher. I will not betray that trust." He put his fingers under Harry’s chin, forcing him to meet his eyes. Harry saw regret and something more in the black depths. He couldn’t hold in what he felt a moment longer.
"I love you," he said. Snape closed his eyes for a moment.
"I believe that you believe that," Severus said, "but you are far too vulnerable right now to know for certain. It is likely only gratitude, Harry, or simple loneliness."
"It’s not. I thought I was in love before, and it wasn’t like this. I’m in love with you." He watched for some sign that Severus might relent, and received none. "But I’m not interested in pushing myself on you. Say you don’t love me, and I’ll forget all about it."
Snape let go of his wrists and stepped away.
"As of right now, my guardianship of you ends."
"That’s fine with me. No more trust to betray."
"Don’t be an idiot." The words cut like a lash, as Harry knew they were meant to. "It has already been betrayed; I didn’t know it until now. I allowed us to become – close. The idea that you could even think yourself in love with me… I believe I can be excused for not having foreseen that, if for nothing else. I will not pretend that I am indifferent to you. It is too late for that. But there will never be anything between us. I did not save your life only to let you throw it away on me."
"You seem to be making a lot of decisions about my life lately. You saved me when I didn’t want you to, you’re protecting me from you when I don’t want you to. Or maybe this is about protecting you, Severus?"
"I think it would be wise for you to accustom yourself to ‘Professor Snape’ again, Mr. Potter."
"Fine. Professor. Whatever. What happens now? Do we go to Dumbledore and tell him about this? Are you going to decide that for me, too?"
"I’m afraid that I am." He gestured to Harry to precede him out of the classroom.
"Severus?" Dumbledore’s brows drew together at the look of desolation on Snape’s face. "What has happened?"
"I have failed Harry. And you and Black as well."
"You don’t mean that he –"
"No, Albus, he is very much alive." Snape lowered himself stiffly into a chair.
Dumbledore employed his favorite diversionary tactic while he gathered his thoughts.
"Tea?" He knew better than to offer Snape sweets.
"Something stronger, perhaps?"
"Nothing. Thank you," he said after a moment. "I have damaged him, perhaps irreparably. You may as well send for Black."
"Tell me," said the headmaster.
"I have fallen in love with a student." Snape’s voice was empty. Dumbledore was speechless.
Snape gave him an impatient glance.
"This is where you sack me."
"Where is Harry?" the old wizard asked at last.
"With Minerva. She’ll keep him from harm until Black arrives."
"Is there any reason he should wish to harm himself?"
"He’s suicidal. I thought that was old news." The spark of sarcasm in Snape’s voice was faint.
"I meant anything more immediate."
"Of course." Snape waved a negligent hand. "The wretched brat fancies himself in love with me as well."
This was unexpected. "What happened?"
"It’s been happening." Snape refused to meet Dumbledore’s eyes. "That night in the Astronomy Tower, I realized that I loved him. When I thought I was about to lose him forever…"
"I wondered if there wasn’t something more to your desire to help him than you were letting on. All that matters is that you do not act upon it. Have you done so?"
"I don’t know," said Snape in a low voice.
"Forgive me if I’m being obtuse, but how can you not know?"
"I tried to give him what I would have wanted at his age. Understanding. A comforting touch. Perhaps I was too comforting. I swear I never meant to make him want more." He gave a snort. "I still cannot believe that he does."
"How far has it gone, Severus?"
"He kissed me today. And yes, before you ask, I kissed him back. For a moment. It was weak of me."
"And yet you are here now."
A liquid warble sounded from Fawkes’ perch.
"He looks better," Snape said dully. It was an understatement; Fawkes had completed his immolation, and was fully restored to his customary glory. The phoenix flew to Snape, landing on his knee.
"Save your comfort for someone who deserves it," he said, even as he reached to stroke the fiery plumage. Fawkes angled his head for Snape to scratch behind one eye. A reluctant smile tugged at the Potions Master’s mouth.
"Fawkes’ judgment in such matters is impeccable. You have done nothing beyond trying to help Harry. It is more than I have done," Dumbledore said heavily. But he, too, smiled when Fawkes opened his beak and began to sing.
Snape looked at the bird thoughtfully. "You never did tell me, Albus, where it was that you acquired this magnificent creature."
It was Sirius who came to McGonagall’s rooms for Harry that evening. The Head of Gryffindor watched him go with concern in her eyes.
"I guess Dumbledore owled you?"
"Yes. What am I going to do with you, Harry?"
"Whatever you want. It doesn’t really matter anymore."
"If it doesn’t matter, then you shouldn’t have a problem telling me exactly what happened with you and Snape this afternoon. Albus wouldn’t give me the details, except to say that Snape didn’t do anything wrong."
"He didn’t. I did."
"Did you try to kill yourself again?"
"No!" Harry exclaimed. "It wasn’t anything like that."
Sirius looked puzzled. "What else would make him take back his offer to look after you? Whatever else he is, he’s not one to put aside a commitment once he’s made it."
Harry bit his lip before he spoke. "Let’s go someplace where you can get mad at me in private."
Sirius’ brows knit together. "What makes you think I’m going to get mad? If you didn’t try to commit suicide again, I promise you, I’ll deal with whatever it turns out to be."
"Don’t count on it," Harry said. He led Sirius outside and towards the Whomping Willow.
"Why are we going to the Shrieking Shack?" Sirius asked as Harry looked around for a stick to use to poke the knot at the base of the tree. When the branches stilled, he led the way into the passage.
"I don’t want anyone else to overhear this. Besides, you can yell at me as much as you want here."
Sirius didn’t wait until they’d reached the other end of the tunnel before grabbing Harry’s arm.
"You’re getting me kind of worried here, Harry. What happened?"
Harry kept his silence until they reached the living room. He threw himself into a chair, coughing a little at the cloud of dust that rose around him. Sirius remained standing in the doorway.
"I kissed Snape."
"A peck on the cheek, thanks-for-all-your-help kind of kiss?" Sirius’ tone was weak, but hopeful.
"No. A trying-to-shove-my-tongue-down-his-throat-because-I-want-to-shag-him kind of kiss."
"God, Harry!" Sirius covered his face with his hands. "Why do you have to tell me something like that?"
"How long has this been going on?" Sirius expression turned dark; Harry knew he was thinking of Snape’s promise that he could be trusted with Harry.
"Since this afternoon. And nothing’s ‘going on.’ He told me there never would be."
"When you say you kissed Snape… did you start it, or did he?"
"I did. He pushed me away. His response was everything you could have wished for, Sirius, so don’t even think about giving him grief over this."
"I can’t anyway. He left a little while ago; Dumbledore said it might be a few days before he gets back."
"He left? Why?" Harry’s face drained of color.
"I don’t know. Albus said he had something personal to take care of. Harry, are you okay?"
"Why did he leave? Oh god, what have I done?"
"Harry, calm down. He had some personal business, that’s all. He’ll be back."
"He couldn’t even stay here after what I did." Harry moaned.
"I hardly think one kiss was enough to make him flee in terror."
"I told him that I’m in love with him."
"Well, that might do it, actually… you’re WHAT?"
"You heard me."
"Merlin, Harry, you never even told me you were gay." Sirius looked hurt. "When I think of the way I talked about Snape, what you must have thought… I’m not homophobic, believe me."
"I didn’t know myself until recently. He’s the only man I’ve ever wanted."
Sirius walked unsteadily to a chair and sank down.
"But for it to be Snape; oh, god, no." He looked as though he might be sick.
"I thought you two had worked things out, at least a little."
"We did – a little. But just because I can tolerate his presence doesn’t mean I want him for a godson-in-law." He shook his head. "You really are in love with him?"
"Yeah. You know, you’re taking this better than I thought you would."
"I’ll admit I’m not crazy about the idea of you with Snape. I hate the thought of it. But I made some mistakes with you a few weeks ago. I’m trying not to repeat them now. I want to understand. If you’ll be patient with me, I’ll try, I swear."
"Thanks, Sirius. That means a lot to me."
"So where does this leave you now?"
"What do you mean?"
"I know how much I owe to Severus. You’d be dead if it wasn’t for him, god knows how many times over. Especially this last month. If he’s not here to watch out for you, how can I keep you safe?"
"I haven’t even come close to trying anything for the last couple of weeks." Harry’s tone was defensive.
"I thought you were getting better. But you were falling in love." He shook his head again, as if trying to clear an unpleasant image from his thoughts. "Good god. Snape." He let out a heavy sigh. "It insulated you, didn’t it? But you don’t have that now, and we don’t have Snape. God, I’m sorry, Harry."
"You’re asking me if I’m going to try again, aren’t you?"
"Yes, and I want the truth."
"I don’t know."
"That’s not quite the ‘no’ I was hoping for."
"Can we go back, Sirius?" Harry stood up. "I’d really like to be alone for a while."
"We can go back. But I need you to try to understand why I can’t let you be alone right now." He gathered his godson into his arms.
"I understand," said Harry wearily.
They said little as they walked back to the castle. When they reached the front steps, Harry turned to Sirius.
"If anything does ever happen…"
"Don’t talk like that, Harry."
"But if it does… I need to tell you this," he continued as Sirius shook his head. "It won’t be your fault. Or Severus’, or anyone else’s. It will only be mine."
"Remind me in fifty years. I might forget."
Harry smiled at his godfather. He realized how lucky he was that Sirius cared so much for him. He had a lot of wonderful people in his life, he knew, and he vowed silently that no matter how bad it got, he would not let them down.
Snape did not return the next day. Sirius had said not to expect him, but Harry couldn’t help looking for him every time he left Gryffindor.
After getting Harry’s reluctant assent, Sirius explained the situation to Ron and Hermione. The shocked, pitying, somewhat disgusted looks gradually gave way to sympathy, which only made it worse in Harry’s opinion. They assured Sirius that one or both of them would not leave his side until a more permanent solution to the problem could be found, one way or another. Hermione still had hopes for an antidepressant potion, and had continued to work on the project in Snape’s absence. This did not stop her from railing against him, however, for his ill-timed departure. She was stopped by the tormented look in Harry’s eyes.
"I’m sorry," she said, giving him a hug. He knew they meant well, but Harry had never felt so trapped in his life. He thought of the confrontation with Voldemort on the night of the third task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Except for Cedric’s death, this was worse. His resolution, so firm when he’d left the Shrieking Shack with Sirius, began to falter. Yeah, they’ll be hurt, he thought. But they’ll hate me if they have to take care of me like this for the rest of my life. He knew it should scare him that he was able to convince himself so easily that his death would be best for everyone. Hermione had told him several times that this loss of perspective was what made depression so dangerous, but then Hermione didn’t always know what she was talking about, he reflected. She was smart, but sometimes she just didn’t have a clue.
Harry did not sleep that night. Ron charmed his bed so that Harry couldn’t leave it without triggering an alarm. He knew his best friend acted from the best motives, but he hated him a little just the same. He watched Ron as he slept, oblivious to Neville’s snoring and Dean’s constant, noisy shifting. He was painfully jealous of such peacefulness. He wondered where Severus was, and if he was thinking of him. The few tears he cried were silent.
Harry, Ron and Hermione arrived in the dungeons the next morning to find the Potions classroom door closed, and a note upon it instructing them to report to the Great Hall for a study period. Around Harry, most of the other Gryffindors and many of the Slytherins cheered Snape’s absence. Ron and Hermione looked sympathetic, and he wanted to scream at them to stop it. You don’t mean it, you hate him, you’re glad he’s not here, he wanted to yell. He stalked ahead of them up the stairs and to the Great Hall, where he opened a book and stared at a single page until the bell rang.
He could not eat lunch. Before, the despair could usually be kept at bay if he was surrounded by others, but now it washed through him everywhere he went. In the corridor on the way to Defense Against the Dark Arts, Hermione asked him once more if he was all right.
"If you can’t think of something else to say, would you please just shut up?" he’d snapped. Tears filled Hermione’s eyes, and Ron stepped around her to push Harry none too gently against the wall.
"If I didn’t know you were ill…" he began.
"Don’t let that stop you. I won’t fight back." Ron retreated, horrified.
"Harry, this isn’t working. We have to get you some help."
"You can’t help me, Ron." He hated to see them so worried, but really, he thought, they’re just going to have to deal with it themselves. If they’d leave me alone for two seconds, they could at least have a break from looking at me.
Harry refused to go to dinner. They both stayed with him. He sat staring into the empty fireplace while his friends studied, trying to ignore the furtive looks that they couldn’t seem to help. Hermione’s stomach growled at last, and she rose to say that she was going to the kitchens to ask the house elves for some food. When she was gone, Ron sighed.
"At least this will give her a break for a few minutes," he said more loudly than he meant to. Harry flinched.
"I’ll owl Sirius tomorrow and ask him to come and get me," he said quietly.
Ron dropped his head into his hands. "I’m sorry, Harry. If I could think of anything else to do…"
"I know. It’s not your fault, Ron. Do you trust me enough to let me go on up to bed?"
"Harry, I’m really sorry…" The pain and embarrassment in Ron’s face was terrible.
"I didn’t think so. Can you transfigure something into a pillow for me? Hermione has my wand."
Ron transfigured a handkerchief, wishing Hermione had been there to see it. It was some of his better work, he observed to Harry. Harry mumbled his thanks and settled himself, closing his eyes. He feigned sleep as the other Gryffindors trickled into the common room from dinner.
Hermione did not return for well over an hour. When she finally entered the common room carrying a heavy tray, Ron looked questioningly at her. She whispered something to him. He shot a glance at Harry, but didn’t say anything else.
Harry thanked her politely for the food, but declined to eat. She insisted that he drink the pumpkin juice she’d brought, and finally he gave in, draining the goblet in one swallow and handing it back to her.
He didn’t bother with a shower, stopping only to strip off his clothes and drop them on the floor before climbing into bed. Pajamas were far too much trouble, he thought. He watched silently as Ron charmed his bed once more.
"Don’t hate me for this, Harry," the other boy whispered, his voice sad.
"Don’t hate me either, Ron," he whispered back.
Harry couldn’t read the darkened clock face, but he judged it to be near midnight when he called softly to Ron.
"Huh?" the red-haired boy asked sleepily.
"I have to go to the bathroom," he said.
"So go." Ron turned over.
"You have to undo the charm," he hissed.
"Oh. Yeah, sorry." Ron felt on the nightstand for his wand and picked it up, pointing it at Harry’s bed. He sat up. "Should I come with you?"
"I’ll be right back."
"No, really, I should." He began to scoot clumsily into a sitting position.
"Okay, if you think it’s necessary," Harry replied, doing his best to sound cooperative and reasonable.
"Before we go, can I borrow your wand for a second?" His tone was casual.
"Sure." Ron yawned hugely as he handed it to Harry, who immediately hit him with a sleep charm.
"Sorry, Ron," he said, opening a drawer to pull out jeans and a t-shirt. He didn’t bother with robes or shoes. He touched Ron’s hand briefly, looking sadly at his friend. Still clutching the wand, he made his way quietly down the stairs and back up to the girls’ dormitories. Hermione’s room wasn’t locked; he eased the door open. Before he was completely in the room, he had charmed all three occupants against waking. He thought for a moment, wondering where Hermione would be most likely to keep something valuable. His gaze fell on the locked trunk against the wall nearest her bed.
"Alohomora!" he said, and the lock clicked open. He felt rather than saw the books, and picked up the entire stack. Choosing the one covered in green leather, he replaced the others and locked the trunk once more. He turned his gaze towards Hermione, and tears pricked his eyes as he bent to kiss her forehead.
"I love you, and I’m sorry," he said as he left the room.
The potion was as simple to make as it had looked at first glance. All of the ingredients were available in the student cabinets in the Potions classroom. Harry was thankful for that; he didn’t know if Snape was back or not, but even if he was not, the locks on the office door would be much more challenging than the one that guarded the classroom. His heart beat rapidly with the fear of discovery as he worked. Using the stolen wand, he cleaned up the mess he’d created before picking up the goblet. He took a deep breath, looked at his watch, and drained the contents. It tasted sweet. He rinsed the goblet thoroughly, but decided to throw it into the fireplace anyway. No sense taking chances, he thought as he watched it shatter. He cleaned up the broken glass, took one more look about the empty classroom, and left to find a place to wait.
"What do you mean, he’s gone? I thought you put an alarm on his bed."
"I did," Ron said miserably. "He said he had to go to the bathroom, so I took it off. Then he asked to borrow my wand."
"And you gave it to him?" Hermione shrieked.
"I was half asleep."
She glared at her boyfriend.
"I know. It’s all my fault. He’s still got my wand, I think. We need to find Dumbledore."
Dumbledore was in the Great Hall having breakfast. So was Snape. Hermione and Ron ran up to the headmaster, who looked at them in surprise.
"Harry’s gone and we don’t know where he is," Ron said, out of breath.
Snape’s eyes narrowed, and he stood up. His expression made both students pale.
Dumbledore rose immediately as well. McGonagall’s place at the table was empty. He gestured to Snape. The students followed them through the staff door behind the table.
"Sir, he asked to borrow my wand last night, and I let him," Ron said, meeting Snape’s baleful gaze. "He cast a sleep charm on me. I’m sorry." His breath came in hitching gasps as he struggled not to cry. Hermione buried her face in his shoulder.
"You may fall apart later, Mr. Weasley," Snape said angrily. "Tell Hagrid to begin a search of the grounds." He looked at Dumbledore.
"Yes, indeed. Take some of your classmates with you." The two Gryffindors fled through the door.
"You are not to blame, Severus," the headmaster said firmly.
"We haven’t time for this." His tone made it clear that he would accept no absolution. "Do you still have the Marauder’s Map in your possession?"
Professor Dumbledore had taken the magical map into his keeping nearly three years earlier. He’d almost forgotten its existence.
"Indeed I do." He hurried to the stairs, Snape close behind him.
The dot labeled ‘Harry Potter’ was in a small room near the top of the castle. The heavy oak door was locked. Snape drew his wand.
Nothing happened. The Potions professor ran his wand over the surface, trying to find out what locking spells had been cast. They were formidable. Despite his youth, Harry was a powerful wizard.
"Can you break these, Albus?"
Dumbledore’s face grew taut with effort, but he finally managed to bring down the wards. A small corner of Severus’ mind was impressed with Harry’s skill; the rest of it was torn between rage at the young wizard he unwillingly loved, and terror of what they might find within that room.
Harry sat propped against a wall. He was surrounded by jumbled rolls of parchment. A quill lay atop a closed bottle of ink. He was pale and his breathing was slightly ragged, but he was undeniably alive. Facing him across the room was the Mirror of Erised.
Snape was beside him instantly, taking him into his arms.
"What have you done, Harry?" Fear caused his voice to tremble. Harry looked at him sadly.
"I didn’t think you were coming back," he said.
Severus brushed a kiss across the soft black hair. "Did you think I’d left you? I would never do that."
Tears tracked down the harsh features. "I brought you a present."
Harry’s eyes widened. He looked around curiously, but saw only Dumbledore. The ancient wizard’s face was grave.
"Hagrid has it. I had hoped it might help you. Have I come back too late?" He shook the thin shoulders. "Tell me what you’ve done!"
Shame and regret were clear in Harry’s face. "Fiorenzi."
Dumbledore’s eyes closed in pain; Snape gave a choked gasp.
"Severus, do you have –"
"The antidote? No. I had no idea it would be needed. It takes longer to brew than it does for the elixir to work. How much time do you have?" he asked, turning back to face Harry. He could not keep the anger out of his voice.
Harry didn’t allow himself to cringe. He couldn’t blame Severus. "I took it at quarter after one this morning."
As one, Snape and Dumbledore looked at their watches. "Four hours and forty five minutes," Snape ground out. "Why this way? Were you hoping I’d be back in time to watch you die?"
"It sounded peaceful. And besides, I didn’t think you were coming back at all."
"You were wrong."
"I know. I’m sorry, Severus." Snape looked away, as though the sound of his name on the dying boy’s lips hurt him.
"I should have given you what you wanted. I signed your death warrant when I refused you."
"No," Harry replied softly. "This would have happened again someday. It might as well be now." Snape made another choking sound. "No one else did this to me. Definitely not you. I did it."
Dumbledore came forward and knelt beside Harry.
"I expected another miracle from you, my dear boy. I will never forgive myself for having failed you when you needed me."
"No, Professor, please don’t…" Harry raised a hand to the headmaster’s shoulder. "You’ve done a lot for me, and you’ve never, ever let me down," he said fiercely. "I owe you so much, and I’m sorry for repaying you like this. I… I wish I hadn’t done it."
Snape moved aside, grudgingly, to allow Dumbledore to embrace his protégé. They were interrupted by a cry from the doorway.
"HARRY!" Sirius ran to his godson. "Thank god you’re all right."
Professor McGonagall remained in the doorway, worry etched in her face. "I thought you might be here, Mr. Potter." she said. "Does the mirror work for you once again?"
"It always worked, didn’t it?" he asked. "That black nothingness – it was showing me what I wanted."
She nodded. The relief in her face at finding Harry alive vanished when she saw Dumbledore’s expression.
"Albus?" she asked.
"He has taken the Fiorenzi Elixir, Minerva. Severus does not have the antidote prepared. Poppy would not have it; it does not keep above a few days, and she wouldn’t have foreseen the need, any more than Severus did."
She raised a hand to her mouth.
"What are you talking about? What did Harry take?" Sirius demanded.
"The potion kills in twelve hours," Snape answered him. His voice was rough with grief. "There is an antidote, but it must be administered within the first eleven hours. It takes longer than that to prepare it. There is also a prophylactic potion, but it must be taken before the elixir. I’m sorry, Black." His voice broke on Sirius’ name.
"But he’s fine. Look at him. Harry, you feel okay, don’t you?" Sirius pleaded.
Harry looked at Dumbledore. "Can I talk to Sirius alone?"
"Of course," the headmaster said. "Severus?" He moved to take Snape’s arm, but the teacher pulled away. He rose, blinded by tears, and stumbled from the room. Dumbledore and McGonagall followed, closing the door behind them.
"I don’t suppose there’s much point in getting angry, is there?" The animagus ran a hand through his hair, looking helpless.
"I don’t expect you to ever forgive me. I sure wouldn’t forgive me," said Harry. "I just couldn’t face my life, Sirius. I tried to imagine the future, and all I saw was pain. I was afraid. I’m a coward."
"No," Sirius said softly, sliding to the floor beside Harry and pulling him into his arms. "You’ve proven your courage over and over. But you came up against something none of us could understand. You’ve been suffering, and I couldn’t help you. I tried, I really tried. I thought I was doing the right thing for you."
"Do you regret not making me go to St. Mungo’s?"
"No. Even now, I don’t regret that. I’d have lost you that much sooner, wouldn’t I? But I can’t stand this, Harry. Please don’t die."
"I’m sorry," he whispered. "I think that should be my epitaph; ‘He was sorry.’" He’d meant to make a joke, but regretted his words immediately when Sirius’ face crumpled. Mentioning gravestones was a mistake.
"Don’t die," Sirius repeated. "Please don’t. Harry… oh, god, James…" He began to cry in great, gulping sobs of agony.
"He’ll know you tried to help me. You’ve been good to me, Sirius. I’ll tell my mom and dad how great it’s been to have you for a godfather." Harry realized that he was nervous at the prospect of being reunited with his parents. Severus had no doubt been right when he said they would not be pleased with him.
Muffled wailing could be heard through the heavy wooden door.
"I don’t have the right to ask you for anything," Harry began.
"Whatever I can do for you, I will. You know that."
"I know I’m hurting a lot of people. You, Professor Dumbledore, Ron and Hermione…" A spasm of pain crossed his face when he thought of his friends. "Most of them will have… someone. Someone to be there for them."
"You’re worried about Snape?" asked Sirius.
"Yeah. If you could, you know, make sure he’s not all alone?"
Sirius said nothing for several moments.
Harry looked away. "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked something like that."
"Shh. I was just thinking that I’m glad you trust me that much. I’ll be there for him, Harry. The greasy bastard is going to have my friendship whether he wants it or not. How could I just walk away from someone else who loves you?"
"Thanks," said Harry. "You’re the best. And I love you, too." He hesitated. "If you don’t mind…"
"I’ll get him." He enveloped Harry in a crushing hug. "I’m going to miss you like hell," he said thickly when he released him.
"Me, too." When Sirius opened the heavy oaken door, the muffled wailing became piercing screams of loss. Harry buried his head in his arms.
It was Dumbledore, not Severus, who came back in.
"Sirius is assisting Severus in collecting himself." They could both hear the continued shrieks, and Sirius’ shouting. Harry winced at the sound of a hard slap. Silence fell in the corridor.
"Professor, I really thought that no one would care. Not this much, I mean." Harry couldn’t look at the headmaster. "I can’t believe I did this to him. To all of you."
"It was foolish to think we would not care, Harry, nor be hurt. You’ve wounded us sorely. No," he said, bringing Harry’s chin up with his hand. "I don’t say that to hurt you in return. The time to remonstrate with you is past. But before it is too late, I want to make sure you understand that you are loved. You never really knew that, did you?" Harry gave his head a barely perceptible shake. "I am a very old man, even for a wizard. The time when I shall see you again is not far off. When I do, I will be sure to tell you in greater detail just how much I care for you. Will you look for me, Harry?"
Harry nodded. The thought of Dumbledore’s death, even coming after Harry’s own, was painful. He sent a silent apology to his friends for putting them through something so dreadful.
"Ah, Severus." Dumbledore greeted Snape as though he had just arrived in his office for tea. "Perhaps you could assist Mr. Potter to the hospital wing? I daresay he would be more comfortable there."
Snape’s face was ravaged. His sallow skin was blotched with red, matching his swollen eyes. Guilt and sorrow sliced viciously through Harry.
"Is that where you wish to go?" The normally silky voice was a harsh croak.
"No," Harry answered. "Unless you don’t want to stay with me." His stomach ached terribly; was it the potion? he wondered. It wasn’t supposed to be painful. "If you’d rather not, you don’t have to watch me die."
"Forgive me for saying that. I’d like to stay with you, if you’ll let me," Snape replied. "Where would you like to go?"
"I want to go to the dungeons."
Snape’s eyes widened. "They are hardly more comfortable than…"
"Your rooms, if it’s okay with you. I’d like to… wait there."
"Albus?" Snape turned to Dumbledore, clearly expecting the idea to be vetoed.
"I’m not in the habit of refusing the dying requests of my students, Severus, no matter how they came to be in that condition. I will assume full responsibility, should anyone raise objections after the fact."
Snape inclined his head and moved to Harry, helping him to stand. Harry gestured at the scattered rolls of parchment.
"Do you think you could see that everyone gets these, sir? And the wand is Ron’s. I stole it. He didn’t mean to give it to me."
"I’ll do it, Harry." Sirius had reentered the room, along with McGonagall. He gathered up the scrolls and the wand. "But I think Ron and Hermione would want to see you one more time."
"I know. I hope they’ll understand. I don’t have much time, and…"
Sirius ruffled the black hair gently. "I’ll tell them. They’ll understand." He kissed Harry on the forehead. "I love you very much, Harry."
"I know. I love you, too." McGonagall embraced him next; she could not speak the words of farewell. She kissed him and followed Sirius out of the door, weeping quietly.
Dumbledore placed his hands on Harry’s shoulders.
"It has been an honor to know you, Harry James Potter. My regards to your parents." He, too, kissed Harry, and left.
Harry turned to look at the man he least wanted to say goodbye to. "Severus?"
Snape took one of Harry’s hands and tucked it into his arm. "Come with me, Potter."
It was a long way to the dungeons. Harry could walk, but he had very little energy. He leaned heavily on Severus. Exclamations greeted them in every corridor; the entire school, it seemed, was still searching for him. Snape growled at the students to stay back, going so far as to deduct points from anyone bold enough to question him.
The dungeons were deserted; it was the last place anyone would think to look for a missing Gryffindor. At last they reached Snape’s quarters. When the door shut behind them, Severus swung Harry into his arms and carried him the last few steps into the bedroom, depositing him gently on the bed. With a sense of déjŕ vu, he removed his robes and shoes before joining Harry. The younger wizard had left his dormitory barefoot that morning. His feet were filthy, and left smears of dirt on the covers. Snape didn’t care. He reached for him, pulling him close and simply holding him for a while.
"Severus?" Harry said in a small voice.
"Will you please make love to me?"
"You’re too weak, Harry." Regret squeezed Snape’s heart.
"I have enough strength for this," he replied, unconsciously echoing something his old enemy Voldemort had once said.
Snape did not think he could do it, but he would rather have endured Cruciatus than refused Harry anything at that moment. Gently, he turned Harry’s face towards him and kissed him. He brushed his mouth against the soft red lips, unable to restrain a groan when they parted beneath his own. He slid his tongue gently inside, ready to withdraw at the first sign from Harry. The teenager gave a much weaker answering groan, using his own tongue to slowly explore Snape’s mouth. He raised a shaking hand to Severus’ shoulder, trying to draw him down. Snape immediately complied, cradling the back of Harry’s head in one hand. The black hair felt like silk beneath his fingers.
Severus allowed one hand to move down from Harry’s shoulder, down to his chest, and across the flat stomach. He caressed the front of the worn jeans, seeking the telltale bulge of excitement and not finding it. He himself was already achingly hard, despite his sorrow. He lifted his head.
Harry looked at him with shadowed eyes. "I’m not sure I can… you know. The elixir, I think. I’m sorry."
"Don’t be." Severus kissed one pale cheek.
"I still don’t want to stop."
"Harry, I’m perfectly content with only this." He placed a soft kiss on the younger man’s forehead.
"I’m not. I want to be as close to you as possible. It will give me pleasure to feel your pleasure, Severus. Please."
"All right." He kissed Harry’s mouth lingeringly, then raised him so that he could pull the t-shirt over his head. Harry’s hand went to the front of his jeans, but his trembling fingers could not grasp the buttons. Severus undid them for him, and sat up to pull the garment down and off of Harry. Cotton shorts were disposed of quickly, and Snape took several moments to drink in the sight of Harry’s bare form. He was trim, a bit too thin perhaps, elegantly muscled. He was beautiful, Severus thought. The Slytherin ran a reverent hand from chest to thigh and back up again.
"You’re overdressed," Harry said. Snape stood to remove his clothing, awed by the hunger in Harry’s gaze. He couldn’t help chuckling when the younger man’s eyes widened at the sight of Severus’ arousal. The flaccid penis stirred weakly. Harry brushed his fingers across himself. "I wouldn’t have measured up anyway," he said with a sad smile.
"You’re perfect," Severus said. He lay down beside him once more, his throbbing cock nudging Harry’s thigh. He gasped when his lover reached down to grasp the length.
"I want to feel this inside me." Harry said.
"Soon, but not yet." He slid down the slight form, coming to rest with his head beside Harry’s hip. He reached to cradle the soft member, barely brushing his thumb against it. It jumped in his hands, stiffening slightly. Harry closed his eyes for a moment.
"Do you want me to take your glasses off?"
"No, leave them. I want to see you."
Severus grasped Harry’s cock gently between his fingers, moving them carefully up and down the shaft. Harry moaned as he slowly hardened. The older wizard leaned forward and took the organ in his mouth. Harry’s head lolled to one side, eyes closed and mouth open.
"I’m still here. We’ve got a few hours."
Far too few, Snape thought. Damn you, Harry. He recaptured Harry’s shaft with his lips, drawing it slowly back into his mouth. The erection was not strong, but Harry gave every evidence of enjoying the attention to his cock.
"I want to tell you something," the Gryffindor said, his voice slightly hoarse.
Snape looked up into his eyes, raising a brow in question, but not taking his mouth off of Harry.
"The first night you brought me here…"
He knew what it was that Harry wanted to tell him.
"I… I jacked off. On the couch."
Severus raised his head. "I know."
"You know?" Harry looked horrified.
"I was still awake when you did so."
"You could… hear me?" He blushed faintly. It struck Snape as ridiculous, since he was currently going down on him. Endearing, but ridiculous.
"Yes," he replied. "You make lovely noises, by the way."
"Why didn’t you say something?"
He continued to stroke Harry as he spoke, determined not to let the fragile hard-on fade.
"You would have been embarrassed."
"Yeah, I would have been. Did it bother you?"
"Yes, it did. I admit that I was somewhat embarrassed myself. It also aroused me."
"It did?" Harry sounded pleased. "Do you know what I was thinking about?"
"No, but I’d like to."
"I was thinking about you."
Snape’s hand stilled for a moment.
"You were?" He began to move again, slightly faster than before.
"Uh huh. I was thinking about how you held me, in the Astronomy Tower. I’d never been held like that before. It was nice." Harry moaned again. "This is nice, too."
"Only nice?" Snape bent his head to suck him again. He felt a wave of tenderness for this youth who had known so little affection, while at the same time he had to clamp down on his rage at the Dursleys, at Dumbledore, and at himself. It was criminal that the sensation of being loved, whether it was sexual or not, should be new to Harry.
"Bloody fantastic, actually. Oh, god." His breathing became shallower as his arousal intensified. Severus finally tasted the first drops of Harry’s fluid on his tongue. He sucked harder, moving his head up and down along the length as he strove to give Harry pleasure. The younger man’s testicles were tightening, he was pleased to note as he massaged them lightly. Harry’s hands tangled in his hair. The slender body arched weakly as his hips tried to thrust. Snape kept his hand moving when he lifted his mouth once more.
"You don’t have to do anything except enjoy this, Harry. I’ll take care of you."
"I… oh, god, that’s good. But I want you inside me when I come."
Snape bent down for one last taste, determined to memorize the feel, the scent, everything about his lover. He experienced a flash of bitter regret that he would never taste Harry’s seed, would never feel him pulse in his mouth as he came. There were so many things that they would never do together, he thought desolately. To discover that such bliss was possible, only to have it ripped away, was almost more than he could take.
He moved up to capture Harry’s mouth once more. Harry sensed his need for comfort and wrapped his arms tightly around him.
"I’m so sorry," he whispered.
"Stop apologizing, for god’s sake," Snape replied sharply. "I can’t stand it."
"Is this too difficult for you, Severus?"
"It’s all difficult. I don’t know how I’m going to live when you’re gone." He wrapped his hand firmly around Harry’s cock once more and began to stroke hard, hoping to distract him. It worked.
"Oh… I can’t wait. I want you."
Snape reached out towards his night table. His fingers closed over the lubricant he kept in the drawer, but released it again. He picked up his wand instead. Pointing it towards Harry’s opening, he murmured a preparation spell he’d learned in his own days as a student.
Harry gasped as sensation flooded through him. Snape moved to cover the smaller body with his own. With infinite care, he eased the head of his aching shaft into Harry’s anus. Harry cried out.
"Did I hurt you?"
"No. It’s incredible. Please, more."
Not releasing his grip on Harry’s now-rigid member, Severus supported himself on one elbow, careful not to rest his weight on Harry. The young wizard looked down between their bodies, past his own cock, to where Snape’s slowly disappeared inside him.
"Oh, wow," he breathed, mesmerized by the sight. "Incredible. God, how I’ve wanted this."
"I’ve wanted you too," Snape replied. His jaw was clenched with the effort not to come. He held still, both to regain his control and to let Harry adjust to the sensation of being filled. A slight flush stained the otherwise pale cheeks. Harry closed his eyes, breathing rapidly, his lips parted. Severus leaned down and kissed him, hard.
"I love you, Harry."
"I love you, too. And I’m s… I love you too."
Slowly Snape began to move. Harry was so tight; he felt as though he was sheathed in warm, slick satin. He rocked gently into him, feeling Harry’s balls slide over his shaft as he moved in and out. Harry’s cock was now leaking copiously, and he slicked his fingers in the moisture to lubricate his movements along Harry’s length. He locked his gaze with his lover’s, grazing the other’s lips with his own as he fucked him slowly and carefully. Harry’s aroused face was beautiful beyond words, he thought. Sudden tears clouded his vision. He blinked them away savagely. He would not tolerate having his view obstructed, not now.
"Harry," he groaned. He moved his hand faster along Harry’s shaft.
"I don’t want to hurt you."
"You won’t. I just want to feel more."
He allowed his control to slip a little, and thrust harder and deeper.
"I’m coming!" Harry cried. His trembling body clenched around Snape as a thin, watery trickle spurted from his cock. He writhed and moaned as though it was the most earth-shattering climax he’d ever experienced.
"Harry…" Severus arched and buried himself deeply in Harry as his orgasm overtook him. He came hard, feeling Harry clench once more in response to the flood of hot seed that filled him. He clutched him tightly in both arms, still careful to support his own weight, as he shook with his release. Sobs of pleasure mingled with the pain of imminent loss escaped him.
He rolled over immediately, drawing Harry half on top of him as he collapsed onto the bed.
"Thank you." Harry lifted the sweaty hair back from his forehead and kissed him.
The gratitude in Harry’s voice was Snape’s undoing. He clung to Harry, allowing the Gryffindor to comfort him as he wept, the sobs welling up from a seemingly endless spring of grief.
Severus was aware of a pleasant drifting sensation when he realized he’d dozed off. He sat upright, his heart pounding in terror. Harry lay next to him, his chest rising and falling rapidly as the green eyes gazed steadily at him.
"How could you let me fall asleep?" Snape demanded. "What time is it?"
"We have an hour," Harry replied, his voice weak. "You looked peaceful, and I wanted to watch you like that for a little while."
"What if I hadn’t awakened? Would you have just gone without giving me a chance to say goodbye?"
"No," Harry said, repentant. "I would have made you wake up soon. Please don’t be angry."
Snape was furious, but he reined it in for Harry’s sake. "I’d tell you not to do that again, but it’s not likely to be an issue," he contented himself with saying.
"No, I guess not. Just don’t take any more points from Gryffindor." It was Harry’s turn to cry. "I already miss Hermione and Ron."
"You still have time to see them," Snape offered. He was relieved when Harry shook his head.
"I want to stay with you." Severus held him until the gentle flow of tears ceased.
"I’ll be right back," he said, getting out of bed and going into the bathroom. He came back with a warm, wet cloth and began to wash Harry.
"That feels great," Harry sighed. He closed his eyes and let Severus work. When he was clean and dry, the Slytherin dressed him, then threw on his own clothes before lying down beside him once again.
Snape consulted his watch. Forty minutes. Forty bloody, inadequate minutes.
They held each other without speaking for a while, not knowing what to say, and not wanting to fill the silence with inconsequential chatter. Finally Harry spoke.
Snape’s heart twisted inside him. He pressed Harry closer.
"You don’t have to do this alone. I could go with you."
"I had nothing before you. What do you think I’ll have when you’re gone?"
"I don’t want you to die because of me."
"I don’t want you to die at all. We don’t always get what we want." He couldn’t help the bitterness that crept into his tone. "And before you say it, don’t. I don’t want to hear ‘I’m sorry’ even one more time."
"Please say you won’t do it."
"Rich, coming from you, Potter." The injured silence tore at him, but he couldn’t stop. "Am I to be left to endure what you yourself could not bear?"
Harry began to shake. Severus cursed himself.
"Harry, forgive me. I can’t promise that I’ll never do what you’ve done, but if it eases you, I won’t do it today."
"Thank you. I know it’s not fair of me, but I can’t stand the thought of it."
"No, it’s not fair. One day we shall continue this discussion, but for now I prefer to let it drop."
"Okay." The tremor in Harry’s voice grew steadily more pronounced. "I want you to promise me something else, though."
"What more do you want?" Snape asked coolly. His tone was belied by the sadness in his eyes.
"I asked Sirius not to let you be alone."
"Yes, indeed," Harry said with a touch of asperity. "If he tries to be your friend, I want you to let him. Or at least try."
Severus looked unobtrusively at his watch. Ten minutes. He silently cursed every deity he’d ever heard of.
"Yes, I believe I can do that for you. For your sake, mind, not Black’s."
"I wouldn’t expect anything else. Thanks." He closed his eyes.
"Harry?" No, damn you, he raged. Not one fucking second early. I want my time with him.
"I’m here. I’m just so tired."
Snape bit his tongue on a useless plea. Begging Harry not to leave him would do no good.
"I love you," he repeated instead.
"I love you, Severus," Harry replied sleepily. Snape cast about in his mind for anything important that had not been said, but concluded that there simply was not time for everything he wished to say.
Harry’s breathing slowed. Three minutes. Snape kissed him one more time; Harry’s lips felt slack beneath his own.
He couldn’t bear to take his eyes off Harry to check his watch again. He didn’t want to miss a single precious breath. He willed life to remain in Harry’s body.
Don’t go, he said silently. Stay with me.
Harry’s chest rose and fell one more time, and did not rise again.
None of the silent students in the corridors had ever seen Professor Snape cry. They did not do so even now. The black eyes were suspiciously red and swollen, however, and his face was paler than usual. He carried Harry’s limp form, cradled protectively in his arms, towards the hospital wing. He wasn’t sure why he chose it as his destination; it could do Harry no good. He simply didn’t know where else to go.
Madam Pomfrey met him at the door. He would not allow her to help him. He laid his burden down upon the closest bed and smoothed the black hair back from the pale forehead. He touched the faded curse scar gently and straightened Harry’s glasses. Madam Pomfrey brought him a chair. He inclined his head in thanks and sank into it, reaching for Harry’s cold hand.
He sat there for a while, wishing he had not promised Harry that he would not follow him. I said I wouldn’t do it today, he reminded himself. At midnight, it won’t be today anymore. But he knew he could no more break the spirit of his promise than the letter of it. He would await death through some agency other than his own hand. It was with this thought in his mind that he looked up to see Sirius Black regarding him gravely.
Uncaring that Black was watching, Snape pressed his lips lightly to Harry’s before rising to meet the animagus.
"I believe that I told you I would let you tear me limb from limb should I allow Harry to come to harm," he said in a hollow voice. Something flickered in Sirius’ eyes at his words, but he could not decipher it. "Would you prefer to do so outside, or shall we have done with it right here?"
Sirius took a step towards him. Severus closed his eyes. He heard the other man approach him, could feel his breath upon his throat.
Snape’s eyes flew open when he felt Sirius’ arms go round him in a crushing embrace. Moisture against his neck told him that Black was weeping, although he made no sound. Awkwardly, he returned the hug. He had promised Harry, after all.
"Severus…" Black began in a choked voice. "Those wards on your door – even Albus couldn’t get through. We tried, I promise we did. There was no reason for you to go through this."
Snape was taken aback.
"To go through what? I did not spend Harry’s last hours with him out of duty, I assure you. I wanted to be with him. I apologize for monopolizing him, if…"
Dumbledore came into the room at that moment, followed by Hermione and Ron. The two Gryffindors raced to the bed. Hermione grabbed Harry’s motionless body tightly to her, tears coursing down her face. To Snape’s amazement, Ron smiled at the sight.
He was shocked when Dumbledore smiled as well.
"Miss Granger has something to tell you, Severus."
Hermione straightened and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her robes. She gave him a tear-soaked smile. Severus felt as though the world had gone mad. Why were these people so bloody happy? Harry was barely cold. Rage began to grow in him.
It died with Hermione’s words.
"He’s not dead, Professor."
He couldn’t have heard right, he thought. It was a hallucination, wishful thinking.
"What?" he whispered.
"I gave him the Fiorenzi palliative last night. I put it in his pumpkin juice."
His knees buckled, causing him to stagger. Black’s arm was there immediately, keeping him from falling. His old nemesis guided him to his chair.
"Are… are you certain?" It was too painful to hope if he could not be sure.
"I watched him drink it myself, sir. I’ve been keeping it ready since I let him see those books you lent me." She looked ashamed. "I would never have let him see them if I’d thought there might be something in there he’d want to use. But when he read the description of the Fiorenzi Elixir, it sounded like something he might find… tempting. And then last night, he was so upset. You were gone, and…" She looked away, embarrassed. It was apparent to Snape that she could not bring herself to mention Harry’s feelings towards him. It was a sentiment he understood.
Severus looked Harry. He was white and utterly still. It was so hard to believe. And yet, if Granger herself mixed and administered the potion…
Hermione would have been astonished to know how much faith her impossible-to-please Potions professor placed in her abilities. Joy blossomed within him, almost painful in its intensity. He leaped out of the chair and pulled Hermione into his arms, swinging her around before setting her on her feet again. She flushed, but looked very pleased.
"Thank you, Miss Granger. I don’t know what to say."
"Hermione’s quick thinking and decisive action are a credit to Gryffindor," Dumbledore hinted broadly.
"To be sure, Albus. I think… one hundred points?" He looked at the headmaster, wanting for once to know that he had not overstepped himself. This was very personal, after all. Dumbledore smiled.
"Thank you, sir!" Ron said, putting an arm around Hermione’s shoulders.
Hermione’s smile dimmed. "He’s alive… for now. But we haven’t made as much progress with the antidepressant potion as I hoped, Professor Snape. He’ll still be depressed when he comes out of this. What are we going to do?"
"While I was gone, I was able to procure something for Harry that I think will be helpful. But I have not given up on the idea of a potion, and neither should you, Miss Granger. It has proven challenging, certainly, but we shall find it eventually. Anything else regarding Harry’s care must be up to Black."
Sirius nodded. "I’m still worried," he admitted. "But I think Harry has finally found something that means enough to him to help him get through this." He crossed his arms. "But if that something ever hurts Harry, I’ll kick its ass."
A sarcastic retort was on Snape’s lips when a thought struck him.
"Albus, Sirius, I must speak with you both. Privately."
Severus did not want to leave Harry, but he could not have this discussion in front of Ron and Hermione. Dumbledore led the way to his office. He dispensed with tea for once and handed round snifters of brandy.
Snape was grateful for the fortification. Never had he thought it might become necessary to make such a confession as the one that lay before him. He met Black’s eyes.
"I slept with Harry."
Dumbledore cleared his throat, but said nothing.
Snape thought he saw Sirius’ fists clench for a moment, but he could not be sure.
"Thanks for telling us," the animagus replied calmly.
Snape was nonplussed. He’d expected shouting, maybe even violence.
"Perhaps I was not plain enough, Sirius. I had sex with your godson."
Sirius winced. "That was a little too plain, thanks, Snape. Harry’s at the age of consent, for all that I’m responsible for him until July. His sex life is his business. Why tell us about it?"
Severus closed his eyes, trying to gather his patience. It was bad enough to have to confess his deeds; being required to explain why they had to know was too much.
"I am a teacher at this school. I had sex with a student. I cannot believe that any further explanation is needed."
"Did you not hear me when I said I would take responsibility, should anyone complain about your behavior after the fact?" Dumbledore asked.
"Yes, but surely you did not mean this."
Dumbledore looked put out.
"One of the misconceptions cherished by the young is that they invented sex. They think that those of advanced years have no memory of it, perhaps have never heard of it at all. I am hurt, Severus, that you seem to share this ridiculous notion."
Snape’s face was a study in confusion.
"Not at all, Albus. I never meant to imply…"
"Did you believe that I sent you and Harry off to play Exploding Snap?"
"Well, no, but…"
"You love him. He loves you. You both thought he was about to die. Kindly credit me with some logic." There was a distinct twinkle in the blue eyes.
"Of course." Snape was stunned. Black still looked uncomfortable, but his expression held satisfaction at seeing the Potions Master rendered nearly speechless.
"Sirius, as Harry’s godfather, you have the right to lodge a complaint. Do you wish to do so?" the headmaster asked.
"You’re not what I would have chosen for Harry," Sirius said, looking measuringly at Snape. "But since getting his boyfriend sacked isn’t likely to do much for my relationship with him, no, I don’t want to make a complaint."
Snape raised a brow at the word ‘boyfriend;’ Sirius smirked at his discomfiture.
"You understand, of course, that it can’t happen again while he is a student here," Dumbledore said. Snape nodded. "Good. Then I see no reason for this matter to go further." He beamed at the other two men. "I would very much like to see Harry’s gift. Shall we pay Hagrid a visit?"
The afterlife didn’t quite fit Harry’s expectations. It was noisy, for one thing. The voices sounded familiar, but he didn’t think any of them belonged to his parents. He decided to take a look. The brightness made him close his eyes again, but not before he caught a flash of long red hair. He’d thought his mother’s hair was more auburn than red. What little he’d seen was also blurry. Did you need your glasses when you were dead? he wondered. He lifted a hand to his face to feel for his spectacles.
"He’s awake!" someone shouted. So you do sleep when you’re dead, he thought. He would have to readjust his ideas of what it would be like.
He felt two warm hands seize his face. They were warm, familiar. They’d recently become very familiar.
"Severus," he said, his voice harsh from a day’s disuse. "You promised me you wouldn’t."
"Promised I wouldn’t what, Harry?" His lover’s voice was thick with emotion.
He blinked several times, trying to adjust to the light. He finally opened his eyes to see a sallow, black-framed face above him. Someone put his glasses on him, and the world came into focus. Severus was smiling at him.
He opened his mouth to berate Severus for breaking his promise just as he noticed that the other faces around him belonged to people who, as far as he knew, still lived. The long red hair was worn by a relieved-looking Ginny Weasley. Hermione was there as well, hand in hand with Ron. Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid stood on the other side of the bed. Hagrid had tears running down his face, though he smiled broadly. A great black dog was curled on the end of Harry’s bed. Suddenly the dog was gone, and Sirius was climbing hastily off of Harry’s legs and out of the bed. He hugged Harry fiercely.
"If you EVER do anything like that again…"
Harry’s joy at seeing the most beloved people in his life was doused by guilt and pain. At that moment, leaving them again was the farthest thing from his mind, but he knew from experience that he could not count on that to last. For just a moment, he railed against whatever perverse gods had rescued him yet again.
Severus took his hand and squeezed it. His fear faded, and his conviction that being alive was a good thing grew. There would be pain still to be faced; perhaps a great deal of it. But if he still had Severus, he felt he could face it. He gave Sirius his most engaging grin.
"I’m happy to see you, too, Snuffles." The thought that he really ought to be dead struck him forcibly. "Why am I still here?"
"Miss Granger anticipated your actions," Severus said, "and I am in her debt."
"You saved me, Hermione?" She nodded, blushing. "How?"
"That pumpkin juice I gave you had the Fiorenzi prophylactic potion in it. When you said it looked easy, I got a little worried."
"Thanks," he said. "I’m sorry I was so awful to you."
"No, it’s not. But I’ll try to make it up to you, I promise. Um… Ron?"
"I’m really sorry… your wand, and everything."
"Well, I was a little mad about that. But I felt a lot better when I found out you were planning on leaving me your Firebolt," he said. He snapped his fingers as though he’d just realized he would not be inheriting the broom. "Damn. Uh… sorry, Professor McGonagall," he said when she raised her eyebrows.
A basket sat on the table next to his bed. Peeking out over the top were folds of soft dragonhide; Icelandic Blue, he judged. He peered curiously at it.
"I think Harry’s wantin’ his present, Professor," Hagrid said to Snape.
"So it would seem." Snape lifted the basket and set it in Harry’s lap. Nestled in the dragonhide was an egg, slightly larger than a chicken’s. It was bright, fiery red, and it was rocking gently. He reached to touch it, drawing back his hand when he realized that it was hot. He looked up at Severus.
"This was why I left, Harry. I’m sorry that I did not tell you beforehand. It might have saved everyone a great deal of bother." His voice was stern, his eyes bright with unshed tears.
"What is it?" He couldn’t take his eyes from Severus’.
"Ah, well, now, we haven’t covered phoenixes in class, have we?" asked the huge Care of Magical Creatures teacher.
"A phoenix?" Harry’s eyes grew wide, and he looked to the basket and back to Snape. "For me?" His head spun at the thought of the trouble and expense Severus had to have gone to in acquiring the egg. Harry knew that there were not many of the magical birds in the world.
"It won’t cure you, Harry," Snape said softly, "but perhaps it will help."
Harry gripped his lover’s hand tightly. His throat constricted.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"I think perhaps Harry should rest," said Madam Pomfrey, coming back into the room.
"Quite right," said Dumbledore. One by one, Harry’s visitors were shooed from the room, until only Snape, Sirius and Hagrid remained.
"I’d best be takin’ that, Harry," Hagrid said, reaching for the basket. "Time enough to learn how to take care of a baby phoenix when you’ve got a bit of strength back."
Harry relinquished the precious egg reluctantly, and watched as Hagrid carried his tiny charge out of the door. He found himself apprehensive at being alone with Sirius and Severus.
"I have to say it was an excellent notion, Severus," Sirius said affably. "You ought to have mentioned to Harry where you were going, mind, but no harm done."
Harry felt his eyebrows climb towards his hairline at the last statement, until he saw the deep pain in Sirius’ eyes.
"I know, Harry. It’s going to be all right." He kissed his godson. "I’ll be right outside, Severus," he said meaningfully. He left the lovers alone together.
"May I say, Mr. Potter, how glad I am that you have yet again earned that ridiculous nickname of yours?" Severus took Harry’s hands in his and raised them to his lips.
"So am I. Kiss me, Professor Snape."
Snape placed a light kiss on Harry’s cheek.
"Hey!" Harry protested. "That’s all I get?"
"Yes," the Slytherin answered regretfully. "As long as you remain a student here, I’m afraid I must go back to being your teacher, and nothing more."
"Are you busy graduation night, Professor?"
"I shall have to check my crowded social calendar. Perhaps I can squeeze you in." Snape’s tone became serious. "Will you promise that you will still be here, Harry?"
"I don’t want to do this anymore, Severus. I’m sick of death. More than anything else, I really want to live. No matter how hard it gets."
"I shall help you in any way I can."
"I know. You’re helping right now." He squeezed Severus’ hand.
"Thank you for not leaving me," Severus said softly.
"Thank you for pulling me back in that window."
"You’ve thanked me for that before, Harry."
"This time I mean it."